It was the last week of June back in 2014, and the Astros had just finished up a six-game road trip in which they went 1-5, standard fare for a team that was just less than a year removed from a 2013 season in which they had to pick their teeth up off the floor 111 times, a 51-111 debacle that had many baseball insiders talking about the Astros’ “bottoming-out” rebuilding method as an affront to the game.
Attendance and TV ratings, both microscopic at the time, indicated that the last thing on anybody’s mind in Houston outside the walls of Minute Maid Park was “Hey, exactly what season do you think the Astros will eventually win the World Series?” Yet on June 24, Sports Illustrated declared, on its cover and in its feature story for that issue, “The Houston Astros: Your 2017 World Series Champs!”
It seemed, at best, an odd proclamation about a team that was already 14.5 games out of first place in late June that season, even if SI was giving itself and the Astros a three-year cushion to pay off. As it turned out, the magazine may have been on to something.
After a nondescript 70-92 finish in 2014, the adolescent Astros hit baseball puberty in 2015 and shocked the world, finishing the regular season 86-76, defeating the Yankees in a wild-card game in Yankee Stadium and pushing the eventual World Champion Kansas City Royals to within six outs of elimination in the ALDS.
Now, here comes 2016, and the rest of the baseball world, having witnessed these Astros, is wondering, “Are they all grown up now?” Last Thursday, in fact, Sports Illustrated published its baseball preview issue and decided to move its original 2017 title forecast up a full season, placing the target squarely on the Astros by predicting they would win the 2016 World Series. So not only do the Astros have to overcome the Texas Rangers; they also have to overcome the Sports Illustrated jinx.
But who should be more nervous, the Astros over that dreaded magazine maloika or Sports Illustrated over picking a young team with just one season back on the relevance landscape, a team that almost ran out of gas in going 7-15 during the first few weeks of September last season, a team with a revolving door at first base and a heavy reliance on a few star players to carry the load?
On top of all that is the overriding question — how will the Astros handle the psychological burden of being the hunted instead of the hunter in 2016? This season, unlike last season, they are sneaking up on nobody. Times have changed, 2013 is forever ago and it’s a new world for these Astros, one in which blind optimism has been replaced with expectations, where the house money gained from the 2015 postseason experience must be cashed in toward a deeper playoff run in 2016. Astros second-year manager A.J. Hinch sees a ball club ready for the challenge.
“It was such an eventful 2015, it’s hard to put into words sometimes,” Hinch reflected at the outset of spring training. “It’s time to turn the page and get to the next season. Our players will remember both the celebrations [after winning the division and the wild-card game], but also the angst that comes with getting eliminated from the playoffs.”
The Astros put a scare into the Royals in the ALDS, and even though they couldn’t quite finish the job, there was still a celebratory air about the team afterward, despite elimination. However, even with the team’s nucleus jelling a year or two ahead of schedule, walking off the field following the loss to the Royals, every Astro knew 2015 would be the last season where walking off the field a loser in the team’s final game would be considered okay.
In other words, in 2015, losing in the ALDS was considered progress. If the season ends there in 2016, it will be cause for concern.
“This year I really feel like [a championship] is the expectation, not only among our fans but among ourselves, our players and our staff,” general manager Jeff Luhnow said. “It is rewarding knowing that all the work we did over the past four years since [Jim Crane] bought the team has led to this point. The closer you get to the top, the harder it is to stay there and move forward.”
In order for the Astros to experience another run to the postseason (and the reappearance of Shirtless Colby Rasmus in a champagne celebration or four), there are a handful of immutable keys to the upcoming season. They are:
1. Who’s on first?
Barring injury or the occasional day of rest, you can use a permanent Sharpie to write down the names for nearly all the Astros’ everyday positions in the lineup — except for first base, where there are still so many players under consideration as of late March that if you lined them all up for infield practice at first base, it would look like the line to ride Space Mountain. The team is still waiting for John Singleton (and his $10 million in guaranteed money) to seize the position, but a sub-.200 spring batting average doesn’t bode well for him. A.J. Reed is a hot-shot prospect, Tyler White has been crushing the ball all spring, and Marwin Gonzalez and Preston Tucker continue to hang around. There’s enough firepower in other parts of the lineup to cover up for the first-base deficiency, but right now, if the Astros’ lineup were a set of teeth, first base is a giant cavity.
2. Bullish on the pen
You can credit Luhnow for many things, not the least of which is his “no-fear” approach to flipping blue-chip, minor league prospects for proven (or relatively proven) big leaguers. We saw him do it at the trade deadline in 2015 for Scott Kazmir and Carlos Gomez, and in the offseason, Luhnow did it again, shoring up the closer’s role by acquiring reliever Ken Giles from Philadelphia for, among others, frontline pitching prospects Mark Appel and Vincent Velasquez. Giles had impressive numbers in 2015 in his stint as the closer for the Phillies, notching 15 saves with a 1.80 ERA and 87 strikeouts in 70 innings pitched. Last season’s Astros closer, Luke Gregerson, likely moves into a setup role, with Pat Neshek, Will Harris and Tony Sipp as the other situational and middle relief arms. Giles’s showing his 2015 form turns one of the Astros’ few soft spots last season into a formidable strength.
3. Here’s to their health
Unlike the National League, which has about five or six truly awful teams, the American League is much more balanced and far less top-heavy and therefore has a much slimmer margin for error. A key injury here or there can derail a season with big expectations. The Astros experienced this, to a degree, last season, when outfielder George Springer went down for about a week with a concussion and then for a couple of months with a broken hand. The difference in the Astros without their spiritual leader was palpable, since Springer played in only 102 games (.276-16-41, .826 OPS). All things considered, the Astros were actually pretty fortunate healthwise last season aside from Springer’s situation. That needs to continue in 2016. Already, in spring training, the Astros have had to sideline starting pitcher Lance McCullers (6-7, 3.22) with shoulder pain, and designated hitter Evan Gattis (.246-27-88, .748 OPS) after a sports hernia. Both are expected to begin the season on the disabled list.
4. Star power
On the aforementioned Sports Illustrated cover, there were three Houston Astros — second baseman Jose Altuve, starting pitcher Dallas Keuchel and shortstop Carlos Correa. The Astros will go as far as these three players take them in 2016. Losing Springer for an extended period in 2015 was bad, but losing any of these three would be a season killer. Altuve (.313.-15-66, 200 hits, 38 stolen bases) has been the best second baseman in the American League and the catalyst for the Astros’ offense out of the leadoff spot. Keuchel (20-8, 2.48) won his first Cy Young Award last season, went an astounding 15-0 with a 1.46 ERA in Minute Maid Park and was the winning pitcher in Yankee Stadium in the wild card game. Correa (.279-22-68) is, simply put, the future of the sport, a precocious “early years A-Rod” clone who is to the Astros what J.J. Watt is to the Texans. If any of these three is not playing in the All-Star Game in July, chances are the Astros are not in first place at that time.
The construction of a roster in sports is a fluid, ongoing, never-ending process. A roster can age over a period of a few seasons, become more expensive and then snap back to a younger, cheaper form if that’s what’s deemed necessary. As they plummeted to the depths of baseball hell from 2011 through 2013, the Astros’ roster damn near scaled back to being an embryo, with a payroll in 2013 that was below $20 million at one point.
Those days are long gone, yet while their payroll this season should approach $100 million, the Astros are still near the bottom of baseball in money spent on players’ salaries. That’s largely a function of the age of the team, still one of baseball’s youngest, with many players still under team control, clocking in at or near minimum salary.
And that leads to the elephant in the room — what will Jim Crane do when it comes time to pay his core players market value? Keuchel is making $7.25 million in 2016 after arbitration, but could eventually command upwards of $25 million a year. Springer is up for arbitration after this season, and he should get paid handsomely if he puts together a full season. They may as well just give Correa the deed to Minute Maid Park right now and save the hassle.
The point of this wide-ranging, future-salary talk is to point out that the Astros are in an enviable situation right now, in the moment, a situation in which they have several All-Star-level players at bargain salaries ready to win at a high level. It’s all backed by a minor league system that is among baseball’s deepest, even after being robbed from in order to bring in Kazmir, Gomez and Giles. This roster that Luhnow gradually began constructing in 2012 to win around 2017 is ready to win big in 2016.
“I wouldn’t trade our situation with anybody else’s situation in baseball right now,” said Luhnow. “I feel that good about our roster and our staff.”
Yeah, Jeff. You, Sports Illustrated and everybody else. Let’s hope we’re not a year too soon.
SEASON PREDICTION: 89-73, AL West Champs
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AL EAST: Boston Red Sox
AL CENTRAL: Kansas City Royals
AL WEST: Houston Astros
AL Wild Card: Toronto over Detroit
ALDS: Houston over Boston in 6, Kansas City over Toronto in 6
ALCS: Kansas City over Houston in 7
NL EAST: New York Mets
NL CENTRAL: Chicago Cubs
NL WEST: Los Angeles Dodgers
NL Wild Card: San Francisco over St. Louis
ALDS: Chicago over San Francisco in 5, Los Angeles over New York in 7
ALCS: Los Angeles over Chicago in 7
WORLD SERIES: Los Angeles over Kansas City in 7
Listen to Sean Pendergast on SportsRadio 610 from 2 to 6 p.m. weekdays. Also follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/SeanCablinasian or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.