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2016 Preview: Houston Astros

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Between now and Opening Day, HardballTalk will take a look at each of baseball’s 30 teams, asking the key questions, the not-so-key questions, and generally breaking down their chances for the 2016 season. Next up: The Houston Astros. 

The Astros came out of nowhere last year to win 86 games and a Wild Card spot. Everyone knew their ascension was coming eventually, but 2015 seemed way ahead of schedule. Now, with the benefit of hindsight, it’s easy to see why they broke through. They had a power-first lineup with a couple of table setters and centerpiece in Carlos Correa who should be in the MVP mix for, like, the next decade. They got strong seasons from Dallas Keuchel and Lance McCullers and one of the better corps of relievers in the game. Playing in a very weird AL West didn’t hurt either. One team — the Rangers — started slow, giving the Astros room, while everyone else was just mired in muck all year. Houston’s finish to the regular season was a bit bumpy but by the time things were over, the Astros felt less like some fluke and a lot more like they had truly and permanently arrived.

I believe they have, though it’s probably important not to conflate the strength of a rebuild and an overall organization with the quality of the current MLB product. At present there are a couple of flaws here which keep the Astros from being a no-brainer favorite in the AL West, not the least of which is a good Rangers club and the overall parity of the American League. Still, there’s an awful lot to like when it comes to the Astros.

The top three of the lineup might be the thing to like the most. Jose Altuve needs no introduction by now. Correa in the three spot is ready for a full season of dominance. Maybe the most critical hitter here, however, is George Springer, likely to bat second. He’s been fantastic when he has played but injuries have kept him on the sidelines for significant chunks of the past two years. A full season from Springer would go a long way toward propelling the Astros to the playoffs.

Beyond those three there are some uncertainties. Evan Gattis will probably not be ready to start the season and there’s always some concern about his all-or-nothing game even when he’s in the lineup. Chris Carter is no longer around to play first base but there’s no super strong suggestion that Jon Singleton can handle the job despite his reputation as a prospect. If he can’t, though, there’s a fella named A.J. Reed waiting in the wings. Reed hit .340/.432/.612 with 34 homers and 127 RBI last year across the High-A and Double-A levels. It would not be a surprise to see him bashing in Houston at some point this year. A major X-factor is Carlos Gomez. He fizzled after coming over in a deadline deal last year. Was that a sign of decline or was it simply a matter of nagging injuries? If the latter, the Astros lineup might be better this year than last.

Pitching-wise the Astros are OK at the top of the rotation. Keuchel is the real deal. Lance McCullers will open the season on the DL, but it’s not believed to be a serious injury. Doug Fister was an interesting pickup, though no one should bet much on him returning to 2014 form given how hit-lucky he was that year and given his loss of velocity. Mike Fiers was a nice pickup last year but pitched a bit above his head for Houston. Collin McHugh won a lot of games but actually pitched worse in 2015 than he did in 2014. The non-Keuchel parts of the rotation are interesting and should be solid, but not spectacular.

The bullpen does have a chance to be spectacular, though. Maybe not Royals/Yankees good, but a definite strength thanks to the pickup of Ken Giles from Philly. Putting him down for the ninth while Luke GregersonWill Harris and Tony Sipp set him up will make something that was already good– the Astros 2015 bullpen was second in WAR in the AL last year — into a clear strength.

Houston has youth and talent and a ton of organizational depth. There is every reason to think that they’re going to contend for a long time. While the Rangers will be tough to get past for the division crown, the playoffs are a totally reasonable expectation. I’m going to be a bit bullish on them, however, and say they win the West.

Prediction: First place, AL West.

Gabe Kapler chooses not to bench Jean Segura for lack of effort

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The Phillies are in a tailspin. The club lost its perch atop the NL East, losing 12 of its last 18 games dating back to May 30. They enter Thursday night’s action four games behind the now-first-place Braves. The reasons for the slide are myriad, including a rash of injuries, but the players have also simply not played well. Understandably, fans are upset.

It didn’t help when, for the second time in three weeks, shortstop Jean Segura didn’t run hard on a batted ball. On June 3, Segura didn’t run on an infield pop-up that eventually resulted in a season-ending injury to Andrew McCutchen. On Wednesday during the second game of a doubleheader, Segura weakly hit a Max Scherzer pitch to shallow left-center that wasn’t caught. Because he was watching the ball rather than running hard, he had to hold up after a wide turn around first base.

To the surprise of many, Segura wasn’t pulled from the game despite the lack of effort. To the even further surprise of many, manager Gabe Kapler included Segura in Thursday’s lineup against the Nationals, which has otherwise been thoroughly reshuffled. Per Scott Lauber of The Philadelphia Inquirer, Kapler said, “Jean is one of our eight best players. I don’t think taking one of our eight best players and our shortstop out of our lineup is what’s best for the Philadelphia Phillies.”

Kapler said he had a long talk with Segura. “I told him that we’re going to address not just him but other players in the clubhouse and we’re going to talk about the highest level of effort and talk about how we can’t win every night but we can win the game of give-a-[hoot] and be undefeated in that category. Then we can protect the Phillies by putting the best lineup together on a nightly basis and not think about making ourselves feel better by sending a message.”

Kapler hit the nail on the head with that last line. Benching Segura only makes fans and pundits feel better by punishing someone for a perceived transgression. But does it actually teach anything, and is it actually beneficial to the team? Maybe to the former, and no to the latter. Matt Winkelman of Baseball Prospectus brought up a great point on Twitter, writing, “The idea that punishment is the only way to solve a problem or change behavior is such a narrow minded idea.” People learn best in different ways. Some might respond well to punishment. Others may just need a good talking-to. It’s a case-by-case thing. Kapler is right to apply nuance to the situation.

So many of baseball’s long-held beliefs have fallen to the wayside in recent years. The idea that a player must always be punished for a lack of effort will hopefully be the next one to be taken out to the dumpster.