The Houston Astros last season barged to 101 wins and the belt and the title. Making it all the sweeter is that they won Game 7s in the ALCS and the World Series en route to the championship. The mission now is to become the first repeat champ since the 1999-2000 Yankees. With a roster that returns almost all of its key components, the Astros are well positioned to do just that. 

Now let's take a closer look at your 2018 Houston Astros ... 

The vitals

  • 2017 record: 101-61, first place in AL West (plus-196 run differential)
  • 2018 Depth Chart: Click here
  • 2018 Schedule: Click here
  • 2018 Fantasy outlook: Click here

Probable lineup

  1. George Springer, CF
  2. Alex Bregman, 3B
  3. Jose Altuve, 2B
  4. Carlos Correa, SS
  5. Josh Reddick, RF
  6. Marwin Gonzalez, 1B
  7. Brian McCann, C
  8. Evan Gattis, DH
  9. Derek Fisher, LF

Probable bench: J.D. Davis, INF; Jake Marisnick, OF; Max Stassi, C; Tyler White, INF

Yuli Gurriel is the starting first baseman, but he's sidelined after undergoing surgery on his left wrist. He's expected to return from the DL by the middle of April, but at that point he must serve a five-game suspension for the inappropriate gesture he made during the World Series. When he returns, he'll likely take the roster spot of Davis (or whoever cracks the 25-man to start the season in place of Davis) and push Gonzalez to left field. 

Probable rotation

  1. Justin Verlander, RHP
  2. Dallas Keuchel, LHP
  3. Gerrit Cole, RHP
  4. Charlie Morton, RHP
  5. Lance McCullers, RHP

Probable bullpen

Closer: Ken Giles, RHP
Setup: Chris Devenski, RHP; Joe Smith, RHP
Middle relief: Joe Smith, RHP; Will Harris, RHP; Hector Rondon, RHP; Tony Sipp, LHP
Long relief: Brad Peacock, RHP; Collin McHugh, RHP

Could they be even better?

Let's repeat: The Astros won 101 games a season ago, prevailed in the AL West by 21 games over the Angels, and won the World Series. In other words, the 2017 Astros were a truly great team by any standard. The 2018 model, however, has a chance to be even better. Consider ... 

  • They'll get a full season of Justin Verlander in the rotation (he was acquired at the end of the August waiver period last year). 
  • They've traded for Gerrit Cole, who has front-of-the-rotation potential. 
  • That additional rotation depth will allow Collin McHugh and Brad Peacock to fortify the bullpen.
  • Presumably Carlos Correa won't again miss almost two full months because of injury. 
  • Correa and third baseman Alex Bregman will be in their age-23 and age-24 seasons, respectively. That means they'll be closer to what should be their prime seasons and as such could see a performance spike in 2018. 

For those reasons, yeah, imagine a Houston team that rings up, say, 105 wins and repeats as champs. Such an outcome is squarely within the range of possibilities. 

Carlos Correa, 2018 AL MVP?

Last season, Correa ranked an impressive ninth in the AL in WAR despite being limited to 109 games played for reasons noted above. As also noted above, he's another year closer to what should be his prime. He's already a solid defensive shortstop who hits like an All-Star first baseman. 

Something else is his corner is that his performance spike in 2017 appears to be sustainable. He came into last season with a career batting line of .276/.354/.475. That's excellent production for a young player who mans a premium defensive position, but then he went out and batted .315/.391/.550 in 2017. That's a big jump, but it's supported by a fairly strong walk rate (Correa last season drew an unintentional walk roughly every 10 plate appearances), a decline in his strikeouts as a percentage of plate appearances, and much strong raw power indicators. 

To probe a bit more deeply into this matter, we'll turn to an advanced metric called expected weighted on-base average (xwOBA). xwOBA grows out of wOBA, which assigns proper value to every possible offensive event that happens while a batter is at the plate. Those proper valuations of singles, doubles, homers, walks, etc., distinguish wOBA from more traditional measures like AVG, OBP, and SLG. Also, for simplicity wOBA is scaled to look like OBP, which means that, say, .400 is elite and .290 is pretty poor. For instance, Babe Ruth is the all-time leader with a patently absurd wOBA of .513.

All of that brings us back to xwOBA, which is an estimation of what a hitter's wOBA should be based on things like exit velocity off the bat and launch angle. xwOBA attempts to strip away luck -- bad or good -- and defensive play from wOBA and identify a hitter's baseline skill. It's useful for getting an idea of how a hitter figures to perform in the near-term future. Basically, if a hitter's xwOBA is significantly lower than his wOBA, he's probably going to come back to earth at some point. There's some evidence that slower players tend to underperform relative to their xwOBA and faster players tend to overperform, but even so xwOBA has utility. On the other side of things, if a hitter's xwOBA is quite a bit higher than his wOBA, then better days are likely ahead. Here's more on wOBA, and here's more on xwOBA

As for Correa in 2017, Baseball Savant gives him a 2017 wOBA of .404. His xwOBA, meantime, checks in at .393. That's a slight drop, but that's still in MVP territory for a shortstop. Throw in the potential for skills growth, and running a .400-plus wOBA over a full season is very much in play for the former No. 1 overall pick. 

On the team front, let's not forget that Mr. Altuve is the reigning AL MVP. Throw in Springer and his 30-homer power from an up-the-middle position and Bregman's MVP-caliber upside, and you've potentially got four Astros in the top 10 of the balloting in 2018. 

The DH question

Houston last season didn't get good production from the DH slot. Carlos Beltran, now retired, contributed to that particular shortcoming, as did Evan Gattis. Gattis has solid numbers overall but struggled while in the DH spot. That's in keeping with the rest of his career. Over his career, Gattis' OPS as a catcher (a sample of 943 plate appearances) is 150 points higher than his OPS as a DH (a sample of 981 plate appearances). There may be something to that, as the DH penalty is a real thing. Perhaps Gattis is for some reason especially prone to it. 

Look, Gattis is absolutely a worth presence on the roster, thanks to his power and ability to man catcher on a part-time basis. However, the Astros should perhaps find a lefty bat to pair with Gattis at DH. 

So, yeah, this is what passes for a problem in Houston these days, at least insofar as baseball is concerned. 

Hey, this isn't difficult. The Astros upgraded a championship roster. They'll win the AL West over the improved Angels by a wide margin, they'll threaten or surpass 100 wins, and they'll be playing in October with a chance to defend the title. The Astros' moment is now.