The AL West is the final division left in our previews all 30 MLB teams leading up to the start of the 2018 season, beginning with the Houston Astros, who won the division — and the World Series — last season
After more than 50 years in Major League Baseball, the Astros finally won the first World Series title in franchise history last season. While they lost some players from the championship team this winter — OF Carlos Beltran retired and they traded 3B Colin Moran and pitchers Joe Musgrove and Michael Feliz — the core of the team remains, including 2017 American League MVP Jose Altuve and World Series MVP George Springer. The team’s biggest addition this offseason was trading for SP Gerrit Cole, who joins a rotation that includes former Cy Young winners Justin Verlander and Dallas Keuchel. The Astros also signed RPs Joe Smith and Hector Rondon to get a better performance out of the bullpen, which was the weak spot on last year’s squad, as they look to become the first team since the 1998-2000 Yankees to repeat as World Series champions.
The Astros led MLB last season with a .282 average and an .823 OPS, and their 238 home runs were second to only the Yankees. Altuve led the way with a MLB-best .346 average, 24 home runs and a .957 OPS. He also led the majors with an 8.3 WAR on his way to earning MVP honors. Springer led the team with 34 home runs with a .283 average, and SS Carlos Correa hit .315 with 24 home runs in 109 games. Utilityman Marwin Gonzalez had a career year, hitting .303 with 23 homers and a team-high 90 RBI in 134 games. 3B Alex Bregman had a strong rookie campaign, hitting .284 with 19 home runs. OF Josh Reddick set a new career high with a .314 average to go along with 13 home runs.
The pitching wasn’t as good, but their 4.12 ERA was in the top half of the league, and the Astros’ 1,593 strikeouts were the second most in the majors. Their 45 saves were tied for sixth in MLB. After coming over the team in an August 31 trade, Verlander was 5-0 in five starts in the regular season for the Astros. He posted a 1.06 ERA and struck out 43 in 34 innings. Keuchel was limited to 23 starts but put up a respectable 2.90 ERA with 125 strikeouts in 145.2 innings, and SP Lance McCullers posted a 4.25 ERA in 22 starts, recording 132 strikeouts in 118.2 innings. Veteran P Brad Peacock had a strong season, putting up a 3.00 ERA with 161 strikeouts in 132 innings over 34 games, including 21 starts. RP Ken Giles put up a 2.30 ERA with 34 saves in 63 appearances; he recorded 83 strikeouts in 62.2. innings. With the Pirates, Cole posted a 4.26 ERA and struck out 196 batters in 203 innings over 33 starts.
The Astros were among the best offenses in the majors last season, and there’s no reason to think that won’t continue in 2018 with the bulk of the lineup returning. They will be without 1B Yuli Gurriel for the first couple weeks of the season as he recovers from a minor injury suffered during spring training, then serves a five-game suspension that was issued during the World Series. That’ll open up some extra playing times for a guy like OF Derek Fisher, who has the potential to be a good hitter. Another young outfielder with potential is top prospect Kyle Tucker, who has hit the ball well in spring training but won’t start the season in the majors but should get called up in the second half of the season — if not sooner if the Astros deal with injuries. The pitching staff should be better this season now that the Astros will have Verlander for the whole season and with Cole added to the rotation. While he’s not a top-of-the-rotation pitcher, which was how the Pirates were using him, he’s a decent No. 3 or No. 4 starter, as he will be in the Astros’ rotation with McCullers and Charlie Morton expected to fill the remaining spots in the rotation. That means guys like Collin McHugh and Brad Peacock, who would be starters on most teams, will work out of the bullpen to start the season. That should help the rest of the relievers as those guys can give the Astros length out of the bullpen and save the arms of guys like Giles and Chris Devenski, who are key pieces of the bullpen late in games.
There’s no reason to think the Astros aren’t among the favorites to make it to the World Series again in 2018 after winning their first championship last season. The division may have more competition with some of the moves the Angels made to improve their team, but the Astros are still the best team in the AL West and among the best teams in the American League. A second straight World Series appearance is a distinct possibility.