Playing Pepper 2017: Houston Astros

Back in 2009, I had the idea of doing a season preview of each team by asking bloggers that followed that club questions and posting the answers.  We’re back for the ninth edition of Playing Pepper!  We’ll cover one team a day from now right up until Opening Day (not counting weekends).  This series is brought to you by our new United Cardinal Bloggers podcasts site, where you can find all the info and new episodes you need to enhance your Cardinal fandom.  Now, let’s play some pepper!

Houston Astros
84-78, third in AL West
Last year’s Pepper

Houston took a bit of a step back last year.  This team that scraped bottom for so long before climbing into contention didn’t play in October last year after going 3-7 over their last 10 to fall out of any wildcard contention.  That doesn’t mean that the process is flawed, of course, just that there might be some concern about when it’s all going to ultimately pay off, if it ever really does.

To talk about that, I got three Houston bloggers to share their knowledge and I didn’t have to fork over $2 million or two draft picks to get it, either.  (Though I do think James’s password is BiggioHOF15.)  Also, I want to confess that I’d forgotten Carlos Beltran was just barely in Houston when I wrote these questions.  He beat the Cardinals so much that it felt like forever.  Lots of good information here about the former rivals to the Cards that we don’t get to see much anymore, so enjoy!

C70: Was it a good offseason for the team? Did they do what they needed to do? Is there any move you wished they had made that they didn’t?

AC: Yeah, it was a pretty good offseason for the Astros. I guess. Could have been better. Could have used Manfred to grow some and hand down his punishment of That Team From East Missouri before they gave away their top pick for Dexter Fowler

Yet I digress. The move that I wish the Astros had made involved Chris Sale or Jose Quintana or Chris Archer or…someone other than Charlie Morton. But the Astros have some talent in the upper reaches of the farm system, like Francis Martes, (who they got almost as a throw-in from the Marlins in the Jarred Cosart trade. And I think we can both agree that the Marlins are trash.) that may prove to be a difference-maker this season. But the Astros did turn Colby Rasmus into Carlos Beltran, Jason Castro into Brian McCann, and Jake Marisnick into Josh Reddick. So they upgraded the lineup, and maybe the price for one of the aforementioned pitchers was too high, given that pitchers have a little more wiggle room with run support.

WTHB: I would rate the offseason moves as a solid B. The front office definitely accomplished a couple of things that were needed, mostly adding some veteran depth to a very young organization. The Carlos Beltran signing, in particular, is already making a lot of impact in the clubhouse on Carlos Correa and some of the Astros’ other young studs. Even if Beltran has an off-year offensively, I really think he will still contribute a great deal to the overall team dynamic and the growth of the younger players. Similarly, the Astros had a need at catcher that was filled by trading off a couple of pitchers who, though intriguing, weren’t going to be helping out the Astros anytime soon. Brian McCann should provide a bit more offensive consistency than Jason Castro did while the Astros figure out what the best way forward at that position may be.

The biggest downside for the offseason is that the Astros didn’t pick up a top of the rotation starter who could help put this team over the top. I’m not terribly concerned about that at this point, though, and I’m really glad that they didn’t mortgage the future by overpaying for someone. Charlie Morton looks to provide some extra stability to the rotation, but he’s not going to be blowing anybody away. But if Dallas Keuchel and Lance McCullers are healthy; Collin McHugh and Mike Fiers can build on some of their past success; and either Joe Musgrove or Michael Feliz (or both) can take a step forward, those factors will go a long way toward helping this team be successful. And if there are injuries and other setbacks, I don’t think the Astros will be shy at the trade deadline this year. They will certainly have plenty of good players to offer to a re-building team with a languishing ace on its staff.

CTH: Well, that depends on who you talk to. I would say, anyone unhappy with the Astros offseason probably isn’t unhappy with the moves they actually made as much as they’re disappointed with moves that weren’t made. As most of your readers likely know, the Astros were “supposed” to go get a big-time “ace” pitcher.

The likes of Chris Sale, Jose Quintana, Chris Archer, and several others were rumored to be targeted by Jeff Luhnow in trade talks. Unfortunately for the Astros, when other teams started making deals the price for premium talent went to stratospheric levels pretty fast. Some wanted Luhnow to pay whatever the cost while others are temporarily pleased with his restraint. Who knows which path is ultimately the right one, but we do know the price tag for those “aces” sounded pretty steep.

Now, let’s talk about the moves that were made. The Astros 2016 lineup had it’s issues but showed improvement when Alex Bregman and Yuli Gurriel arrived and helped provide some balance. Even with that help, the Astros still received below average production from the DH, Catcher, and the 2 OF positions not featuring George Springer. McCann and Gattis will handle catching and DH responsibilities, Beltran will play some in the OF as well as DH, and Josh Reddick should provide additional consistency in the other OF corner. Not to mention Nori Aoki, a full season of the aforementioned Bregman and Gurriel. Luhnow didn’t go get that “ace” pitcher everyone was clamoring for but the Astros rotation wasn’t bad last season and McCullers and Keuchel are healthy again (fingers crossed). Lets not forget that they should still have one of the better bullpens in baseball and now feature a very deep and well-balanced lineup that should put up a lot of runs. So, was it a good offseason? Well, they got better than they were, didn’t lose any key contributors, and maintained flexibility (financial as well as prospects) in the foreseeable future. I’ll take that. 

C70: Famously, Sports Illustrated anointed the Astros the 2017 World Champs. Is the process still working well enough to make that realistic?

AC: Oh jeez I hope so. The lineup has been built up without having to sacrifice Altuve, Correa, Springer, or Bregman. They added Yulieski Gurriel last season. It’s going to depend on how well the “Don’t trade the farm for an ace pitcher” strategy works out. 2015 Cy Young winner Dallas Keuchel absolutely has to have a bounce back year after being injured and missing the last six weeks of the 2016 season. Lance McCullers absolutely has to pitch a full year, rather than half of one due to some arm injury. Collin McHugh needs to be more like 2015 and not 2016. A few things are going to have to break the Astros’ way – like figuring out the black magic the Ramgers (sic) have put on the Astros over the last two seasons.

Seriously. The Astros are 170-154 over the last two seasons, including going 10-28 against our red-headed stepchildren to the north, and finished 2.0 GB of South Oklahoma in 2015, and 11.0 GB in 2016. That has to change.

WTHB: I do think that an Astros 2017 World Series championship is totally realistic this year. Last year, I really felt that there were too many holes and too much youth and inexperience on the team. The Astros are one year older and wiser, have added a couple of much-needed pieces and, if they stay healthy (which is always a big if), they should be in the thick of things all season long. They are going to have to figure out how to beat the Rangers this season because those Lone Star Series games have been pathetically lopsided. But I predict that the 2017 lineup is going to crush the very spirit of a few pitching staffs out there!

CTH: Sports Illustrated is never, ever wrong with a prediction, right? I mean the Cubs won it all in 2004 and 2008, right? Kosuke Fukudome was the man that got them over the hump in ’08 right? They’ll be right this time though! SI or not, the Astros should be considered a legitimate contender in the AL.

They have a solid core of young talent, they added some solid veteran bats, will return a very good bullpen, and hope to improve on a rotation that was much better than a lot of people remember. In order to make SI look smart for once, it has to start with beating the Rangers; something that’s been a bit of a bugaboo the last two seasons. Did I mention that they’re going to score a lot of runs? Even though they don’t have have the big-time “ace” the sports writers wanted, the rotation should be good enough to compete with the Rangers. If Keuchel can fall somewhere between his 2014 & 2015 seasons, McCullers can stay healthy and continue his progression, McHugh is a reliable #3, and the rest of the rotation has the potential to be solid. Charlie Morton, when healthy, is a ground ball pitcher that should excel with a good defense behind him and we haven’t even mentioned the young arms the Astros can run out there this season. Joe Musgrove will likely get a rotation spot out of camp, but don’t be surprised to see top prospect Francis Martes before the summer is over. The rotation doesn’t have to be “elite” for the Astros to be a legitimate contender. It makes things easier, sure…but they aren’t done. We know Luhnow can make deals during the season too. He’s done it before and I would expect that he’s going to be active this summer as well. They have the cash and talent needed to go and get things done if necessary. 

C70: How nostalgic does it make you feel to have Carlos Beltran back in the orange?

AC: I don’t know that “nostalgia” is the right word. Beltran wasn’t in Houston very long in 2004, but of course he was lights out. We as fans have had to fight the urge to boo him for going to the Mets in every single one of his plate appearances for 12 years. So I’m less nostalgic and in more of a “finish the job this time” mindset. But I am excited he’s with the Astros.

WTHB: Ha! It really doesn’t make me feel nostalgic at all. Beltran was great in 2004, but he was a rental player and the Astros couldn’t get him to re-sign. The 2004 post-season was a lot of fun and Beltran was a big part of why it was so much fun, but I generally save my warm-fuzzy nostalgia for long-time Astros.

CTH: Not to nitpick, but Beltran was never actually in the orange and blue. He was forced to wear that terrible brick and sand pinstripe getup, those uni’s were so terrible, but that’s not what you were asking. I wouldn’t say “nostalgic” as much as a little angry. I think most longtime Astros fans probably recognize that Beltran wanted to, and should have, re-signed here in 2005. Had that happened the Astros likely would have had enough offense to win the ’05 World Series. Not that any of us are bitter about it, but If I were Drayton McClane I’d avoid any dark alleys around Minute Maid Park for a while. I mean, most of us should probably avoid dark alleys, but that’s neither here nor there.

As far as 2017 is concerned, it’s safe to say that the excitement level is high. There were rumors that the Astros were trying to acquire Beltran at the deadline last summer and that dredged up all of the painful memories of the 2004-2005 offseason, so Astros fans have had a while to kind of work through it all. That said, there are still some that blame Beltran for holding the Astros hostage and taking the Mets offer, but as more details from that contract negotiation came to light it was pretty clear that most of the fault was at the feet of Astros owner, Drayton McClane. I really hope he’s able to get off to a good start and the fans embrace him, because his presence is about so much more than his on-field production. As far as an on-field perspective, he will give the Astros something they’ve not had since being an AL team: a competent DH! Wild, I know, but as I understand it, the Designated Hitter is supposed to actually be kind of good. It took a few years, but they’ve finally figured out how that’s supposed to work. I mean, cut them some slack, they were in the NL for a really long time.

Soon after signing his deal, Beltran wrote a piece for The Player’s Tribune (which I highly recommend reading) about why he chose Houston and it highlighted how important a guy with his experience can be to the young players on this team. He talked about how ready he was to pass down his experience to Altuve, Correa, and the other Latin players. As an Astros fan, that is very exciting. So, nostalgic, optimistic, excited…whichever…I’m just ready to see them on the field!  

C70: Is there an unheralded player that people should keep an eye on this season?

AC: I would pick Chris Devenski, but he is getting more heralded by the week, given his accomplishments last season (2.16 ERA / 0.91 WHIP, 104K in 108.3 IP). So if I had to pick someone who has had zero herald attached to their name, I’ll go with, hmmm, Alex Bregman. Good glove, showed he could hit last season after a disastrous start to his career. I think he’ll be extremely heralded this season.

WTHB: Actually, there are a few. In looking at the current 40-man roster, what stands out to me are all of the bullpen arms that could really be big difference makers in 2017. I am a huge fan of The Dragon (Chris Devenski). He was (shockingly to me) left unprotected by the Astros in the Rule 5 draft in 2015 and they are very lucky that no one claimed him after the terrific season he had that year. Both Devo and the more well known Feliz could find themselves in the rotation before the end of the season. Both RHP Jandel Gustave and LHP Reymin Guduan have the potential to be dominating relievers. And James Hoyt could be a big part of the 2017 bullpen as well. Hoyt has a terrific back-story and has already had some decent early success in his short time with the Astros.

CTH: Others will probably talk about guys like Ramon Laureano or Francis Martes…or maybe even the “comeback” of AJ Reed, and those guys are definitely worthy of attention. For me though, I say Marwin. Many outside of Houston may not fully appreciate what he brings to the table, but I can assure you Astros fans do. In fact, he has a bit of a cult following here. Marwin Gonzalez is that quintessential “glue” guy every successful team needs. He’s a super-utility player that can do a little bit of everything and he does most of it pretty effectively. He’s the type of player every great team needs to have in order to win. He’s a fantastic piece to have coming off the bench: a very capable fielder at pretty much every defensive position and a dangerous hitter. When he’s in the lineup every day, he tends to get exposed a bit, but when he’s used in spots he’s magic. By all accounts he’s a solid clubhouse guy too. So, it’s hard to say exactly how much playing time Marwin will get, but he will absolutely find a way to make a positive impact for the 2017 Houston Astros. 

C70: What’s your projection of the team’s record and/or where will they finish in the division?

AC: I mean, I’m biased of course, but they won 84 games last season, even running Carlos Gomez out to look like he won a contest to play Major League Baseball, and the rest of the lineup behind him wasn’t very good last year, either. So I think 92 wins is reasonable, finishing 1st in the AL West. 

WTHB: I am woefully awful with this stuff, but honestly, even the experts are often wrong because of injuries and plain old luck (both good and bad). But, with that said, here goes … I’m saying 90 and 72, first in the division. If the Astros had won roughly half of their games with the Rangers last year, the Astros would have been right at 90 and 72. 

CTH: Exact records are tough, but I think this is a 90-win team. Here’s why I say that… The last two seasons, the Astros have shown themselves to be susceptible to streaky play. They started 2015 like a team on fire but started 2016 like a team that had been horribly burned by an out of control warehouse fire. That said, they turned that terrible start around and played like the best team in baseball for two months. If they have any designs on a postseason appearance, it all starts with the division. More specifically it starts with beating their in-state rivals: the Rangers.

Over the past two seasons, the Astros have been an impressive 69-45 (.605 WL%) vs. the rest of the AL West and looked like a really good baseball team. In head-to-head match-ups with the Rangers, however they’ve looked overmatched and have an embarrassing 10-28 record (.263 WL%) vs. them since 2015. If the Astros can replicate their success elsewhere and just play the Rangers even, they’ll be at or above 90 wins. The Rangers owe the Astros each of the last two AL West Titles, so without that lopsided record the division would have been much closer each of the last two seasons. Enter, Beltran, McCann, and Reddick. Veteran players that will help steady the ship if/ when things start to go south on them. No matter how talented your team is, baseball is hard and the season is very long. Every team will have have slumps. The great teams are just better at avoiding the long slumps and somehow find ways to extend the hot streaks a little longer. So, I say 90-72 because at some point they have to play better against the Rangers…also I’m not so great at math and that record was pretty easy to figure. 

C70: Who is your all-time favorite Astro and why?

AC: It’s tough. My Dickie Thon avi started off kind of as a joke, but the more I looked into his career, I was blown away. I wrote A Thing about how promising his career was before it was derailed by a fastball to the eye. He’s probably my actual favorite player…weird, huh? 

WTHB: That’s like asking a person who their favorite child is! I love Jose Cruz because he was the most likeable, friendliest ambassador to the game that the Astros ever had. I love the dominance of pitchers like J.R. Richard, Nolan Ryan and Mike Scott. Biggio and Bagwell are inseparable in my mind and heart and will now be inseparable in the Hall of Fame. The 1986 team cemented my love for baseball; everyone from Bill Doran, Kevin Bass and Billy Hatcher to Charlie Kerfeld and Larry Anderson are a permanent part of my psyche. It lit up my soul to watch Roy Oswalt pitch and Adam Everett field, and it still lights up my soul to watch Jose Altuve hit. I was (and probably still am) in love with Brad Ausmus. And there is a very special place in my heart for really great bench players from Denny Walling in the 80’s to Marwin Gonzalez right now.

But 20 years from now, when you ask me that question, I’m sure that my answer will be one of those players I’ve gotten to know personally through my MiLB writing and interviews. It will be a Dallas Keuchel or a Carlos Correa or a George Springer or one of the dozens of other players I’ve had the fantastic opportunity to watch up close and personally. I may not even have met him yet.

CTH: For me, it’s Jeff Bagwell. I could (and have) written entire articles extolling the baseball virtues of one Jeffrey Robert Bagwell. When Baggy was doing his thing, I was growing up and playing baseball with my friends. So, when we would play, I was doing his stance. When I played first base, I tried to do it like him. When I got to pick my number, I wore #5 just like him. He was my guy. Sure, I liked Biggio and Alou and the other guys but Bagwell was my favorite. I appreciate players who do the little things, and Bagwell was great at executing those little things. Sneaking in a stolen base when you’re a power hitter, going from first to third on a weak single into right field, charging in on a bunt, or making a perfect throw to start a 3-6-3 double play. He usually made the right baseball decision and that was so much fun to watch…and he was our guy! He was the best player on my favorite team! What more could I ask for? I can remember when the Astros clinched the 2005 NL Pennant, I was of course happy for the city, happy for myself as well as other long-suffering fans, but I was so happy for Baggy. The way his teammates talked about him, the way he carried himself, and the way you knew his playoff failures had eaten at him…I was just so happy that he and Biggio would have a chance to go to the World Series. Now, if they had Beltran there…but I digress.  

I appreciate all of the above spending a little time talking about the Astros with us.  If Houston does win the Series in 2017, well, at least it’s not the Cubs!

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