USA TODAY Sports Weekly

Keys to victory

- – Bob Nightengal­e

New ace emerges: The Astros, for the first time since their postseason run began, are without a certifiable ace. They are turning the reins over to Framber Valdez and Cristian Javier, hoping that one of them can carry the load. Certainly, they each are talented; the question is whether they can handle the responsibi­lity of being a No. 1 starter.

First, second base: José Abreu, who signed a three-year, $58.5 million contract, produced his worst power numbers since leaving Cuba and signing with the White

Sox. Abreu, the 2020 AL MVP, hit a career-low 15 homers in 157 games. Still, he should be an upgrade over veteran Yuli Gurriel, who had the worst season of his career. At second, Jose Altuve could be out a couple of months with a thumb injury. David Hensley (16 games is bigleague experience) takes over in the meantime.

Other free agents: The Astros better be right deciding to re-sign veteran left fielder Michael Brantley instead of another outfielder and for not bothering to sign a free agent catcher. Brantley was limited to 64 games last season with shoulder woes. He was having more shoulder issues in spring training. At catcher, the Astros were outbid by the St. Louis Cardinals for free agent Willson Contreras. They turn to Martin Maldonado again as their catcher. Maldonado is strong defensivel­y and loved by the pitching staff, but he struggles at the plate. He hit .186 in 2022 with 15 homers in 113 games. They remain without a true backup, with Korey Lee and Yainer Diaz battling for the spot.

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