Houston Astros 2017 season preview: Making the jump to World Series contender

What should have been a coming out party in 2016 was instead a solid yet disappointing season. In 2015, the Houston Astros won 86 games and qualified for the postseason for the first time since 2005. They beat the New York Yankees in Yankee Stadium in the AL Wild Card Game before pushing the eventual World Series champion Kansas City Royals to five games in the ALDS. It was a tremendous season.

Last year, rather than take another step forward, the Astros won two fewer games than they did in 2015, and they missed the postseason by five games. They went 5-14 (5-14!) against the AL West winning Texas Rangers . By no means was it a bad season. It just wasn’t the season the ‘Stros expected. They tanked pretty hard from 2011-13 to build a young core, and 2015 was supposed to be the start of a period of sustained contention.

The good news is despite that slight step back last season, the Astros still boast an impressive collection of young talent. Jose Altuve was a legitimate MVP candidate in 2016 and it feels like only a matter of time until Carlos Correa wins an MVP himself. George Springer and Alex Bregman are cornerstone type players as well. Those four are, without a doubt in my mind, a championship-caliber core.

This past offseason general manager Jeff Luhnow sought to supplement that young core with high-quality veterans. He signed Josh Reddick and Carlos Beltran as free agents, and dipped into his prospect depth to acquire Brian McCann from the Yankees. They’re not just good players, they’re quality people as well. Beltran and McCann in particular have reputations for being strong clubhouse leaders. That can only help the kids.

Those moves combined with the club’s incumbent players not only put the Astros in position to contend this year, they’re on the short list of the best teams in baseball (on paper!) and a legitimate World Series threat. Let’s dive deep with a look at the 2017 Astros.

The vitals

The Astros have arguably the deepest lineup in baseball.

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Carlos Beltran is back with the Astros as he tries to win that elusive World Series ring. USATSI

Last year the Astros averaged 4.47 runs per game, a tick below the 4.52 AL average. And that was with Altuve having an MVP caliber season. Following the busy offseason, the stat gurus at FanGraphs project the Astros to average 4.96 runs per game in 2017, the most in baseball. Better than the Boston Red Sox (4.91),the  Colorado Rockies (4.88), the  Chicago Cubs (4.72), everyone.

The boost in offense is expected to come from the additions of Beltran and McCann (and Reddick), as well asfull seasons of Bregman and Yulieski Gurriel . Here is manager A.J. Hinch’s probable starting lineup:

  1. CF George Springer
  2. 2B Jose Altuve
  3. SS Carlos Correa
  4. DH Carlos Beltran
  5. C Brian McCann
  6. 3B Alex Bregman
  7. RF Josh Reddick
  8. 1B Yulieski Gurriel
  9. LF Norichika Aoki

Catcher Evan Gattis , utility infielder Marwin Gonzalez , and outfielder Jake Marisnick are essentially locked into bench spots. The fourth and final bench spot could go to one of a number of players, such as outfielders Preston Tucker or Teoscar Hernandez , or the versatile Tony Kemp . Otherwise things are pretty well set.

That lineup is awfully deep and intimidating. There’s left-right balance, contact hitters and power hitters, and speed as well. On some days I’m sure we’ll see Gattis, who smashed 32 home runs a year ago, at DH with Beltran in the outfield. It’s a deep lineup and it’s a versatile lineup. Bregman wouldn’t look out of place batting second. Aoki is a quality leadoff man should Hinch go in that direction.

You don’t need to buy into the FanGraphs projections to see the Astros have a pretty strong lineup. Last year’s talent base has been supplemented with productive veterans, veterans who could help the young players take their games to another level with their leadership skills. Simply put, Luhnow has built one of the best collections of position players in all of baseball.  

(Keep in mind Minute Maid Park has always been a good place to hit, and it’ll be an even more offense-friendly park going forward now that Tal’s Hill has been removed. The new center field fence is located where the foot of the hill used to be. There will inevitably be a few more home runs hit to dead center field in Houston this year.)

Don’t sleep on the team defense either.

Beltran is no longer the defender he was in his prime, but as long as he’s suited up as DH, it’s not a problem. The additions of Reddick and especially McCann -- McCann is a massive defensive upgrade over Gattis behind the plate -- further improve a team defense that was strong to start with already.

In fact, among the projected starters, only Aoki and Gurriel project to be worse than average defensively. (Gurriel has been primarily a shortstop and third baseman, and he’s still in the process of learning first.) Last year the Astros had the third worst defensive efficiency in baseball -- they converted only 69.8 percent of all balls in play into outs -- though the additions of Reddick and McCann, as well as a full season of Bregman will help them tremendously.

Chances are Houston will not be the best defensive team in baseball in 2017, or even close to it. They should be much improved from last year, however. Going from a near bottom of the league defensive efficiency to middle of the pack will net the team a few extra wins throughout the summer.

The Astros might also have the deepest bullpen in baseball.

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Year two in Houston should go much more smoothly for Ken Giles. USATSI

Which team posted the highest collective bullpen WAR in baseball last season? Probably the Yankees, right, with Dellin Betances and half-seasons from Andrew Miller and Aroldis Chapman ? Or the Royals given their championship winning relief unit? The Cubs? Los Angeles Dodgers ? Nope. Nope, nope, and another nope. It was the Astros. By a lot too. Your 2016 WAR leaderboard for bullpens:

  1. Astros - 7.9 WAR
  2. New York Mets - 6.6 WAR
  3. Dodgers - 6.5 WAR
  4. Yankees - 6.5 WAR
  5. Baltimore Orioles - 5.5 WAR

Of course, relievers and bullpens in general are notoriously volatile, so success in 2016 hardly guarantees success in 2017. The ‘Stros have set themselves up to have a strong bullpen again this year by accumulating hard-throwers who miss bats. Only the Yankees had a higher bullpen strikeout rate than Houston last year, and when you don’t let the other team put the ball in play, there’s less potential variance in performance.

Luhnow did trade veteran setup man Pat Neshek over the winter -- it appeared to be a cost-cutting move to help facilitate some of the veteran pickups -- otherwise the club’s 2017 bullpen figures to look a lot like their 2016 bullpen. Here is Hinch’s projected relief crew:

  • Closer: RHP Ken Giles
  • Setup: RHP Luke Gregerson , RHP Will Harris
  • Middle: LHP Tony Sipp , RHP Chris Devenski , RHP Michael Feliz

The seventh and final spot is wide open with no shortage of long man candidates. Righty Brad Peacock seems to be the early favorite, but we shouldn’t rule out guys like Joe Musgrove , David Paulino , and Brady Rodgers . Odds are all of those fellows will get a chance at some point this season. That’s usually how it goes.

Giles got off to a very rocky start last season, though he finished well and will take over as the full-time closer this summer. His second season with the Astros should go much smoother than the first. Last year was one giant adjustment period after coming over the Philadelphia Phillies . New team, new teammates, new coaches, new league, new coaches, the whole nine.

Devenski was one of the best kept secrets in baseball last season, throwing 108 1/3 innings with a 2.16 ERA (184 ERA+). Sabermetric measures loved him too (2.34 FIP). Devenski became Hinch’s go-to middle innings man last summer, often throwing two or three innings at a time to bridge the gap between the starter and the late-inning relievers. I’m not convinced Devenski is actually this good, though given the fact he is Hinch’s fourth best option, he doesn’t need to be.

Point is, the personnel is in place to again have a very strong bullpen in 2017, and Hinch’s willingness to think outside the box helps too. He’s not against using, say, Harris to put out a fire in the sixth inning rather than holding him back for the eighth because it’s “his inning.” You’re in trouble if you let Houston take a lead into the sixth inning. No doubt.

Do they have enough starting pitching?

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A shoulder injury cut short Dallas Keuchel’s season a year ago. USATSI

This is the biggest question facing the Astros this year. Among the six pitchers to make at least 10 starts for the club last season, only one had a better than average ERA, and it was not 2015 AL Cy Young award winner Dallas Keuchel . He had a 4.55 ERA (87 ERA+) in 155 innings before shoulder inflammation ended his season in late August. Lance McCullers , who had a 3.22 ERA (123 ERA+) in 81 innings around shoulder and elbow problems, was their only above-average starter.

Luhnow didn’t do much to address this in the offseason either. The Astros signed Charlie Morton , who made only four starts last season before suffering a season-ending hamstring injury, and that’s about it. They’re returning largely the same group. Here is the projected rotation:

  1. LHP Dallas Keuchel
  2. RHP Collin McHugh
  3. RHP Lance McCullers Jr.
  4. RHP Mike Fiers
  5. RHP Charlie Morton

Peacock, Musgrove, Rodgers, and Paulino are all potential rotation options as well. No team makes it through the season with only five starters these days. Chances are the Astros will need more than one of those players to make starts at some point. Pitching depth is an absolute necessity.

Right now, every single one of the club’s five projected starters is a question mark. Keuchel (shoulder), McCullers (shoulder, elbow), and Morton (hamstring) are all coming back from injuries. McHugh was far more hittable and home run prone in 2016 than he had been at any point in the past. Fiers was even more homer prone and hittable than McHugh.

Either by coincidence or design, the Astros have one starter (McCullers) who can legitimately overpower hitters. McCullers has a big mid-90s fastball and a hard mid-80s curveball that doesn’t seem humanly possible.

Four of the five projected starters will allow the hitter to put the ball in play and rely on their defense to make the plays behind them. That’s not automatically a bad thing. Keuchel won the Cy Young two years ago by getting hitters to beat the ball into the ground -- his 61.7 percent ground ball rate in 2015 ranks 21st among the 1,281 individual seasons by qualified starting pitchers since batted ball data started being recorded in 2002.

Relying on the defense just means the pitcher doesn’t have as much margin for error. A well-placed grounder or a bad hop can equal a baserunner instead of an out. And, frankly, a ground ball doesn’t do you much good when there’s a runner on third with less than two outs. McCullers can overpower hitters and escape jams that way. The other guys -- and this extends to Musgrove, Rodgers, and Peacock too -- don’t have the luxury.

Given their current staff, it’s no wonder the Astros were connected to pretty much every much top starter available in trades this winter. They were in the mix for Chris Sale and reportedly remain in the hunt for Jose Quintana , though they continue to balk at the Chicago White Sox ’s asking price. I expect Luhnow to continue looking for a high-end starter during the season. You don’t bring in guys like Beltran and McCann only to skimp on the arms, you know?

Either way, trade for a starter or no trade for a starter, the Astros have little chance of being a serious World Series threat without Keuchel returning to his 2014-15 form. He doesn’t have to be a Cy Young winner, but getting another 155 innings with an 87 ERA+ won’t cut it. With any luck, Keuchel will go back to being a dominant workhorse now that he’s been able to rest and get over the shoulder inflammation. 

The offense and bullpen look excellent and the defense is improved. The question is whether the rotation will hold up their end of the bargain. The starting staff looks like the potential Achilles heel.

Will Correa take another step toward superstardom?

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Carlos Correa could be poised for a monster 2017 season. USATSI

A year ago at this time many folks were picking Correa to win the AL MVP award. Instead, he wasn’t even selected for the All-Star Game. Correa hit .274/.361/.451 (123 OPS+) with 36 doubles and 20 homers last season, and while that’s obviously excellent, it’s not quite as good as his AL Rookie of the Year winning 2015 effort. You can’t help but look at Correa and think he’s capable of so much more.

It should be noted Correa played 153 of 162 games last year despite rolling his ankle in June and spraining his left (front when hitting) shoulder in September. He didn’t go on the disabled list and instead played through the injuries. That’s admirable! But the injuries very well may have sapped his production. Check it out:

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Carlos Correa’s offensive output in 2016. FanGraphs/CBS Sports

Weighted runs created plus, or wRC+, is basically OPS+ on steroids. It adjusts for ballpark, pitcher handedness, the fact two singles really aren’t the same thing as one double, so on and so forth. A 100 wRC+ is league average. The bigger the number, the more above-average the player was offensively. The smaller the number, the more below-average he was. Got it? Good.

Anyway, as you can see in the graph, Correa rolled his ankle in June, and after having a few big games once he returned to the lineup, his performance petered out a bit. Then, when he hurt his shoulder in September, his production slipped big time. That’s not surprising. The front shoulder is the power shoulder. When that is compromised, it can often sap a player’s production for a period of time.

There’s reason to believe a healthy Correa in 2017 can be more productive than he was in 2016. Add in natural development -- Correa turned only 22 in September, remember -- and he could far more productive this summer than he was a year ago. Correa is the Astros version of Buster Posey . Their Derek Jeter. He’s the franchise player at a crucial position who is expected to anchor the middle of the lineup. Correa was really good in 2016, but he’s capable of more, and that should scare the opposition.

SportsLine projection: 85-77 (first place in the AL West)

CBS Sports Writer

Mike Axisa joined CBS Sports in 2013. He has been a member of the BBWAA since 2015 and has previously written about both fantasy baseball and real life baseball for MLBTradeRumors.com, FanGraphs.com, RotoAuthority.com,... Full Bio

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