Not many people expected the Houston Astros to contend in 2015, or potentially even 2016 for that matter. Yet, here we are. The Astros are coming off a surprising 86-win season, one in which they led the AL West for most of the year before clinching a Wild Card berth. AL Cy Young winner Dallas Keuchel dominated the New York Yankees in that matchup, sending his team to the ALDS where they had the eventual champion Kansas City Royals on the ropes in Game 4.
While the storybook season was not meant to be for Houston, they have a very bright future ahead of them. The Astros reloaded their roster in the offseason, but have gotten off to a slow start, losing seven of their first 10 games. They enter play on Friday in last place in the AL West.
In order to break down the Astros' slow start and their chances at returning to the postseason, we spoke with Ryan Dunsmore, managing editor of The Crawfish Boxes, SB Nation's excellent Astros community.
1. The Astros surprised a lot of people in 2015, jumping out to an early division lead and earning a Wild Card berth before a heartbreaking defeat at the hands of the Royals in the ALDS. What did they do this offseason to bolster their chances at returning to the postseason in 2016? With their stable of young prospects starting to reach the majors, did they have to add many major pieces?
This offseason the team was pretty set. The first move was bringing back Colby Rasmus. The playoff hero for the Astros was the first major leaguer to accept the one-year qualifying offer in MLB history -- also making Ramsus the highest paid player on the roster at $15.8 million this season.
The Astros let Scott Kazmir walk, but added Doug Fister to fill in his spot. Houston got a bit further lopsided with right handers in the exchange.
The team also went all in on Ken Giles. He is in line to be the Astros future closer but at the moment he is setup man for Luke Gregerson. Giles was the piece the Astros were missing in the ALDS, a flamethrower that could counteract the discipline of the Royals hitters at the plate.
At the moment, it looks like the major piece the team will need is a starter pitcher. That could be as simple as getting Lance McCullers back or adding another arm through trade. But the Astros have options for hitters if they need to bring up a fresh bat from the minors with A.J. Reed, Jon Singleton, Colin Moran, and Alex Bregman.
2. A slow start notwithstanding, the Astros look like one of the deepest and most balanced clubs in the American League. What is their biggest strength, or what will carry them to the top of the AL West in 2016? What is their biggest weakness?
Power has definitely been the strong point for the Astros offense. Houston is currently tied with the Baltimore Orioles for first place in the AL in home runs with 15.
Defense has been key as well. The team has three center fielders playing the outfield, two gold gloves from last year (Altuve, Dallas Keuchel), the 6’4’’ Carlos Correa at short, and a gold glove finalist (insert ‘ha’ here) Jason Castro behind the plate.
The biggest weakness of the team has already shown itself, the starting pitching. Outside of 2015 AL Cy-Young award winner Dallas Keuchel and Collin McHugh, the team doesn’t necessarily have any studs with Lance McCullers out. Mike Fiers, Scott Feldman, and Doug Fister have struggled to get out of the fifth inning all of their 2016 starts.
3. Carlos Correa lived up to his billing as one of the top prospects in baseball, hitting .279/.345/.512 last season and winning the AL Rookie of the Year Award. Obviously, you expect a former #1 overall pick to turn into a great player, but did anyone expect Correa to be this good this soon? How likely is it that the Astros sign him to a long-term deal after his arbitration years?
I would be lying if I told you didn’t expect a majority of what he showed in 2015, but someone how he even exceeded my expectations last season. I expected him to be able to hit and field with the big boys, but I never expected to see what he did in the playoffs. The way he led the team in their first playoff series in 10 years was something special.
I would imagine the Astros will do whatever they can to keep Correa under control. I wouldn’t be surprised if they take an Albert Pujols plan of action, set a number and say "we aren’t going any higher". But I would still be surprised if wears another uniform before he’s 30-plus years old.
4. Reigning AL Cy Young winner Dallas Keuchel is a force atop the Astros' rotation, but the rest of their starting five looks somewhat underwhelming. Collin McHugh is off to a slow start, and former Tiger Doug Fister has dealt with injuries over the past couple seasons. Which starter, either currently in the rotation or in the minors, is the biggest key to Houston's success in 2016?
The biggest key will be Lance McCullers. McCullers could have easily been in Rookie of the Year conversation if not for Correa and the Indians’ Francisco Lindor. McCullers was slotted into the Astros rotation at the No. 3 spot before he felt some shoulder soreness during Spring Training.
He is going to have a rehab assignment this week with Double-A Corpus Christi. If the Astros can get him back to his 2015 form, the Astros rotation will be on much better footing.
5. The Astros have graduated plenty of prospects to the major leagues in recent years, but still boast one of the better farm systems in baseball. Which prospects should we be on the lookout for in 2016? Who will help lead the Astros back to the playoffs?
A.J. Reed is the easy answer. Reed would have easily taken the first base job if not for the great Spring Training from Tyler White. Reed led the minors in runs (113), home runs (34), RBIs (127), total bases (320), slugging (.612) and OPS (1.044) on the way to winning the Class-A Advanced California League Most Valuable Player award.
If the Astros offense is struggling, Reed is an easy call up in September.
6. How many games will the Astros win in 2016? Where will they finish in the AL West?
85 wins. Still in first place in the West. No one in the West has jumped out of the gate strong.
Once again, a big thank you to Ryan and the rest of The Crawfish Boxes staff for taking the time to answer our questions. Be sure to check out The Crawfish Boxes for their excellent Astros news coverage and analysis all season long!