As pitchers and catchers report this week in Florida and Arizona, Athlon Sports will preview every team in Major League Baseball. Outlooks for every team and so much more information, including rosters, advanced stats and anonymous scouting reports, are featured in the Athlon Sports 2016 MLB Preview, available on newsstands everywhere and in our online store.
The newest feeling for the Astros is expectation.
The long and painful rebuilding is over, and now the question is whether Houston’s baseball team can maintain annual contention in a football-first town. Last season brought the Astros’ first winning record since 2008 and first playoff appearance since 2005.
It should be harder this year. The Astros grew a huge lead early in ’15, a scenario that’ll be hard to replicate in a division that’s only gotten tougher. But after years of losing — and years of talking about creating a sustainable model — the Astros and general manager Jeff Luhnow need to take another step forward in 2016, or at the very least, avoid one in the wrong direction.
The Astros boast one of the best young players in the game in shortstop Carlos Correa. But many of his teammates had career years in 2015, leaving question marks on the whole as to how improved the team will be. Power, strikeouts and speed should still be calling cards.
Pitching is an overall strength of the Astros. Dallas Keuchel, the bearded lefty who stunned everyone with his Cy Young-winning campaign, will have the burden of proving he can repeat as one of the game’s most dominant pitchers. He’s no fluke, but can he remain among the uber-elite without top-shelf velocity? Keuchel has gotten better with age. Now 28, he actually averaged nearly two more strikeouts per nine innings (8.38) in 2015 than he did the year prior. In 22-year-old sophomore Lance McCullers, the Astros have a traditional overpowering arm who could combine with Keuchel to form one of baseball’s best one-two punches. McCullers’ fastball doesn’t touch 95 mph — that’s where it sits.
Collin McHugh is a stable piece in the middle of the rotation. Doug Fister, signed to a one-year deal in January, will be slotted in the middle of the rotation. Mike Fiers proved to be the best pick-up the Astros had at last year’s trade deadline — more consistent than Scott Kazmir and healthier than Carlos Gomez — and is sneakily effective. Veteran Scott Feldman is a question mark as he comes back from a right shoulder sprain that ended his season prematurely.
Righty Ken Giles, a 25-year-old closer with a 100-mph fastball, is the biggest addition of the winter. And he should be, considering his price tag included big arms Mark Appel and Vince Velasquez in a five-for-two deal with the Phillies. (The trade also brought the Astros a young minor league shortstop they like, Jonathan Arauz.) Giles is the piece the Astros didn’t have in the American League Division Series when they coughed up a four-run lead with six outs remaining in Game 4 against the Royals. Giles’ track record in the big leagues isn’t long, but it’s overwhelmingly good. The Astros hope jumping from a last-place Phillies team to a brighter spotlight won’t have an adverse effect.
The pen is otherwise built on pitchers who can get swings and misses but do so without high heat. Righty Luke Gregerson — who performed admirably as closer in 2015 — and lefty Tony Sipp are as solid a setup combo as can be found. Righty Will Harris has proved to be a genius under-the-radar acquisition, much like Sipp in 2014. Pat Neshek lost his control at the end of last season. He was bothered some by a right foot fracture he suffered in spring training and pitched with all season. His foot was surgically repaired in the offseason, and there’s nothing to suggest the righty veteran won’t return to form.
You won’t find a better combination up the middle. Correa, a veritable manchild, towers over Jose Altuve physically, but together they form the core and motor of the Astros. When both are hot, the Astros can run circles on opponents — particularly if outfielder George Springer is locked in, too. A full season of Correa could bring MVP-like numbers. The only player younger than Correa to have a multi-homer postseason game in big league history is the Braves’ Andruw Jones, who was 19 years old for Game 1 of the 1996 World Series. Correa had been 21 for less than a month when he slugged his pair in Game 4 of the LDCS.
For years, the infield positions where the most power production is expected have been glaring weaknesses for the Astros. Finally, a bright spot emerged. Third baseman Luis Valbuena, a free agent after 2016, is coming off a career year that included 25 homers. The left-handed hitter will get everyday at-bats — he can play first base too — but what he can do for an encore is a curiosity. His .337 OBP from 2013-14 dropped to .310 last year. Jon Singleton, who signed a contract that guaranteed him $10 million before he played a day in the big leagues, should have his chance now that Chris Carter is gone. Singleton has raked in Class AAA but struggled in the bigs. Still just 24, the once-touted slugger hasn’t had an extended look in the majors since 2014.
This is one of the game’s best outfields if everyone’s on the field. From left to right, the Astros have three center fielders — Colby Rasmus, Carlos Gomez and George Springer — and each has power. Gomez and Springer bring speed as well. The only question is health. Recent injury histories abound for the starters, although Springer’s 2015 right wrist fracture was caused by an errant pitch. Now in his second season with the team, Rasmus fared better leaving Toronto’s artificial surface, but he was nonetheless banged up last year. Fortunately for the Astros, they have depth. Jake Marisnick is capable enough to be in Gold Glove conversations — were he to be a regular. Springer had a .365 OBP when Edinson Volquez nailed him in the wrist on July 1. A sustained increase in Springer’s on-base ability would make him a true monster. Otherwise, he’s a big-power, big-strikeout, magnetic talent who fearlessly crashes into walls.
Jason Castro is no longer the offensive catcher he was a couple years ago, but he’s still in line to be paid next offseason as a free agent. The left-handed hitter has made a remarkable transformation into one of the game’s best defensive catchers. Castro is always good for double-digit homers, but his total has dropped two straight years, from 18 to 14 to 11. The Astros ditched Hank Conger after one year, which might leave the back-up job to Max Stassi, who has some pop and has been a September call-up but never had a chance otherwise.
Evan Gattis could still catch or play left field if necessary, but it’s best for his health that he remains a full-time DH. The Astros love Marwin Gonzalez in his heavy part-time role, and that’s how they want to use him again this year. He’s an infielder by trade but can play most anywhere, and a career-high 370 plate appearances is nothing to sneeze at. A platoon at first base is possible, particularly if Singleton is the left-handed half. Righty Tyler White doesn’t have the best physique, but he dominated in winter ball and has hit at every level. Another righty bat, Matt Duffy (not the Giants’ Matt Duffy), got a taste of the bigs at season’s end.
Manager A.J. Hinch and pitching coach Brent Strom divvied up bullpen usage well, and that helped the relievers stay effective ahead of September hiccups. Hinch is aware of the drop-off for starting pitchers a third time through the opponent’s order — a subject that’s become a sticking point for high-minded analysts — but the manager takes every game case by case. Luhnow has shown a willingness to deal at the deadline, even for a rental, so if there’s a piece the Astros need in July, there should be faith it can be landed.
Giles is the big piece the Astros needed in the bullpen. But they’re going to need a lot of similar or repeat performances in 2016 from others, and regression can be cruel. The Astros should be in the mix once again, but it’s hard to say they’re a favorite.
Prediction: 2nd AL West (Wild Card)
2B Jose Altuve (R)
RF George Springer (R)
SS Carlos Correa (R)
LF Colby Rasmus (L)
CF Carlos Gomez (R)
3B Luis Valbuena (L)
DH Evan Gattis (R)
C Jason Castro (L)
1B Jon Singleton (L)
1B/3B Matt Duffy (R)
INF Marwin Gonzalez (S)
OF Jake Marisnick (R)
C Max Stassi (R)
OF Preston Tucker (L)
LHP Dallas Keuchel
RHP Lance McCullers
RHP Collin McHugh
RHP Doug Fister
RHP Mike Fiers
RHP Ken Giles (Closer)
RHP Josh Fields
RHP Will Harris
RHP Pat Neshek
LHP Tony Sipp
RHP Luke Gregerson