MLB: Why the Astros Are the Best in the AL West
When you compare the histories of Major League Baseball’s 30 franchises, no team’s history might be as bleak and uninspiring as that of the Houston Astros. A franchise that has been around since 1962, Houston only owns a total of 10 playoff appearances ever (which has resulted in just one World Series appearance).
In 2013, things really hit rock bottom for the Astros, as the team lost 111 games in route to a third straight season with 100+ losses. Just two seasons later though, in 2015, the Astros returned to the postseason for the first time since their World Series loss in 2005, providing fuel for a wave of momentum entering the 2016 campaign.
Playing in the AL West, Houston has plenty of competition if it wants to return to the playoffs for a second straight season. Last year, the division champs were actually the Texas Rangers, a team that must be taken seriously once again this summer. As long as Mike Trout is in house, the Los Angeles Angels will always have a chance, too. The Oakland A’s and Seattle Mariners aren’t the easiest teams to deal with either.
Despite the competition just within their own division, the Astros have a strong case to not only win the division, but also compete for a World Series berth. There are many reasons to like Houston’s team, but a combination of youth, home-run hitting ability, and strong play on the mound has the ceiling as high as could be for the surging franchise. Let’s break down each area of strength for the Astros to show why they are the best in the West.
Thanks to finishing as one of the worst teams in the game for several seasons, the Astros have stockpiled young, talented players who are making an impact on the team today. In 2011, the team selected outfielder George Springer in the first round of the MLB draft. In 2012, it was Carlos Correa. Along with Jose Altuve, Houston might have the finest corp of players who are 30 years old or younger. With more young draft picks working their way through the Astros’ farm system, this should be a trend for the next several seasons.
Correa was the obvious breakout star of the young group in 2015, hitting 22 home runs and driving in 68 RBI in just 99 games as a rookie (when he was just 20). Now at age 21, the shortstop is a legitimate MVP candidate in the American League and could turn out to be a “once in a lifetime”- type of player.
Springer is expected to make leaps in his game in 2016 and is already a guy who has proven he can hit 20 homers in a season. Altuve enters his sixth professional season as the team’s most dependable hitter, as he hit .313 last season after going for a .341 average in 2014.
Add in a group of players with more experience, Luis Valbuena and Carlos Gomez, and it’s clear that Houston has a nice mix on their roster. No other team in the AL West has quite the balance that they do, which could lead them even further in 2016.
We all know that the Toronto Blue Jays are a home-run hitting machine, but last season the Astros hit nearly as many homers as the Blue Jays did (Toronto had 232 to Houston’s 230 as the top two power-hitting clubs in baseball). Their success with the long ball wasn’t the product of just one or two players. Instead, the team had 11 different players hit 10 or more homers, five of whom hit 20-plus out of the park.
Leading the team was DH Evan Gattis (who has 20-plus in each of three MLB seasons) with 27. Veterans Valbuena and Colby Rasmus hit 25 homers last season, and both are back with the team this season. Correa, despite playing less than 100 games, ended up with 22 in 2015. The Astros’ ability to hit for power offsets their deficiencies on offense.
They finished 21st in baseball in team batting average and had the second-most strikeouts last season, which makes it all the more impressive that they finished with the sixth-most runs in the game. Clearly, the home run is the focal point of their offense and while it may seem unconventional, the players they have make it work. Their underrated lineup should give their divisional foes fits all summer.
Houston can hit. Houston can play defense (third-best fielding percentage in the AL a season ago). What sets them apart is who they have on the mound, though. The team finished with the top team ERA in the American League in 2015.
While the loss of Scott Kazmir will hurt the rotation, reigning AL Cy Young winner Dallas Keuchel gives the team a legitimate ace to lead the staff. Behind Keuchel in the rotation is Lance McCullers (who is coming off a promising rookie campaign), Mike Fiers, and Doug Fister, giving the team a solid foursome of starters.
In the bullpen, closer Luke Gregerson is coming off a season in which he saved 31 games, and offseason addition Ken Giles gives the team a great option in relief (Giles had a 1.80 ERA in 70 innings for the Philadelphia Phillies in 2015). At all levels, this staff can get it done and their play more than supports what the Astros like to do on offense.
Simply put, there are few weaknesses on Houston’s roster. They’ve built a competitive team through the draft and their development system, proving that their seasons of extreme mediocrity were worth the struggles. With the momentum from last season’s playoff run, the Astros deserve to be the favorites in the AL West and maybe even the American League.
Statistics courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com and ESPN.com.