The Houston Astros weren't supposed to be good last year. I mean, they were supposed to be alright, but this expert poll predicted a fourth-place finish. Most people had Jeff Luhnow's rebuild starting to pay dividends by 2016.
Well, it's 2016 now, and the Astros are coming off an 86-win season and a victory in the wild card game. By the end of July, the Astros were in first-place, and three games ahead of the Texas Rangers. With a more decisive finish, perhaps Dallas Keuchel wouldn't have to work on short rest, and the team could have lengthened their postseason stay.
As they say though, hindsight is 20/20. So this offseason should have been all about the Astros setting their sights on first place in their division, and perhaps more. With a team making $175 million in revenue last year, while only having roughly $152 million in total payroll over the past three seasons, the Astros presumably have some spending money in the bank.
More clearly, the Astros seem ready to invest for all the right reasons. Instead of going all-in though, Luhnow and the rest of the front office seem to have played it relatively safe. Opting to trade away assets as opposed to investing payroll. It's an interesting play, so let's take a look:
The Free Agents
The Astros didn't really dabble in free agency all that much. That might partially be due to the fact that Colby Rasmus accepted their qualifying offer.
At $15.8 million, Rasmus is on a fairly nice deal with the Astros. However, it still represents a pretty substantial payroll obligation. That money could have been used in other areas. Instead, their outfield looks awfully good, and that's a pretty nice problem to have.
Other than that, Luhnow capitalized on a deep starting pitcher pool this offseason, and signed Doug Fister to a one-year $7 million deal. While Fister is coming off of one of his worst years yet, the Astros inherit very little risk on this deal.
Furthermore, Fister replaces the outgoing Scott Kazmir, who ended up costing the Los Angeles Dodgers a three-year, $48 million obligation. That's an awful lot more for a left-handed pitcher that could, conceivably, produce the same amount of value.
This is where Luhnow and the Astros front office, for better or worse, put their efforts this offseason.
The Astros started off by trading depth infielder Jonathan Villar to the Milwaukee Brewers for Cy Sneed. Villar saw his playing time drop sharply after Carlos Correa was called up, so he was an expendable asset. He even got optioned to Triple-A for July and August.
They followed that trade up by making another deal from some strength. With both Jed Lowrie and Luis Valbuena competing for reps at third base, the Astros really only needed one of them. Both Lowrie and Valbuena have their strengths and weaknesses, but the Astros opted to send the former back to the Oakland Athletics in exchange for Brendan McCurry. The 24-year old pitching prospect is still in Double-A, but has shown some promise as a reliever with a high strikeout rate.
Finally, the Astros bolstered their bullpen by acquiring Ken Giles. The cost, though, seems exorbitant. The Astros sent back Mark Appel, Vincent Velasquez, Brett Oberholtzer, Thomas Eshelman, and Harold Arauz for Giles and Jonathan Arauz (no relation).
The Astros bullpen ranked second overall last season by FanGraphs WAR. However, with due respect to Luke Gregerson, it did seem to lack a 'true closer' and likely benefited heavily from how strong the starting rotation was, and how late they worked into games all season long.
No matter, as the Astros might have paid a significant price, Giles is one of the best in the game. He won his team two games by fWAR last season which is good for the eighth-best reliever in all of baseball last season. Although Velasquez and Appel could combine to hypothetically produce the same value, consolidating that into one roster spot is a big move for Luhnow and the Astros.
Reasons to worry
Since acquiring Cole Hamels, the Rangers have gone 38-22. Now, obviously that can't be attributed to one player -- especially one that only plays once every fifth day. However, the Rangers are phenomenally good.
To compound matters further, the Rangers will be getting Yu Darvish back from Tommy John surgery. Even worse, the Rangers seem to have taken a step to address their biggest weakness -- their outfield -- by signing Ian Desmond on the cheap.
It would have been nice to see the Astros open up the coffers a bit more to really improve the club for 2016. Instead though, they may have to settle for another wild card spot again as the AL West looks to house two powerhouses.
Reasons for hope
A rotation that features Keuchel, Collin McHugh and Lance McCullers looks destined for long-term greatness. Put a middle-infield of Correa and Jose Altuve behind them and an outfield of Carlos Gomez, George Springer, and Rasmus and you've got some great defense who are now slouches at the plate either.
Furthermore, despite their division rivals looking awfully good heading into 2016, the Astros are actually projected to finish first in the division from Depth Charts. The Astros are slated to win 87 games according to them, and 88 according to PECOTA.
The fact is, everything is still looking up for the Astros, Even if the Rangers seem like an unavoidable behemoth, the projections disagree and the Astros seem like long-term World Series contenders. The wait for a competitive team has been long in Houston, but it seems to be over. 2016 should be a fun year for Astros fans.