Three reasons to watch the Houston Astros in 2015

Why watch the 2015 Houston Astros? Why, to see the 2017 World’€™s Champions, of course! Hey, we kid the Astros because we love them; they’€™re one of the few teams that seems willing to try just about anything if the numbers pencil out. Who shifted most often in the majors last season? The Astros. Who saved more runs by shifting last season? Same answer.

Of course the Astros pay a great deal of attention to their bottom line, often holding the line when it comes to free-agent contracts and bonuses for amateur players, for which they’€™ve been roundly criticized. Something tells me all will be forgiven, though, when the Astros win that championship.

Which probably won’€™t happen in 2015! The rotation’€™s just not deep enough, the lineup not productive enough. The Astros will be interesting, though, and here are just three of the reasons why…

1. Houston’€™s Comeback Kids

Heading into 2014, Dallas Keuchel had thrown 239 innings in the majors, and gone 9-18 with a 5.20 ERA. So who saw his 2.93 ERA in 2014 coming?

Heading into 2014, Collin McHugh had thrown 47 1/3 innings in the majors, and gone 0-8 with an 8.94 ERA. So who saw his 2.73 ERA in 2014 coming?

Then there’€™s Mark Appel, the Astros’™ first-round pick –€“ and the No. 1 overall pick –€“ in the 2013 draft. Last year in the Class A California League, Appel posted a 9.74 ERA in a dozen starts … leading more than a few to label Appel a bust. And what were the Astros thinking when they promoted him to Double-A? Well, Appel pitched well there, then he pitched well in the Arizona Fall League, and then he pitched well in spring training, and now he’€™s a top prospect once again.

So what happened? Well, Keuchel refined his slider and pounded the lower portion of the strike zone, and McHugh did much the same. Two pitchers you could’€™ve had for a song, just a year or so ago, and now they’€™re both among the better young starters in the American League. And Appel? Hey, the Lord works in mysterious ways.

Sure, maybe we’ve seen their best. McHugh was more than a little "€œhit-lucky"€ last season, and Appel still has a great deal of work to do.

But then again, maybe we haven’€™t. And for all the talk about how the Astros might lack some people skills, doesn’€™t pitching well cure most ills?

2. Jose Altuve

C€’mon, admit it. You didn’€™t see Jose Altuve play nearly as often as you should have last year. Altuve was only 24 last season, but led the majors in hits (225) and batting average, and led the American League with 56 steals. Tony Gwynn Sr. is gone, but Altuve is the closest we’€™ve got.

OK, OK … yes, Altuve’€™s tied with Alexi Amarista as Shortest Player in the Majors. If you believe he’€™s actually 5-foot-€™6€, that is. Which he quite probably is not. In fact, Altuve’€™s so interesting that he’€™s almost certainly the only baseball player in history to inspire a unit of measurement.

3. MLB’€™s most diverse catching troika

Troika? Yeah. Catching troika. As in, three catchers, and all three are worth more than a passing glance. First you’€™ve got Jason Castro, who struggled some in 2014 but got an All-Star nod (and slugged .485) in 2013. Then you’€™ve got Hank Conger, supposedly a good-hitting catcher without much defensively, who washed out in Anaheim but seems to be one of baseball’€™s best pitch-framers. And finally there’€™s Evan Gattis, who is a good-hitting catcher, but is slated mostly for DH duties … which doesn’€™t mean he’€™ll never catch.

There probably won’™t be an All-Star among them this season, but if you could somehow combine these guys, you€’d have a lovely simulacrum of Buster Posey.

Wouldn’€™t that be something to see?

Houston Astros

2014 record: 70-92

Playoffs: N/A

Projected 2015 record: 79-83*

Key additions: DH/C Evan Gattis, SS Jed Lowrie, 3B Luis Valbuena, OF Colby Rasmus, SP Roberto Hernandez, SP Dan Straily, RP Pat Neshek, RP Luke Gregerson, C Hank Conger, RP Joe Thatcher

Key subtractions: OF Dexter Fowler, RP Jose Veras, C Carlos Corporan