2017 MLB Preview: AL West- Houston Astros

2016 Record: 84-78 (3rd Place)

Manager: A.J. HinchScreen Shot 2017-03-27 at 4.03.58 PM

The Houston Astros didn’t quite meet expectations last season, finishing third in the competitive AL West and missing out on the playoffs. They dug themselves into a hole at early on, going 7-17 in the month of April to start off the season.

The Astros had a busy offseason, bringing in free agent outfielders Josh Reddick and Carlos Beltran. After two subpar seasons, Beltran rejuvenated his career last season, finishing the year with a .295 average and 29 home runs. There’s no reason to believe that the 39-year-old will slow down, slotted to spend most of his time as a DH thus keeping him out of harms way in the outfield. Reddick would earn himself a generous contract after hitting a career-high .281 last season, although his home run total dropped to just 10 after spending much of the first half on the disabled list. Reddick could be a candidate to hit 30 HR in a lineup filled with plenty of protection, something he has not done since 2012.

Seven-time All Star Brian McCann also joins their lineup, acquired from the Yankees early on in the offseason to be their everyday catcher. The 33-year-old McCann’s numbers have fallen off in previous seasons, particularly his batting average, hitting just .242 last season. Yet McCann has consistently put up high power numbers for a catcher, hitting at least 20 home runs in nine-straight seasons.  McCann also provides a huge upgrade defensively from Evan Gattis, who finds himself without a spot in the everyday lineup despite leading the team with 32 home runs last season. Gattis will get plenty of at bats regardless, starting a few games a week at catcher and filling in at DH when Beltran plays in the outfield.

There may not be a better example of a five-tool player than Jose Altuve, who won the AL batting title last season after posting a .338 average. He also shocked the baseball world with 24 home runs, something nobody expected out of the young second baseman standing at just 5’6. Carlos Correa completes their star-studded middle infield, due for a breakout year as he enters his third season in the big leagues. Correa hit for a respectable .274 with 20 home runs last season at just 21 years of age, a stat line bound to increase as he matures.

Alex Bregman will be the everyday third baseman next to Correa, who hit .264 with 8 HR and 34 RBI’s in 49 games after being called up in late-July last season. Like Correa, the Astros hope that Bregman will begin to establish himself as one of the great young talents the MLB, still just 22 years old. George Springer began to develop into this sort of player last season, hitting a career high 29 home runs in his third MLB season. Also known for his excellent defense, Springer will shift over to center field this season and will almost certainly lead the team in long balls. The newly signed Nori Aoki will take over in left field, who has yet to finish a season under.280 over his five-year career. The 35-year-old Aoki has seen a drop-off in speed however, stealing just seven bases last season as opposed to the 30 SB he put up in 2012.

The 32-year-old slugger Yulieski Gurriel will likely start the season as the team’s first baseman, as the team looks to have given up on former top prospect Jon Singleton. Gurriel didn’t do much in 36 games last season, in the first year of the 5-year deal he signed out of Cuba worth nearly $50 million. With a full year under his belt in America, Gurriel will get an opportunity to showcase his talent on opening day, but could lose at bats to Marwin Gonzalez if he doesn’t meet expectations.

Dallas Keuchel was a huge reason that the Astros didn’t meet expectations last season, going into a post-Cy Young slump last season finishing with a 9-12 record with a 4.55 ERA in 26 starts. He would struggle with fatigue in his shoulder as the season went on, having thrown 232 innings in his previous Cy Young season. Even if manager A.J. Hinch limits his innings, the Astros will need the 29-year-old Keuchel to return to form if they want to compete with powerhouse teams in the American League.

Colin McHugh took a bit of a step back last season, but still managed to post a solid 13-10 record with a 4.34 ERA. McHugh had been solid for the Astros in the previous two seasons, and the Astros hope that the 29-year-old’s 2016 season was simply a hiccup in what could be bright future for the right-hander. He will miss opening day however, as he continues to recover from a dead arm. Lance McCullers Jr.’s 2016 was a setback in his development, starting only 14 games for the club with injuries to his shoulder and elbow. The young righty did manage to go 6-5 with a 3.22 ERA in those starts, who will look to extend this success across a full season as he enters his age-23 season. Charlie Morton is the only new face in the rotation, who started only four games with the Phillies last season after receiving hamstring surgery in May. Morton is your typical back of the rotation starter, with a 4.54 ERA over nearly 900 career innings. Durability has always been an issue for Morton, who has thrown for over 170 innings in a season just once.

Mike Fiers and Joe Musgrove will battle it out for a permanent rotation spot, with Fiers entering camp as the favorite having started 30 games for the team last season. Fiers however wasn’t great in these starts, finishing the year with a 4.48 ERA over 168.2 innings. This was uncharacteristic for the 31-year-old Fiers, as he had never finished a season with an ERA higher than 4.00 in seasons where he started at least 10 games. Joe Musgrove has more upside out of the two at just 24 years old, and could win the job with a strong spring. Acquired as a top prospect in the huge deal that sent J.A. Happ to the Blue Jays in 2012, Musgrove was solid in 10 starts for the team last season going 4-4 with a 4.06 ERA. With McHugh most likely starting the season on the DL, both Fiers and Musgrove are guaranteed spots in the rotation for the time being.

Ken Giles wasn’t nearly as dominant as the Astros had hoped him to be last season, finishing the year with a 4.11 ERA over 65 innings. Giles had a career 1.56 ERA when they acquired him from the Phillies, but struggled to adjust to American League hitting. He will still get the first crack at the closers role, but will likely find himself replaced by Luke Gregerson if his struggles continue.*

Bottom Line: There may not be a team with more promising youth in their lineup than the Houston Astros, a lineup that will only improve after a busy offseason. If their starters at the top of their rotation can bounce back, this team should find themselves right in the thick of the race to win the AL Pennant.

*Stats and Info from Baseball Reference

-Featured Image from Scout.com