It’s one of those rites of spring, one of those signs that baseball is returning. For the eighth straight year, we’re Playing Pepper! We’ll ask six questions of bloggers for each major league team as a way of getting familiar with those teams that don’t wear the birds on the bat. This year, this series will be “sponsored” by The Cardinals Way, the new book from Howard Megdal. It’s an outstanding look at the Cardinal organization and I can’t recommend you getting a copy highly enough.
86-76, second in the AL West (second wild card), lost in the ALDS
Last year’s Pepper
Thisclose. Houston was just outs away from moving on to the ALCS, looking to knock off 2014’s AL Champs and perhaps set themselves up to be the new power in the junior circuit. Instead, Kansas City put up five runs in the eighth inning and never looked back. Even with such a stabbing ending to the season, there were a lot of great things going on in Houston last season and there’s no anticipation for any backsliding this year.
To talk about the Astros, I’ve gathered three bloggers (well, with an asterisk) for this edition of Playing Pepper. First off, we have James Yasko from Astros County. James is a long-time friend of the site and is making his fifth appearance–sixth if you count last year’s Postseason version–though his first since 2011. You’ll find him on Twitter @AstrosCounty. Jayne Hansen is up next–make that published author Jayne Hansen, whose put out the Houston Astros Prospect Handbook for the second straight year, which you can sample here. Jayne also writes What The Heck, Bobby? and is here for the fourth straight year. Her Twitter handle is @JayneWTHB. Finally, Eric Huysman is the editor over at Climbing Tal’s Hill and is making his debut here. Eric, being the teacher that he is, passed around some of the assignment to others, getting his writers Colin Gay and Elliott Jenkins to do a couple of them. If you want to follow Eric on Twitter, he’s @Eric_CTH.
C70: What are your thoughts on the team’s offseason? Did they do what they needed to do?
AC: I love everything and everything is awesome. Yes, the Astros did what they needed to do. It was clear even before the soul-crushing 8th inning in Game 4 against the Royals that they needed to upgrade at closer, and they did that with trading for Ken Giles. They added Doug Fister to the rotation mix to provide a cushion in case of injuries or simply limiting innings for younger players (Lance McCullers, for instance). They brought back Tony Sipp and Colby Rasmus. They also didn’t blow All The Moneys on Chris Davis. So there was progress with restraint. For the first time in 10 years I’m actually ready for baseball season, rather than looking at the calendar and thinking, “Okay. Let’s get this over with.”
WTHB: Actually, I think they did. They added a little insurance to the rotation by signing Doug Fister and a lot of insurance to the bullpen with the trade for Ken Giles. The additions of Neal Cotts and Wandy Rodriguez to minor league deals give the team a couple of experienced lefties to challenge for jobs out of Spring Training as well. I was hoping that they wouldn’t make a huge splash signing because I don’t want some of the great talent in the system to get blocked. Michael Feliz, a very talented power arm, should be able to contribute in the rotation at some point during the season. And there are others at the AAA level who may not be as sexy as a Feliz but who could contribute today.
CTH: The 2016 Houston Astros offseason has been pretty boring regarding moves, but not talk. The Astros were rumored to be involved in the top names, but nothing every came to fruition. Jeff Luhnow already had put the foundation down for a championship team, so no one expected the Astros to sign more than one or two free agents this season. However, some Astros fans thought they would bring in a top of the rotation guy. Looking back at the offseason, the Astros are not going to be able to outbid for any particular free agent. They re-signed Colby Rasmus and Tony Sipp while making an under the radar signing in Doug Fister.
The biggest moves of the offseason were really by subtraction when they did not pick up the option on Chad Qualls and Chris Carter. While they may help the Rockies and Brewers in 2016, they would have hindered this Astros squad in 2016. My letting Carter and his pop go, you allow guys like Jon Singleton, Matt Duffy, and Tyler White battle for the job out of Spring Training that will eventually go to A.J. Reed.
The Astros desperately needed two things going into the offseason; they needed a dominant closer who could have shut down the Royals offense in Game Four of the 2016 ALDS. They got their guy in Giles, but they gave up a huge package for him. In an interview on Talking Stros, we talked to J.J. Cooper and Jim Callis, both said that the biggest loss for the Astros would be Vincent Velasquez in the long run, but Mark Appel could bounce back. Giles could be closing for the Astros until following the 2020 season, so it was not exactly a rental player.
The second need they had was another quality starting a pitcher who could eat some innings and take some of the load off the bullpen that was reliable early in 2015, but faltered late in the season and the playoffs. Lance McCullers will be under an innings limit again this season, so by adding an arm like Fister despite already having the fifth starter in Scott Feldman could be a great move for the Astros. Feldman would most likely be a long reliever on this team, getting an occasion start in place of McCullers. This rotation, if Fister returns to form, could be the reason the Astros are successful in 2016.
AC: I’d say Carlos Correa is more likely to repeat 2015 over Keuchel, though there’s no reason to think that Keuchel can’t be every bit as good as he was in 2015. I just think it’s easier for a 21-year old shortstop to improve an already-impressive season over a Cy Young season in which Keuchel went undefeated at home. Maybe this is the sunshine and rainbows outlook, but I think both will be excellent in 2016. Correa can be excellent-er.
WTHB: Can I say both? As long as they stay healthy, there is no reason for me to think that they aren’t both capable of continuing to perform at a very high level. They are both very focused on the task at hand and are both extremely adept at making the adjustments that they need to make in order to succeed.
CTH: One of the reasons for the success of the rotation has been the rise of Dallas Keuchel, who showed the country what he could do in 2015 without electric stuff. He won the AL Cy Young mostly due to his extreme domination at home last year which spawned the Keuchel Korner promotion last year. Many people thought that 2014 was a fluke, and did not expect the Astros ace to dominate like he did. He especially worked over the Yankees three times, including the Wild Card game to advance to the ALDS.
Carlos Correa broke on the scene in June after the shortstops were not producing, so the Astros went to their top shot in the arm to help reach the playoffs. Correa broke into the big leagues swinging, which led him to become the AL Rookie of the year. He did go through a rough stretch in August and September, but he rebounded in time for the playoffs. Correa has the potential to lead the new era of shortstops and have a similar career to Mike Trout, without Trout’s speed on the bases. The term MVP could be heard in upcoming seasons about Correa.
Which one is more likely to repeat their success in 2016? I am going to cheat and say that Keuchel will, because of his work ethic, groundball rate, and knowledge of the strike zone. Unlike other pitchers, he does not rely on electric stuff to get people out. Instead, he knows how to pitch to contact and added the strikeout numbers in 2015. I said I cheated; I think that Correa will outperform his success last season, and he earns the AL MVP this year. His skills are second than none, and he has the crazy desire to become an even better player. He is a more mentally stable Alex Rodriguez clone who will not rely on PED’s to be successful.
C70: Colby Rasmus bucked tradition and accepted the qualifying offer. A good thing or a bad thing for the team?
AC: I think it surprised the Astros, but it’s not a bad thing. Rasmus proved exceptionally valuable in the postseason when he turned into the love child of Roy Hobbs and Carlos Beltran. Can he do that thing where he hits a home run every time he comes to the plate? Probably not, but he’ll hold down left field. He also provides that elusive Clubhouse Guy quality, too. A happy Rasmus is a happy Astros team.
WTHB: From a fan viewpoint, I think it’s a great thing! He won over the hearts of every fan in Houston, including mine. I had read so many negative things about Rasmus, I was shocked to find that he was a great teammate and very accessible to the fans. He’s just a country boy who never quite fit in, but he found a home in Houston and has blossomed here.
And from a farm system viewpoint, I think it was a good thing as well. He’s not really blocking anyone at the time. Defensively, Andrew Aplin is ready to play at Minute Maid Park today, but he will probably benefit from a little more work on his bat. Jon Kemmer, who finished his season with AA, and Derek Fisher, who finished his season at High A, are other outfielders who are on the top prospect lists. Kemmer could probably play in the major leagues now, but is really a corner outfielder and wouldn’t be able to play center as Rasmus can, and Fisher probably won’t be ready until 2017.
CTH: This offseason, Houston Astros outfielder Colby Rasmus made history by being the first player ever to accept a qualifying offer from their team when Rasmus accepted a one-year $15.8 million dollar offer. For the past three seasons of the current Collective Bargaining Agreement in the MLB, a qualifying offer has been determined by the average of the top 125 players’ salaries in baseball that previous season. That particular player has one week to accept the offer from their current club or decline the offer and hit the open market.
There are a couple of factors into Rasmus’ decision to be the first to accept the Astros’ qualifying offer. First of all, he did not want fall into the same situation as Kendrys Morales was in 2014 when he declined the Mariners’ qualifying offer and didn’t find a place n a team until June of that season. However, after being signed in January of 2015, Rasmus’ bat was reignited and helped the Astros get all the way to the ALDS. In 2015, Rasmus hit .238 with 25 home runs and 61 RBIs. His 25 home runs were the highest of his career and had his highest OPS since 2013.
As Evan Drellich reported at the beginning of Spring Training, Rasmus wants to stay in Houston for the long haul.
“As I stand here right now, I’d like to see myself in Houston for the rest of my playing days,” Rasmus said. “I think there’s great people, great atmosphere that they are trying to create — the organization as a whole wanting to win and putting good players on the field.” (CG)
C70: What player do you expect to make the greatest strides this year?
AC: That’s tough to say, but I’m putting my meager income on George Springer. He should be finally healthy after two seasons of fluke injuries (quad in 2014, broken hand after the Royals hit him with a pitch), and I’m excited to see what he can do over the course of a full season.
WTHB: I’m hoping that Jon Singleton will. The first base job is his to lose. Chris Carter is gone and everyone is taking grounders at first base this Spring Training just in case he does lose it. I’ve seen what Singleton can do in the minors and I know that he can translate it to the big stage, but he’s going to have to do that very soon or he will likely find himself in another organization’s uniform with A.J. Reed taking his job away from him. Reed may do that anyway by year end, but Singleton has to step up in order to make that a hard decision for the Astros front office.
CTH: There are several candidates to have a breakout season, including the top Astros’ prospect A.J. Reed. Joe Musgrove or Tyler White would be my best guesses over Reed due to him not making his debut until June. White is not a super stud prospect but has hit everywhere he has played and could bring a balance to the Astros force as a player who makes consistent contact. It would take Musgrove a few injuries before he would be recalled, but he has the making of a top of the rotation guy. He could be the 2016 version of Lance McCullers.
C70: What’s your projection of the team’s record and where will they finish in the division?
AC: I mean, 161-1 isn’t off the table, right? The Astros went 21-29 in 1-run games and 33-38 on the road. Both of those numbers should improve, and they still won 86 games after starting the season 18-7. So I am opening myself up for heartbreak and rage by thinking that they can win 90-92 games in 2016. They let the division slip away by simply being unable to beat the Dallas Rangers, so I think they’ll finish the job and win the division in 2016.
WTHB: The Astros surprised me in 2015. I had them right at or right under .500 and they ended up with a 86-76 record. With the additions to the team and the continued development of some of the young players, a 89-73 record wouldn’t be surprising. That would have been enough to put them in first place in the division in 2015, and should be enough to put them in first place in 2016. That’s assuming that everything goes right and there aren’t any major injuries to the key pieces, but it’s at least feasible. For the first time in a long time, the Astros are expected to do well. I like it!
CTH: There are many different projections out there for the Astros in 2016, but they all seem to think that the Astros could win between 86 and 88 games, which could be enough to win the AL West in 2016. I thought the Astros would break .500 last season, which they did by six games despite the fast start in April and May. The good news could be that the Astros hit their rough patch last season which seemed to help them grow to get ready for the playoffs. The Astros tough task will be to get the Rangers’ monkey off their back and win back the Silver Boot.
C70: Which team in the division do you most enjoy beating and how do you think you’ll fare against them in 2016?
AC: The Rangers, because it happens so rarely – the Astros are 19-38 against Dallas since moving to the AL. Also, there’s a small subset of East Fort Worth fans who don’t remember that their favorite team used to suck, too, so the angst of “Loosing (sic) to the Asstros (also, sic)” is a very fun thing to search and retweet on Twitter. As far as how the Astros will fare against South Oklahoma, it should be a good rivalry for years to come, which would be made even stronger by the Astros actually occasionally winning games against the Western Louisiana Ramgers (sic).
WTHB: Easy. The Rangers. 18-0! You’ve gotta think big!!!
CTH: Half-hearted attempts to inject life into the uninteresting Texas Rangers/Houston Astros rivalry have failed. Over the last few years, the Rangers have been a consistent contender while the Astros rebuilt. To make matters worse, the ill-fated Astros-Comcast deal made it easier for many Houston residents to see Rangers games instead of erratically blacked out Astros games. The Astros plugged away in the NL Central while the Rangers toiled in the AL West, meeting the Rangers for one series of Interleague Play per year. If we are being completely honest, the Silver Boot really didn’t really matter. It felt forced more than anything else.
We did not mind the Rangers, really. Some of us even rooted for them against the St. Louis Cardinals in 2011. As odd as it was to root against Lance Berkman, we simply had a more meaningful history with the Cardinals.
Dallas and Houston have been rivals forever. The Rockets and the Mavericks hate each other. Ask any Texans fan about the Cowboys, and ask any Cowboys fan about the Texans. The responses will be familiar decisions of a weak team with a void at quarterback. You would think that the Rangers and Astros would be one of the biggest rivalries in baseball, but for years, that idea was laughable.
Then, 2015 happened. The Astros, finally enjoying the fruits of their cellar-dwelling labor, were suddenly contending for the AL West crown. The Rangers, considered dead in the water at one point in the season, became the biggest threat to the Astros’ first playoff appearance in a decade. Tensions flared and benches cleared throughout the season. Moreover, it all culminated in a three-game series at Minute Maid Park in late September that felt like a preview of the ALCS.
With both teams contending again in 2016, Astros fans are fervently marking their calendars for the series against the Rangers. Who needs the Silver Boot when you have a division to win? We cannot wait to see the Astros tee off on the Texas Rangers. (EJ)
My thanks to James, Jayne, and the CTB gang for their thoughts on the Cardinals’ old nemesis. That Texas-Houston rivalry could really blossom this year!