Houston (CBS Houston) – Pitchers and catchers reported today for the Houston Astros, which officially starts the 2017 voyage that the club hopes ends with the first World Series victory in franchise history.
Hope springs eternal this time of year, but for a lot of teams it’s just that, hope. For the Astros, the chances are real. Sports Illustrated deemed the Astros the 2017 World Series Champions three years ago. This year’s club has added quality veterans to go along with young superstars in an effort to find the right balance of a championship club.
So, how will the Astros win the World Series? Let’s start with the offense.
One of the veterans that Jeff Luhnow acquired in the offseason was Brian McCann. McCann brings nine straight seasons of 20 or more homeruns to a position that league wide doesn’t produce much offense. Astro fans know that all too well having to sit through six seasons of Jason Castro, most of those being bad offensive years. In addition, McCann is very good at handling a pitching staff and isn’t a liability defensively. Which brings me to Evan Gattis, he’s fine to have on your team, he’s fine to catch a few games here and there, and he’s fine to DH a good chunk of games, but having Gattis behind the plate on a routine basis is frightening. Gattis receives pitches about as bad as anyone in baseball and it’s evident by the amount of breaking balls that pitchers fear to throw in the dirt when Gattis is behind the plate. McCann alleviates that concern, and for the Astros to win the World Series, he needs to stay healthy.
The middle of the Astros’ infield is the best in baseball and has the potential to go down as one of the best middle infield duos in baseball history. Jose Altuve is one of, if not the best, hitters in baseball. Carlos Correa, despite not performing quite as well as some thought he would in his sophomore season, was one of the best offensive shortstops in baseball last year and is 22-years-old. The corner infield spots will determine whether or not the Astros will have a good or a great offense. After a horrendous start to his major league career, Alex Bregman showed flashes as to why he was one of the top prospects last season and the hot corner is his. At first, it looks like Yulieski Gurriel will get the lion’s share of the playing time, although he could be forced to left field if A.J. Reed can find the form that made him one of the top first base prospects last season. Gurriel didn’t show the flashes that Bregman did, but still has the potential to turn into an above average to good major league hitter. For the Astros to win a World Series, the infield can’t have a season ending injury to Correa, Altuve or Bregman. With Marwin Gonzalez, Tony Kemp and perhaps even Colin Moran, the Astros have the depth to sustain a few injuries here and there on the infield, but the big three will be needed in the postseason. Also, for the Astros to win it all, they need to find above average production from someone, likely Gurriel, but don’t forget about Reed.
In the outfield, the Astros are very deep. George Springer will play in center field with Josh Reddick in right and Norichika Aoki in left, if you believe the depth chart on the Astros’ team website. Carlos Beltran will get most of the starts at DH, and in order for the Astros to win a World Series, Beltran shouldn’t start more than 20 games in the outfield. At the age of 39, and with his injury history, Beltran is better suited to be a full time designated hitter. The Astros will take advantage of platoons, and may even use a straight up platoon with Aoki and Jake Marisnick in left, although Aoki has reverse splits over the course of his career. Teoscar Hernandez could even be in the mix with a strong spring. In my opinion, Aoki was the underrated move in the offseason. For starters he was claimed on waivers, but with a team that struck out way too many times and had way too many easy outs, Aoki gives the team a tough at bat every time he is up especially against righties with a .364 on base percentage last year. Springer in center field is a concern from a health standpoint. Last season was the first in his three in the league that he played a full season, but his bat in center field makes the offense as a whole a lot better. I’d argue that Springer’s health is more important than that of Correa and Altuve because of the lack of center field depth. Reddick is solid and should have his numbers helped by the lineup he is in, but he’s always been just okay as an offensive player and isn’t a dire need for the Astros to win the World Series.
Overall the offense is going to be good and has a chance to be great. On top of that it has depth that can sustain some injuries, but in order to win a World Series, Altuve, Correa, Springer, McCann and maybe even Bregman need to stay healthy for a majority of the season.
The bullpen has a chance to be a strength for the team. Ken Giles has been brilliant for most of his career, Luke Gregerson is much better in a late inning role than the closer’s role, Will Harris is great at coming in at tight situations, and Chris Devenski and Michael Feliz are better than what you’d ever need in a long relief role. The key to the bullpen is Tony Sipp. Last season the Astros sorely missed the 2015 Tony Sipp to provide the left handed specialist that every good pen has. If Sipp can regain his 2015 form, the bullpen could contend for one of the best in the league.
Now to the elephant in the room, the starting rotation. I’m a believer that an offense can carry you to a divisional title, but that to win a World Series you need three really good starting pitchers. Not necessarily the best pitcher in baseball, look at Clayton Kershaw for instance, but three starters who give you a fighting chance every time they’re on the mound. The Astros have two of the three, but both of them had concerning seasons last year. Dallas Keuchel pitched through a “bum” shoulder in 2016 and saw his era inflate to 4.55, up from a 2.48 era in 2015. There are some concerns that Keuchel’s Cy Young season was a fluke. While it may have been his peak, his 2014 season was really good too. 2017 Keuchel will need to be closer to 2015 form than 2016 for his team to win a World Series. The second piece to the rotation actually was good last year, but he was hurt…again. For the second season in a row, McCullers had a 3.22 era, but only started 14 games due to injury. In order for the Astros to win the World Series, Keuchel needs to be in 2015 form and McCullers needs to pitch like he has, but stay healthy. Both are huge “if’s.” Now onto the third pitcher to fulfill the strong playoff trio, I believe it will come one of two ways. The obvious one is via trade, pitchers like Jose Quintana, Sonny Gray and Chris Archer were names that the Astros reportedly kicked the tires on in the offseason. If the White Sox, A’s, and Rays are out of the playoff race in July, I fully expect the Astros to try again. The other way is through player development. Astros’ pitching coach Brent Strom is very good at his job, and Joe Musgrove has a chance to develop into a solid number three pitcher as some point in his career. If the Astros can’t bring in a third piece to add to Keuchel and McCullers, the team will need Musgrove to become the number three in order to win a World Series. The long shot to become the third piece is Astros’ top prospect Francis Martes, who spent all of last season in double a Corpus Christi and is projected to be a top of the rotation pitcher. As far as the other pitchers in the rotation, Colin McHugh, Charlie Morton and potentially Mike Fiers, they just need to eat innings and win more games than they lose. The offense will carry the bottom of the rotation if they can keep their team in the game.
In short, the Astros are going to be really good, but for the organization to win their first ever World Series key offensive players need to stay healthy. Keuchel needs to regain close to Cy Young form, Lance McCullers has to stay healthy for a full year and somehow the Astros need to find a solid third starter.