Are the Houston Astros 2015’s Surprise Team?

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The Houston Astros have been busy this offseason, and folks in Houston are anticipating the best season of baseball in some time. In an article last week, ESPN.com’s David Schoenfield wrote that he thinks Houston will be the surprise team of 2015. Well, no argument here.

In the piece, Schoenfield states that in the past nine years, there has been one team that played sub .500 ball the year before they reached the playoffs. While some of those teams take every other year off, (Boston, San Francisco) they had had recent success, so the jump wasn’t necessarily a surprise. That said, Jeff Luhnow has been adding a lot of pieces in the past few months, and this team has a lot of upside if players develop like we’re all hoping they will.

One interesting point that Schoenfield produces is that the Astros starting staff, which is on just about nobody’s radar, “had the same ERA as Cleveland’s and everyone is raving about Cleveland’s rotation. The Astros had a 3.82 rotation ERA; the Giants, playing in the NL and in a great pitcher’s park, had a 3.74 ERA. The Astros had a better ERA than the Tigers’ rotation.” Keep in mind that the Tigers were anchored by Max Scherzer, who just received a $200M deal, recent CY Young and MVP award winner Justin Verlander, and a couple of months of David Price. The big three in Houston were some guy with an amazing beard, a waiver wire pickup, and a pitcher they had to convince to join the team by overpaying in free agency.

Schoenfield gives this reasoning for why the Houston Astros are a team on the rise in 2015: “…there’s another reason the Astros will improve. They were just 57-11 when leading entering the eighth inning and 61-8 when leading entering the ninth, as the bullpen had the worst ERA in the majors. The average team lost 5.9 games when leading after seven and 3.3 when leading after eight. New relievers Luke Gregerson and Pat Neshek should help here even if they’re just OK.”

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We all know how terrible the Astros bullpen has been in recent memory. If they can improve to a league average ‘pen, that should be good for another five wins, bringing their win total up to 75. Last season, George Springer‘s WAR was a 2.3 in just 78 games. Over a full season, that works out to a 4.7 WAR, or another two for the win column.

With some legitimate options for the back-end of the rotation, there should be another couple of wins floating about.

Finally, there’s the offense. There are two big question marks in what is expected to be a much improved offensive team. The first is how much will strikeouts hurt the team? While there is power up and down the Astro lineup, those same power hitters are also prone to a high number of K’s. The linchpin of the offense could be Jon Singleton. If he can produce how we all know he can, then first base is solved, and there is another 20+ home run bat in the lineup. If he falters like he did in 2014, there will have to be some shuffling done, and a few positions could weakened in the process.

Last year, the only two teams the Houston Astros had winning records against were the Yankees (4-2) and Rangers (11-8), but they stayed competitive against the rest of their division rivals as well, going 7-12 against the Angels, 8-11 against Oakland and 9-10 against Seattle. It was the NL that hurt Houston the most, going just 5-15 against the NL East last year.

In 2015 the Interleague games will be against the NL West. The Dodgers will pose the biggest challenge, but the Giants have question marks surrounding them, the Rockies are just one perpetual question mark, the Diamondbacks still look to be a couple of years away from competing, and San Diego is early enough on the schedule that they may not be clicking. The other advantage with the San Diego series is that it’s an away series, and Petco Park is notoriously pitcher friendly. While their bats may not be able to hit it out of Petco, the Hinchmen should have no problem peppering the crowd with some Springer Dingers or Singleton Slams.

If that 5-15 record can move to just a 10-10 mark, we’re looking at 83 wins being fairly reasonable. While that total may not get Houston into the playoffs, if they can scrounge together another three of four then they could be in contention until the very end. If they’re in contention at the trade deadline, they have plenty of talent in the minors to could be made available to make that push and gain those three to four victories that could push them into the playoffs.

Is this a wildly optimistic outlook on the Houston Astros in 2015? Absolutely! But when it’s broken down like this, it sure sounds possible to me.

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