Astros need Keuchel, rotation to bounce back to contend

HOUSTON (AP) They have the AL batting champion, a big-hitting shortstop and a few newcomers to boost a potent lineup.

What the Houston Astros really need to get back into playoff contention is a bounce-back by Dallas Keuchel and the rotation.

Injuries and inconsistency were themes for Houston's staff last season. That came a year after Jose Altuve, Carlos Correa and the Astros ended a long postseason drought and looked primed for the future.

Keuchel followed up his Cy Young Award campaign of 2015 when he 20-8 with a 2.48 ERA with a tough 9-12 season where his ERA ballooned to 4.55 before a shoulder injury finished him in August.

''He's a good pitcher, there's no question about that, and even last year he showed it at times. And he was dealing with some health issues last year and that's why he got shut down at the end,'' general manager Jeff Luhnow said.

''He's feeling good, feeling confident and I do think there's some - after you have an incredible year like he did in `15 and he pitched more than he ever had pitched before, there's some natural regression to the mean, if you will,'' Luhnow said.

Keuchel will start the opener on Monday against the Seattle Mariners, with Carlos Beltran now in the middle of the Houston lineup.

The Astros then look to Lance McCullers, who is also hoping to put a difficult 2016 season behind him. McCullers started just 14 games last season because of injuries, but is feeling good and expects to be at full strength for the start of the season.

The same can't be said for Houston's third starter Collin McHugh, who will begin the season on the disabled list after battling ''dead arm'' this spring. The Astros expected his stint on the DL to be short, but after struggling in his spring training debut on Monday night, he could be out longer than expected.

With McHugh sidelined early they'll be counting on free agent pickup Charlie Morton and young talent Joe Musgrove to shore up the back end of the rotation.

Some things to know about the 2017 Astros.

NEW LOOK: This young team added an important trio of veterans this offseason in Beltran, catcher Brian McCann and outfielder Josh Reddick. Beltran stepped right in to be a leader for the Astros, but they certainly didn't bring him here simply for the help he can provide in the clubhouse.

''A lot's going to be said about the impact that he has behind the scenes, and I don't want to shorten the impact that we need him to have on the field,'' manager A.J. Hinch said.

Beltran, who turns 40 in April, hit .295 with 29 homers and 93 RBIs last season for the Yankees and Texas.

BREGMAN'S SECOND SEASON: Houston is eager to see what third baseman Alex Bregman can do in his first full season in the majors after he hit. 264 with eight homers and 34 RBIs in 49 games last season. The Astros are looking for the second overall pick in the 2015 draft to join shortstop Correa and second baseman Altuve to improve an already solid infield.

FIRST BASE WOES: After struggling with inconsistency at first base for years , the Astros moved veteran Yulieski Gurriel from third base to first to try and solve the problem. Gurriel was solid in limited time last season after starring in Cuba for 15 years, but he had trouble adjusting to the rigors of playing every day. If he handles that better this year, Houston could have even more power at the plate - and some consistency at first base for the first time since Lance Berkman was traded in 2010.

CORREA EYEING IMPROVEMENT: Correa hit .274 with 20 homers, 36 doubles and 96 RBIs last year in his first full season in the majors. But the 2015 AL Rookie of the Year was disappointed in his performance because he wasn't able to help the Astros to the postseason.

''I want my performance to be way better than last season so I can help my team make the playoffs,'' he said. ''I didn't do that last year, so I feel like I need to do that this year.''

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More AP baseball: https://apnews.com/tag/MLBbaseball

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