For once it feels right to be optimistic about the Houston Astros.
After all, it appears that the team is here to stay for the foreseeable future. A rotation that supplied a 16.1 WAR last season should only improve with the additional depth provided by Doug Fister and a full year from Lance McCullers. The lineup will also experience a full season of Carlos Correa and perhaps a relatively healthy George Springer for more than 102 games. Ken Giles brings some serious heat to the bullpen. And the farm system is still highly regarded throughout baseball. There is a lot to like about the Houston Astros in the present and future.
When examining the roster, the Astros talent level is at its absolute best since 2005. Or even arguably earlier than that to be honest. The lineup is positioned to continue inflicting some real damage on opposing pitching next season, especially if strikeouts are just even slightly lowered. A pitching staff that was once barren two to three years ago now appears ripe with talent. The roster is composed of multiple players that are projected to finish with a 3.0 WAR or higher by both Fangraphs Steamer and Fans projection systems. Jose Altuve, Springer, Correa, Carlos Gomez, and Dallas Keuchel lead the way with possibly more Astros joining the fun if they exceed expectations.
However, I would advise that the sense of optimism be a cautious one. Sometimes the grandest of plans or rosters will fall apart. Look no further than Houston’s NBA franchise this year. But having said that, I am not implying that the Astros are like the Houston Rockets. I really believe this Astros roster has incredible chemistry with manager A.J. Hinch leading the way. If anything will be their undoing this season, it will be either injuries or regression from key players. Plus, this is still a young team that is still learning, and success isn’t guaranteed based on one good season. And that is why I implore you not to set yourself up for a (possibly) disappointing summer and ignore this team’s limitations that could afflict them in 2016. Sometimes overwhelming optimism can cloud our better judgement.
For example, the most glaring holes on the Astros roster remains first base, catcher, and third base. First base is simply a revolving door at this point until someone finally decides they want the job. Unlike first base, catcher and third base does not lack a starting caliber player. Third base is Luis Valbuena’s to lose until further notice. And Jason Castro remains behind the plate in 2016. This doesn’t seem like a major when considering what the team accomplished in 2015. However, both Valbuena and Castro had their fair share of struggles last season despite solid results at other times. Simply inconsistent. But if they struggle or miss time, the Astros could be in a world of hurt. This is especially true if other players don’t meet their expectations.
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Variables from players that we have already assumed are going to be contributors next season also carries great importance. Correa, the AL Rookie of the Year, will have to prove that he won’t be affected by the sophomore slump. Opposing teams, especially division opponents, will now have a full offseason to examine his ability at the plate. I fully expect Correa to adjust, but it would ignorant to not, at least, entertain the notion of a slump, albeit an unlikely one. It would also be unreasonable to expect Keuchel to match his incredible 2015 production (6.1 WAR). The health of Gomez will be the key to the success of the Astros lineup, which will need his production for the team to take the next step as a contender. And other players are going to have to prove that they didn’t experience career years last season. The bullpen is the one area that sticks out the most when applying this school of thought.
Of course, the variables could work the other way, and we can see numerous players continue to improve. Or it could fall somewhere in between. Some players improve while others regress. And this also highlights the importance of a deep farm system, which can mask issues at the major league level when that inevitable injury or slump occurs. No telling who it may be, but this is baseball we are talking about where the unexpected happens quite often.
But I also implore you not to be too hard on these young Astros. The probability of success in the short- and long-term is quite high. Talent is now evident all throughout the organization, and the optimism that comes with it is definitely warranted. I just want to advise that it is possible to be too optimistic, or so much so that it doesn’t allow us to accept the Astros for what they truly are if they don’t meet our expectations.
**Statistics provided by Fangraphs**