Say hello to the American League's best team: The young, powerful and fun Astros may make our 2017 World Series prediction look one year too late.
This week, SI.com is previewing all 30 MLB teams for the 2016 season, counting down to the No. 1 team in the league. At No. 2: the Houston Astros.
2015 Record and Finish:
86–76 (.531), second place in American League West, second place in AL wild card (10th overall); lost AL Division Series to Royals
2016 Projected Record and Finish:
96–66 (.592), first place in AL West
The Case For
Your 2017 World Series Champs? For a while last season, it seemed as if our cover prediction from June of 2014—scorned by many—might prove two years too conservative. After six straight losing seasons, the rebuilt and reestablished Astros ranked sixth in runs scored (729) and sixth in runs allowed (618) for a run differential of +111 (the majors’ third best), suggesting that they were in fact unlucky to win only 86 games and the second wild card spot. Houston's Pythagorean record was 93–69, which would have tied them for the AL’s second-best finish were the game played by Pythagoras. In any event, the Astros topped the Yankees in the wild-card game and made it to the ALDS, taking a 2–1 series lead on the eventual champion Royals before falling in five games.
Houston had such a season despite receiving only part-time work from two of its three best regulars. Jose Altuve played 154 games and received MVP votes for the second straight year after batting .313 with 15 homers, 66 RBIs and 38 steals. George Springer, though, suffered a broken wrist in July and played in only 102 games, hitting .276 with 16 homers, 41 RBIs and 16 steals. Carlos Correa, the 21-year-old shortstop and former No. 1 draft pick, played in only 99, as he didn’t debut until June 8. The precocious Rookie of the Year hit .279 with 22 homers, 68 RBIs and 14 steals and immediately became the club’s unquestioned leader—their Derek Jeter in Yeezys and a fedora.
Had both Correa and Springer played a full season’s worth of games, their Wins Above Replacement project to over 6.0 apiece, a figure topped by just 15 regulars in 2015. Full seasons and another year of maturity should allow them to surpass that mark for real, and to lead an Astros team that remains a legitimate threat for a ring—still a year early, according to some.
The Case Against
Lance McCullers—picked 41st in the same 2012 draft that produced Correa—was also a revelation as a rookie in 2015, pitching to a 3.22 ERA over 125 2/3 innings and striking out seven hard-to-whiff Royals in 6 1/3 innings in Game 4 of the ALDS. He was armed with a mid-90s fastball and a hard curve against which batters hit .148—one that helped him maintain a strikeout-to-walk ratio of 3:1. But McCullers’s efforts meant a 56.7% jump in total innings pitched from the year before despite the Astros’ attempts to limit his use. That makes him a prime candidate to suffer from the Year-After Effect—my colleague Tom Verducci's attempt to identify young hurlers with a heightened injury risk due to significantly increased work.
Well, McCullers already has a sore shoulder, and the Astros have announced that he will miss the start of the regular season. That’s a concern for an Astros rotation that already resembles a kiddie pool: shallow and lacking heat. In fact, not one of the five men who will now comprise the early rotation—returnees Dallas Keuchel, Collin McHugh, Mike Fiers and Scott Feldman and bargain free agent Doug Fister—averages even 91 mph with his fastball. Of course, a paucity of pace hardly affected Keuchel, last year’s Cy Young winner, and the rest have experienced significant stretches of success in recent seasons. But if there’s one thing that could hold back the Astros’ ascent, a soft-tossing rotation that is now stretched thin could be it.
X-Factor: Tyler White, 1B
Who? The unfamiliar White could quite possibly be the Astros’ Opening Day first baseman. With last year’s starter, Chris Carter, non-tendered after batting .196, the competition for the job this spring was supposed to be between Jon Singleton—the 24-year-old, four-time veteran of Baseball America’s Top 100 list—and A.J. Reed, whose 34 bombs made him minor league baseball’s home run king last year and who is currently BA’s 11th-ranked prospect. But Singleton’s traditional struggles at the major league level have continued this spring, as he started off with three hits in his first 27 at-bats. Now, says a rival scout, “I think it’s closer between Reed and White.”
While Reed was the first pick of the second round in 2014, White wasn't taken until the 33rd round the year before, out of Western Carolina. But he’s hit at every level, including a .362 average with a 1.026 OPS in 56 games at Triple A Fresno last season. As he is a righthanded-hitting first baseman with doubles power, scouts struggle to come up with a comp for the 5’11”, 225-pound White. “Billy Butler, but less thump,” says one, before he is reminded that Butler has averaged only 12 home runs the past two years. “Billy Butler, then?” White might not have the pedigree of the Astros’ other first base prospects, but after hitting .370 through his first 10 spring games, he might get the job that was supposed to be theirs.
Number To Know: 7.1
That is the difference in miles per hour between the average fastballs of Houston's top two closer candidates, Ken Giles (96.5) and Luke Gregerson (89.4). While the job will likely belong to the 25-year-old Giles (given the five-player cost the Astros paid to acquire him from the Phillies this winter), Gregerson’s deceptive repertoire is also very effective, as he had 31 saves in 37 opportunities last season. If he doesn't stick as the closer, he would then return to his old setup role as part of a bullpen that was sixth overall in ERA (3.27) and is now even deeper and more versatile. “It’s a strong bullpen, a strike-throwing bullpen,” the scout says. “Got some power, got some funk.”
Most Overrated: Colby Rasmus, OF
“I know he hit 25 bombs last year and was great in the playoffs. But he’s still high strikeout, low walk and can be pitched to. Yeah, 25 homers and 23 doubles, but only 61 RBIs. Does a lot of his damage with the bases empty. I just think he’s never really fulfilled his potential. It’s almost like he’s always been stuck in between being a power guy and a pure hitter. He’ll probably get a few more days off this year, could be headed to a platoon role against righties, which is probably what he’s best suited for.”
Most Underrated: Luis Valbuena, IF
“Altuve, obviously, has gotten some publicity, so he’s not really underrated much anymore. Valbuena provides that lefthanded power threat, mixes well into that lineup. Kind of a guy that once you finagle your way through Altuve, Springer, Correa, [Evan] Gattis, all of a sudden you got Valbuena, and he damages you. He’s the kind of guy you sleep on and then he parks one. He doesn’t have the profile or salary of Rasmus, but I prefer him.”