On the morning of June 30, 2014, the Astros were in last place with a 36–47 record en route to a 70–92 finish that, while unimpressive, broke a string of three straight 100-loss seasons. The Sports Illustrated cover dated June 30, 2014, featured Astros rookie George Springer and the caption, “Your 2017 World Series Champs.” After somewhat surprisingly making the playoffs in 2015 and somewhat surprisingly missing them in 2016, Astros management dominated the pre-Thanksgiving news cycle, adding three veterans to a team that had one of the lowest payrolls in baseball, was the youngest in the majors on offense, and featured four key pitchers 25 or younger. With one of the league’s better offenses, a strong bullpen, and (fingers crossed) a return to health/effectiveness in the starting rotation, the Astros appear poised to improve on last year’s 84–78 record, return to the postseason and try to deliver on Sports Illustrated’s prophecy.
The starting rotation was the team’s weakness last year, as the starters’ ERA ballooned from 3.71 in 2015, second best in the league, to 4.37. The biggest drop-off was that of Dallas Keuchel, who went from 20–8, 2.48 in his 2015 Cy Young season to 9–12, 4.55. But he wasn’t alone; rotation mates Collin McHugh and Mike Fiers slipped as well, and while Lance McCullers posted the same 3.22 ERA in 2016 as he did in 2015, injuries limited him to 14 starts. All four are back, though both Keuchel (shoulder) and McCullers (elbow) are on the mend. Assuming they and free-agent pickup Charlie “Ground Chuck” Morton, a groundball machine who was limited to four starts last year due to a torn hamstring, are healthy, Fiers will compete with Joseph Musgrove for the fifth spot in the rotation.
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The overall numbers for the Astros’ bullpen don’t jump out at you. Houston tied with the Twins for the sixth-most blown saves in the league, and its 3.56 ERA, while good, was only sixth best. But that doesn’t tell the full story. The Astros bullpen was 0–4 in April with a 4.75 ERA (worst in the AL) and had six blown saves (second most in the league) in May. After June 4, when Luke Gregerson blew his fifth save and became the setup man, the relief corps came together. In the season’s second half, the Astros led all American League bullpens in strikeout percentage, strikeout-to-walk ratio and holds. They had the third-fewest blown saves and the fourth-lowest batting average allowed. Ken Giles became a dominant closer, Gregerson remained a strong setup man, and middle relievers Will Harris, Michael Feliz and James Hoyt averaged over a strikeout per inning (Chris Devenski and Tony Sipp fell just short of the mark). Those seven combined for a 3.34 ERA and struck out 29.7 percent of the batters they faced (the average for AL relievers was 3.84 and 22.8 percent).
Last year, Carlos Correa was a 21-year-old shortstop who batted third and fourth, hit 20 homers and drove in 96 while batting .274/.361/.451 — and his season was viewed as a disappointment by some, as his home run and stolen base numbers declined from his 99-game rookie season in 2015. Second baseman Jose Altuve led the league in hits and batting average and was third in the MVP vote. They’re the core of the team and form, easily, the best middle infield tandem in the game (sorry, Cubs, Red Sox, and Indians fans; it’s true).
The Astros signed 32-year-old Cuban infielder Yulieski Gurriel in mid-July for $47.5 million, and after 15 games with four minor-league teams, he joined the Astros in August. After batting .338/.360/.521 in his first 21 games, he hit only .169/.210/.220 in his last 15. He’s penciled in as the starting first baseman, where he started only four games last year. Another midseason call-up, 2015 draft first-round pick Alex Bregman, 10 years Gurriel’s junior, will play third. Flipping Gurriel’s performance, Bregman started his major-league career 1-for-34 but hit .311/.359/.569 after that, taking over the No. 2 spot in the lineup.
The free-agent signing of Josh Reddick (four years, $52 million) on the heels of adding Nori Aoki on waivers creates a surplus. Springer is a fixture in the leadoff spot, thanks to his .359 on base percentage (19th in the AL) and plus fielding in right. Reddick, also a strong fielder, will probably slide over to left. The Astros have another skilled defender, Jake Marisnick, in center, but he’s a lifetime .225/.268/.339 hitter. Aoki, a left fielder selected from the Mariners, is an on-base machine (OBP between .349 and .356 in each of his five major-league seasons), and he’ll see playing time as well, moving Reddick to right and Springer to center.
The team traded two hard-throwing minor-league pitchers to the Yankees for backstop Brian McCann and cash. He replaces the departed Jason Castro. The Astros will pay McCann $23 million of the $34 million he’s owed through 2018. He’s hit 20 or more homers in nine straight seasons; no Astros catcher has ever hit that many in a single season. Designated hitter Evan Gattis provides the Astros the luxury of not having to carry a spare catcher on their roster.
Signing Carlos Beltran to a one-year, $16 million contract pushes Gattis into a reserve role. Backing up a soon-to-be 40-year-old designated hitter (who was 17th in the AL in OPS in 2016) and a 33-year-old catcher should give Gattis, who had a career high in homers (32) and slugging (.508) in 2016, ample playing opportunities. Marwin Gonzalez returns to his utility role; he played every non-battery position but right field last year and will likely be Beltran’s legs in late innings. Aoki and Marisnick will be bats off the bench (and, in Marisnick’s case, a defensive replacement) when the other’s playing. First baseman A.J. Reed, who hit 35 homers in the minors in 2015 but was unimpressive in 45 games in Houston last year, could be a left-handed power option at first and DH.
A.J. Hinch doesn’t stand out tactically. He’s reluctant to let starting pitchers go deep into games, and he rarely calls for an intentional walk, but he’s middle-of-the-pack on most strategies. Where he stands out is his willingness to trust young players, resulting in the emergence of Altuve, Correa, Springer and Bregman as young stars. As he enters his third season, that characteristic has made him the longest-tenured Astros manager under GM Jeff Luhnow.
A rebound seems plausible. The team finished five games out of the Wild Card, but they didn’t have Bregman, Gurriel, Reddick, McCann, or a settled bullpen when they began the 2016 season. The Rangers were a record-setting 36–11 in one-run games, an indicator more of luck than skill, so some regression is to be expected, and the Mariners have become one of the league’s oldest teams. Given Houston’s depth on the field and in the bullpen, a modestly better performance by the rotation could propel the Astros back to October baseball and on the path toward Sports Illustrated’s prediction.