When the Houston Astros found themselves playing baseball in October last season for the first time since their World Series campaign in 2005, when they were a member of the National League, fans could not have really cared less on how the team got there. All they knew is that the years of losing were over.
After squandering their first place lead of 51 days that was held from late July to mid September, Houston was able to regroup and ride their Cy Young award-winning ace Dallas Keuchel, sputtering into the playoffs outgaining the division-rival Los Angeles Angels by one game for the second Wild Card spot.
As Houston was able to rely on its starting rotation in the playoffs, their bullpen was what ultimately cost them when it came to advancing into the next round. The acquisition of closer Ken Giles this offseason from the Philadelphia Phillies cost Houston its former number one overall pick Mark Appel, but may have been worth it, giving them more depth in the bullpen than they had a season ago.
Slotting Giles in the closer role now moves former closer Luke Gregerson into the eighth inning slot, or even earlier. Also, manager A.J. Hinch will be able to mix and match with other relievers from the sixth inning on, such as Will Harris, Josh Fields, and Pat Neshek. Tony Sipp will be available as a left-handed specialist serving as a key component in pen, as he sported a career-low 1.99 ERA last season.
One cause of concern while looking at the Astros’ bullpen is the lack of left-handers that are on the roster at the moment. Sipp is the only left-hander in the bullpen as of now and actually had better numbers against right-handed hitters compared to lefties last season. He will have time to develop his stuff against left-handers in spring training if the club decides not to add another left-handed arm, using Sipp as its lefty specialist.
A couple of position battles that Astros have on its hands lie on both corners of the infield with an array of young prospects looking to get in on the action. The most noticeable hole for Houston is at first base after non-tendering Chris Carter, who later signed with the Milwaukee Brewers,
Highly coveted prospect Jon Singleton was supposed to runaway with the first-base job after appearing in 95 games and racking up 13 home runs to his credit during his rookie campaign. However his .168 batting average and 134 strikeouts in 310 at bats made the Astros’ front office second guess themselves on Singleton and sent the power-hitting lefty back down to the minors. This past season, Singleton declined even more only appearing in 19 games at the major-league level and still failed to reach the Mendoza line.
Two players coming out of Houston’s farm system that could challenge Singleton for the starting job at first would be A.J. Reed and Matt Duffy. The 22 year-old Reed mashed 37 home runs and 127 RBIs between High-A and Double-A last season while producing an OPS of over 1.000. Reed led the minors in runs, home runs, RBIs, total bases, slugging percentage and OPS in his first full professional season. Although there are concerns over his production against left-handers at the moment, it would be rather irrational not to give this guy a load of at bats in spring training, especially knowing that the first-base job is up for grabs.
Duffy is a player that has served his time in the minor leagues and can be an asset for a major-league club at either corner of the diamond. He doesn’t bring a haul of power like Reed does but was still able to connect on 20 homers and over 100 RBIs in the minors last season. Duffy might be better suited trying to take over the job at the hot corner, where Luis Valbuena currently holds the title as his 25 home runs he put up a season ago were able to over shine his .224 batting average.
Another potential challenger for Valbuena at third base will be 23-year-old Colin Moran who has seen his production rise at every level he’s played at in his professional career. The former sixth overall pick reached career highs in every single major hitting category while playing for Double-A Corpus Christi last season. Racking up 67 RBIs in 96 games, Moran should receive the attention from Hinch in spring training.
Houston announced on Wednesday that DH Evan Gattis would undergo surgery for a sports hernia and is expected to miss approximately four to six weeks. The absence of Gattis in spring training opens the door for the list of young sluggers in the Astros’ system, allowing each of them to receive countless at bats against major-league pitchers in Florida.
If Gattis were to miss the beginning of the season, the odd man out for the first base job could be used as the DH come Opening Day. However it is likely that the candidate would have to compete against outfielders Preston Tucker and Jake Marisnick, two players who received over 300 at bats in the big leagues a year ago.
The starting rotation will once again be the strong suit of this club, with Keuchel returning from his unblemished home-record last season. Collin McHugh eclipsed 200 innings pitched for the first time in his career, tallying 19 wins, although he saw a major spike in his ERA from 2.73 in his rookie season to 3.89 last season.
Lance McCullers was a surprise for Houston last season at age 21, coming up from Double-A Corpus Christi. Making 22 starts for the Astros last season shows signs of promise in the young right-hander as well as his 3.22 ERA. McCullers was shutdown in the last month of the season, due his high inning total, before returning to pitch in a very convincing performance during Game Four of the ALDS against the Kansas City Royals. The inning limit will be something to monitor again on the young strikeout machine, who recorded 129 punch outs over 125 innings pitched in his first year in the big leagues.
It’s clear that the Astros will bring back many power bats from last season. Even in positions where there are question marks, there are powerful minor-leaguers slotted to fill the void. Another year of development for each of their starting pitchers, as well as the addition of Giles closing out games, should make the Astros a top contender once again in the AL West for the second straight season.