Today Dan looks at the Astros themselves as they ready themselves for the first series of the season against the Seattle Mariners.
2016 Record. 84-78 – 3rd place in AL West – 11 GB of the Rangers
Last Playoff Appearance. 2015
World Series Appearances/Wins. 0 for 1 – 2005
Best Franchise Season. 102-60 in 1998
Worst Franchise Season. 51-111 in 2013
Manager. A.J. Hinch – Entering his 3rd season with the Astros (170-154)
GM. Jeff Luhnow – In his sixth season
2016 Payroll (from spotrac). $114.7 million (21st in MLB).
2017 Payroll (projected by spotrac). $123.2 million (18th).
2016 Offense. 724 Runs (8th in AL), 198 HRs (9th), 102 SB (3rd), . 247 BA (13th), .735 OPS (9th)
2016 Starting Pitching. 4.37 ERA (8th), 1.38 WHIP (10th), 300 BBs (10th), 779 Ks (8th), .271 BAA (12th), .775 OPS against (11th)
2016 Bullpen. 3.56 ERA (T-5th), 1.14 WHIP (1st), Saves 44 (6th), Blown Saves 20 (6th worst), .230 BA against (2nd) .672 OPS against (1st)
The Astros had a middle of the road offense in 2016 and pairing that with a starting rotation that had sunk from excellent to mediocre and a very good bullpen, they pulled off a fairly predictable slightly above average season on the field.
On the offensive side they are depending on more ABs from 1B Yulieski Gurriel and 3B Alex Bregman, who both joined towards the end of the season, plus solid contributions from veteran professional hitters in DH Carlos Beltran, C Brian McCann, RF Josh Reddick and LF Nori Aoki to bring that offense up from middle of the road to top 5 in the league.
The starting pitching is relying on a return to health of 2015 Cy Young winner Dallas Keuchel and Lance McCullers Jr, a lot more of the flashes that Joseph Musgrove showed in his 10 starts last season and a bolt of lightning out of nowhere for new free agent Charlie Morton.
The Astros would like the bullpen to get off to a better start in 2016 and to move more of those blown saves into the successful save column. Oh and if they could find anyone who could pitch successfully from the left side in the ‘pen, that would be appreciated.
Infield. The Astros 2016 first base was a lot of Marwin Gonzalez sandwiched between unsuccessful debuts for Tyler White and A.J. Reed and resulted in one of the weaker combined 1Bs in the AL. The Astros will put Gurriel at 1B with MarGo as his backup in the hopes that he will bring a much more solid bat to the sack, if not a whole lot of power. Next up behind him could be Reed, White or even Colin Moran. 2B and SS are of course set with near MVP Jose Altuve and boy wonder Carlos Correa. If Altuve repeats his excellent 2016 (.338 BA/.928 OPS/ 108 R/ 24 HR/ 96 RBI/ 30 SB) and Correa has the breakout season expected of him (yes some insane folks complain about 22 y.o. SS with a .274 BA/.811 OPS/ 20 HR/ 96 RBI season), this will be the best hitting middle infield in the game. Bregman has been given the 3B spot based on a rookie performance that went from hopeless (2 for his first 38 ABS) to strong – (.312 BA, 30 R, 8 HR, 34 RBIs in his next 39 games). If he falters, Gurriel, J.D. Davis or Moran could be put at third base.
Outfield. Despite a solid season from George Springer (116 R / 29 HR/ 82 RBI), the Astros outfield was problematic with crummy offensive performances in CF (.210 BA /.625 OPS) and RF (.227 BA / .649 OPS). The Astros are addressing this by moving Springer to CF and bringing in Reddick (.281 / .749 in 2016) for RF and Aoki (.283 /.738 in 2016) for LF. They will all be backed up by super-D, sucky-O Jake Marisnick. There are some other options a phone call away, including Teoscar Hernandez and Tony Kemp who both debuted in 2016 and Derrick Fisher, who impressed in this season’s spring training. A big question is how many games will Carlos Beltran spend in LF.
DH and C. The 2016 Astros continued a tradition of just awful DH offense – coming in last in BA (.223) /OPS (.696)/HR (19) and RBIs (62) in the AL. The Astros are counting on elderly All Star Carlos Beltran (.295 BA/.850 OPS/ 29 HR/ 73 RBIs) to beat that with his eyes closed. It is expected that Evan Gattis will get some time at DH, along with many of the other starters on their days off.
Brian McCann brings veteran leadership and a bigger bat than Jason Castro showed to the catcher’s spot. It is probable that McCann will get 5 starts to every one by Gattis behind the plate. The question here is what effect this will have on Gattis whose bat came alive last season when he spent more games behind the plate.
The Bench. With 13 pitchers on the roster to start the season, the bench is small. They will start the season with backup C Gattis, Swiss Army knife Gonzalez and OF Marisnick in the dugout. It will be interesting if anyone in the minors will force the Astros’ hand some time during the season to make additional room on the roster.
Starting Rotation. The bottom line with the pitching staff is that if they get a repeat of 2016 out of Keuchel (9-12, 4.55 ERA), McCullers (only 14 starts), Morton (only 4 starts), they are dead on arrival. They need at least 2 of the 3 to be very good starting pitchers this season. It is worrisome that Collin McHugh is starting the season on the DL, but at least he has not been hiding his injury as Keuchel did last season. Joseph Musgrove has looked good in both his short stint in 2016 (4-4, 4.06 ERA) and a strong showing this spring. Mike Fiers is a middle of the road pitcher (11-8, 4.48 ERA) who would be just fine in the 5th spot or as a swing pitcher or even as a trade chip. Young arms that may be next in line include Chris Devenski (2.16 ERA/ 0.912 WHIP in 108 IP), Michael Feliz (8-1, 13.2 K/9 IP), and 21 y.o. phenom Francis Martes.
The ‘Pen. In 2016, the A.J. Hinch passed the closing baton between hot hands (or was it that he pried the baton out of cold hands), over and over as Ken Giles (15 Sv), Luke Gregerson (15 Sv) and Will Harris (12 Sv) all had extended shots at the 9th inning. The Astro would like Giles and his 14 K/9 IP arm to take this job, but his propensity to give up walks, hits and HRs at the wrong time has been raising the Rolaids quotient for the manager. Gregerson looked brilliant during the recent World Baseball Classic as their closer, but he looks great often except when he doesn’t. This baton may get handed about a lot more before it gets settled. Devenski, Feliz and Brad Peacock give the Astros a lot of flexibility in the ‘pen as they all can go multiple innings as needed. Tony Sipp is on the team because he is left handed and because his awful performance in 2016 (4.95 ERA, 1.603 ERA) and big contract ($12 million for 2017 and 2018) make him untradeable, yet difficult to release. Young big armed Jandel Gustave nudged out James Hoyt for the last spot in the bullpen. It is a good guess that Hoyt will be up some time during 2017.
Prognosis. This is potentially a very good lineup that unlike 2016 can turn itself over and give the top of the lineup a lot more ducks on the pond to bring home. The bullpen looks as good if not better than in 2016, which brings us to the critical part of the team, the rotation. It says here that the Astros only need two of Morton, Keuchel and LMJ to have big returns to thrive in 2017. If two or three of those guys falter or get injured it will be a long season or it will be a season remembered for trading away big time prospects for an arm.
Projection: 92-70 – The Astros will have a better season and return to the playoffs in 2017. Once in the playoffs….anything can happen.