The Chicago Cubs get all the publicity in baseball entering the 2016 season because they were a team with a group of touted prospects who arrived in the playoffs a year ahead of schedule in 2015. But the Houston Astros are the American League version of the Cubs. And with all due respect to all of Chicago's young talent, there is no player with more upside in baseball than Astros shortstop Carlos Correa.
You sort of saw Houston's rise coming last season if you really paid attention. From 2011-13, they lost at least 106 games each year. But Houston improved to 70-92 in 2014. The Astros led the AL West for a large chunk of last season before fading a bit late and finishing 86-76, second in the division and two games behind Texas.
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But that record earned the Astros the AL's second wild-card spot. And behind ace lefty Dallas Keuchel, the Astros went to Yankee Stadium and won 3-0 as Keuchel threw a three-hitter pitching on short rest for the first time in his career. It was Houston's first playoff game since being swept in the 2005 World Series.
Frankly, Houston should have then beaten Kansas City in the ALDS. With the Astros leading the series 2-1 following another strong Keuchel performance in Game 3, they found themselves up 6-2 at home entering the top of the eighth inning of Game 4. But a Correa error helped open the floodgates as the Royals scored five in the eighth and two in the ninth for a 9-6 victory. Johnny Cueto then dominated Houston in the clinching Game 5.
Still, a hugely successful season and one that should portend the Astros as AL contenders for the rest of the decade as ownership finally has shown it will spend some money. It also got first-year manager A.J. Hinch a contract extension.
Houston opens the season with a wild-card rematch at Yankee Stadium on April 4.
Astros 2016 Projected Lineup
The only two players Houston lost of note last season from the lineup were first baseman/DH Chris Carter and infielder Jed Lowrie. Carter hit 24 homers but also .199 and was a strikeout machine. So neither loss hurts.
One of my favorite players in baseball is Astros diminutive All-Star second baseman Jose Altuve, and he leads off. The 2014 AL batting champion followed that up with another very strong season, batting a team-best .313 with 15 homers, 66 RBIs and 38 steals. Is there a better second baseman or leadoff hitter in baseball? He will be followed by right fielder George Springer (.276, 16 HRs, 41 RBIs, 16 steals), formerly one of the team's top prospects. Springer has had a problem staying healthy in his short career, but he's a huge talent.
If you held a draft today where every player in baseball was available, I'm sure some GMs would take Mike Trout or Bryce Harper. But I'd be willing to bet a majority would take Correa, who plays short and bats third. The 2012 No. 1 overall pick was the AL Rookie of the Year in 2015. Correa wasn't called up until June 8 and still hit .279 with 22 homers, 68 RBIs and 14 steals. His home run rate of one every 17.6 at-bats was the best of any AL rookie shortstop ever with at least 400 at-bats. Correa led all shortstops in baseball in home runs, slugging percentage (.512) and OPS (.857) despite ranking 27th among shortstops in plate appearances. This guy is going to be a superstar along Alex Rodriguez proportions -- that's whom he's often compared to (the young, clean version of A-Rod). Correa won't even be 22 until late September.
Evan Gattis (.247, 27 HRs, 88 RBIs) will DH and hit cleanup. He had hernia surgery in early February, but the team thinks he will be ready for Opening Day. Center fielder Carlos Gomez (.255, 12 HRs, 56 RBIs, 17 steals) will hit fifth. He was acquired at the trade deadline from Milwaukee and was moderately disappointing but did battle injuries. Left fielder Colby Rasmus (25 HRs, 61 RBIs) took the team's one-year qualifying offer to return.
The rest of the lineup should be third baseman Luis Valbuena (25 HRs, 56 RBIs), first baseman Jon Singleton and catcher Jason Castro. Singleton was once a top prospect but has struggled mightily and could platoon with Matt Duffy. Valbuena also can play first. Or the team could eventually turn to prospect A.J. Reed. If there's one spot in the lineup that looks worrisome, it's there.
Houston was second in the majors in homers last year and second in strikeouts. Expect more of the same. The only guy in the lineup who doesn't whiff a lot is Altuve.
Astros 2016 Projected Rotation & Closer
The rotation is led by Keuchel, who won the 2015 AL Cy Young. He led all AL pitchers in innings (232.0), WAR (7.2) and WHIP (1.02) and also had a 2.48 ERA and 216 strikeouts. Keuchel was a crazy 15-0 with a 1.46 ERA at Minute Maid Park, which is supposed to be hitter-friendly. If there's one worry, it's that Keuchel threw by far his most career innings last season, but he's only 28. Guy will make only $7.2 million this season, an absolute steal.
Solid right-hander Collin McHugh (19-7, 3.89) and promising youngster Lance McCullers (6-7, 3.22) follow Keuchel. I loved Houston's low-risk, high-reward signing of Doug Fister, who slots in at No. 4. He got a one-year, $7 million deal after struggling to a 5-7 record and 4.19 ERA with Washington last year. But the year before that he was 16-6 with a 2.41 ERA. He has been very good since 2011 except for last year.
The No. 5 slot likely will be a camp battle between Scott Feldman and Mike Fiers, who came over in that Gomez trade with the Brewers. The Astros dealt two members of last year's rotation in young right-hander Vincent Velasquez and lefty Brett Oberholtzer to acquire Phillies stud closer Ken Giles. He is one of the hardest-throwers in the majors and had 15 saves and a 1.80 ERA for a terrible Phillies team in 2015. The Astros had the lowest average fastball velocity of any bullpen in the majors last season at 91.1 mph. Giles threw 193 fastballs at 98 mph or higher last year. He bumps former closer Luke Gregerson to a set-up role.
Astros Futures Odds & 2015 Trends
At BetOnline , Houston is +1400 to win its first World Series, +650 to take its first AL pennant, a +105 favorite in the AL West and has an "over/under" wins total of 88. Both options are -115. Correa is +1600 to win AL MVP and Altuve is +2500. Correa is +5000 to lead the majors in homers with Springer at the same price and Gattis at +6600. Keuchel is +600 to win the AL Cy Young again and McHugh is +6600.
Astros 2016 Predictions
FanGraphs projects Houston to finish 87-75 and win the AL West by five games over Seattle. I could legitimately see every team but Oakland win that division this year. It's probably the second-hardest to forecast after the AL Central. But with a full season of Correa and Gomez, a potentially rejuvenated and motivated Fister and a lights-out closer in Giles, this is my AL West champion. Go over the wins. I don' t think this is a pennant team barring a midseason acquisition, however. Not ready to say Correa will win an MVP yet, but it's coming.
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