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Between now and Opening Day, we’ll be previewing each team by eavesdropping on an extended conversation about them. For the full archive of each 2018 team preview, click here.

Houston Astros PECOTA Projections:
Record: 99-63
Runs Scored: 845
Runs Allowed: 660
AVG/OBP/SLG (TAv): .265/.332/.447 (.272)
Total WARP: 46.2 (20.4 pitching, 25.8 non-pitching)

Matthew Trueblood: I feel like this team comes into its title defense much less hungover from the World Series win than were the Cubs or the Royals. Is that just in my head?

Rob Mains: I agree. I mean, this was the first championship in franchise history, but it didn’t seem that it released long pent-up feelings the way it did for the 2015 and 2016 champs. That, plus management didn’t just sit still over the offseason, making one of the bigger trades to shore up the pitching staff.

Trueblood: That bit about the lessened catharsis is particularly counter-intuitive, given the hurricane just weeks before the championship. Anyway, yes, the Gerrit Cole addition was a nice bit of opportunistic aggressiveness.

Mains: The Astros haven’t connected to the fan base the way Cubs and Royals have. Partly that’s on the fan base, I suppose, but the Astros haven’t exactly been cuddly.

Trueblood: Shew. Yeah, took longer for success to materialize than it took for the Cubs, and didn’t have the same air of earnest effort as the Royals’ similarly protracted buildup. They seem to be angling to maximize a window that ends when Cole, Jose Altuve, and Justin Verlander hit free agency after 2019. What do you think of that strategy?

Mains: Well, as I’ve written, I’m not a big fan of teams equating “having to pay a guy more money” with “window closing.” But in Houston’s case, in 2020, Cole will be in his age-29 season, Altuve age 30, and Verlander age 37. So even if they Astros don’t re-up them, there’s a good case that age will drive regression. So maybe 2017-2019 is the window with this core? But the next core, with Forrest Whitley and Carlos Correa and Alex Bregman, could take over after that.

Trueblood: Right. You can pay more to retain those guys, or pay handsomely to acquire new ones, but the trend lately seems to be that your real edge over all of the other smart teams trying to do basically what you’re doing ends when you stop being able to pay star players drastically below-market salaries. (In this specific case, Correa seems likely to make an absolute killing in arbitration, and George Springer will be expensive in his final year or two of team control, too.)

Bregman, Correa, Whitley, and Kyle Tucker, who’s been such a badass this spring.

Let’s talk about their outfield. Obviously, Springer is a fixture, but is he an everyday center fielder for you, or would you rather see them keep sliding him to right field?

Mains: The best defense is with Jake Marisnick in center field, but Travis Sawchik recently pointed out that over the past decade defensive opportunities in center field have declined more than at any other position. So since a Marwin Gonzalez (or Derek Fisher)/Springer/Josh Reddick alignment scores more runs, I suppose you leave Springer in the middle and slide him over to protect leads or to sit Reddick against some lefties? Do you worry about the injury risk?

Trueblood: Of putting Springer in center field regularly? I don’t. They have depth, and he’s not a neophyte out there, he’s just a step slower than I want my center fielders these days. Which is my counterargument, by the way: that opportunities are decreasing but the league is raising the level of defense it demands in center, so a team bucking that trend loses more than they used to. Still, Marisnick isn’t good enough offensively to make it matter much. I think Fisher is my breakout Astro (if only because the rest of them have already taken that step.) I foresee a pretty stable Fisher-Springer-Reddick outfield by October. Crazy?

Mains: I’m with you. Hard to pick a breakout on this team—Correa’s already there, and if we were to get a .300/.400/.500 season from Bregman, I don’t know if it’d be a breakout, and it’s hard to see a young pitcher getting a lot of innings—but Fisher should have the opportunity.

Your outfield comment also makes me think of a collapse possibility: Marwin Gonzalez. I think he’s super valuable as a .700 or so OPS guy who can play seven positions, but a .907 OPS as he had in 2017? Does going from down-ballot MVP candidate to prime Ben Zobrist count as a collapse?

Trueblood: We’re gonna have a separate conversation about where prime Ben Zobrist rates in relation to a down-ballot MVP candidate. But Gonzalez is interesting, for sure. He hired (or was taken on by) Scott Boras, with an eye toward his free agency after this season. In a weird way, that made me feel more like he’ll sustain his gains. Feels like Boras Corp. wouldn’t bet on a guy like this without good intel. He’s versatile and useful. I agree that we just saw the best season he’ll ever have. Same is probably true of Altuve, Springer, and (on a rate basis) Correa. This will be an elite offense, but I expect them to come back to the pack a little.

Mains: Is your collapse candidate a hitter or a pitcher?

Trueblood: I think I have one of each. Brian McCann is 34 and a catcher. He’s already aged well for his position, and I don’t think he plunges to replacement level, but I see time catching up to him somewhat. On the pitching side, I look at what Chris Devenski just did at the end of the season, and I worry it’s the start of him moving back to the pack of good but unremarkable relievers. I just don’t think he keeps dominating the way he did in 2017.

Mains: I suppose the pitcher I worry about the most is Dallas Keuchel. Among pitchers with 1,200 or more pitches last season (that’s basically 192 starters), he had the lowest zone rate, by far, and the 29th-highest O-Swing rate. I saw what happened to Francisco Liriano in Pittsburgh when batters just started laying off his stuff outside the zone. I hope for Keuchel’s sake that nobody figures that out. (Not that I’m suggesting it’s easy to lay off his stuff—everything he throws seems to drop off the table.)

Trueblood: I think Keuchel separates from Liriano because he has elite command. In fact, his scores in our new Command metric over the last four years are: 76, 81, 65, 74. Liriano scores in the 40s and low 50s there. (The two are very stylistically similar. I just think Keuchel is better at it.) Beyond injury, I don’t much worry about Keuchel. (But injury is a real concern with him.) Let’s talk about the other end of the rotation. What would you have them do with the McCullers/Morton/Peacock/McHugh logjam?

Mains: I figure you break camp with Lance McCullers and Charlie Morton in the rotation, the other two in the bullpen, and plan on injuries (or “injuries”) limiting all four to no more than 22 or so starts each? Is that a copout? If not, is the term of art “dodgering”?

Trueblood: “Dodgering,” that’s good. This group is well-suited to it, too, because all four of those guys leave plenty of room to question their durability. I think what they will do is trade Collin McHugh before Opening Day, slot Brad Peacock into the bullpen and count on him being able to move between roles without regressing or getting hurt.

I think what I would do would be to move McCullers to the bullpen (both injury history and his lack of fastball command make me think he’s a better fit out there, though yes, I’ve seen the GIF of his sinker this spring), and let the three veterans mostly start, with Peacock working in long relief. McCullers can be the multi-inning weapon opposite (and perhaps eventually in place of) Devenski, with that curve eating up lefties and Devo’s slider shredding righties.

Mains: Do you think the Astros’ reputation for being anti-fastball, pro-breaking ball is a reflection of an organizational philosophy, like the Pirates/Searage/two-seamer thing, or is it just a reflection of personnel?

Trueblood: I think it’s that they believe they can optimize every pitcher’s arsenal, and that in most (probably not all, but most) cases, that just naturally means more variation. It’s not even necessarily more breaking balls; it’s mostly fewer fastballs. I think they feel like the historical ideas of establishing and pitching off the fastball—of using that pitch to set up all others, etc.—was simply not the best way to pitch. (And I think they’re right. Certainly, the science of pitching and hitting, from a neurological and physiological perspective, supports that.) How about you?

Mains: This is an area where you have the superior knowledge, but I think there’s a difference between a team having its pitchers throw a class of pitches, like breaking balls, rather than a specific pitch, like the Pirates and two-seamers or, back in the day, Roger Craig‘s Giants and the splitter. I think the former approach has broader applicability (and that’s what the Astros are hoping to accomplish with Cole).

Is there anything you would’ve liked them to do in the offseason? You mentioned the potential for McCann to act his age. There isn’t a lot of catching depth, organizationally. Yulieski Gurriel in less than three months younger than McCann, but I suppose it would’ve been premature for the team to stock up on first base depth when they still have A.J. Reed, Tyler White, and more outfielders than they can play hanging around.

Trueblood: Right. I thought they did about what a champion set to lose so little should do. I don’t entirely love their outfield depth. They could still shore it up by dealing McHugh, but I might have been more open to adding someone who could play center regularly. That’s a nitpick, of course. Nitpicking is all you can do with this team.

Mains: I’ve been kicking this around: Under what circumstances do the Astros not win the AL West? Other than the easy answers—Trout/Ohtani are Gehrig/Ruth and all of the Angels’ pitchers stay off the disabled list, or all of the Astros’ pitchers get hurt. Not saying it’s likely, of course.

Trueblood: For me, the lower end of the Astros’ range of possible wins is still the very high 80s. So it starts with either the Angels or the Mariners having certain key players both stay healthy and play above their median projection. Then, as I mentioned above, the offense regresses (it’d have to be more regression than expected) and injuries strike the Keuchel/McCullers/other fragile dudes corridor of the pitching staff. Did I miss anything?

Mains: We haven’t talked about Josh Reddick. He had a career year, by TAv, and had a .339 BABIP. I could see him and Gonzalez taking big steps back, Fisher not developing, the two old guys showing their age … and you still have the first four lineup spots taken by Springer, Bregman, Altuve, and Correa. Yeah, you’ve gotta squint really hard to not see this team in contention, I guess.

Trueblood: Two lists: First, the Astros’ first picks in the draft, from 2011-2015:

George Springer
Carlos Correa
Mark Appel
Brady Aiken
Alex Bregman

And second, the top nine overall picks of the 2015 draft:

Dansby Swanson
Alex Bregman
Brendan Rodgers
Dillon Tate
Kyle Tucker
Tyler Jay
Andrew Benintendi
Carson Fulmer
Ian Happ

The Royals had Alex Gordon, Eric Hosmer and Mike Moustakas. The Cubs have Anthony Rizzo, Kris Bryant, Javier Baez, Kyle Schwarber, and Ian Happ. The Astros have Springer, Correa, and Bregman, with Tucker en route. Of course, they all had to do other things really well—develop Dallas Keuchel and Kyle Hendricks into Cy Young contenders, develop Salvador Perez, Jose Altuve, and Willson Contreras into stars—but there’s a clear lesson emerging. Grow the bats, buy the arms. We should be even more stringent about that.

Mains: So I think we’re in accord. The Astros have done an admirable job building a good ballclub. This is the kind of cutting-edge analysis people come here for.

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