After losing their manager and GM to suspensions and ultimately firings, could the 2020 Astros be susceptible to an American League coup?
With MLB’s investigation into the Houston Astros’ sign-stealing scheme complete and the punishments having been handed down, it’s time to look ahead to how the fate of the defending American League champions might affect their competitors in 2020.
None of Houston’s players are facing any consequences, so the roster that gave the Washington Nationals all they could handle in the 2019 World Series will still be mostly intact with the exception of a few non-punishment-related departures–including Gerrit Cole, whose exit drastically changes the Astros’ 2020 outlook in its own right.
The man responsible for leading this roster through its winningest three-year stretch in franchise history, however, is gone for good. While there are arguments to be made on both sides as to just how important AJ Hinch is (or was) to the success of one of the most complete 25-man groups in recent baseball history, it is abundantly clear that he did anything but hold the team back since this current iteration of the Astros came into its own.
How the Astros are able to navigate the immediate future without the manager who led them to two World Series berths and a championship remains to be seen, but it wouldn’t qualify as astounding if the club struggles to some extent in his absence. After all, half the battle of managing a baseball team is managing the human beings in a clubhouse for up to nine months; we don’t need to conduct an exhaustive search for managers who have struggled in that regard. What is to say Hinch’s replacement will be just as successful?
With the Astros reeling in the wake of arguably the most damning organizational scandal since the 1919 White Sox threw the World Series, the other teams in the American League have to wonder if a pennant isn’t suddenly there for the taking.
The Cleveland Indians are one of a handful of AL teams that have lived in Houston’s shadow for the past three years, a reality accentuated by 2018’s embarrassing 3-0 sweep in the ALDS. Since Houston won the World Series in 2017, one of the major knocks on the Indians has been that they are good enough to emerge from a downtrodden AL Central, but would never stand a chance against the Astros in a playoff series. That proved to be true the one time Cleveland had a chance to prove it wrong.
But without Cole on the mound, without Hinch in the dugout, and without Jeff Luhnow–the man who engineered Houston’s rise to the top of the league–in the front office, maybe that changes for the Tribe in 2020. Maybe all the underdogs in the American League are looking at a true, “get in and anything can happen” scenario. Maybe the Oakland A’s, coming off back-to-back seasons of 97 wins, take over the AL West and endanger Houston’s chances of making the playoffs at all.
Of course, for any of this to potentially matter to the Indians, they need to win their own division. The Astros could finish under .500 this season and it wouldn’t make a shred of difference if Cleveland falters within the AL Central. The Indians are well-equipped to take back the division despite coming up short in 2019 and trudging through another uninspiring offseason, but they’ll have their work cut out for them with upwards of 40 games against the defending champion Minnesota Twins and upstart Chicago White Sox.
Houston’s most adamant supporters will argue a team still featuring Alex Bregman, Jose Altuve, George Springer, Justin Verlander, and Zack Greinke isn’t in prime position to stumble. If the Astros win 95-plus games in 2020, nobody is going to call it a monumental surprise. But it’s also well within the realm of possibility that the Astros have lost enough this offseason to continue losing in April and onward.
If the latter turns out to be true, the Indians and the rest of the AL must be ready to strike. After all, MLB may have issued its punishments on Monday. But it falls to the teams the Astros have been pushing around for the last three years to issue justice.