If you want a sign of how quickly the Astros could turn into a World Series contender, look no farther than last year's champions, the Cubs. The Cubs and Astros started their rebuilding processes around the same time, and for a few years there, the Astros pulled ahead. The Cubs, of course, got to the promised land last year, and the two clubs took different paths on their route to contention.

However, both built their cores largely around what should be the most predictable forces in baseball: young, stud hitters. The Cubs spent more money in free agency on their pitching staff, but when you look at the Astros heading into 2017, the blueprint is still largely the same. If Carlos Correa or George Springer can take a Kris Bryant-type leap, or the more unproven types like Alex Bregman and Yulieski Gurriel can become reliable contributors, it might be hard to stop this team.

One thing that could stop it, of course, is the pitching staff. Dallas Keuchel took a huge step back from his Cy Young win in 2015, and the rest of the rotation is made up of combustible types -- hence Houston's reported interest in a steady veteran like Jose Quintana.

The Astros didn't look like World Series contenders last year, but with an infusion of reliable veterans in Brian McCann, Carlos Beltran and Josh Reddick, and the potential for even more growth for the young core, this squad could once again be nipping on the Cubs' heals before long.

2017 projected lineup
1
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George Springer CF
2
3
4
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Carlos Beltran DH
5
6
7
8
9
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Norichika Aoki LF
Bench
Bench
2017 projected pitching staff
1
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Dallas Keuchel LHP
2
3
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Lance McCullers RHP
4
5
Alt SP
Closer
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Ken Giles Houston Astros RP
Setup
Luke Gregerson Houston Astros RP
Relief
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Will Harris Houston Astros RP
Relief
Chris Devenski Houston Astros RP
Relief
Michael Feliz Houston Astros RP

How much will Evan Gattis play?

The Astros have enough firepower all over the diamond that they didn't think they necessarily needed to force Gattis' bat into the lineup last season. After a dreadfully slow start, they eventually sent him down to the minors to re-learn how to catch, and Gattis reminded them of just how vital his bat can be.

Over his final 108 games -- 49 of them behind the plate -- Gattis hit .258 with an .869 OPS and 31 homers in 429 plate appearances, re-establishing himself as one of the most potent offensive forces behind the plate in all of baseball. This season, though, he could have trouble finding consistent playing time, with the team's three big offseason additions all likely to cut into his playing time.

With Beltran in as the full-time DH, McCann set to be the primary catcher, and Reddick out in the outfield, Gattis' path to an everyday job is crowded. On the other hand, that versatility could be Gattis' saving grace, as he can fill in against tougher lefties for Reddick, while still catching a few times a week and giving Beltran a day off at DH from time to time. As a DH-only player, which he was at this time last year, it was hard to justify a big role for Gattis. In 2017, however, even concerns about playing time shouldn't be enough to drop him much more than fifth at the catcher position.

Was 2016 the fluke for Dallas Keuchel, or was it 2015?

The sabermetrics era has taught baseball fans to understand that ERA can fluctuate wildly from year to year without much of a change in a pitchers' skill set. However, Keuchel's regression last year, from a 2.48 ERA in 2015 to his 4.55 mark in 2016 wasn't just random. Keuchel's walk rate jumped and his strikeout rate fell, which led to an increase in his rate stats across the board, most notably a 1.1 HR/9 number.

The peripherals tell a similar story, albeit a less extreme one. Keuchel's FIP jumped from 2.91 in 2015 to 3.87 in 2016, consistent with a diminished skill set. Keuchel's "true" talent level is likely to wind up somewhere between his out-of-this-world 2015 and his "barely-worth-rostering" 2016.

We've seen his floor and his ceiling, now let's find out where Keuchel actually lives.

What do the Astros have in Yulieski Gurriel?

Gurriel's numbers in Cuba were like something out of a video game or a work of great fiction. He was like Jon Dowd from MVP Baseball 2005, or Roy Hobbs in The Natural. In his last full season, Gurriel hit .500, with a 1.462 OPS, including 15 home runs and 38 walks to just three strikeouts.

Even given his advanced age and diminished level of competition, these were eye-opening numbers that seemed to portend stardom for the Astros' big signee. But things didn't quite go as planned. He had just a .691 OPS in 61 minor-league plate appearances, before he hit .262/.292/.385 with three home runs in 36 games at the big-league level. Normally, we wouldn't draw too many conclusions from such a small sample size, but we're talking about a 32-year-old here, so if he's going to hit, it needs to happen pretty soon.

Gurriel will be worth drafting this season, but he's by no means the sure thing his (perhaps too-good-to-be-true) numbers overseas might have indicated. The first base job should be his, but with Marwin Gonzalez, Tyler White and A.J. Reed hanging out on the depth chart, the Astros may not have much patience for another subpar season.