The Astros arrived a year early in 2015, earning a wild card, beating the Yankees in that AL Wild Card Game and nearly eliminating the eventual World Series champion Royals in the ALDS. However, the team never recovered from a terrible 7-17 start in 2016, finishing with 84 wins and missing the postseason.
But a flurry of moves – trading for catcher Brian McCann and agreeing to deals with outfielder Josh Reddick and right-hander Charlie Morton – have made Houston not only the most aggressive team thus far this offseason but also the early AL West front-runner. Here’s why:
That explosive offense
With Reddick and McCann, the Astros now have a strong mix of veteran talent and emerging superstars (Carlos Correa, Alex Bregman). And then there are the tweeners like Jose Altuve (26), George Springer (27) and Jake Marisnick (25).
Without McCann and Reddick this past season, Houston hit 198 homers with a .734 OPS – and those numbers only will improve. Houston addressed its need for lefty power in a big way with the additions of McCann and Reddick.
An even stronger defense
Not only does the trade for McCann improve the team’s offense – he has nine consecutive seasons with at least 20 homers – he also improves the defense. He can split time behind the plate with Evan Gattis, as the addition of McCann all but rules out the Astros re-signing Jason Castro.
In addition, Reddick and Altuve each have a Gold Glove, and Springer has the talent to win one. According to FanGraphs, Houston ranked second in Defensive Runs Saved this past season. And it just got better.
The bounce-back rotation
The starting five took a step back in 2016, partially because of injuries, partially because of familiarity by the opposition and partially because of the extensive workload in 2015. Of the Astros' four returning starters – Dallas Keuchel, Collin McHugh, Lance McCullers and Mike Fiers – only McCullers’ ERA didn’t rise (he made just 14 starts). And all four saw a big jump in WHIP.
Each is due to improve, especially Keuchel, the 2015 AL Cy Young Award winner. Plus, Houston made a nice under-the-radar addition this week in Charlie Morton.
A dominant bullpen
Houston finished 12th in the majors in 2016 with a 3.56 ERA, but was first in WHIP (1.14), second in K/9 ratio (10.08) and fourth in opponents’ OPS (.672). Their unit features three relievers who finished with double-digit save totals: Ken Giles (15), Luke Gregerson (15) and Will Harris (12). Chris Devenski was excellent in relief, and Tony Sipp is another bounce-back candidate. Plus, there’s still plenty of time to add some middle-relief help.
The rest of the division
The two-time defending AL West champion Rangers are facing big free-agent losses, the Mariners never seem to get over that hump, the Angels have the AL MVP but also a ton of holes, and the A’s are hopelessly stuck in a rebuild.
Obviously, it’s mid-November and there is plenty of time for all of these teams to improve their rosters. But Houston wasted no time in doing so and put itself in great position to win its first division title since 2001, when it was in the NL Central and was led by Craig Biggio, Jeff Bagwell and Lance Berkman.