The AL West is the final division left in our previews all 30 MLB teams leading up to the start of the 2017 season, beginning with the Houston Astros, who finished in third place in the division last season
The Astros were one of the busiest teams in free agency and the trade market this winter after finishing third in the division and winning two fewer games than in 2015. The focus was on adding hitters to the lineup, including sending a couple minor-leaguers to the Yankees in exchange for C Brian McCann. They also signed veteran OF — and former Astro — Carlos Beltran to a one-year deal, while OF Josh Reddick inked a four-year contract with the team. The Astros also signed OF Norichika Aoki. They join an offense that already had a good, young core with 2B Jose Altuve, SS Carlos Correa and OF George Springer. As far as pitchers, the Astros signed SP Charlie Morton and traded RP Pat Neshek to the Phillies.
The Astros’ .247 batting average was the seventh-lowest in Major League Baseball, but they finished in the top half of the majors with 198 home runs. Their .735 OPS put them in the middle of the pack. Altuve led the way with an American League-best .338 and a career-high 24 home runs — nine more than he hit in 2015 — and a .928 OPS that ranked fifth in the AL. Even though Altuve’s power output increased, his speed didn’t go away as he stole 30 bases, which was tied for the second-most in the AL. His 7.7 WAR was tied for the third-highest in the majors and the best of his career. DH Evan Gattis‘ career-high 32 home runs were the most on the team — and he hit them in 132 games — and he hit .251 with a .826 OPS. Springer hit a career-high 29 home runs, to go along with his .261 average and a .815 OPS. Correa hit .274 with 20 home runs in his first full season in the league. With the Yankees last year, Beltran had one of his best seasons in a while, hitting .295 with 29 home runs, and McCann hit .242 with 20 home runs.
The team’s 4.06 ERA was in the top half of the majors and the pitching staff’s 1,396 strikeouts were tied for the fifth-most in MLB. The bullpen recorded 44 saves, which was one more than the MLB average. After winning the AL Cy Young in 2015, SP Dallas Keuchel posted a disappointing 4.55 ERA last season, with 144 strikeouts in 168 innings. SP Collin McHugh put up a 4.34 ERA with 177 strikeouts in 184.2 innings. SP Lance McCullers did better, with a 3.22 ERA and 106 strikeouts in 81 innings, but he started just 14 games in a season plagued by injuries. There was no set closer in the bullpen, with three relievers each earning between 12 and 15 saves on the season. RP Will Harris put up the best ERA of the three, with a 2.25 ERA and 69 strikeouts in 64 innings. Harris saved 12 games while RPs Ken Giles and Luke Gregerson each recorded 15 saves. Giles struck out 102 in 65.2 innings with a 4.11 ERA, and Gregerson posted a 3.28 ERA with 67 strikeouts in 57.2 innings.
The Astros should have an improved offense this season with some of the hitters they acquired this winter. In addition to their trade and free-agent acquisitions, the Astros should have 1B Yulieski Gurriel and 3B Alex Bregman in the majors for the whole season after they got limited playing time late in the 2016 campaign. If they can perform to the lofty expectations that have been set for them, the offense will be significantly improved. Having McCann behind the plate allows Gattis to spend less time at catcher, which should improve the defense at the position, and play more at designated hitter and in the outfield. With McCann being a veteran catcher, he could also help a rotation with a couple of young pitchers in key roles.
It appears as though McHugh will start the season on the disabled list with a dead arm, which should allow young SP Joe Musgrove to get in the rotation to start the season, which was questionable when spring training began. Musgrove made 10 starts and one relief appearance in the majors last season, posting a 4.06 ERA but as he gains experience he should improve upon that. If he pitches well, he should be able to stick in the rotation when McHugh comes off the DL. The key for the rotation will obviously be Keuchel having a much better season. The team was counting on him to be the ace of the staff last year, which wasn’t the case. He needs to return to his Cy Young form of 2015, that would be a big help to a rotation that struggled in 2016. If McCullers can stay healthy, he can also help the performance of the rotation, as he was the best starter on the team last year but missed much of the season because of injury. Giles should get the first shot at being the closer this year, but if doesn’t perform to expectations, manager A.J. Hinch probably won’t hesitate to put someone else in the role, as he did last season. RP Chris Devenski is someone to watch for who could make some spot starts if needed, as he did last year when he put up good numbers — including a 2.16 ERA — mainly pitching out of the bullpen.
After surprising people with a strong 2015 the Astros failed to live up to high expectations that were set for them last year, but with the additions they’ve made over the last few months I think the Astros are ready to take the next step. After a disappointing third-place finish last year, I think they’ll pass the Rangers to win the AL West this year. The key for them to do that will be to beat the Rangers in their head-to-head matchups because the Astros went 4-15 against their in-state rivals last year, which won’t help them win the division if they have another record like that in 2017.