The re-emergence of the Houston Astros is the prime example of how parity has taken the game over. The Astros started to break down their major league baseball team. After six losing seasons, and three straight 100 seasons from 2011-2013, the Astros started to see some of the fruit of their investment in their farm system. The Astros won 70 games in 2014, a 19 game increase from the hideous 2013 season. While the Astros seemed to be headed in the right direction, it seemed as if nobody was prepared for what was to happen last season. The Astros got off to a great start and had a legitimate chance to win the American League West division due to disappointing starts by the Athletics, Angels and Mariners, teams that had either been post season bound in recent years or, in the Mariners case, been predicted by many (including myself) to take the division in 2015. The Astros became a legit contender once star shortstop Carlos Correa (.279 batting average, 22 home runs, 68 runs batted in, .856 on base plus slugging) joined the squad. Left hand pitcher Dallas Kuechel (20 wins, 8 losses, 2.48 earned run average, 216 strikeouts, 232 innings pitched) emerged as the top pitcher in the American League, winning the AL Cy Young Award. Houston acquired Philadelphia Phillies closer Ken Giles (6-3, 1.80, 87 Ks, 70 IP) to solidify their bullpen, though they paid a pretty hefty price to land the flame thrower. The Astros traded former number one overall pick Mark Appel, righty Vincent Velasquez and lefty Brett Oberholtzer to the Phillies, clearly giving the Phillies some pieces to rebuild with. They then signed right hander Doug Fister (5-7, 4.19, 25 games, 15 games started) who was coming off a down season with the Washington Nationals. The Astros also retained outfielder Colby Rasmus (.238, 25, 61, .789) via the qualifying offer ($15.8 million). In addition, outfielder Carlos Gomez (.255, 12, 56, .724) and right hander Mike Fiers (7-10, 3.69, 180 Ks, just over 180 IP) return after both were acquired at the trading deadline last season from the Milwaukee Brewers. Left handed reliever Neal Cotts (1-0, 3.41, 68 games) comes over as a free agent after splitting the season between the Brewers and the Minnesota Twins.
If things are going right for Houston, the core of Correa, second baseman Jose Altuve (.313, 15, 66, .812) and outfielder George Springer (.276, 16, 41, .826) will be the center of the Astros batting order. Designated hitter Evan Gattis (.246, 27, 88, .748) may spend a little time at first base with prospect Jon Singleton (.254, 22, 83, .865 in AAA) hoping to finally cut down on the strikeouts that plagued his debut in the major leagues in 2014. Rasmus and Gomez fill out the outfield with Luis Valbuena (.224, 25, 56, .748) manning third and Jason Castro (.211, 11, 31, .648) serving as the primary backstop. The lineup I would go with goes like this: Gomez CF, Altuve 2B, Correa SS, Springer RF, Gattis DH, Valbuena 3B, Rasmus LF, Singleton 1B, Castro C.
The Astros will look to get outfielders Jake Marisnick (.236, 9, 36, .665) and Preston Tucker (.243, 13, 33, .734) some at bats and will give Rasmus, Gomez and Springer some rest. The three starters will fill in for Gattis at DH and Gattis can slide over to first to spell Singleton. Infielders Matt Duffy and Marvin Gonzalez can fill in the infield, though Correa and Altuve will probably be set to play 150-160 games. Max Stassi will be the backup catcher though he is unlikely to be ready for the start of the regular season.
The big difference in the Astros this season and last season is the presence of their starting pitchers. In addition to Keuchel, Collin McHugh (19-7, 3.89, 171 Ks, just under 204 IP) will be followed by hopefully healthy and back on track Fister and Fiers. Lance McCullers Jr (6-7, 3.22, 129 Ks, just under 126 IP) has a spot in the rotation once he is healthy, though he is likely to start the season on the disabled list. In the meantime, veterans Scott Feldman and Brad Peacock are expected to fill in and should provide the team with respectable depth should there be an additional injury.
Giles gives the Astros one of the game's premium young relief pitchers. After the Phillies traded Jonathan Papelbon last season, Giles got his first taste of being a big league closer. That should suit him well as he takes over a Houston bullpen that has been in desperate need for a big time stopper. This acquisition should also benefit Luke Gregerson (7-3, 3.10, 34 saves, 59 Ks, 61 IP), a good late inning reliever who I have said for years is best suited to be an eighth inning guy and NOT a closer. Tony Sipp (3-4, 1.99, 62 Ks, just over 54 IP) had a great season as a left handed one batter only reliever, but can expand his role to face righties and perhaps pitch the 7th inning if Cotts can assert himself in that role. Right handers Will Harris (5-5, 1.90, 68 Ks, 71 IP) and Pat Neshek (3-6, 3.62, 51 Ks, just under 55 IP) give the Astros a solid but underrated bullpen with some depth for manager AJ Hinch.
The Astros may just be holding first base temporarily for their best offensive prospect AJ Reed. Reed hit 34 home runs in the minor leagues last season and is expecting to make his debut this season. Third baseman Colin Moran is also expected to debut this season and if he is ready, he could take over the hot corner from Valbuena making the latter a role player. The Astros could use some major league blood to fill out their outfield of the future, drafting Kyle Tucker (Preston's brother) and Daz Cameron (Mike's son) both in the first round of the 2015 draft. I also like Derek Fisher, a converted infielder who is now in the outfield coming off a 22 home run season in the minors. He could be a September call up. They traded away some of their top young pitching depth in the Giles trade, but look at right hander Francis Martes as somebody who can crack the rotation at some point in the season.
The Astros have a lot of intrigue because there really is no limit to how good this franchise can become. Remember, last season many had the Astros as being another year away. They could take a step back, but can also come into their own. I think their start will be as pivotal as any other team, particularly the way their division shapes up. I think the American League West is very competitive but does not have a clear cut favorite. The Astros performance last season brings their over/ under up to 85.5. I think the rest of the American League has caught on to the fact that the Astros have arrived. They will win their share of games and should be able to protect more leads with Giles leading their bullpen. However, I think they are another season away before I can consider them a team that is ready to win an American League Pennant. I have the Astros finishing at 82-80, third place in the AL West division.