Playing Pepper 2018: Houston Astros

In 2009, before my second full season of blogging the Cardinals, I reached out to other bloggers to other teams to get insights on their clubs.  This year, instead of going through the teams alphabetically, we’ll approach it a little differently, spending a week with each division.  For the tenth straight season, get ready for the upcoming MLB season by playing a little pepper.  

Houston Astros
101-61, first in AL West, won World Series
Website | Twitter

Last year’s Pepper

It’s a lot more fun to see a team that has a huge drought (in this case, no World Series titles ever) win the whole thing when they aren’t wearing blue pinstripes.  Save for the hacking scandal (and we really don’t want to bring that up now), the relationship between Houston and St. Louis has always been professionally competitive, with that whole “respect” thing getting tossed around.  So it was good to see Houston, in a year where the area really needed good news, take the crown.  It was also good to see our contributors today get to enjoy that run and they are back to tell us just how great it really is.

Writer Site Twitter
Jayne Hansen What the Heck Bobby? JayneWTHB
James Yasko Astros County AstrosCounty

C70: What are your thoughts on the offseason? Did the club improve over the winter?

Jayne: The offseason was pretty quiet for everyone, but the Astros did add a couple of pieces that should improve the team with the trade for Gerrit Cole and the free agent signing of Joe Smith. Cole can help the team immensely if the Astros encounter starting pitcher injuries like they did in 2017; if everyone remains healthy, Cole’s contributions will be gravy! And the addition of a known quantity like Joe Smith to a sometimes dicey bullpen makes me all kinds of happy. Plus Smith should be able to shoulder some of the load that went to Chris Devenski last season; I see Devenski as a key piece of the bullpen and feel that he was overused in 2017. One remaining question will be how the Astros bullpen lefty woes will play out in 2018. Although Buddy Boshers was added to the mix via waiver claim, the job is Tony Sipp‘s to lose more because of the $6 million that the Astros owe him than because of his performance (which was stellar in 2015, but much less so in the past two seasons).

James: This offseason was pretty slow for just about everybody, and that’s perfectly fine with me in regards to the Astros. The way the Astros are set up means that there will be little to no drama (unless someone on the team manufactures it) for this offseason, and maybe a little next year, what with the free agency of Dallas Keuchel and Marwin Gonzalez. But overall, yes, the Astros improved. The trade for Gerrit Cole was a slam-dunk trade. While I did – and still do – like Joe Musgrove, being able to acquire Cole at that price was a no-brainer. The Astros effectively replaced Mike Fiers in the rotation with Cole. So, yeah, I think that’s an improvement. 

C70: Has that whole “World Champs” thing soaked in yet?

Jayne: Yeah, the “World Champs” thing soaked in right away. I was at all of the home playoff and World Series games and, at some point, Astros fans just knew that it was going to happen. Mainly because of Hurricane Harvey and everything that Houston went through at the end of the season, it just somehow felt like destiny. I know that sounds cheesy, but this team of really outstanding young men came through for the community in a big way in the aftermath of Harvey, and we all just felt that would carry over into the postseason. And after Game 5 in Houston, which I would characterize as the most outlandish, exciting, ridiculous, unlikely and exhausting game that I have ever, ever seen in my life, we also knew that the Series would go to seven games because nothing short of the excitement of a World Series Game 7 would quite suffice. It really was an epic postseason for Houston fans.

James: No. I was watching World Series highlights last night. Any time it dips below, say, 65 degrees, it’s a chance to pull out my 2017 World Series Champions hoodie. It’s a pretty unbelievable feeling, and part of me doesn’t want it to soak in. I mean, I’d like for you to ask me in March 2020 if it’s sunk in that the Astros have won three straight World Series titles, but this one will always be special. 

C70: What’s one thing people may overlook (either positively or negatively) about this team?

Jayne: Youth! Jose Altuve (28 in May), Alex Bregman (24 at the end of March), Carlos Correa (24 in September), George Springer (29 in September), Lance McCullers (25 in October) … it’s really fun to think about how the careers of these players (and more) will continue to unfold. Carlos Beltran was a great mentor and elder statesman for these players in 2017 and he will be missed, particularly by his fellow Puerto Rican Correa, in the coming season.

James: Everyone* (Baseball Writers) fixates on the idea that the Astros tanked for a few years in order to get to where they are, but it’s not like they were the ’98 Marlins. You look at who they traded – your boy Bud Norris is the main example – and it’s not like the Astros were unloading Star Players. The Hunter Pence trade didn’t exactly work out. The Roy Oswalt trade didn’t really work out. So many things had to go right in order for the Astros to win the World Series, and so many fluky things had to happen. The Astros pulling the plug on the Aiken deal led to them drafting Alex Bregman. Correa going under slot in 2012 gave the Astros room to sign Lance McCullers, Jr. Marwin Gonzalez had an absolute breakout performance. Signing Charlie Morton did work out. Trading for Brian McCann worked out. Brad Peacock picked a great time to be a stud. Thanks to the Cubs in 2016 and the Astros last year, I think Baseball Writers (who are driving the bus inside fans’ collective heads) are assuming that what the Cubs and Astros did means there’s a blueprint. There’s not. Losing games is easy, but having high draft picks means you have to be able to develop those players, and that’s hard. For every Carlos Correa and Lance McCullers, there’s Mark Appel and Brady Aiken

C70: Who is the one key player, the guy that must have a good year for the Astros to do well?

Jayne: This team is so deep that I don’t think just one player having a bad season would derail things. But with that said, keeping the injuries to a minimum (including wrapping MVP Jose Altuve in bubble wrap if necessary) will go a long way towards achieving more postseason success.

James: The thing about the Astros is that they’re solid from top to bottom. It’s not on one, two, or even three players to carry the offense, or even the pitching staff. That said, the guy who’s under the most pressure (in my opinion) is Ken Giles. He really struggled in the postseason last year, so much so that Brad Peacock and Charlie Morton were closing out games in the World Series with multi-inning performances. Whether the balls were slicker in the postseason, or juiced, or whatever, Giles – whom I still think is a Good Closer – needs to establish himself as that guy. Problem is, he did a really good job in the regular season, so it’s not like a solid April is going to erase those memories. He’s going to have to do it in October to get the critics off his back. 

C70: What’s your projection for 2018? Where does the team wind up overall?

Jayne: I’m notoriously bad at this, but I’m going with 100-62, 1st place in the AL West and going deep into the postseason again in 2018. (I really think they will win 162 games and sweep the postseason, but I think that may be a World Series hangover and Spring Training optimism talking!)

James: I mean, it’s hard to look at the roster and see that everyone’s coming back except for Carlos Beltran (who was probably more effective as a bench coach than as an offensive force) and replacing Fiers with Gerrit Cole, and expect the Astros to hand back competition for the division. They won the division by 21 games in 2017. A lot of things have to go really wrong to give up that much ground. Now, again, it’s the Astros and while the World Series helped this, I still watch highlights and wonder – even knowing how it’s going to end – how the Astros can mess it up. I think 100 wins is certainly doable, and they win the division. The playoffs come, and then who knows? But I’d like to be the fan of a team who goes back-to-back.

C70: What’s one question I should have asked and what’s the answer to it?

Jayne: Since I write about the Astros minor league system, you should have asked me, “Jayne, who is in the pipeline that has you excited?” I’m so glad you asked! Aside from RHP Forrest Whitley (ranked #10 overall prospect by Baseball America) and OF Kyle Tucker (ranked #15 by BA), the prospects I find the most intriguing are the Cuban contingent. Aside from Yuli Gurriel, the Astros have another 13 Cuban players who have been signed over the last few years. In particular, OF/1B Yordan Alvarez, RHP Rogelio Armenteros and LHP Cionel Perez have been climbing the top prospect ladder, but I’m also intrigued by RHP Yoanys Quiala and C Lorenzo Quintana (who just signed this past October, but played for seven seasons in Cuba). I’m not sure that everyone realizes just how aggressive the Astros have gotten in the Cuban market, but it appears that those efforts will start really paying off within the next couple of seasons.

James: Was Orlando Palmeiro safe? Yes, Orlando Palmeiro was safe. 

Appreciate Jayne and James taking time to give us the lowdown on the World Champs.  Dallas Keuchel said that the Astros “aren’t the Cubs” and won’t have a championship hangover.  It’s about time to see if he’s right!

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