Had someone told fans in March that the Astros would come within one game of the American League Championship Series, after they stopped laughing and realized it was true, they would begin celebrating. Two years ago, the Astros ended the season with 111 losses and more questions than answers about the roster. There are still some glaring weaknesses with this team, but things are looking significantly better than they did in 2013.
Unfortunately, the offseason comes on the heels of two straight losses in rather ugly fashion. After a heartbreaking loss in game four, the 'Stros were hammered 7-2 by the Royals in game five behind a dominant performance from starting pitcher Johnny Cueto, who went 8 innings giving up only 2 runs on a home run from Luis Valbuena in the second inning.
In this series, as was the case down the stretch of the season, the Astros bullpen was exposed, and they strike out far too many times, often swinging for the fences when it isn't necessary.
The good news is the Astros are well ahead of schedule. Sports Illustrated now famously projected them as world champs in 2017. They were five wins away from the World Series two years early, and that is significant considering their best player turned 21 just a few weeks ago.
The Astros also happen to be in very good shape from a financial standpoint. Most of their best young players are playing for peanuts and are still years away from being arbitration-eligible. Their only free agent of note is Colby Rasmus, who could command a salary in the neighborhood of $9 million per year after his stellar postseason. How owner Jim Crane handles the checkbook with Rasmus should tell fans a lot about what kind of an owner he will be when it comes to spending money on a roster.
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Beyond Rasmus, the team must address a bullpen that struggled mightily down the stretch. The Astros seem to be in okay shape in their starting lineup, but a legitimate closer that could move Luke Gregerson to a setup role and Tony Sipp to short relief would make a lot of sense.
Finally, the team that strikes out far too much must learn some plate discipline as well, but with a roster that's so young, some of that should work itself out.
Fans should feel very good about the Astros. They have one of the most exciting young players in baseball and should return virtually everyone from the team back next season. Plus, their payroll will remain relatively low even if they do re-sign Rasmus.
The future is looking bright for a team that was one of the worst in baseball three years running, even if this year ended too soon.