The Houston Astros experienced a few setbacks last season, including the unexpected regression in performance from staff ace, and former Cy Young winner, Dallas Keuchel. His up-and-down season mirrored the Astros 2016 campaign overall. Luckily, down years happen to teams on the climb. The young foundation remains primed to win, and this Houston Astros 2017 season preview touches on how Houston will contend again.
Houston Astros 2017 Season Preview
After the season expired, and the Astros missed out on the playoffs, the holes in the roster were apparent. The front office did well in filling them this offseason. Their biggest additions came with the trade for Brian McCann, and the free agent signings of Carlos Beltran and Josh Reddick. These three will bring valuable veteran presences to the young team.
The 2016 Houston outfield featured Colby Rasmus in left, Carlos Gomez in center, and George Springer in right. Rasmus was free to sign with the Tampa Bay Rays after proving to be a disaster at the plate. Gomez did not fare well in Houston, either. His reputation for above-average defense did not carry over from the Milwaukee Brewers, and his offensive contributions flatlined. He was ultimately designated for assignment and released last August.
Springer will be moved to center. Reddick will take over in right, while Nori Aoki roams left. Aoki offers essentially no power, but he slaps his way onto first base far better than Rasmus. In return for a singles hitter, the Astros took an obvious defensive downgrade at a position that doesn’t demand a fantastic glove.
Reddick will bring decent defense to the right corner, while also bringing a better bat than any outfield option the Astros had last year. These additions bolster the outfield’s offensive abilities immensely, with almost the same defensive capabilities.
Evan Gattis and Jason Castro were not the solutions behind the plate. Gattis isn’t the best long-term option at catcher defensively, and Castro hasn’t offered any form of offense since 2013. This is where McCann steps in. He brings strong blocking and game calling skills while offering solid, left-handed power.
A Formidable Lineup
Houston unveiled a lineup featuring power and run production in their surprising 2015 campaign. That same capability resulted in high strikeouts and league-average defense last year. The young core is another year older, with more seasoning and hopefully better plate discipline.
The additions of Beltran, Aoki, Reddick, and McCann add to the variability and diversity of each day’s lineup. The batting order features every type of skill, including speed, power, and average. Here’s how the order will likely look:
(1) George Springer – R
(2) Jose Altuve – R
(3) Carlos Correa – R
(4) Carlos Beltran – S
(5) Brian McCann – L
(6) Alex Bregman – R
(7) Josh Reddick – L
(8) Yulieski Gurriel – R
(9) Nori Aoki – L
With Gattis’ power available off the bench, and a strong mixture of left-right hitters in the bottom two-thirds of the lineup, this may be the deepest order in the league. Beltran and Gattis will certainly be slated to make some starts in the field now and again, leaving either Aoki or McCann as a beautiful bench option while the other DH’s. Though still a lineup that features a high collective strike-out rate, Altuve, Reddick, and Aoki do not do so often and are three great options to spread out and minimize the pain.
Keuchel pitched all of 2016 through nagging injuries, with obvious detriments to his performance. The ace pitched 232 regular season innings in 2015, walking 51 and striking out 216. In 2016, he walked 48 in 64 fewer innings.
Keuchel experienced a decline in velocity last season, lending to his troubles. According to FanGraphs, Keuchel favors the two-seam fastball with a 2015 average velocity of 89.5 MPH, reaching up to 93.2. His 2016 average dropped to 88.6 MPH, with a max of just 91.1. While not significant, it’s enough to mess with release points and control, and affect the setup of secondary pitches. Keuchel eventually let team doctors know of his situation, and was shut down in September. He ended the season with a 4.55 ERA, though his 3.87 Fielding Independent Pitching suggests he didn’t pitch nearly as poorly as it appeared.
Keuchel says he feels much healthier, and his spring numbers are encouraging. Through two starts and seven innings, he’s allowed four hits with three strikeouts and no walks. If he does return to Cy Young form, the Astros will be relieved. The rest of the staff is just as sketchy as Keuchel’s 2016. None of their other starters stoke a comforting thought.
Lance McCullers was sidelined to start 2016 with shoulder problems, and again in the beginning of August with elbow issues. Charlie Morton has never been an impressive pitcher (career -2.8 WAR) and only pitched 17.1 innings for the Philadelphia Phillies last season before hamstring surgery ended his campaign. The rest of the rotation features below-average production in Mike Fiers and Collin McHugh, or a recently graduated prospect in Joe Musgrove, who pitched an encouraging 11 starts last season.
The Astros are still a young team, but they don’t have much to prove. It’s known that they can dominate at the plate. They still have time to take the step forward everyone expected last year. Veteran additions will aid in that, and fill out a roster featuring a few holes last season. They will be competitive again this year and are the team to beat in the AL West. This talented club is projected to win the American League West with a 90 game mark, but the deep batting order and a better showing by starting pitching could yield more.