When Astros pitchers and catchers reported to spring training on February 14 this season, they arrived at a brand-new facility, upgrading from decades in the Kissimmee swamps of central Florida to a new Taj Mahal in West Palm Beach called the Ballpark of the Palm Beaches. At a total price tag of $150 million, the new campus, which the Astros share with the Washington Nationals, has multiple plush practice fields, batting cages and workout facilities for both teams. At the center of the entire complex is the crown jewel, a gorgeous and cozy 6,500-seat stadium.
It’s a complete preparatory facelift for a team that had spent the last several decades readying itself for the regular season in what was essentially a souped-up minor-league ballpark in Kissimmee. Appropriately, the move into the figurative upper tax bracket of training facilities in 2017 is the perfect metaphor for a team that has upgraded its roster and invested in its infrastructure and expects to be among baseball’s best this coming season.
Indeed, when Astros general manager Jeff Luhnow looks around the Ballpark of the Palm Beaches and says, “This has been an extraordinary effort getting it built,” something he did say to assembled media as spring training began, he could have just as easily been talking about the actual 2017 Houston Astros, whom the oddsmakers have made the favorites to win the American League West.
For Luhnow, getting these 2017 Astros built has been about methodical execution, played out over about a half decade or so. So with the young core nucleus of star players — Carlos Correa, Jose Altuve, George Springer and Dallas Keuchel, a quartet whose average age is just 26 years old — having experienced a postseason in 2015 and the disappointment of missing the postseason in 2016, owner Jim Crane saw this coming season as the optimal time to open up the checkbook and let Luhnow go to work.
The results were swift offseason acquisitions of veteran catcher Brian McCann in a trade with the New York Yankees, and free agency signings of outfielder Josh Reddick and designated hitter (and former Astros postseason hero) Carlos Beltran, three players whose salaries this coming season will combine for $46 million. In fact, Houston's four highest-paid players this season, the three aforementioned plus infielder Yulieski Gurriel, have all been acquired in the past nine months.
“I’m delighted with the acquisitions we made,” said Luhnow. “We were very aggressive early in the offseason. It started when we signed Gurriel last year. We got our shopping list essentially done before the winter meetings, which is very unusual. But we knew what we wanted, we targeted very specific players, we went after them aggressively early in the offseason and we got the deals done.”
Perhaps the subtlest barometer for the expectations of this season’s Astros is the mere presence of Beltran on the squad. At 39 years old and heading into his 20th big-league season, Beltran is still looking for his first World Series ring. This is his second tour with the Astros; he spent a wildly productive half season with the club in 2004, batting .435 in the postseason that year. Clearly, Beltran sees the 2017 Astros as a contender, and Luhnow and Hinch see him as an example for the younger players.
In fact, in a column that he penned for the website in January, Beltran expressed his desire to lead this young group: “Over the years, I’ve become passionate about helping guys get through those down times — whether it’s sharing preparation tips, or things I do in the cage, or just providing encouragement. If someone’s struggling, or needs some guidance, I want to do all I can to help, and I told A.J. [Hinch] that straight up.”
Astros fans spent the past decade booing Beltran any time he came to Minute Maid Park, the residual anger from his spurning the team in free agency after that magical 2004 season. However, the reconciliation won’t take long, as Beltran has been a unifying force on the team from the time spring training began. “Carlos Beltran has taken players out to dinner,” said Luhnow. “Not just major league players, but minor league players. Not just Latin players, but American players. He’s been a tremendous boost to the environment in our clubhouse.”
With the additions of McCann, Reddick and Beltran to go with Altuve, Correa, Springer and third baseman Alex Bregman, the Astros lineup should be one of the most potent in all of baseball. They will score runs. However, a return to the postseason likely hinges on two body parts — Dallas Keuchel’s left shoulder and Lance McCullers’s right elbow.
In 2015 there was no more dominant pitching force in the American League than Keuchel, who won 20 games en route to a Cy Young Award. However, in 2016, Keuchel scuffled all season long, finishing 9-12, and admitting after the season that he had battled a shoulder injury during the season. Meanwhile, McCullers has shown flashes of dominance, as his 3.22 ERA and 11.8 strikeouts per 9 innings in 2016 would indicate, but he has had a horrible time staying healthy his first two Major League seasons, finishing 2016 on the disabled list with an elbow injury.
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A return to form from Keuchel and a full season of what would be considered reasonable expectations for McCullers give the Astros enough juice in the rotation to make a deep playoff run, as the bullpen is loaded with interchangeable arms, several of whom have closed games at one time or another over the past two seasons.
Just four seasons removed from 111 losses and a total team annual payroll of less than $20 million, the Astros now are the only team in the American League to have three players listed among the top dozen candidates for American League Most Valuable Player at the Westgate Sports Book in Las Vegas — Altuve at 8/1 odds, Correa at 20/1 and Springer at 40/1.
While the Astros have increased their overall annual payroll to just under $120 million (good for 16th among the 30 MLB teams, according to the website spotrac.com), remarkably, their six core young, star players — Altuve, Correa, Springer, Bregman, Keuchel and McCullers — combine for under $20 million in annual salary. Of course, it won’t always be this way. Eventually, one by one, they will all hit free agency, and that will be the final test for Jim Crane as an owner — will he spend gigantic money, like nine-figure deals, to retain his own free agents?
It’s one thing to give Josh Reddick $52 million over four years, or to trade for the last two seasons of Brian McCann’s contract at $17 million per year. It’s another thing altogether to swallow hard and give Carlos Correa $240 million over eight seasons.
But those big contracts looming down the road are another problem for another day. It’s 2017, and the Houston Astros are poised and built to make a run at ending the third-longest championship drought in baseball, behind only the Texas Rangers (going back to their Washington Senators days) and the Cleveland Indians (of course).
“We have depth. We have righties, we have lefties, we have players who have played multiple positions,” said Luhnow. “All of that gives A.J. the opportunity to do a lot of things to give us the best chance to win games.”
While Luhnow speculates with cautious optimism, Beltran is more definitive in what he thinks the Astros’ potential is this season, and all it took was one meal with Altuve and Correa, the night before he signed his deal here — ”Astros fans, I’m here to tell you: It’s going to be a special year. Mark it down. I can already tell…after just one dinner uptown.”