So you just spent eight grueling months hitting, throwing, and catching a chunk of mud-rubbed hide across the country, all the while dealing with injuries, a devastating natural disaster in your home city, and one of the deepest playoff fields in recent history, and ended an arduous grind as World Series champions anyway?

That’s awesome! Now go out there and do it again.

That’s the (good) problem the 2018 Houston Astros have ahead of them. Repeating in baseball is notoriously difficult; no team has done it since 2000. Slightly better odds exist for a return trip—the Phillies, Rangers, and Royals made consecutive trips in the past 10 years—but no one came away kings at the end of back-to-back odysseys.

The Astros have the pieces to buck an extended trend.

 

The best offense in baseball

Houston was the best offense in baseball in 2017. FanGraphs ranked their offense first in the Majors by WAR, three games above the Dodgers and five better than the next-best team (the Yankees) in their own league. Houston put the ball in play with devastating results: they struck out the least in baseball, and carried a .309 BABIP while making medium or hard contact on four out of every five balls in play. They led the league in doubles and were second-best in home runs, only three behind the Yankees. They ranked tops in baseball in wOBA (.349), and wRC+ (121).

And best of all: just about everyone’s back.

Houston’s offense is anchored by their stellar up-the-middle combo of Jose Altuve, Carlos Correa, and George Springer. The trio were Houston’s top three players by offensive bWAR last season (8.1, 5.9, and 5.2 respectively, with Correa’s number coming on only 109 games), and stayed very productive in the postseason. Altuve capped an exemplary season with a deserved MVP.

But don’t let the glitzy marquee distract you from the rest of the roster’s productivity. Marwin Gonzalez turned in a career year in 2017; Josh Reddick had his best season since he was an Athletic, in only 134 games; in his first full season, Alex Bregman put up a strong campaign, producing a .284/.352/.827 (AVG/OBP/OPS) line in 155 games; Yuli Gurriel was a key contributor in the regular season and the World Series; and Brian McCann and Evan Gattis formed a good catching platoon in an offense that wasn’t very dependent on them.

With Jake Marisnick (who was also having one of his best seasons) coming back from injury and top-prospect Kyle Tucker just about ready, Houston is flush with outfield depth. How they manage innings—and move around Gonzalez—to accommodate their assets will be interesting to watch. But in such a grueling sport, having more is never a bad thing.

 

The rotation of great possibilities (and the bullpen that needs to keep it together)

Dallas Keuchel’s very good 2014 and brilliant 2015 (in which he won the Cy Young) perhaps elevated him to a tip-of-the-spear role he shouldn’t have had. That’s a little harsh, and maybe overrates his difficult 2016 season, but in 2017, Keuchel was very good again, putting together a 14-win season on a 136 ERA+ and a 1.12 WHIP. None of those were career-best numbers, but all were improvements over the previous season. Keuchel’s BABIP came down to .256 from a bloated .304 the previous year. Take what you will from that number, but promisingly, he cut his hard contact-yielded by 5%, and upped soft contact by 3%. Without overpowering stuff, those are good signs.

The best thing to happen to Keuchel in his bounce-back season, though, was the post-deadline addition of Justin Verlander. Keuchel was notably disappointed at the trade deadline last year, but a month later, Verlander was in Houston, completing his transformation from declining albatross to second-act swan. Verlander went 5-0 in five regular season starts for Houston, with a .65 WHIP and a comical 11.4 SO/9 along the way. Those numbers are unsustainable—and most projection services expect Verlander to be worse than his combined numbers in 2017—but Houston added a power-throwing innings sponge to front their rotation.

And then added Gerrit Cole on top.

Cole was also probably miscast as an ace in Pittsburgh, but he’s only 27, hits 96 regularly on the gun, and if the home run rate comes down, he’ll be a valuable second or third starter.

Say what you will about what Lance McCullers should be/have been, but he’s practically a gluttonous fourth starter, and the Astros enter 2018 with, on paper, one of the better rotations in baseball.

In the playoffs, most bullpens look like glaring weaknesses as the ball is less likely to be spread around when just about every inning is meaningful, leaving a small group of familiar faces to burden abnormal loads. Houston’s bullpen wasn’t as bad as the playoffs made them seem, but they weren’t good either. They’ve added Joe Smith and Hector Rondon to their mix. It’ll be interesting to see how the leftovers from the rotation (likely to be Colin McHugh and especially Brad Peacock) help out the pen when they’re not needed for spot starts, but ultimately, the Astros will benefit most from getting the ball to Chris Devenski and Ken Giles, who are the type of players that can keep endgames stable.

There is certainly uncertainty in this pitching rotation. Heavy regressions could change the shiny outlook in February to another scramble around the trade deadline. There’s 600-inning upside from the front-end, but all three guys have abbreviated seasons in their recent past, too. And the bullpen is going to lean on being right at closing time; they can’t be as confident in the transition innings between starters and Devenski-Giles. But the pieces are there for Houston to get through the regular season just fine.

 

Upside/Downside

It is, as said before, ridiculously hard to repeat in baseball. But it’s equally hard to picture any other upside but repeat World Series champions for these Astros. They have depth in their lineup, skill in their rotation, a sturdy back-end to their bullpen, and the resources to improve should any piece break down. We didn’t touch on their defense here, but while Houston isn’t a standout defensive team, they’re the kind of team that has both late-game offense and late-game defense strewn across the bench.

There are no locks in baseball, so the easy answer on downside would be they miss the playoffs. But here’s the thing: I think their World Series upside isn’t really an ambitious possibility; missing the playoffs feels more wishful.

They weren’t a World Series fluke in 2017. You could make the case that they were one of four or five teams that could’ve gotten rings in October, and that they survived better than the others. But you can’t make the case that they were undeserving. With so many returning stars who are young enough to meet their projections if all else stays equal, they should be right back into it.

Their own downside could be chalked up to something nondescript and poorly understood like a winner’s hangover, but don’t expect it. It would take weak seasons across a big chunk of the roster to make the playoffs a dicey prospect.

Outside of their control, the West got a bit better, while the Empire in the Bronx is getting Episode Five-level strong. Maybe—and especially so in the case of the latter—this will be something to consider in October. The Astros are a playoff team, and who knows, maybe they run into a clicking Yankees or Indians bullpen that’s better than them for five or seven games, keeping them from repeating. But they should still be a playoff team.

They’re built for October, and built a little better for April through September than most—if not all—the other teams. This team is balanced, deep, and sturdy. What they don’t do well, they do well enough; what they do great, they can be the best at.

Win prediction: 98

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