This is one of a series of posts in which I will be breaking down every team in baseball. I am by no means a credible source—merely a casual fan who knows a little about baseball and would like to share my observations.
Today we look at the Astros, the long-time basement dwellers in the AL West who have quietly gained some respectability in recent years. While you weren’t looking, all their young minor league talent morphed into real, major league ballplayers. But are they good enough for a shot at a division title?
Projected Lineup: 2B Jose Altuve, 3B Luis Valbuena*, RF George Springer, 1B Chris Carter, CF Colby Rasmus*, DH Evan Gattis*, C Jason Castro, SS Jed Lowrie*, LF Jake Marisnick
Projected Rotation: LHP Dallas Keuchel, RHP Collin McHugh, RHP Scott Feldman, LHP Brett Oberholtzer, RHP Roberto Hernandez*
* new additions
The Astros have a few areas needing improvement.
Now typically, when you know you have some problem areas, you go out and try to fix them. Say a girl dumps you because she says you’re a poor dresser. Wouldn’t you, before you tried to pursue another girl, maybe go out and buy some new clothes?
Not the Astros. The Astros’ two big issues last season were defense and strikeouts. Simple things. Easily fixable, especially when you have an entire offseason in which to fix them. But nope—the Astros went out and actually made themselves worse in both departments.
Let’s start with defense. There’s no charade here. The Astros aren’t trying to be one of the better defensive teams in the league. George Springer and Jose Altuve ranked among the worst last year at their respective positions. But to be fair, it isn’t Altuve’s fault that he doesn’t have the range of most second basemen. Remember that “vertically challenged” becomes “horizontally challenged” when diving for groundballs.
But let’s take a look at some of the newcomers to the team: Jed Lowrie is clinging to life as a big league shortstop. With his age and declining range, he’s probably better suited to play second base at this point in his career. And Evan Gattis, primarily a catcher throughout his career, will reportedly play either left field or first base, which means they’re counting on him to hit about two homers per game to make up for the number of runs he’ll give up by fielding.
And then there are the strikeouts. There were 19 guys in the Major Leagues last season who struck out in more than a third of their at bats (min. 300 plate appearances), and the Astros had three of them: Springer, Chris Carter and Jon Singleton. So what did they do to fix this? They retained all three of those guys, and added another one: Colby Rasmus, who joins his new teammates in staking the same dubious claim.
The upside to all this, despite all the apparent regression, is that these guys will mash. Chris Carter hit 37 home runs last year, and at age 28 his power should just now be peaking. Evan Gattis will hit 30 easily if he’s anything close to an everyday player. Every game for the Astros will be a waiting game until someone runs into one and blasts a homer 440 feet. And it’ll be fun to watch.
The pitching staff is among the more underrated in baseball. Dallas Keuchel rose from obscurity last year to give the Astros their first 200-inning season from a pitcher since Brett Myers in 2011. And they were quality innings, too; the lefty’s 2.93 ERA ranked seventh in the American League. If he continues that level of dominance, he could be in the Cy Young discussion.
Collin McHugh gets overshadowed by Keuchel’s beard, but in one short year in Houston, McHugh made clear his campaign to be co-ace of this team. He was almost unhittable down the stretch last year—in August and September, he posted a 1.77 ERA in ten starts. The Astros are hoping he can be from the right side what Keuchel gives them the left side, thus forming quite the one-two punch.
McHugh appears to be the real deal, but don’t forget that he hasn’t even pitched a full season in the majors yet. Let’s wait for him to get a little more time under his belt before we give him co-ace status.
The Astros also revamped their bullpen in a major way after their relievers posted an MLB-worst 4.80 ERA a season ago. From free agency they added Luke Gregerson and Pat Neshek, solidifying their set-up corps and providing some insurance in case 36-year-old closer Chad Qualls starts pitching like a 36-year-old closer.
It’s safe to say the dark days are over for the Astros. They’ve got a few pieces in place, but it’ll be a couple more years before the prospects they’ve accumulated over the past few years are ready to help boost the team into contention.
Projected Finish: 82-80, Third place in AL West