As off-seasons in sports go, Major League Baseball's is one of the shorter ones, and when your team is playing baseball all the way into early November, then the offseason is REALLY short. That's what we were treated to last fall, a magical journey into early November that ended with a groundout to American League MVP (and worldwide treasure) Jose Altuve and the Houston Astros' first ever World Series title.
The celebration is still going on in some corners of the city, as the World Series trophy continues to be a guest of honor at any venue to which it shows up. However, for the players, the time for celebration is finished. The offseason is over.The target is now firmly affixed on the back of the Astros' franchise. For the first time ever, they are the hunted. How they handle that role will be the theme of the entire 162 game (and hopefully longer) campaign.
Embedded within that theme and storyline arc are some smaller sub-storylines, so as pitchers and catchers begin workouts this week at the Astros' palatial spring training complex, let's dish out five of the more intriguing storylines as the defense of this city's first baseball world title begins:
5. Is Luhnow done dealing?
This roster is as solidified as any in baseball, and really has been since even before the title was nailed down at the end of the 2017 postseason. Through a combination of young players under team control and smart, veteran free agency signings (not to mention a trade for a certain former Cy Young winner under contract for two more years), general manager Jeff Luhnow has created a solid two year window where virtually this entire core remains in place. However, Luhnow is never done talking to other teams, as we found out last August. There aren't many areas on this team in need of tweaking, but if Luhnow can incrementally improve an area, he will explore it. The latest rumor has the Astros sniffing around Florida's fire sale and catcher J.T. Realmuto, a catcher who can hit with some power (17 home runs in 2017) and efficiency (nearly .800 OPS). The deal might cost the Astros outfield prospect Kyle Tucker, but a 26 year old stud catcher under team control for a couple more years is enticing.
4. Beleaguered bullpen
The Astros' bullpen was a big reason why they won 101 games in the regular season last year. However, by October, that same bullpen was a gigantic minefield that A.J. Hinch was forced to navigate each night. As the playoffs wore on, the number of guys that Hinch could rely on continued to dwindle and dwindle and dwindle. Closer Ken Giles became virtually useless, and the team was having to win some of these games by scores like 7-6 and 13-12. The most reliable reliever by the end of the World Series was Charlie Morton, who spent most of the regular season as the third starter. Now, most of that group is back, with Joe Smith and Hector Rondon added. Was it just fatigue setting in on that bullpen last fall, or did some of these guys pitch well over their heads during the 2017 regular season? Nothing can derail an otherwise great roster faster than blown leads late in games. Here's hoping the group returns to their summer 2017 form.
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3. Pitch Forrest! Pitch!
If you're looking for an Astros player to follow that plays ball off of the Major League grid, look no further than (likely) AA Corpus Christi, which is where 2016 first round pick Forrest Whitley will likely be plying his trade to start the season. The 20 year old right-hander has an outstanding array of stuff, and thus far, has acquitted himself well at the minor league level, with a 3.16 ERA and 13.7 strikeouts per nine innings across multiple lower levels of the Astros farm system. The best-case plan for Whitley would probably have him as a September call up so he can get a taste of the big leagues, before becoming part of the rotation in 2019, likely as a replacement for Dallas Keuchel, if he moves on in free agency, as many expect. Speaking of which....
2. Contract Year Keuchel
The consensus seems to be that, after the 2018 season, Dallas Keuchel will be pitching somewhere else. That has always been my feeling, and I'm not emotional about it, nor do I begrudge Keuchel if he goes to a higher bidder somewhere else. That's business, and there's zero question about how invested and crucial Keuchel has been as an Astro. I will say that the way this past off-season has treated marquee free agents changes the calculus on Keuchel's remaining here a little bit. The market seems to be correcting itself, and the big free agent dollars are coming down somewhat. Hell, Jake Arrieta is STILL on the market and spring training is HERE! So will Keuchel experience something similar? Like Arrieta, Keuchel's agent is Scott Boras, so the guess is they will be entrenched in their beliefs on Keuchel's value. Now, there's still a whole season to play here, and I think it will be fun to watch how Keuchel performs with that lottery ticket awaiting him after the season. Moreso, I'm anxious to see how he holds up physically, because if Keuchel winds up in a standoff with the market next off-season, it will likely be due to trepidation over medical issues than skittishness about his performance. When Keuchel is healthy, he is an ace.
1. Carlos Correa, Leap Year
Someday, no time soon, but someday, we here in Houston will all have to have contractual worries about Carlos Correa, and unless Correa agrees to some sort of deal to buy out his arbitration seasons in 2019, 2020, and 2021, this will be contract armageddon, with the Astros looking at shelling out at least $250 million over several years to keep him. But that's a ways off. For now, we have the good fortune to enjoy a 23 year old All-Star shortstop with similar bodily dimensions and skill sets as Alex Rodriguez had at a similar age. In just 109 games last season (wrist injury robbed him of a couple months), Correa had home runs and RBI totals that would have been well over 30/120 for a full season. His OPS was .941, and he flashed tools in the field that made fans salivate, at times. I say all of this to say that Correa has merely scratched the surface of what he CAN do, and at some point, we will be treated to "The Leap," and it's going to be a glorious, 40-home run, 135-RBI supernova. That could (should?) be this season.
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