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Winter Report Card: Assessing the Astros' bold yet risky off-season

After missing out on the playoffs last season, Houston spent the winter wheeling and dealing to improve persistent problem spots on its roster, though one big hole remains to be filled.

Before pitchers and catchers report to spring training, we’re checking in to see how each team has fared thus far this off-season, acknowledging that there’s still time for that evaluation to change. Teams will be presented in reverse order of finish from 2016. Next up: the Houston Astros.

2016 Results

84–78 (.519), third place in American League West

Key Departures

C Jason Castro, RHP Doug Fister*, RHP Pat Neshek, OF Colby Rasmus, 1B/3B Luis Valbuena

Key Arrivals

OF Nori Aoki, OF/DH Carlos Beltran, C Brian McCann, RHP Charlie Morton, OF Josh Reddick

​(*free agent, still unsigned)

Off-season In Review

The surprise team of 2015 was one of '16's bigger disappointments, as the Astros—pegged by a certain weekly publication to become World Series champions—stumbled out to a 7–17 April, sinking their playoff hopes. Houston responded by going all out this off-season, bringing in a trio of veteran hitters to add to its young core. It’s a bold strategy, but one that impresses mostly on the surface and is still missing one key piece.

The Astros targeted three spots that were black holes last season: designated hitter, the outfield and catcher. At each spot, Houston snagged a big-name bat, landing McCann in a trade with the Yankees and signing Reddick and Beltran in free agency. McCann is coming off his ninth straight season of 20 or more home runs and is well regarded for both his defense behind the plate and his clubhouse leadership. Reddick is a strong defensive outfielder who hit 32 home runs in 2012. Future Hall of Famer Beltran has long been one of the league’s best hitters and was a force at the plate for the Yankees last year before being dealt to Texas at the deadline.

But each player also carries some obvious downside. McCann's home run total benefited in part from Yankee Stadium’s short rightfield porch, and overall he was a below-league-average hitter last year, posting a weak .242/.335/.413 line and 99 OPS+ in 492 plate appearances—the second time in the last three years he’s been below 100. The streaky Reddick is coming off a weak second half, hitting .258/.307/.335 after being dealt to Los Angeles from Oakland at the trade deadline, and is wildly injury prone; he’s averaged just 121 games per season over the last four years. Beltran, too, slumped after his late July trade, hitting .280/.325/.476 for the Rangers, and his declining defense makes him unplayable anywhere but DH. All three players are also on the older side: Reddick turns 30 next month, McCann will be 33 one week later, and Beltran turns 40 in April. There’s a real risk that all three decline further this season.

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Nonetheless, Houston can afford to take that bet. The team’s young core of infielders Jose Altuve, Alex Bregman and Carlos Correa and outfielder George Springer, along with Dallas Keuchel and Lance McCullers in the rotation and Ken Giles in the bullpen, gives the Astros a cushion should those additions fail. On top of that, Houston didn’t surrender much for any of the three, parting with two low-level pitching prospects for McCann and only money for Beltran and Reddick (though the latter signed a four-year, $52 million deal that could be burdensome if he struggles).

It helps that the bar to clear for that trio is embarrassingly low. Last year’s Astros catchers, led by the departed Castro, hit a horrid .231/.306/.454. At DH, Houston got a line of .218/.299/.378 and just 19 home runs, the worst collective performance at the position in the AL. The outfield aside from Springer was a total zero, with Rasmus, Carlos Gomez (who was released in August) and Jake Marisnick all falling flat. It would be hard for Beltran, McCann and Reddick to do much worse than that group.

Not every outfield spot was addressed, however. In leftfield, Houston will roll the dice with Aoki. The 35-year-old Japanese veteran was plucked off waivers from the Mariners back in November, with Seattle ditching him after a 2016 campaign in which he hit .283/.349/.388 and spent time in the minors. Aoki has no power and isn’t a long-term solution, but at least he’ll bring his unusual defensive style to Houston. He replaces Rasmus, who collapsed to a .206/.286/.355 line last year and signed with the Rays.

Elsewhere, Castro is done after six up-and-down seasons with Houston. An All-Star in 2013, he hasn’t been worth anything offensively since then, producing a .210/.307/.377 line last year, though he remains a plus defender. He’s now with the Twins on a surprising multi-year deal. Valbuena is also gone after an injury-shortened 2016. The infielder was productive in his two seasons in Houston, hitting 38 home runs and posting a 113 OPS+, but the emergence of Bregman at third base robbed him of a roster spot. Valbuena stayed in the AL West, joining the Angels on a two-year pact.

In the rotation, the Astros swapped out Fister for Morton. The former was unable to recapture his ground-balling magic in his one season in the Lone Star State, posting an ugly 4.64 ERA and allowing 24 homers in 180 1/3 innings. At 32 and coming off two straight below-average, injury-plagued seasons, it's not surprising that Fister remains a free agent. Morton, meanwhile, landed a two-year deal in November despite pitching just 17 1/3 innings in 2016 for the Phillies due to a torn hamstring suffered in late April that required surgery. The soft-tossing righty has been no more than a league-average arm for nearly a decade but is penciled into the starting rotation for now.

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Unfinished Business: The rotation

As noted, Morton was the only addition to Houston’s rotation, and an underwhelming one at that. There are still plenty of question marks in the Astros’ starting five, beginning with Keuchel and McCullers. The former took a big step back last year from his Cy Young-winning campaign of 2015: His ERA ballooned from 2.48 to 4.55, his strikeout rate fell and his walk and home-run rates spiked. The latter, meanwhile, couldn’t stay healthy, missing the first six weeks of the season with shoulder inflammation and then getting sidelined in late August by an elbow strain. Behind them are Collin McHugh and Mike Fiers, league-average arms both (91 and 88 ERA+, respectively, in 2016), and Morton.

What’s missing from that starting five is a guaranteed No. 1 who can go out and put up a 3.50 ERA or better in 200 or more innings. Keuchel can be that pitcher, but it’s fair to wonder if his 2015 season is the outlier, and McCullers, though just 22, has yet to prove he can handle the grind of a full season. The Astros pursued Chris Sale this off-season before the lefty was dealt to Boston and have reportedly been linked to the Rays’ Chris Archer, the Athletics’ Sonny Gray and the White Sox’ Jose Quintana in trade talks, but it seems unlikely that Houston pulls off a deal. As general manager Jeff Luhnow put it during the team’s FanFest, “Right now, I’d set the expectations low that there [are] going to be any major changes.”

Houston does have some pitching prospects that could make an impact in the second half, including Joe Musgrove, Francis Martes and Brady Rodgers. But in an off-season full of go-for-it-now moves, it’s hard to imagine the Astros will be content with such a shaky rotation. Expect to see Houston linked in a lot of starting pitcher trade rumors and aggressive in talks if Keuchel and McCullers struggle to start the year.

Preliminary Grade: B

After years of paltry payrolls, the Astros are finally making a charge, and Beltran, McCann and Reddick should all be improvements over their 2016 counterparts. World Series hopes now rest on the young stars doing their part—though another arm for the starting rotation wouldn’t hurt Houston’s chances.