How the Astros can set up another World Series run with a few more moves this offseason

In many ways, the 2018 Astros were better than the 2017 Astros. Much better, even.

Houston won two more regular-season games last season than it did in '17. By run differential, though, it was significantly more dominant. By scoring a gigantic (and MLB-best) 263 more runs than they allowed, the 2018 Astros produced like a team that, with average luck in close games and the way they clustered big innings together, would be expected to win an amazing 109 games. The 2017 Astros were still excellent, scoring 196 more runs than they allowed...though that run differential netted out to an expected record of 99-63, 10 wins short of 2018 expectations.



Now throw out the numbers and look at personnel, especially on the pitching side.

In 2017, the Astros' most-used starting pitcher was Mike Fiers. That's the same Mike Fiers who flashed an ugly 5.22 ERA that year, serving up 32 home runs in 153 1/3 innings -- that latter number a telltale sign of a pitching staff racked by injuries. In 2018, not one, not two, but three Astros starting pitchers topped 200 innings. Two of them either pitched sparingly for Houston the year before (Justin Verlander, acquired in a last-second waiver trade on Aug. 31) or not at all (Gerrit Cole, snapped up in a trade following the 2017 season). By both strikeout rate and Wins Above Replacement, those two new guys were the two best pitchers in the American League last season.

All fascinating tidbits. But in sports, all most of us care about are wins and losses, especially in the playoffs. The really great 2017 Astros won the World Series. The borderline historically great 2018 Astros didn't make it to the World Series. So now we have to talk about what Houston needs to do to get back to the Fall Classic, and then win it again.

One of the Astros' biggest areas of uncertainty last season was left field. Superutility player Marwin Gonzalez spent time there. So did veteran Josh Reddick, waterbug Tony Kemp, top prospect Kyle Tucker, once-promising prospect Derek Fisher, Jose Cruz, Denny Walling and a couple of lemurs from the Houston Zoo. The collective results were iffy: Astros left fielders ranked just 18th in the majors last season in park-adjusted offense, and 15th in Wins Above Replacement.

With Gonzalez a free agent and Tucker no sure thing to break out and seize the job, Houston went the proven veteran route, inking three-time All-Star Michael Brantley to a two-year, $32 million deal. The Astros were already an excellent contact-hitting team with Gonzalez, Kemp, lemurs et al, posting the second-lowest strikeout rate in the majors in 2018. Brantley whiffed 60 times in 631 plate appearances last season, a 9.5 percent K rate that's microscopically low by today's strikeout-mad standards -- the second-lowest in all of baseball for 2018, in fact. While Brantley lacks the light-tower power often expected of corner outfielders, he's also a perennial threat to hit .300, he whacked 36 doubles last season, and he's a plus base-runner who has tallied double-digit stolen base totals every year he has been even remotely healthy.

Of course there's a reason Brantley came with such a relatively low price tag, and that reason is health. He managed just 101 games across the 2016 and '17 campaigns, succumbing to serious shoulder and ankle injuries. If the Astros as a team were injury-prone or lacked depth, this signing would constitute a major risk. Fortunately they're neither. Kemp is still around to provide playable on-base skills as a backup, as is elite gloveman Jake Marisnick. The acquisition of infielder Aledmys Diaz is a low-cost, power-laden answer for Gonzalez's likely departure. And the concurrent signing of free-agent catcher Robinson Chirinos gives Houston a solid-hitting 1-2 punch with Max Stassi behind the plate, albeit one that's light on defensive credentials. Moreover, Houston's core players -- Jose Altuve, George Springer, Carlos Correa and 2018 breakout monster Alex Bregman are all right in their prime or just starting to enter their prime, ranging in age from 24 to 29.

That leaves starting pitching as the final pressing item on Houston's offseason shopping list. Charlie Morton bolted to Tampa, and the Astros came up short in their quest to land 2018 playoff hero Nathan Eovaldi. Houston might not have the stomach to give over-30 lefty Dallas Keuchel the five- or six-year contract he wants -- but he might get it anyway, given that he's the best starter left on the market. If the Astros can't find what they want in free agency, they could always go the trade route, having made Verlander and Cole two of the best and most impactful pitching acquisitions in franchise history.

The x-factor in all of this is Forrest Whitley. The 21-year right-hander is arguably the best pitching prospect in baseball, a first-round pick two years ago who's 6-feet-7 and 240 pounds with one of the best fastballs on the planet, and the eye-popping minor league strikeout rates to match. We might already be discussing Whitley as an incumbent Astros starter, but for a 50-game suspension last spring for violating minor league baseball's drug policy. He recently snagged an invite to major league spring training, though, and might very well be good enough and polished enough to immediately slide into Houston's rotation as its number-three starter.

With big fish like two-time Cy Young winner Corey Kluber and best-catcher-in-baseball J.T. Realmuto on the block, the Astros could try to pull off another blockbuster trade. If they could do so with someone like Tucker -- and most definitely not Whitley -- as the headline piece, we could be looking at another 100-plus wins in Houston.

And if the Astros can find the rabbit's foot they suddenly lost last season, all those regular-season wins could pave the way for another World Series title.

Jonah on the MLB offseason

NL East
Braves:
 May be offseason's most compelling team
Marlins: Finding where to send Realmuto
Mets: How Mets could jumpstart BVW era
Phillies: Harper or Machado might not be enough
Nationals: What will the Nats do if Harper leaves?

NL Central
Cubs: Keys to a Cubs rebound in 2019
Reds: Can Cincy revamp its pitching staff?
BrewersWhy Milwaukee should dig deeper in its war chest
PiratesHow Buccos can get aggressive
CardinalsSt. Louis can close the NL Central gap

NL West
DiamondbacksHow drastic will the rebuild be?
RockiesColorado needs bats to match pitching staff
DodgersHow L.A. can spend big this winter 
Padres:
 San Diego is the biggest mystery team of the offseason
GiantsTrading MadBum and others makes sense

AL East
OriolesNowhere to go but up for new O's leadership
Red SoxActive offseason could lead to World Series repeat
YankeesMachado fits Yanks' wants and needs
RaysTampa in position for unusually aggressive winter
Blue JaysToronto needs to embrace rebuild

AL Central
White SoxCompelling dark horse in Harper, Machado races
IndiansWhy a Kluber or Bauer blockbuster makes sense
TigersDetroit facing plenty of rebuilding competition
RoyalsRebuild will rely on homegrown talent
Twins: Could be a big surprise team in 2019

CBS Sports Senior Writer

Jonah Keri writes about baseball and numerous other topics for CBS Sports. He also hosts The Jonah Keri Podcast, which you should subscribe to on iTunes. Previously, he served as Lead Baseball Writer for... Full Bio

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