Sep 12, 2016; Houston, TX, USA; Houston Astros second baseman Jose Altuve (27) watches from the dugout during the game against the Texas Rangers at Minute Maid Park. Mandatory Credit: Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports
The Houston Astros surprised everyone in 2015, making the playoffs as one of two wild card teams and pushing the eventual World Series champion Kansas City Royals to the brink of elimination. The team entered 2016 with higher expectations, but after a slow start to the season the Astros were unable to make up enough ground to push for a postseason berth.
That’s the basic gist of the Houston Astros 2016 season, but there was much, much more at work in the “why” they faltered this year en route to an 84-78 record. Today we’re going to take a look at some of the reasons behind the Astros not meeting the expectations of many, upcoming free agents and look for how they can correct some of their shortcomings headed into 2017.
Before we get into that, let’s briefly look at where Houston ranked this season in terms of offensive production, defensively and with their pitching staff.
At the plate the Astros ranked in the middle of the pack in all of baseball in runs scored with 724, one behind the Dodgers and two up on the Twins. While their cumulative wRC+ of 99 is just a touch below league average, that’s a solid lineup to throw out there one through nine. That 99 ranked tenth in baseball. The downside here is that they also ranked 8th in the American League in both runs scored and wRC+.
On the rubber, the team ranked first overall in the AL in pitcher’s cumulative fWAR with Collin McHugh leading the way with a 3.0 WAR. In terms of the rotation alone, that ranking drops to sixth in the AL, meaning that the bullpen was a much bigger strength than many will likely consider them, given the struggles of Ken Giles and others at times over the course of the year. The starters ranked 8th in the league in ERA with a 4.37 mark, which was close the the AL average of 4.20 this year. The bullpen’s cumulative WAR came out to 7.9, which is 1.5 more than the second-best club in the Yankees, who had the trio of Aroldis Chapman, Andrew Miller and Dellin Betances for a few months.
In the field, the Astros were the best defensive team according to DRS (Defensive Runs Saved), taking away 51 runs from the opposition throughout the course of the year. That’s nearly one for every three-game series.
That’s where things get interesting, however. Colby Rasmus was responsible for saving 20 of those runs by himself, and will hit the free agent market this winter. He likely won’t make nearly as much as he did by accepting last year’s qualifying offer, but he’s still likely in the $10-12M per year range. With George Springer, Yulieski Gurriel/Alex Bregman and Teoscar Hernandez/Jake Marisnick roaming the outfield, the Houston Astros have options, and could allocate some of that money in other ways.
Apr 23, 2016; Houston, TX, USA; Houston Astros relief pitcher Ken Giles (53) pitches against the Boston Red Sox in the eighth inning at Minute Maid Park. Astros won 8-3. Mandatory Credit: Thomas B. Shea-USA TODAY Sports
2016 in Review
Injuries, depth–or a lack thereof–and a lack of production in certain areas were what doomed the Astros in 2016. Dallas Keuchel looked hittable a season after taking home the AL Cy Young award. Lance McCullers made just 14 starts, totaling 81 innings, and while he was tremendous in those starts, compiling a 3.00 FIP, his absence for much of the season put a large burden on the starting staff and the team just didn’t have enough McCullers-esque options to replace him.
Keuchel had started to turn things around when he went down at the end of August, putting an added strain on an already thin pitching staff. Trading Scott Feldman certainly hurt that depth, but in the grand scheme of things likely wouldn’t have been enough to push them into the postseason after finishing five back of the second wild card spot.
The Astros ranked third in WAR among catchers, but that stat is a bit misleading, as they accrued 265 games played with Castro and Gattis oftentimes in the same lineup. That game total is far and away the most on the list, and a large majority of that WAR total is a combination of Castro’s defense behind the plate coupled with Gattis’ bat. Their combined wRC+ of 98 also ranked third.
As we mentioned earlier, first base was a bit of a problem area for the club in 2016, despite Tyler White‘s hot start to the year and top prospect A.J. Reed making his big league debut. Instead, it was Marwin Gonzalez that saw the most time at first, but his usefulness to the club is in a utility role, not as a full-fledged first baseman.
Then of course there was center field, which was manned by Carlos Gomez for a large part of the season and saw him put up a wRC+ of 60, which is 40 percent below league average. Jake Marisnick didn’t help things with his mark of 58, but his defense is enough to keep him in the lineup moving forward. Teoacar Hernandez started in Double-A and made the climb all the way to Houston with his bat in 2016, after a down season at the plate in 2015. The combination of Marisnick and Hernandez could be a solid combination in center in ’17.
The Astros’ biggest offseason acquisition, Ken Giles, struggled a bit in spring training and Luke Gregerson ended up closing games for the club to start the season. Giles’ struggles continued through April, where he ended the month with a 9.00 ERA. Gregerson, Will Harris and Giles all got their turn in the ninth for Houston, and Giles proved that he could end up being worth the steep cost of acquisition with some solid work throughout the year.
On the bright side, Bregman debuted and got some experience in an Astros’ uniform, which should serve him well next season. Gurriel was a big international signing that could pay big dividends next year as well, along with the further development of Correa and Springer at key spots in the lineup.
Sep 4, 2016; Arlington, TX, USA; Houston Astros left fielder Colby Rasmus (28) scores against the Texas Rangers during the fourth inning at Globe Life Park in Arlington. Mandatory Credit: Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports
As we alluded to before, Colby Rasmus will be a free agent this offseason, as will Doug Fister, Luis Valbuena and Jason Castro. Let’s take a look at each of their seasons and see if they’re worth bringing back.
Of the quartet, Fister is the one option that I would make a case for, if he is a back-end starter. A little later today I’ll address the Astros options in adding a starting catcher to split time with Evan Gattis behind the plate (no, it won’t just be “sign Matt Wieters“), so Castro would be a fallback option in my opinion.
Valubuena has proven that he can be a valuable contributor to the club over the past two seasons, but his role will likely be diminished on this club with Bregman and Gurriel likely to man third base in 2017. That said, the team’s production at first base was atrocious in 2016 with Marwin Gonzalez, Tyler White and A.J. Reed collectively producing a 79 wRC+, which ranked 14th in the AL. While teams can get away without production from a power-producing position in the lineup in the National League, the AL makes it a bit tougher to hide those inefficiencies. Valbuena could be brought back to help give the position a boost, but again, the team has other options that are worth exploring.