Houston Astros Season Preview

Turning to the Championship-winning Houston Astros now, and big thanks to Darius Austin for agreeing to preview their season. Darius is one of our better-known contributors, not least because of his excellent writing work which earlier this year earned him a gig writing about fantasy baseball at Baseball Prospectus (I know, right?). He also contributes to BP Wrigleyville, Friends With Fantasy Benefits, and Bat Flips and Nerds.

Looking Back
It doesn’t get any better than 2017 for the Astros, as the team fulfilled the infamous Sports Illustrated prediction and became World Series champions with a thrilling seven-game victory over the Dodgers. It was hardly a surprise after their 101-win regular season, which came on the back of one of the best offensive team performances of all time. Jose Altuve won the AL MVP, George Springer won the World Series MVP, and Carlos Correa was a six-win player despite missing nearly 50 games. A bounce-back from Dallas Keuchel, the addition of Justin Verlander, and breakouts from the likes of Charlie Morton and Brad Peacock meant that Houston were formidable on both sides of the ball, and that should continue into 2018.

Comings and Goings
IN: Gerrit Cole (RHP), Joe Smith (RHP), Hector Rondon (RHP)

OUT: Carlos Beltran (OF/DH), Cameron Maybin (OF), Colin Moran (3B), Mike Fiers (RHP), Tyler Clippard (RHP), Luke Gregerson (RHP), Joe Musgrove (RHP), Francisco Liriano (LHP).

Play Ball!
The overwhelmingly likely outcome seems like another comfortable AL West title for Houston. The Angels are arguably the closest contenders, and while they have Mike Trout, defensive genius Andrelton Simmons, and some offseason upgrades including the tantalising two-way sensation Shohei Ohtani, they also have a rotation that might all end up on the disabled list if someone breathes on them. This is an almost unbelievably good team, to the point that even projection systems, usually conservative in nature, have them reaching triple digits in wins again.

That road to another playoff run starts with that dominant lineup, which has only really lost the retiring Carlos Beltran of the frequent contributors in 2017. Beltran was the only member of that group who was really bad, which is a terrifying thought for Houston’s rivals. Altuve, Correa, and Springer form a formidable core at the top of this unit. All are among the most productive hitters in baseball and Springer qualifies as the old man of the group at just 28. Correa is just 23, so projecting even more growth from him wouldn’t be unreasonable if it weren’t for the fact that he already had a .941 OPS in 2017. He would have been firmly in MVP contention in 2017 if not for his injury.

Right behind that trio of superstars is Alex Bregman, who is also only 23. Bregman put together a very impressive sophomore campaign at the plate and looked increasingly slick in the field, making some eye-catching plays in the postseason. Many project him to take that next step and reach the elite level of those three team-mates. He and Correa could be the best left side of an infield for years to come and will be among the players most worth watching this season.

If fans are looking for reasons for concern, Yuli Gurriel supplied one with a hamate injury that required surgery last month. He’ll also have to serve a five-game suspension when he returns in a few weeks after his reprehensible gestures towards Yu Darvish, one of the few sour notes of an otherwise strong season. Gurriel isn’t a prototypical slugging first baseman. He is a great contact hitter who will get plenty of chances to drive in the on-base machines ahead of him. Tyler White or J.D. Davis will fill in while Gurriel is out.

Carlos  Correa
Carlos Correa. Photo credit Keith Allison.

How Marwin Gonzalez fares after his shocking breakout season is more of a question than the others above, simply because he had never been much better than a league-average hitter at best prior to last year. His defensive versatility already made him valuable to the team and his offensive breakout seems rooted in sound peripherals with fewer pitches chased outside the zone and an increased fly ball rate, although expecting another OPS north of .900 might be greedy. Josh Reddick and Jake Marisnick both look set for some regression but even if they do struggle, the Astros have more talented outfield prospects available in Derek Fisher and Kyle Tucker.

The big offseason move was the addition of Gerrit Cole from the Pirates in exchange for Colin Moran, Joe Musgrove, Michael Feliz, and Jason Martin. Although Cole has never quite reached the ace level that many projected, he is still just 27 and has proved capable of pitching 200-plus innings. Houston doesn’t need Cole to be an ace with Keuchel and Verlander on the team. If he can realise more of that potential, this team looks very scary indeed.

There’s no doubt that the pitching staff is where you’d look if you were, say, an optimistic Angels fan looking for reasons why Houston were beatable. Verlander is phenomenal when he’s healthy and firing on all cylinders, but he’s also 35 and has had some real ups and downs over the past few years, including struggling to a 4.54 ERA in 2014 and missing a chunk of the following season with a core muscle injury. While Keuchel’s mastery of the bottom of the strikezone is unmatched, 2016 showed what can happen when he isn’t fully healthy and that command dips even slightly. The hirsute ace needs that pinpoint command to keep hitters guessing because when it’s off, his high-eighties fastball isn’t so hard to square up.

Cole’s addition is particularly important because of health concerns both with those two and elsewhere. Lance McCullers has a terrific curveball and will strike a ton of batters out. He also struggles with control and is yet to reach even 130 innings in the majors. Morton has a chequered injury history and barely pitched two seasons ago because of a severe hamstring strain. Brad Peacock should act as a swingman for extra cover; he, too, has control issues and has never pitched a full season in the majors. There’s a ton of upside in this rotation and cover if something goes wrong, so this is probably all grasping at straws. Basically what I’m saying is that pitchers get hurt. The Astros should still be fine.

The additions of Joe Smith and Hector Rondon also bolster the middle of the bullpen. If Ken Giles is over his postseason meltdown and Chris Devenski maintains his level of the past two seasons, this looks like a very solid unit. Will Harris, who has never posted an ERA over 3 since he joined the Astros in 2015, might end up as the fourth or fifth option here, which is a great sign. The one glaring concern might be the lack of a reliable lefty: Tony Sipp has been given the spot but he has been poor at both the major league level and this spring. The good news is that the likes of Devenski and Harris really don’t have concerning splits against lefties, so again this probably isn’t a huge reason to worry.

Prediction
102-60. There are so many young stars who can still improve on this team and the addition of Cole should make the rotation safer. There could be some easy wins to pick up against mediocre AL West teams too.

MVP
There are several choices as indicated above; I think it’ll be Correa, finally putting it all together over a full season.

One to watch
Bregman and Cole have shown plenty, but I think they will both take a step forward this year beyond what they’ve already done.

Contact
Darius Austin, @DariusA64. You can find me writing about fantasy at Baseball Prospectus, the Cubs at BP Wrigleyville, random baseball things that interest me at Banished to the Pen,  podcasting about fantasy at Friends With Fantasy Benefits, and of course both writing and podcasting on the UK side of the game at Bat Flips and Nerds.


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