HOUSTON — Perhaps the Houston Astros got a little ahead of themselves last year. Their long rebuild was supposed to reach completion in 2017, the year Sports Illustrated proclaimed them World Series champions.
I did not foresee them being good at all in 2015. Coming off a 70-win season, even .500 seemed unrealistic.
But they blew past .500 to win 86 games, knock off the Yankees in the wild card and then extend the eventual world champs, the Kansas City Royals, to a fifth game in the divisional playoffs.
The Astros had the American League Cy Young Award winner, Dallas Keuchel, and Rookie of the Year, 20-year-old shortstop Carlos Correa. They had the best rookie pitcher, Lance McCullers.
The fact that Keuchel, who supplanted James Harden as the best bearded athlete in Houston, is just 28 and that All-Star second baseman Jose Altuve is 25 indicate the Astros’ best years are still ahead.
We saw in the playoffs that while they could send out a better starting rotation than the Royals, they couldn’t match them with bullpen or bats.
General manager Jeff Luhnow may have solved the relief shortage by signing one of baseball’s most powerful closers, 25-year-old Ken Giles.
Luhnow was interested in starter Scott Kazmir, but his second-half rental didn’t go so well in his home town, and at 32 he did not look like he was ascending.
The hope is that Keuchel, 20-8 last year, continues to be a genuine ace, and that McCullers, who had a 3.22 ERA and struck out 129 in 125 innings, pushes Colin McHugh, 19-7, for the second slot. Vincent Velasquez, 23, will press Mike Fiers and Scott Feldman for a spin in the rotation.
Houston’s lineup has solid young pros just about everywhere, though you can’t be happy with a third baseman, Luis Valbuena, who hit .224, even if he did smack 25 homers. And last season the Astros had a couple of Mendoza Liners, Chris Carter and Jon Singleton, competing for first base.
Carter has departed, and A.J. Reed, their 2015 Minor League Player of the Year, may seize first base by midseason. He’s 22, hit .332 and slugged .571 for AA Corpus Christi.
Considering that the Astros’ payroll remains one of the lowest in baseball – hardly befitting the country’s fourth-largest city — fans were hoping for a little more of an off-season than we’ve seen so far. Giles is the only acquisition of note.
Team president Reid Ryan is trying to build enthusiasm for the return of Wandy Rodriguez as “a lefty who will chew up innings.”
Wandy had a 4.90 ERA for the Texas Rangers last year, and I expect the innings to chew him up more than the other way.
Still, the upcoming baseball season looks promising, especially considering that Houston baseball fans endured six consecutive losing years – the Drayton McLane legacy combined with the Jim Crane budget that looks like one Ted Cruz would have proposed.
We can only hope Crane is shrewdly keeping some powder dry – ready to let the Astros explode if they sniff Royalty again.