It’s the weekend after Christmas and the Astros are clearly on a mission. And, yes, it’s morning again in Houston!
While I plan to be back in January, here are a few thoughts to whet your Astros’ appetite, though you’ve probably already eaten plenty over the past week.
What is the biggest problem the Astros face in 2016?
Clearly, one of the biggest obstacles that Astros face is maintaining and moving forward. It’s not difficult to get to — or near — the top of the mountain. The bigger problem is staying there. Jeff Luhnow and company made it to the playoffs last season with a hodge podge lineup and roster. Plus pitching, and plenty of it. There’s a slim chance the same lineup would have had the same outcome two seasons in a row. So change is inevitable and Luhnow has accommodated.
The rotation will be different, the bullpen will be different, the corner infield spots will be different. And, Luhnow is likely not yet finished with the remake. Already, at least nine players who were on the 2015 opening day roster will be playing elsewhere. That number is likely to increase by opening day 2016. Even bubble choices (guys who were the last ones out on that roster) like Brett Oberholtzer and Alex Presley are gone.
You maintain or progress by change. The good teams prove that year in and year out and Luhnow is tweaking and re-tooling.
Did the Astros give up too much in recent trades?
Yes, of course. But Luhnow was not going to get caught in the predicament again of which players to protect and which ones not to protect from the Rule 5 draft. In the case of Mark Appel, the handwriting on the wall was obvious. There just wasn’t going to be a place for him in the Astros’ rotation and he wasn’t going to force the hand of Luhnow or A.J. Hinch. You want guys like Lance McCullers Jr. who knock the door down and Appel just wasn’t that guy. Should be as a #1 pick, but no.
From one perspective, you have to like Luhnow’s tenacity. He goes out and makes sure he gets what he wants. While he won’t necessarily get caught in tying up huge budget on free agents with ridiculous contracts, he will use the commodity that he has (minor league talent, in many cases unproven) to buy what the team needs. Yes, sometimes, he does spend that ridiculously (Evan Gattis and Hank Conger trades), but he believed those guys would help the team and he went out and got them.
Can the Astros be lucky again?
Luck is always a part of the equation. Houston got lucky on several fronts in 2015. Colby Rasmus panned out. Carlos Correa returned from a crazy injury and was ready ahead of time. Two AA pitchers helped the team. A.J. Hinch didn’t meddle too much and managed like a fifth-year manager. Jim Crane acted like an owner and stayed out of the on-field product. Houston had enough quality players in the fold and in the wings to make up for injuries and under performance. Yes, some of these aren’t necessarily in the “luck” category, so just call it karma or the planets aligning or finally getting the right team in place (management, players, people, etc.).
Houston still needs real results at the corner of the infield. Luis Valbuena should be the guy. The numbers he had in the minors and in Chicago did not bear out in 2015 and the Astros have been patient. If he can turn into the guy that the numbers project, problem solved at third base. Houston obviously thinks the same thing or the team would not have traded Jed Lowrie (again).
The Astros proved in 2015 that they can handle severe injuries (Lowrie, George Springer, Scott Feldman et al). While the stable is not necessarily barren now, the options do not run as deep. Is there a McCullers or Vincent Velasquez or others waiting? If so, there aren’t as many of them.
Is Luhnow the guy?
Clearly, Luhnow has led the team out of Egypt. But can he lead the organization into the promised land? Obviously, he can reshape a team and isn’t scared or hesitant to make the moves he believes will get the team there. But, is he the guy who can fashion a solid contending team year in and year out? The proverbial jury is still out, but there are many questions. Some have been answered, others still necessitate an incomplete grade.
He’s earned a few more years to try though. He has returned the team to respectability and it’s fun to be an Astros’ fan again. It’s been a bumpy ride, but the scenery on the trip in 2015 was pretty good.