LOD’s 3 Players to Watch: Houston Astros
For this series, LOD writers will pick three players from each MLB team that we feel are players to watch in the 2023 season.
Baseball is a game of streaks and the Houston Astros are on their own streak as they enter the 2023 season as the defending World Champs and winners of the AL West Division for five of the last six seasons. Since their last World Series victory in 2017, they have won 541 games, which includes four seasons with over 100 wins. Champs in 2017, lost in ALCS in 2018, lost in World Series in 2019, lost in ALCS in 2020, lost in World Series in 2021 and won it all last year. Even with the losses in the postseason, they can still be determined as one of the most dominate teams in all of baseball. And they do it with adding key players and home grown talent.
Here are three players to watch in 2023, that could make an impact and help the Astros dominate again.
Where would the Astros be in 2023 without the Rookie Phenom Jeremy Pena? Of course they have other fire power other then Pena, but what a show he put on in the ALCS (MVP) and also in the World Series as he walked away with the MVP honors.
Pena, who was drafted in the 3rd Round of the 2018 June draft by the Astros, and in his short time in the minors spanning 2018-2021, he put up decent numbers, but nothing that fans would think he would become a superstar overnight.
Through the three years moving through the system, Pena hit .291, with 31 doubles, 10 triples, 18 home runs, 85 RBIs and 73 walks through 182 games.
In 2022, he broke camp with the Astros, after batting .350, with two home runs in eight spring games, and made his MLB debut on April 7, 2022. It took just one extra day to make his presence known as he recorded his first hit and home run on the same day, and finished 3 for 5. For the season he batted .253, with 20 doubles, 22 home runs, and 63 RBIs in 136 games.
The shortstop was unfazed in the postseason and combined he batted .345, with five doubles, four home runs, eight RBIs through 13 games.
Now what does he do for an encore and does he break the sophomore jinx?
Keep an eye on Pena as he looks to continue to make his star brighter in the game.
The Astros have depth in the outfield and adding another piece just makes them that much better; Enter in Corey Julks.
Julks was selected by the Astros in the 8th round of the 2017 June draft. Since then he has been moving through the system and getting better each season.
After his season in rookie ball where he appeared in just 32 games, 2018 put Julks on the baseball map. The Friendswood, TX native hit 30 doubles, four triples, 10 home runs, drove in 62, walked 55 times, stole 30 bases and recorded 124 hits in 125 games.
In 2019, his power numbers dipped a bit, but in 2021, he batted .287 with 23 doubles, and 14 home runs with the Double A squad.
Last season, Julks showcased how dangerous he can be at the plate as he launched 31 balls over the fence in Triple A, with 21 doubles, 89 RBIs, 56 walks and 22 stolen bases.
Julks is #30 on the Astros Top Prospect list and per their ETA he is expected to make his MLB debut in 2023.
There probably isn’t any other reason to leave him the minors unless there is a huge logjam with the big league squad. I am sure Dusty Baker can find room for this power hitting threat.
Lance McCullers Jr. has been a mainstay in the Astros rotation since he made his MLB debut in May of 2015. The Tampa native was part of the 2017 World Championship team and that season he was 7-4, with a 4.25 ERA in 22 starts. For four straight seasons leading up to 2017, he recorded over 106 strikeouts and logged in nearly 100 innings pitched in each season.
For the 2021 season, he started the most games of his career (28 games) as he was 13-5, with a 3.16 ERA, with 185 strikeouts in 162.1 innings. In the postseason he was lights out in two starts with a 0.84 ERA, allowing just one earned run on nine hits, while striking out nine batters in 10.2 innings.
In April of 2022, he was placed on the DL with a right forearm strain and on April 18th was placed on the 60 day DL and did not return to action until August 13, 2022.
Because he missed most of 2022, he was limited to just eight regular season starts and was 4-2, with a 2.27 ERA, and 50 strikeouts in 47.2 innings on the mound. In the first two rounds of Houston’s postseason he was on point and limited the offense, but in the World Series, the Phillies lit him up for seven earned runs on six hits through 4.1 innings. The blow was five home runs off the bats of five Phillies hitters knocking McCullers Jr. out of the game in the fifth inning.
Lance McCullers Jr. comeback will be one to watch for the Astros and their fans, but it may take a bit longer then opening day as he suffered a setback this spring with small muscle strain his right elbow. He has a history of injuries from Tommy John surgery in 2019, right forearm strain in 2022 and now another setback. But when he does return he will be a force in the Astros starting staff.