Here is an understatement: Last year was a disappointment for the Astros.

After an 86-76 season in 2015 with a wild card game victory and a heartbreaking ALDS loss to the Kansas City Royals, 2016 seemed to be the season ripe for more Astros success. They had the defending AL Cy Young award winner in Dallas Keuchel, the AL Rookie of the Year in Carlos Correa paired with star second baseman Jose Altuve up-the-middle, and explosive right fielder George Springer. More young talent was already on the MLB roster (Lance McCullers, Preston Tucker, Jake Marisnick) and on its way from the minors (AJ Reed, Alex Bregman, Joe Musgrove, Francis Martes, David Paulino). This team was built for 2016 and beyond.

But then the Astros started off 2016 by playing like the 2013 Astros. Keuchel struggled, Correa had his ups and downs, McCullers was not healthy for most of the season, and the Rangers made a deal with the one-run game devil and ran away with the division. This all happened even with Altuve becoming an unquestionable superstar by tapping into a new power stroke and playing like an MVP in a non-Mike Trout world.

HOU Record wRC+ SP ERA- RP ERA- DRS UZR BsR Pay – $M
2014 .432 (26) 96 (15) 100 (13) 125 (30) -16 (21) -64 (29) 4.2 (9) $54.56 (30)
2015 .801 (10) 105 (4) 92 (4) 81 (6) 30 (4) -3 (19) 7.7 (7) $97.45 (25)
2016 .519 (T-14) 99 (T-10) 106 (19) 87 (9) 51 (2) 7.2 (11) -4.6 (20) $114.74 (21)

The important thing for the Astros and their fans is that 2016 is over, and the Astros are still built for beyond. That includes the upcoming 2017 season.

Goodbyes and Welcomes

Lost: Jason Castro, Doug Fister, Colby Rasmus, Luis Valbuena, Tal’s Hill

Gained: Nori Aoki, Carlos Beltran, Brian McCann, Josh Reddick

Offense: Do you want to pitch to this team? Assuming you can. I certainly can’t.

An infield of Yulieski Gurriel/Altuve/Correa/Bregman combines youth, talent and upside better than almost every team in the majors (the 2016 World Series champs are on the phone and would like to speak with me. Also, Gurriel is 32, but just roll with it!!), even if Altuve does not hit 24 bombs again. Gurriel played third base last year, but also plied his trade for one game in left field and five games at first base. I am going to guess first is his primary position to start the year, especially considering Alex Bregman looks to be the likely starter at third base.

Evan Gattis will play DH, maybe some first base and some brutal catcher, all while hitting loads of home runs. It remains to be seen if he will run another .257 ISO, but he has never put up a wRC+ below league average in his career.

With the additions of Carlos Beltran, Nori Aoki and Josh Reddick, Springer may be the one who moves to center field, which would make Marisnick a late inning defensive replacement and a platoon candidate with Reddick or Aoki. If any of the Springer-Reddick-Beltran-Aoki underperforms or gets injured, perhaps Preston Tucker or Tony Kemp puts it together at one of the corner spots as well. Both have been highly regarded prospects in the past.

We have not even mentioned Brian McCann, who hit 20 home runs and produced a 103 wRC+ last year for the Yankees. Look at this possible lineup they could have on Opening Day (2016 wRC+, 2017 Steamer wRC+ projection):

CF Springer (124, 124)

3B Bregman (112, 111)

2B Altuve (150, 124)

SS Correa (122, 125)

LF Beltran (124, 108)

DH Gattis (119, 104)

C McCann (103, 95)

1B Gurriel (82, 101)

RF Reddick (106, 113)

Sheesh. You could reasonably expect Correa, Bregman and Altuve to outperform their projections based on their age, and the rest of the team (other than Gurriel) are proven veteran hitters.

This lineup does not even include some other intriguing players. It was just last year that AJ Reed was ranked on the Baseball Prospectus Top 101 as one of the best hitting prospects in the minors and he is still just 23 years old. What if Reed gets a shot and rakes? What if Tucker gets back to his 2015 form or improves? Teoscar Hernandez showed better bat-to-ball skills in the minors last year and held his own in a brief stint in Houston at the end of 2016. Marwin Gonzalez is still on this roster as a useful utility guy. He isn’t named MarLose, after all.

Needless to say, the offensive side of the ball should not be a problem barring injury. In fact, this could potentially be the best offense in MLB. The folks at FanGraphs project them to only be outscored in 2017 by the fighting Mookies of Boston, while PECOTA projects the Astros as the best offense in baseball by True Average, Baseball Prospectus’ measure of total offensive value scaled to Batting Average.

This team will most likely rake. As for the rest of the squad, that is where the fate of the Astros is less certain.

Pitching will be…better, maybe?

The Astros’ pitching was perfectly fine last year: 8th in the American League in ERA and 6th in fWAR. But with all of the kerfuffle about Houston looking for another rotation anchor this offseason, the fact that the pitching was middle of the road was surprising to me (and maybe to some of you). For 2017 the outlook is much brighter: only Cleveland and Boston project to be better than the Astros rotation in the American League at FanGraphs, and PECOTA sees the Astros pitching as the stingiest of the American League bunch.

But how much do we believe this?

Keuchel’s tremendous 2015 is probably an outlier, so expecting another 5.9 fWAR/8.1 WARP (Baseball Prospectus’ version of WAR) season is probably unrealistic, but if his shoulder is healthy again, can he return to the 2014 version of himself? Before the shoulder inflammation that shut him down for the entire month of September, he had seemingly regained his propensity to coax grounders and weak contact. His Steamer projection of a 3.50 ERA and 4.0 fWAR seems realistic, especially since it is right in line with his 2016 DRA of 3.53. But that is where the somewhat trustworthy above-average pitching production ends for this rotation and the offseason kerfuffle (I love the word kerfuffle) starts to make sense.

McCullers is a joy to watch and about as unhittable as a pitcher can be when he is clicking, but can he both click and stay healthy in 2017? Joe Musgrove and Chris Devenski both showed some promise last year, and both will compete for a rotation spot, but neither of them are a guarantee at this point in their careers to be a rotation lock. Maybe they can get a nice year out of David Paulino, whether he pitches in Houston or is part of a prospect package for a starter like Quintana. Same goes for Francis Martes. Whether an injury opens up a hole or at least part of the potential McHugh-Fiers-Morton triumvirate (although collectively projected for a serviceable 6 fWAR) doesn’t work out, there’s likely to be opportunity here. Who knows with pitching; this could even finally be Charlie Morton’s year.

The bullpen was good for most of the season last year. Giles was dominant after a terrible start to his season and Michael Feliz came up and put up a 35.2 K% and a 2.65 DRA. Will Harris and Luke Gregerson are above-average bullpen arms and Tony Sipp has been, despite last year’s down season, one of the more dependable LOOGY’s around. The Astros are still looking for more LHPs, and, of course, bullpens are fickle and maybe this bullpen will implode. It probably will not happen, but who is to say? After all, the Astros do have to go up against noted Astros killer Robinson Cano a lot these days.

One other note on the pitching side: the catching defense is slightly more questionable with the loss of Jason Castro. Obviously the offensive tradeoff with McCann and Gattis may be able to mitigate and/or improve upon the framing losses, but it is something to keep an eye on.

Defense:

Defense is difficult to project, but the table above showed the favorable MLB rankings in 2015 and 2016. Considering that scouts rate Bregman favorably as a shortstop (he does not only rake, which seems unfair), he could be a stellar third baseman. This is especially great for groundball-artists Keuchel, Morton and McCullers.

The outfield is far more questionable. Springer will likely move to center field, and despite him being a stellar athlete who rates well in a corner, his center field defense will be a complete unknown. Add this to the fact that Beltran is a poor defender, Reddick has been poorly rated defensively for the last two seasons, and that Aoki’s hilarious and strange routes to the baseball may finally be a detriment to his fielding prowess as he gets older, baseball analysts may be looking at this team and saying Houston, we have a problem.

I am so sorry.

Needless to say, I anticipate Marisnick will be a valuable late-inning defensive replacement, and maybe Springer is the type of athlete who truly can adapt and be a competent center fielder without any problems. If Aoki does not play well, the Astros did not commit much capital to get him, and Hernandez, Tucker, Kemp and Derek Fisher are waiting in the wings as replacements. The depth is here to navigate this potential weakness, but it certainly could remain a bugaboo throughout the season.

Goodbye Tal’s Hill. Goodbye Bill Brown

2017 will be the first season without that quirky hill in center field. It may have a positive effect on Astros hitters and pitchers. Or it may not have an effect on Astros hitters and pitchers. I will miss catches like this one though, especially for the McHugh reaction face.

More pertinent to the lives of Astros fans is the departure of long-time Astros announcer Bill Brown after 30 years in the booth. Multiple generations of Astros baseball have come and gone with Brown narrating the action, and adjusting to a new play-by-play person (he is replaced by Todd Kalas, who comes from the Tampa Bay Rays broadcast team) is going to be an aesthetic change for Astros fans and for those of us who bounce around from MLBTV feeds and grew to appreciate Brown’s work in Houston. Hopefully Brown enjoys his retirement after a long broadcasting career.

Ready for Takeoff?

I am always ready for Takeoff if we are talking Migos, but in terms of this Astros team, the signs seem to point toward takeoff as well. This roster is one of the most talented in the MLB, but Jeff Luhnow and the Astros front office may not be done adding pitching, both in the bullpen and the rotation. They have consistently been linked to Jose Quintana and they were apparently rebuffed by the Rays in an attempt to land Chris Archer. If they do find a way to add another high quality starting pitcher, this team would definitely appease Astros skeptics and be the certain favorites to win the AL West. The current projections already see them as the favorites anyhow: FanGraphs projects them at 90-72, PECOTA at 94-68.

The depth up and down the roster if an injury occurs or if the division rivals play better than their projections should help the team handle rough patches throughout the season, and based off of the Astros 78-61 record from May-September, the Astros were playing at a 90-91 win pace. 90 wins and a division title sounds like a reasonable bet for 2017, because even if they do get some great seasons from the infield, McCullers and a rejuvenated Keuchel, the AL West is going to be a tough division. If any team has the upside to run away with the division this year, it’s this team, and if the offense truly does click, that train above left field is going to be exhausted by the end of the season.

Nevertheless, if Keuchel and McCullers either underperform or do not stay healthy, the catching and outfield defense is poor, and Seattle and Texas play at a high level, it could be another disappointing season. If that happens, I am sure the media kerfuffle will not be loud or ridiculous at all.

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