Flying under the radar is no longer an option for the Houston Astros in 2016.
I won’t pretend that I know much about sports psychology. I can’t put together arguments that proves one complex theory or another about the human psyche. I’m just a baseball fan that likes numbers. But I would like to pose a question that I’m sure plenty of folks are thinking: how will the Houston Astros handle being a target from day one this season? You know, the pressure of being basically overnight contenders in light of the entire process of their rebuild.
Let’s face it, the Astros aren’t fooling anyone this year. The flying under-the-radar act seldomly works consecutive years in a row. This young team will have a huge target on their back in 2016. Opposing teams will be gunning for them from Opening Day in New York to September 2nd in Anaheim. While one can’t really say that the Astros weren’t taken seriously in 2015, the mindset from opposing teams should be different this year. For a lack of better words, the Astros have been noticed.
Putting on-field performance aside for a moment, the manner in which the Astros conducted their rebuild is still a hot topic. “Tanking”, for example, is a popular word frequently used to describe the franchises’ rebuild. Whether the choice of the word is right or wrong, the rebuild was definitely controversial. Some believed that the Astros deliberately tanked from 2011-13 to gain the top draft picks and gerrymander the system. Case in point, Brady Aiken. Or the 2013 Opening Day player payroll of $ 26,105,600. Numerous agents, front offices, and players were, and probably still are, angry at the Astros’ actions which eventually led to the team’s recent good fortune.
Regardless of the rebuilding method and reaction, the Astros are projected to be exceptionally good at the game of baseball in the present. After all, the team is projected to win 87 games, and the AL West, by Fangraphs projection system. Baseball Prospectus also has the Astros winning the division with 88 wins. Other projections rank the Astros as one of the top three to five teams in the American League. Needless to say that the Astros have become preseason darlings in the eyes of many in and around baseball. So combine the controversial plan with current results, and it isn’t outlandish to believe that certain parties will deal with the Astros with more gusto in 2016.
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But it isn’t like this Houston team won’t go down without a fight. Or at least that is the hope. On paper the Astros are designed to compete with any team in baseball. Led by the likes of Carlos Correa, Jose Altuve, and Dallas Keuchel on the field and manager A.J. Hinch in the dugout, the Astros should feel confident in each game they play in 2016. Correa is currently projected to have a 4.8 WAR this upcoming season by Fangraphs, easily the best out of his position group in baseball. Altuve and Keuchel are projected to be worth a combined WAR of 8.0. Throw in the “other guys” like George Springer, Collin McHugh, Lance McCullers, Carlos Gomez, and Jason Castro, and it is easy to see why the statistics (or projections if you prefer) are painted favorably towards Houston. The days of saying that they are out-matched or out-coached is likely in the past. But the pressure is sure on.
At the end of the day these projections are just expected numbers. And statistics cannot capture the human element of a team, no matter how zealous our efforts. This young team will have to prove its mettle in 2016. For example, how does this team bounce back from last year’s deflating ALDS loss to the Kansas City Royals? Or how about the outside, or should I even say inside, pressure that is being heaped upon this squad to contend? And believe it or not, the plan that general manager Jeff Luhnow put into place years ago will continue to be scrutinized. Now let’s see if the Astros can prove that they are ready for the pressure. Keep in mind that sometimes we learn how we best handle pressure not in defeat, but in victory.
**Statistics and projections provided by FanGraphs and Baseball Prospectus**
**Payroll information provided by Baseball Prospectus**