The Houston Astros are the defending World Series champions. That’s good. But now it is time to start preparing for the 2018 season. Spring training begins in February, and the Winter Meetings have just ended.
Over the past several weeks, the Los Angeles Angels have acquired Japanese phenom Shahei Ohtani (a dual threat pitcher and power hitting outfielder). The Seattle Mariners have traded for Dee Gordon. The New York Yankees pulled off a deal for NL MVP Giancarlo Stanton.
The Astros have been kind of quiet this off-season. That’s to be somewhat understood because this is really a baseball team that still has the key players under contract. Those key players include MLB MVP Jose Altuve, World Series MVP George Springer, former Cy Young winners Dallas Keuchel and Justin Verlander, Carlos Correa, Alex Bregman, and so on.
The team’s bullpen, however, struggled so much during the playoffs that manager A.J. Hinch avoided going to one of his relief pitchers as much as possible. He had starters often coming out of the bullpen, primarily Lance McCullers, Jr., Brad Peacock, and Charlie Morton. But that is not really something that can be maintained during a 162-game season.
The Astros have made two moves to improve the bullpen this week. Anthony Gose was picked up from the Detroit Tigers in the Rule 5 draft on Thursday. Some might recognize Gose as the player traded to the Astros by the Phillies for Roy Oswalt, but who was then flipped to the Blue Jays for Brett Wallace. Gose was then a highly-touted minor league outfielder known for his speed. He’s never been able to solve major pitching and he has instead sought to lengthen his career by becoming a relief pitcher.
As a Rule 5 pick, Gose will have to either stay on the Astros MLB roster for the entire season, or else he will be returned to the Tigers. The Astros do treasure roster flexibility, and many of the team’s key players can play multiple positions — like Marwin Gonzalez, Alex Bregman, and Yuli Gurriel. So there’s always the possibility that Gose will serve as a late-inning defensive replacement outfielder, a late-inning pinch runner, and a key arm out of the bullpen.
The key move by the Astros this week was in signing free agent reliever Joe Smith. Smith is a 11-year veteran who spent last season with the Blue Jays and Indians. His fastball averages about 89 mph, his slider hits 80 mph, and last season he struck out 11.8 batters per nine innings. While he is not the closer the Astros have been seeking, his acquisition will definitely solidify the bullpen.
“They have a chance to win a World Series,” Smith told the press. "You can tell them they have a lot of fun. Why wouldn’t you when you’re winning 100 games?”
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The Astros currently intend to go back with Ken Giles as the closer next season. But Zach Britton, the man the Astros thought they were about to acquire at the trade deadline last July, is once again on the trade market. He is in the last year of his contract with the Baltimore Orioles, so it’s possible that, should the right deal be offered up by the Astros, then maybe this time the Orioles will actually go through with a trade. And Wade Davis and Greg Holland, two closers who are not quite the caliber of Britton, are still available on the free agent market.
Unlike seasons past, there is not really that much that needs to be done to improve the Astros. GM Jeff Luhnow and his staff have done fantastic work in putting together a winning team that is full of great personalities, plays exciting baseball, and which is fun to watch.
There’s nothing that the Angels, Mariners, Rangers, or A’s have done that obviously make their teams better than the Astros. The Yankees have improved, but the Astros should still be able to knock around the Yankee pitching staff.
The Astros could still improve, but every team, at all times, always wants to improve. But there’s no reason to doubt that, as things stand right now, the Astros are still the team to beat in 2018.