The AL West is the final division left in our previews all 30 MLB teams leading up to the start of the 2016 season, beginning with the Houston Astros, who finished in second place in the division last season
The Astros surprised everyone last season, going 86-76 a season after finishing 70-92, leading to a Wild Card and playoff appearance, when they lost to the eventual World Series champion Royals. Now, expectations are high as people expect the team to repeat last season’s success. The Astros spent the winter adding pieces to their pitching staff, led by the signing of SP Doug Fister, hoping he’ll bounce back from a disappointing, injury-plagued season last year with the Nationals. The other notable transaction was trading a few prospects, including 2013 overall No. 1 draft pick SP Mark Appel to the Phillies in exchange for RP Ken Giles, who is expected to serve as the team’s closer, and a minor leaguer. The additions of Fister and Giles are in addition to reigning AL Cy Young Award winner Dallas Keuchel. On offense, you have a strong middle infield tandem with 2B Jose Altuve and SS Carlos Correa, who was named the AL Rookie of the Year in 2015, along with DH Evan Gattis, although he is going to start the season on the DL as he recovers from sports hernia surgery.
The Astros are a team who hit home runs but don’t have a high average. Their .250 average was tied for the fourth lowest in the American League, but their 230 home runs were the second most in the league, behind only the Blue Jays. Gattis led the team with 27 home runs, while hitting .246. 3B Luis Valbuena was even more of a feast-or-famine guy, hitting just .224 despite hitting 25 home runs. Altuve is the top average guy on the team — he hit .313 last season — but he can also hit the ball out of the park; he had 15 home runs last season and also had an AL-best 38 stolen bases, which helped the team lead the AL with 121 steals. In his abbreviated rookie season, Correa hit .279 with 22 home runs and 68 RBI in 99 games. Keuchel helped lead the Astros to the best ERA (3.57) in the American League as he had a career year, going 20-8 with a 2.48 ERA and 216 strikeouts in 232 innings. Rookie SP Lance McCullers pitched well in his first 22 career starts, posting a 3.22 ERA with 129 strikeouts in 125.2 innings. The bullpen wasn’t as good, with closer Luke Gregerson going 31-for-36 in save opportunities with a 3.10 ERA in 64 appearances. In 9 games with the Phillies, Giles posted a 1.80 ERA with 87 strikeouts in 70 innings while notching 15 saves in 20 opportunities in the second half of the season when he took over as closer following the July trade of RP Jonathan Papelbon.
The Astros have some injury concerns in the first part of the season, with Gattis and McCullers both starting the season on the DL, though neither is expected to miss more than a few weeks. There’s also a question about what kind of production the team will get out of Fister, who put up a career-worst 4.19 ERA last season while battling forearm injuries for much of the season. If he is healthy and can approach the 2.41 ERA and 16 wins he achieved in 2014, he would be a strong addition to an already-good rotation. Offensively, you can pretty much pencil Altuve in for a .300-plus average and double-digit home runs and Gattis should approach, or surpass, 20 home runs this season, depending on how much time he misses. OF George Springer is a bounce-back candidate after an injury-shortened season that saw him play 102 games. Correa came out of the gate strong in his first experience in the majors, but can he continue that success that would have had him on pace to hit 36 home runs if he was in the majors for the full season, rather than being called up in June? He likely won’t keep up that pace, but if he comes close to the expectations people have for him, he should have a nice follow-up to his successful rookie season.
After coming out of nowhere to make the playoffs last season, the Astros have high expectations to live up to this season. They led the AL West for much of last season before the Rangers passed them in the final weeks of the season to win the division. Those two teams are likely going to be competing for the division again this season. It should be another tight race between the in-state rivals for control of the division.