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Know Your Enemy: The 2018 Houston Astros

Back in November I wrote about the Houston Astros and how the Orioles could learn a thing or two about franchise building from the newly crowned World Series champions.

I wrote that following such a path would be painful and would require some bravery – the Astros suffered some horrible seasons from 2011-13 in which they averaged 54 wins – but if things went right you could turn a mediocre fence-sitting team into a power within a few years. I also pointed out that doing so carries a fair amount of risk and that the Astros certainly had some good fortune along the way.

(You can discuss this on the BSL Board here.)

Of course we now know that even with a number of key players heading toward free agency, including superstar Manny Machado, the Orioles have no intention of blowing things up, at least so far. They’re going to do what they always do – add a few solid players they hope will move the needle, then rely on Buck Showalter’s magical abilities to keep the team hanging around on the fringe of contention.

And that’s fine, I suppose. It’s certainly one way of going about things, and you never know when a team might catch lightning in a bottle. I would much prefer a team try to contend than be in a perpetual rebuild mode. But Orioles fans will get a good look at the potential benefits of a drastic rebuild when the O’s visit Houston for a three-game series beginning Monday.

The Astros won 101 games on their way to the franchise’s first championship last season, and with the bulk of their young roster back in 2018 there really isn’t any reason to expect a backslide. There are a few changes to be aware of, however.

Key additions:

-          SP Gerrit Cole, acquired in trade from Pittsburgh: One of the big names to be moved this offseason as the Pirates looked to retool. He had a brilliant debut on Sunday against Texas, allowing one run on a Joey Gallo homer and striking out 11 in seven innings. The Orioles will miss him this series.

-          RP Joe Smith, free agent: Hard-throwing veteran has allowed two runs in one inning of work so far this season.

-          RP Hector Rondon, free agent: Former Cubs closer had 77 saves from 2014-16.

Key departures:

-          RP Luke Gregerson, free agent

-          DH Carlos Beltran, retired

-          RP Tyler Clippard, free agent

-          SP Mike Fiers, free agent

-          OF Preston Tucker, traded to Atlanta for PTBNL

-          SP/RP Joe Musgrove, traded to Pittsburgh in Cole deal

-          RP Michael Feliz, traded to Pittsburgh in Cole deal

Starting Lineup

-          C: Brian McCann

-          1B: Marwin Gonzalez

-          2B: Jose Altuve

-          SS: Carlos Correa

-          3B: Alex Bregman

-          LF: Josh Reddick

-          CF: Jake Marisnick

-          RF: George Springer

-          DH: Evan Gattis

Talk about a dominant lineup. The Astros had baseball’s best offense in 2017, averaging 5.53 runs per game (the Yankees were a distant second at 5.30). They’ve got the reigning AL MVP in Altuve, young studs Springer, Correa and Bregman and underrated veterans Gonzalez and Reddick. And keep in mind this is without Yuli Gurriel (.817 OPS last season), who will miss six weeks with a hand injury and then will have to serve a five-game suspension for making a racist gesture toward Yu Darvish during the World Series. When Gurriel returns, Gonzalez shifts to left field and Springer replaces Marisnick in center.

Bench

-          C: Max Stassi

-          1B/3B: J.D. Davis

-          OF: Derek Fisher

The bench is light, as the Astros start the season with eight relievers, but there is talent here. Davis has massive power, hitting 26 home runs in 103 minor league games last season, then four more in 25 games with the Astros. Fisher went deep five times in 53 games last season and both he and Davis should get some spot time in the series. It just goes to show that the Astros haven’t left their minor league system empty as they have risen to the top.

Rotation

-          Justin Verlander

-          Dallas Keuchel

-          Lance McCullers

-          Gerrit Cole

-          Charlie Morton

The Astros have basically replaced Mike Fiers and the Colin McHugh/Brad Peacock/Joe Musgrove trio with Verlander and Cole. Who wouldn’t take that? So barring injuries, this rotation is stacked top to bottom. We all know Verlander and Keuchel are studs, but don’t sleep on Morton, who had a great rebound season in 2017. The 34-year-old had a 3.62 ERA, 3.46 FIP and 10 K/9 last season. He’ll start Monday’s game against Chris Tillman, followed by Verlander and Keuchel, a tough early-season test for the Orioles’ bats.

Bullpen

-          Ken Giles

-          Chris Devenski

-          Will Harris

-          Collin McHugh

-          Brad Peacock

-          Hector Rondon

-          Tony Sipp

-          Joe Smith

Giles seemed to recover nicely from his postseason struggles with a dominant spring, then went out and coughed up a run in his first outing of the 2018 season. It was a non-save situation, however, and the Astros won the game 4-1, so Astros fans shouldn’t start freaking out just yet (he threw a spotless 9th on Sunday). Devenski is an extremely valuable, do-it-all reliever who is capable of anything from closing to holding a lead over multiple innings as a bridge to Giles. He struck out 100 in 80.2 innings last season, though he did give up 11 home runs and struggled with control compared to his 2016 breakout season. McHugh and Peacock can help out in the rotation if there is an injury, though there has been some talk that the Astros could deal McHugh to a starter-hungry team at some point during the season. Rondon and Smith are the newcomers, so we’ll see if an area of relative weakness in 2017 is improved in this campaign.

Hurt/Out

-          Yuli Gurriel (hand/suspension, due back in late May/early June)

-          Jandel Gustave (elbow surgery, due back in August at the earliest)

-           James Hoyt (oblique, due back in mid-April)

-          Brady Rodgers (Tommy John surgery, due back mid-season)

Verdict

The Astros aren’t going away anytime soon. Their offense could be surpassed by the Yankees in 2018, but it will be near the top of the league regardless and will get even better and deeper when Gurriel returns. The rotation should be improved with the addition of Cole and a full season of Verlander, and it will be interesting to see if a slightly re-tooled bullpen becomes more dependable. The Astros are easily the class of the AL West, even with an improved Angels squad. It’s simply not a deep division with the Rangers, Athletics and Mariners plodding along in, at best, mediocrity. With the Astros’ youth and depth across the board, this looks like another 95-100 win team with a decent chance at being the first repeat champ since the Yankees won three straight in 1998-2000.

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Written by Bob Harkins
3 weeks ago
Baltimore Orioles, Major League Baseball,

Bob Harkins

Bob Harkins is a former editor and writer for Time Warner Cable Sports in Los Angeles, where he helped cover the Dodgers and Lakers. Prior to that, he was a senior editor and writer for NBCSports.com, leading the site’s coverage of Major League Baseball for nine seasons. He always believed that Major League catcher was the toughest job in sports -- until he wrote a series on professional rodeo cowboys. Talk about tough!

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