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Houston, We Have a Plan for How You Become the Best Team in the American League

The projection systems love the Astros, but how can the franchise ensure that it starts to scratch its enormous potential? Follow these three steps.

(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

Three seasons ago, the Chicago Cubs won 73 games. In 2015, that number jumped up to 97. And last year, well, you know what happened. In consecutive campaigns, Joe Maddon and Co. made the proverbial leap: from a mediocre team with potential to a bona fide mid-tier contender to a flexible juggernaut that looks set to dominate the sport for years to come. So this week, as part of The Ringer’s 2017 MLB Preview, we’ll be taking a look at what other teams and players — good, bad, and otherwise — are poised for some sudden improvement this season. It’s Make the Leap Week!

Two weeks from Opening Day, it looks like the most stacked division in baseball is the AL West, which boasts four competitive teams: the Rangers, Mariners, Angels, and Astros. No other division in baseball seems to have more than two legitimate contenders.

The early favorite among those four is Houston, and the major projections systems don’t think it’s all that close. Baseball Prospectus and FanGraphs both rate Houston as the best team in the division by eight games on the strength of a core of young position players (Carlos Correa, Alex Bregman, George Springer, and José Altuve) that rivals any in baseball.

PECOTA has the Astros improving nine games to 93–69, the best projected record in the American League, equal to the Cubs and behind only the Dodgers. While you don’t have to talk yourself into the Astros quite as much as, say, the Angels, that’s still a big leap to make.

Here are three ways they can go from a young, potential-filled fringe contender to one of the best teams in baseball.

1. Get, Like, Any Lucky Bounces This Time

The Astros aren’t going to go 4–15 against the Rangers again. Dallas Keuchel won’t add more than two runs to his ERA again; even if he’s not as good as he was in 2014 and 2015, he won’t be as bad as he was in 2016. Colby Rasmus and Carlos Gómez won’t post OPS+ marks of 76 and 64, respectively, because they aren’t on the team anymore. Their replacements, Josh Reddick and Carlos Beltrán, along with catcher Brian McCann, are part of a reallocation of payroll that looks like only a spending spree but will nonetheless shore up three weak spots in last year’s Astros lineup.

They also won’t make such bad first impressions. The Astros as a whole went 7–17 in April. Alex Bregman’s stellar rookie year (115 OPS+) was watered down after he started his big league career 0-for-17 and 2-for-35. And then there’s Ken Giles.

In two years with the Phillies, Giles was more or less a young Craig Kimbrel. In 2014 and 2015, the only relief pitchers who threw more innings than Giles and posted a higher ERA+ were Wade Davis, Dellin Betances, and Darren O’Day. To get Giles, the Astros surrendered a ton of talent in a seven-player deal that looked even bigger than it was thanks to the inclusion of embattled former no. 1 overall pick Mark Appel.

So it was, well, disconcerting that Giles couldn’t get anyone out in the first month of the season. In 11 April appearances, Giles allowed 10 earned runs, including four home runs, in 10 innings; took two losses; and blew a save. But from May through the end of the season, Giles had a 3.23 ERA and a 14.2 K/9 ratio. Take out one September blowup in which he allowed six runs in a third of an inning, and his ERA goes down to 2.28. That’s more like it.

Most important of all, though, is that it appears that Taylor Swift has turned her baseball kingmaking powers from the Giants to the Astros. As the 2010, 2012, and 2014 World Series prove, T-Swift is more powerful than any baseball player.

2. Shore Up the Pitching Staff

Houston’s strength lies in its position players, and that’s where GM Jeff Luhnow chose to spend most of his offseason resources, complementing Springer and his three star infielders with reliable veterans at the corners. The Astros will be somewhere between “average” and “best in baseball” pretty much everywhere except first base and DH this year, and strong second years from Cuban veteran Yulieski Gurriel and former Kentucky standout A.J. Reed could shore up both of those holes.

Last year’s World Series was contested between two teams with fluid lineups, thanks to the positional flexibility of their players and the willingness of their managers to substitute situationally. Astros manager A.J. Hinch also does business that way. In 2015 he used 151 different batting orders and 116 starting defensive alignments, not counting pitchers; in 2016 he used 143 batting orders and 116 starting defensive alignments. Even if the Astros do end up with a hole in the lineup, Hinch is willing to use multiple players to try to fill it.

The pitching staff is a little more complicated. Last season, the Astros ranked 11th in the American League in ERA+, at 98, but there’s a lot to unpack in that number. The Astros actually had the best FIP in the AL last year, but the second-worst defensive efficiency, and while they’ll upgrade defensively at third from Luis Valbuena to Bregman, going from Jason Castro to Brian McCann behind the plate is a step back, and a potential outfield alignment of Beltrán-Springer-Reddick trades defense for offense compared with the “replacement-level left field mélange, Jake Marisnick, Springer” trio from last year.

The bullpen should be pretty good: Luke Gregerson’s fine, Will Harris was an All-Star last season, Chris Devenski was Andrew Miller without the press, and Giles should rebound. You’d like a better situational lefty than Tony Sipp, but on the whole it’s a decent group.

The season hinges on the rotation, which has two pitchers I feel confident projecting with any certainty in 2017: Collin McHugh and Mike Fiers. Over the past two seasons, McHugh has been a solid no. 3 or no. 4 starter: 203.2 IP, 100 ERA+, 7.6 K/9 in 2015; 184.2, 91 ERA+, 8.6 K/9 in 2016. Fiers (95 ERA+ in a season and a half with Houston) is a solid no. 5 starter — count on both of those guys to make their 30 starts apiece and turn in an ERA+ somewhere within spitting distance of league average.

In the middle of the rotation, the Astros are rolling out Charlie Morton, a free-agent signee who in parts of nine big league seasons has never really been healthy and good at the same time, but who was touching 97 in a recent spring training start. He’ll fit alongside second-year man Joe Musgrove. The 6-foot-5, 265 pound Musgrove combines a diverse but not overpowering arsenal with plus command. The upside on Musgrove is a mid-rotation starter, but in six seasons of professional ball he’s thrown even 100 innings only twice.

The book on Musgrove isn’t immensely dissimilar from that of fellow 2016 debutant David Paulino, whom Baseball Prospectus rated the team’s second-best pitching prospect behind Francis Martes, who’s still likely a year away from the majors. Paulino threw seven big-league innings last season and throws a mid-90s fastball with good downward action, but has thrown as many as 70 innings in only one professional season.

Dallas Keuchel (Getty Images)
Dallas Keuchel (Getty Images)

As it stands now, if the Astros do make the playoffs, the top two starters they’ll throw out there against David Price and Chris Sale (or Yu Darvish and Cole Hamels, or Corey Kluber and Carlos Carrasco) are Keuchel and Lance McCullers.

Keuchel’s struggles in 2016 are well-documented, as is the nagging shoulder injury that contributed to them. Keuchel seems healthy so far, but he fell a long way from back-to-back 200-inning, sub-3 ERA seasons to a 2016 in which he was barely better than replacement level.

McCullers, by contrast, has always been good, posting identical 3.22 ERAs in his first two seasons. While he’s struggled to keep the ball in the zone — since his debut, McCullers has the eighth-highest BB/9 rate among pitchers with at least 200 IP) — his 11.8 K/9 ratio last year was Darvish-esque. McCullers made 22 starts as a rookie, plus one more in the ALDS, in which he struck out seven in 6.1 innings in the Terrance Gore Ball Don’t Lie Game. Last season he made only 14 starts, none after August 2, when he left his start with elbow discomfort. So in 2015, McCullers was healthy down the stretch and the Astros made the playoffs. In 2016, he wasn’t, so they didn’t.

I’m not convinced Houston’s ever going to get more than 20 or 25 starts a year out of McCullers with any regularity, but if those 20 or 25 starts come at the right time, he’s one of those pitchers who could swing a playoff series.

McCullers pitches like he’s trying to start a fistfight. Madison Bumgarner’s like this, and so was Yordano Ventura. Now, aggro as pro athletes can be, this kind of combative, aggressive, ostentatiously fearless mind-set isn’t a prerequisite for a great big-game pitcher: Kyle Hendricks spent last year’s World Series shuffling sullenly between mound and dugout like a 13-year-old who really didn’t want to go to church, and nobody was more chill on the mound than Mariano Rivera. But McCullers backs up the attitude with stuff: a heavy mid-90s fastball and hard curve that leave no doubt as to whether he could be a no. 2 starter. Plus, he’s so much fun to watch it makes me want to believe the attitude is helping him.

Zooming out on the Astros rotation, it looks like a younger version of the Dodgers’ “Well Some of These Guys Have to Be Healthy Some of the Time” staff from last season, and that approach got them to Game 6 of the NLCS.

The best-case scenario for the Astros rotation come the stretch run would look something like this: 2014–15-quality Keuchel, healthy McCullers, healthy and fast-developing Musgrove and Paulino, and McHugh. That’s really good.

But it could just as easily look like this: league-average Keuchel, McHugh, Fiers, and quad-A guys Brad Peacock and Brady Rodgers, at which point the Astros probably wouldn’t have much of an input on the pennant race.

There is one way to get around that problem, however.

3. Trade Bregman

I know this sounds crazy, but bear with me.

I’ve loved Bregman since his freshman year at LSU. If he were still rookie-eligible, he’d be right up there with Red Sox outfielder Andrew Benintendi on all the offseason prospect lists. But he’s a shortstop, and the Astros have Carlos Correa, who’s one of the best shortstops in baseball. And while Bregman’s physical tools might mean he’s better suited to second base, Houston’s even more loaded at that position with Altuve. So Bregman has moved over to third base, which isn’t ideal, but he can handle the position and he’s such a freakishly gifted hitter for a shortstop that the bat plays at third anyway.

Now, I’ve been stumping for the Astros to swap Bregman and Correa for a while, for two reasons: First, Correa’s a positively enormous 22-year-old, and, as he fills out and slows down in his mid-20s, he’ll have to move to third base eventually. Second, while at this moment I don’t know that Bregman’s a huge defensive upgrade at short over Correa (they’re probably both within spitting distance of average), the peculiarities of third base hide Correa’s weaknesses (range) better than they do Bregman’s (arm strength, footwork).

Certainly, Correa’s stint at third base with the Puerto Rican WBC team — where he’s looked like Scott Rolen with Sidney Crosby’s facial hair — does nothing to dispute that notion.

Of course, because Correa’s such a big star, moving him to third would be a huge news story, and since they’d still be putting the same players in the lineup, maybe the Astros just feel it’s not a move with enough upside to be worth the headache, which is a reasonable-enough notion.

This situation turns into a real problem when you consider what it does to Gurriel, the 32-year-old Cuban third baseman the Astros sank $47.5 million into last summer. Because Bregman is at third base, the Astros are going to play Gurriel at first, moving him from the middle of the defensive spectrum to the bottom.

When evaluating the overall value of players, position is incredibly important. For instance, Correa’s OPS+ over the past two years is about the same as Khris Davis’s (128 to 125), in about the same number of plate appearances. But Correa’s a superstar who was worth 10 wins over that time, compared with 3.6 for Davis, because Correa can play shortstop and Davis is a left field/DH-type of defender. That’s reflected implicitly in scouting reports and explicitly in calculations of WAR. Specifically to Gurriel’s case, the positional adjustment from third base to first base is 15 runs a year, or more than an entire 2016 Adam Jones, using FanGraphs’ WAR.

You can just look at Gurriel’s ZiPS (.254/.325/.457) or PECOTA (.253/.297/.393) projections for 2017 and see that the bat plays at third and it really doesn’t at first, and given that Altuve, Correa, Bregman, and Gurriel are all right-handed, Hinch can’t squeeze extra value out of Gurriel by moving him and Bregman around based on matchups.

That means the Astros have to either accept that they’ve paid $47.5 million for a 32-year-old, replacement-level first baseman and try their luck next year in a free agent class that includes Darvish, Jake Arrieta, Alex Cobb, and possibly Johnny Cueto and Masahiro Tanaka, or they can do something about it now by loosening up the logjam on the left side of the infield.

Consider that Yoan Moncada just headlined a four-player package for Chris Sale. Given the questions about Moncada’s hit tool and Bregman’s track record of big league success, Bregman would probably even be more valuable on the trade market. The difference between Bregman and Moncada, combined with the difference between Chris Sale and either Chris Archer or José Quintana, Bregman alone could very well be enough to bring back the kind of starting pitcher the Astros can’t grow on their own.

It’d be an incredibly bold trade to propose, but for the Astros, the alternative is to set an offensive colossus on the foundation of an unpredictable pitching staff. Despite what the numbers say, it’s hard to project how that will turn out.