Major League Baseball doesn’t give out rings or throw parades for off-season successes. If they did, the Astros could size their collective fingers and draw up a map through downtown Houston for an early November procession. They’ve won the off-season.
The signings of Josh Reddick, Carlos Beltran, Norichika Aoki and the acquisition of Brian McCann are enough to put a third place A.L. West finish in the rear view mirror and dream of a brighter future where the team competes for a divisional title on a yearly basis while their Core Four of Jose Altuve, Carlos Correa, George Springer and Alex Bregman wreck havoc on major league pitching.
The Astros opened their wallet, targeted weaknesses and valued experience during their roster upgrade. McCann and Beltran will become immediate leaders. Reddick and Aoki will help provide more outfield and left-handed production of which the 2016 club had little. A.J. Hinch will have more depth and more options to choose from while looking for a better start in 2017.
There was just two games difference between the 2015 and 2016 Astros and yet the seasons felt worlds apart. The ’15 team was a breakthrough club, getting off to a fast start and improving 16 games over the previous campaign. The organization got back to the playoffs for the first time since 2005 and gave the eventual World Series champion Royals more than a run for their money, maybe a few innings away from changing history.
The ’16 club was never truly able to overcome a slow start, fighting a 7-17 beginning for a few months, before a mid-season push gave them an outside shot at the post-season heading into September despite closer issues, injuries to Lance McCullers and Luis Valbuena, a disastrous Carlos Gomez experiment and a down year from Colby Rasmus and Dallas Keuchel. The club finished with 84 wins, two off the previous year’s pace but five behind the two wildcard teams.
A Keuchel rebound and a healthy McCullers would certainly help in 2017. It would be foolish to rule out one more move for a front line starter. The price tag of prospects could hurt but there is enough farm system depth to make a competitive offer while not depleting the 25-man roster.
It is a seller’s market because of a thin free agent class. Trades now require a bevy of young talent as teams covet prospects, but that reinforces Jeff Luhnow’s ability to strike early and often, even before the industry’s annual Winter Meetings spendfest.
The division rival Rangers lost Beltran to Houston and Ian Desmond to the Colorado Rockies. Evan Grant writing in the Dallas Morning News said the Rangers, “aren’t going to make it rain” in regards to free agent spending. Then again they did win 95 games last year and won’t be an easy out regardless of their off-season losses.
Seattle was improved last year, finishing second in the division but they are also a little long in the tooth with Nelson Cruz and Robinson Cano. Even the defending American League champs, the Cleveland Indians, don’t seem to have the budget to spend lavishly to maybe add a bat like Edwin Encarnacion. The Red Sox did get Chris Sale but they also lost Big Papi to retirement. The Astros immediate future would also coincide with an A.L. void of true dominant teams like the Chicago Cubs.
It has suddenly become fun in Houston to forecast the playoffs for a championship starved town. Two years ago the Rockets were in the Western Conference Finals, only to stumble to an eight seed and early exit last, before a coaching change and roster realignment has them looking like a team capable of multiple post-season rounds. With a win Sunday, the Texans are back in the driver’s seat for a third consecutive winning and second straight division winning team. However just getting to the playoffs won’t be enough after last year’s loss to the Chiefs at NRG.
Then there are the Astros, with an improved roster and heightened expectations, they would seem to be in good position to make the playoffs for the second time in three seasons in 2017.
Baseball’s playoffs are a true crap shoot. The Rangers and Red Sox combined for 188 regular season victories last year and zero post-season W’s. The memory of 95 and 93 wins are erased somewhat with an early exit just as the off-season victories won’t matter once the 2017 campaign begins. April still feels a lonnng way off, let alone October, but if a championship caliber team is constructed in the off-season the Astros are positioned well for an entertaining ride in 2017.
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