By Brett Dolan

The 2015 Houston Astros provided a great story. Two years removed from a 111 loss season, the Stros used a strong start and a September push to lift the club to the American League’s second wildcard. Dallas Keuchel and the Astros not only won in New York to advance to the ALDS, they gave the Royals all they could handle before succumbing to the team that eventually won the World Series.

The 2016 Astros campaign has felt dramatically different, punctuated by a 12-4 loss to the Mariners Wednesday and a Baltimore win in Toronto leaving Houston’s tragic number at one. Another Orioles win tonight would eliminate the Stros before their final three game series in Anaheim begins Friday.

Ironically three wins against the Angels would give the club the same record as 2015, at 86-76, but it could be a few games short of a post-season berth.

Whereas the ’15 team raced out of the gates, this year with expectations of a deeper post-season run, the Astros started 9-18. By late July Houston had remarkably maneuvered back to ten games above .500 at 54-44. Then came a stretch against the Yankees, Tigers, Blue Jays and Rangers that culminated with just three wins and ten losses that made the climb back into the A.L. Wildcard race more challenging. It also underlined a big issue, defeating winning teams.

The Astros will finish 38-51 versus clubs with winning records. Of course a 4-15 season series with the nemesis Texas Rangers didn’t help. However without a 6-1 record against Baltimore, the Astros would have gone just 32-50 against winning teams.

It hasn’t been for a lack of exciting players. The team might have the best foundation of young talent in baseball with a pair of potential Hall of Famer’s. Jose Altuve (.337, 24, 96, 212 hits, 107 runs) look poised to not only win a batting title but also an MVP before a .267 September has put that latter into question. We have all wondered what George Springer’s stat line would look like with a full season. Having played EVERY game to this point we now know. Primarily batting leadoff, Springer has hit .262, 29, 82 with 116 runs scored while playing Gold Glove defense. Alex Bregman also looks like a keeper.

But first base has continued to be a black hole. The club still strikes out too much with an offense heavily relying on the long ball. Jeff Luhnow will need to find another outfielder after a disappointing campaign from Colby Rasmus.

Pitching depth in the rotation looked like a plus even before Lance McCullers started and finished the season on the disabled list. But it will be an area Luhnow will have to address for 2017, especially after Dallas Keuchel followed up his Cy-Young campaign with a 9-12 4.55 season. Collin McHugh is 12-10 4.53, with potentially one more start remaining. Chris Devenski could be an option but he has provided some valuable high leverage bullpen innings. Doug Fister’s affordable contract made his strong start and consistency a valued turn through the rotation only to finish with more losses than wins and a 4.64 ERA.

Compared to the rest of Major League Baseball the Astros were remarkably healthy for a majority of the season before the training table became overused in September. Bregman was the latest to return from a hamstring injury to provide a big hit Tuesday night.

“He (Bregman) knows what is at stake,” said A.J. Hinch before Wednesday’s game. “So Does Correa with the shoulder, so does Altuve with the wrist and ribs, so does Springer with playing in every game this year. There are a lot of our guys fighting the fight because of where we are on the calendar that you wouldn’t ask them to do in May, June or July.”

With a better start would Hinch consider monitoring the work load of his young stars in 2017 so their individual gas tanks didn’t look like they were on “E” in September?

“I think they would be one step closer off of E,” he replied. “I am not sure it is a perfect science. There is no doubt we have some youth on our side which is good. It’s all about the depth you have and the choices you have. You don’t want a drastic drop off in production. We found that in the outfield earlier this season. We’ve pushed them as much as we can.”

Other rookies have been forced to learn how to win at the major league level in the middle of a pennant race.

“Our young players are getting some much needed high intensity, playoff caliber baseball experience that they will be able to pass on to some of these guys,” Hinch added.

Unfortunately for the Astros that experience won’t come in handy this October.



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