Astros’ expectations are high for 2017

By Bill McCaughey
For The Fort Bend Star

(Photos by Joe Southern)
Chicago Cubs outfielder Jon Jay slides back to first while Houston Astros first baseman Marwin Gonzalez catches the ball. The Cubs beat the Astros 6-3 in an exhibition game Friday afternoon at Minute Maid Park.

With an exceptional starting eight that is probably second best in the major leagues – only the Cubs are better the Astros expect to be in the playoffs this fall.

Manager A.J. Hinch will rely on his Young 4 and his Veteran 4 to overcome their in-state nemesis the Rangers and win the American League West.

The Young 4 are second baseman Jose Altuve (26 years old), shortstop Carlos Correa (22), center fielder George Springer (27) and third baseman Alex Bregman (23).

Altuve was the American League batting champ with a .338 average last year, and he added 24 home runs along with 30 stolen bases. He will be expected to put up similar numbers for the next few years.

Correa hit .274 with 20 home runs and tied with Altuve for the club lead in RBI’s with 96. Springer strikes out a lot, 178 times last season, but he hit 29 home runs and scored 116 runs. Bregman got off to a slow start, but finished the season hot to raise the team’s expectations about him. The Astros will go as far as the Young 4 can take them.

Astros second baseman Jose Altuve prepares to swing at a pitch Friday during an exhibition game against the world champion Chicago Cubs at Minute Maid Park. Altuve is one of the young guns expected to lead the Astros to a potential championship this season.

The Veteran 4 are Yulieski Gurriel, Brian McCann, Josh Reddick and Carlos Beltran. McCann will be the starting catcher and he is expected to add to last year’s home run total of 20 in hitter friendly Minute Maid Park. Reddick, who hit .281 last year, is also expected to benefit from playing in Minute Maid Park. Carlos Beltran is being counted on to provide some veteran leadership to a young team. He also hit 29 home runs last year and likes the Crawford Boxes in left field.

If the Young 4 can give them an opportunity to make the playoffs, the Veteran 3 are being counted on to get them over the hump. Looking at the analytical tool, Wins Above Replacement (WAR), the Astros starting eight are at the top. WAR measures a player’s value in all facets of the game by deciphering how many more wins he’s worth than a replacement-level player at his same position. Using the world champion Cubs starting eight as a benchmark, the Astros starting eight’s combined WAR’s total 25.6, compares favorably to the Cubs’ 26.7. That’s the good news.

The bad news is that the Cubs’ starting pitchers have a combined WAR of 18.2, while the Astros’ starters total 2.8.

Dallas Keuchel will try to improve on last season’s 9-12 record and 4.55 earned run average. He sat out the last month of the season with a shoulder injury, but feels he can regain his form. “As soon as the doctors gave me the go-ahead last winter, I started working out. I am feeling much stronger this spring, and my shoulder is fine,” Keuchel said.

Collin McHugh, 13-10, 4.34 era, Mike Fiers, 11-8, 4.48 era, Charlie Morton, 1-1, 4.15 era, and Lance McCullers, 6-5, 4.81 era, are the expected starters along with Keuchel. To make the playoffs, this group will have to lower their ERA’s and stay healthy.

In the bullpen, Ken Giles, 15 saves, will start as the closer, and Luke Gregerson, 3.28 era, will be the setup man.

The magic number for the Astros this year is 90 wins. If they win 90, they will be playing in October.

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