Those who picked the Houston Astros as a sleeper contender last season ended up looking pretty smart. All of that young talent accumulated by general manager Jeff Luhnow began to develop into major league-ready players and the organization’s plan came together.
After running out to a rather large division lead, the competition in the AL West caught up by the end of the season. Perhaps struggling with success and dealing with some injuries, the Astros eventually lost the division to the Rangers but still qualified for their first postseason in 10 years. Going from 51 victories to 86 wins over the span of two seasons was a huge jump for Houston and the payoff for some miserable seasons, waiting for those prospects to develop. But the Astros are now a contender and will try to build off last season’s breakout success.
Depth Chart (As of 3/3)
C: Jason Castro
1B: Jon Singleton
2B: Jose Altuve
3B: Luis Valbuena
SS: Carlos Correa
LF: Colby Rasmus
CF: Carlos Gomez
RF: George Springer
DH: Evan Gattis
SP: Dallas Keuchel
SP: Collin McHugh
SP: Lance McCullers
SP: Mike Fiers
SP: Doug Fister
CL: Ken Giles
New Faces: Doug Fister, Ken Giles, Neal Cotts, Wandy Rodriguez
Departures: Chris Carter, Jed Lowrie, Jonathan Villar, Hank Conger, Scott Kazmir, Chad Qualls, Vincent Velasquez, Brett Oberholtzer, Oliver Perez, Joe Thatcher, Mark Appel, Robbie Grossman
Position Battles: First base will be the position to watch in Kissimmee this spring, and it may be the last chance for highly regarded prospect Jon Singleton to win a starting job with the Astros. Acquired in 2011 as part of the trade that sent Hunter Pence to the Phillies, Singleton has hit well, gotten on base and shown power in the minor leagues, but that production has yet to be demonstrated in the majors. Last season, he hit only .191 with a .625 OPS and one home run in 58 plate appearances. Yet he posted a .359 on-base percentage and .865 OPS with 22 homers at Triple-A Fresno.
Houston’s logjam at first base and designated hitter has cleared up a bit with Chris Carter being non-tendered. Singleton is still only 24 years old and under contract for $8.75 million through 2019, but he now faces serious competition for a starting position. Matt Duffy hit .294 with an .850 OPS and 20 homers last year at Triple-A. Splitting time between advanced Single-A and Double-A, A.J. Reed compiled a .344 average, 1.044 OPS and 34 homers and is Baseball America‘s top-rated first base prospect. He also bats left-handed, which trumps an advantage Singleton may have had. Tyler White could also be in the mix, hitting .325 with a .939 OPS, 25 doubles, and 14 homers between Double- and Triple-A last season.
Though it likely won’t cost anyone a roster spot, there will also be something of a battle for the fifth spot in the Houston rotation. More specifically, there are two spots available and three pitchers vying for them. Mike Fiers and Doug Fister are likely to win those spots, which leaves Scott Feldman to pitch in the bullpen. But both Fister and Feldman struggled with injuries last year, limiting each to throwing just over 100 innings. So it’s possible that the plan might be to take it slow with both of them, especially early in the season, before making a decision as to who’s best suited for the rotation and who can succeed in a long relief/spot-starter role.
Injury Concerns: As mentioned, Fister and Feldman both fought injuries last year, which may affect how each is used early in the season. Fister dealt with a forearm issue (flexor tendon strain) that limited him to 25 appearances (15 starts) with the Nationals, while Feldman battled knee and shoulder injuries that restricted him to 18 starts. Both pitchers have proven to be durable in past seasons — Fister has twice thrown 200 innings — but Feldman is 33 and Fister is 32, which may mean that neither can bounce back from injury as when they were younger.
Evan Gattis won’t be ready for opening day after sports hernia surgery, and his plate appearances will likely be monitored early in the season. The Astros have depth with Preston Tucker and possibly whomever loses the first base position battle, so Gattis won’t have to be rushed. But that’s the sort of injury which has lingered with players like Miguel Cabrera throughout the season, if enough recovery time isn’t taken or the area is injured again.
Luke Gregerson suffered a minor oblique strain early in spring training, but the reliever is still expected to be ready for opening day. Houston’s deep relief corps should help Gregerson take his time with recovery, and the hope is that he doesn’t push himself too hard in an attempt to beat out Ken Giles for the closer job.
Carlos Gomez dealt with injuries to hamstring, hip, leg and back throughout last season, which could be a concern. But he appears to be fully recovered from the intercostal strain that restricted him in September and October, and the Astros have enough outfielders to make sure Gomez gets rest when needed. That may also apply to George Springer, who was playing like Houston’s MVP before a wrist injury sidelined him in July.
Key Player: Springer could be the Astros’ most important everyday player, while reigning AL Cy Young Award winner Dallas Keuchel is obviously the team’s best pitcher. But the difference between Houston being a good club and a great one, and beating out the Rangers for an AL West title versus competing for a wild card bid will be a healthy Gomez. The Astros didn’t the production and center field upgrade they were looking for after acquiring Gomez from the Brewers.
In 163 plate appearances, he batted .242 with a .670 OPS and four home runs. Overall last season, Gomez hit .255 with a .724 OPS and 12 homers. That’s a significant dropoff in production from 2014, when the center field compiled a .284 average, .833 OPS, 34 doubles, 23 homers and 34 stolen bases. Maybe the days of Gomez stealing 30-plus bases are over, but if he can hit .280 with an OPS over .800 with at least 20 homers, the Astros could use that run production at a position that collectively provided a .229 average, .670 OPS and 16 home runs last year.
Underrated Asset: If Gomez stays healthy and produces, we might not see a whole lot from Jake Marisnick this season. But he’s a valuable piece for the Astros to have on their roster. While he only batted .236/.281/.383 last year, Marisnick played well in center field, credited with five Defensive Runs Saved and saving nearly three runs more than an average defender at his position. He could also be a late-inning defensive replacement for Gomez, allowing the Astros to keep him fresher, while keeping Springer and Colby Rasmus in corner outfield spots. Additionally, Houston could also use the DH as a rotating spot to give players a rest from the field throughout the season, especially while Gattis recovers from his sports hernia.
Burning Question: Can Luis Valbuena repeat his power production in 2016?
Valbuena seemed like a possible placeholder at third base until Matt Dominguez or Colin Moran was ready to take over the position. Yet he hardly played like a veteran ready to turn over his job to a developing prospect last season. Valbuena showed some surprising power in 2014, slugging 16 home runs for the Cubs. But he really brought the thunder last year for the Astros, blasting 25 home runs.
Batting only .224, Valbuena was kind of an all-or-nothing hitter in a lineup full of free-swinging sluggers. But after hitting .199 in the first half of the season, he batted .270 after the All-Star break and pushed that overall batting average above .200 while apparently working on making more contact instead of cranking the ball out of the park. The Astros would surely prefer putting the ball in play some more while maintaining that power, which would also help Valbuena’s value heading into free agency. But if he falters, Matt Duffy could fill in at third base or perhaps Moran might make the jump to the majors.
Best Case Scenario: The Astros don’t take a step back after improving from 70 wins to 86 last season. Correa suffers no sophomore slump and takes his place among the best players in the game, claiming the AL’s All-Star starting shortstop gig for years to come. Springer performs as the impact player he was before injuring his wrist. Lance McCullers improves and gives Houston a strong top three in the rotation, joining Keuchel and Collin McHugh. And Giles pitches as the lockdown closer Gregerson wasn’t on too many nights last season.
Sometimes, young teams don’t handle success that well, especially the next season. But losing the AL West to the Rangers and having to settle for a wild card spot should provide manager A.J. Hinch with the motivation he needs to keep his club, with developing players that still have upside, hungry throughout the season.
Worst Case Scenario: Though plenty of teams in MLB likely saw Houston’s success coming with the developing young talent they had, the Astros won’t catch anyone by surprise in 2016. Opposing pitching staffs now know that Houston’s lineup is full of free-swingers and will attack accordingly. If those hitters don’t adjust, that could result in some frustrating results. What if Correa doesn’t improve on his AL Rookie of the Year season and either stagnates or takes a step back in his progression? Keuchel and McHugh both shouldered heavy workloads last year, but if that affects their durability at all, the starting rotation will have issues. And if none of the first base hopefuls pan out, that could be a hole in the lineup throughout the season.
Realistic Prediction: Houston finished two games behind the Rangers in the AL West, which was kind of a disappointing finish after leading the division for much of the season. Texas doesn’t figure to start off the season as badly as last year, so the Astros likely can’t afford to go into any prolonged slumps, especially in September. But all of the core talent that fueled last year’s wild-card run is still in place and should get even better. And last year’s trade deadline acquisitions will provide more of a benefit throughout a full season (which might be why Houston wasn’t extremely active during the offseason).
At the very least, another wild card bid is there for the taking. But a division title is the clear next step for a team that could be the best in the American League.