The tanking and rebuilding paid off for Houston last season when they made the postseason for the first time in a decade. It was a bit surprising the Astros made the playoffs so soon into Jeff Luhnow’s #process, but they took advantage of a hot start and weak American League. As an Angel fan, it’s dismaying the Astros became so good so quickly. I had hoped it would take Houston another couple years to realize their potential and in that time the Angels could steal another playoff spot or two. Now it kind of feels like the Astros are going to dominate the division for the next decade while Mike Trout’s prime is wasted. The nightmare scenario is Trout, frustrated with the front office’s ability to build a competent enough team to challenge Houston, bails after 2020 and heads to a contender.
Scott Kazmir (SP), Vincent Velazquez (SP), Chris Carter (1B), Chad Qualls (RP), Jonathan Villar (UTIL), Hank Conger (C)
Ken Giles (RP), Doug Fister (SP)
The top three in this lineup is a monster. Jose Altuve has gone from a diminutive fan favorite to the best leadoff hitter in baseball after consecutive four-win seasons. If George Springer ever stays healthy he could be an MVP candidate—extrapolated to 162 games, his 3.7 fWAR performance in 102 games last year is nearly six wins above replacement. But the real beast is Carlos Correa, the 21-year-old that was the Astros’ best player after he was called up last season. Correa is the best shortstop in baseball and I’m not sure that statement is even controversial. We don’t want to hear it, but it wouldn’t surprise anyone if Correa supplants Trout as the best player in the game sometime in the near future. If Correa fulfills that promise this season the division race is already over.
Correa’s progression is the biggest question in Houston, but the next question is: What type of Carlos Gomez are they getting? Houston stayed relatively quiet this winter, but Gomez is their de facto big offseason acquisition even though they nabbed him during last year’s trade deadline. The Astros are certainly hoping Gomez improves upon a rough, but productive, 2015 and delivers another borderline MVP season like his 2013 and 2014 days in Milwaukee. That type of Gomez gives the Astros the best half-lineup in baseball this side of Toronto. Yet, even a full season of Gomez the above average hitter, fielder, and base runner would be a boon for the ‘Stros. A full season of the Brothers Carlos is a scary proposition.
After those top four, the Astros lineup becomes more manageable. Fortunately for the rest of the division Jon Singleton never really figured it out, and now first base is a legitimate weakness. Evan Gattis and his tight pants will be better served in the DH role, but even all those extra base hits didn’t totally make up for his .285 OBP. And do we really expect Gattis of all people to hit 11 freaking triples again? Colby Rasmus, Jason Castro, and Luis Valbuena are all pretty good hitters, but this team can be had by strikeout pitchers. According to Baseball-Reference, the Astros struck out 24.8% of the time against power pitchers* and posted a .648 OPS. They ate finesse pitchers alive, though, raising their OPS to .805. Among position players that figure to receive a lot of playing time, Springer, Rasmus, Castro, Valbuena, and Preston Tucker all posted strikeout rates higher than league average last season and Correa wasn’t too far behind. This obviously wasn’t a death knell because the club advanced to the ALDS and were some #RoyalsDevilMagic away from facing the Blue Jays in the next round. But will the strikeout-heavy approach and reliance on extra-base hits come back to bite them this year?
*B-R defines power pitchers as those that rank in the top third in strikeouts plus walks. Finesse pitchers are those that rank in the bottom third.
Houston’s rotation might be the real bread-and-butter of the team. It’s time to believe in Dallas Keuchel as a legitimate ace. Keuchel won the Cy Young last season when he combined career-bests in strikeout and walk rates with another groundball rate in the sixties. Even if the strikeouts regress a little, Keuchel is still a stud at the front of a rotation. Collin McHugh continues to troll the Rockies, becoming a middle-of-the-rotation rock immediately after pitching-needy Colorado gave up on him after the 2013 season. Mike Fiers and Scott Feldman are fine back-end pieces.
The two most intriguing rotation members are Lance McCullers and newcomer Doug Fister. McCullers is battling injury and probably won’t rejoin the team until summer, but a healthy McCullers is, at worst, the second best pitcher on the club. In his rookie season, McCullers struck out 24.8% of batters and posted a 3.26 FIP. Meanwhile, Fister could become the steal of the offseason for Houston, signing a one year deal worth $7 million after a 4.19 ERA season in Washington. The injury bug is always an issue for Fister and at 32 he could be well past his prime, but $7 million is worth the risk at getting the best number-five starter in baseball if he regains his pre-2015 form. His 2.63 strikeout-to-walk ratio was his worst since 2009, but he also got a little unlucky with BABIP and homers and he just posted a 2.41 ERA in 2014. Fister could go the way of Dan Haren, an elite K/BB pitcher who lost it overnight. Or, Fister has more in the tank and has one of the most team-friendly deals in baseball. Regardless, the rotation isn’t dependent on Fister. The top four are fine and McCullers gives the Astros a one-two punch that can compete with any club in the American League. But a rejuvenated Fister puts the Astros rotation among the best in baseball.
Houston’s bullpen famously faltered toward the end of last season. In the first half the ‘pen was one of the best in baseball, posting a park-adjusted 66 ERA- that was undoubtedly aided by a .237 BABIP. The wheels came off in the second half when the ERA- rose 45 points. Ultimately, the bullpen failed Houston in October when they had a chance to eliminate Kansas City in Game 4 of the ALDS.
So Jeff Lunhow dealt a whole mess of prospects—including former #1 overall pick Mark Appel—to the Phillies for Ken Giles. In two Philadelphia seasons Giles had a 1.56 ERA and 32.5% strikeout rate, wasting some of the best relief work in baseball on terrible teams. Now, the Astros bullpen looks pretty damn formidable and less reliant on batted-ball luck. Luke Gregerson and Pat Neshek look better when lowered one rung on the bullpen depth chart. Josh Fields could force himself into eighth-inning duty as the second best strikeout reliever on the team. And Tony Sipp was brought back for $18 million as part of the front office’s commitment to improving the bullpen.
As it stands, there’s not a LOOGY on the staff; Sipp is left-handed but has similar splits against right-handed and left-handed batters. That shouldn’t be too troublesome. Some of those outstanding Angels bullpens under Mike Scioscia didn’t use any lefties. A dominant LOOGY is nice, but a bunch of excellent right-handed relievers is better than having mediocre left-handers just for the sake of it. If Houston wants to they can dip into their war chest of prospects and pick one up sometime before the deadline. If they don’t, the bullpen will be formidable anyway.
This is the best team in the American League West and deserve their status as favorites. They’re not a lock to win it because they’re young and the lineup can be exploited, but they have fewer weaknesses than the other teams in the division. If Correa and Springer take another developmental step forward this team has 100-win potential. Good thing the Angels have two Wild Card spots to chase.
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