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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.

Skaggs Case: Federal Agents have interviewed at least six current or former Angels players

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The Los Angeles Times reports that federal agents have interviewed at least six current and former Angels players as part of their investigation into the death of Angels pitcher Tyler Skaggs.

Among the players questioned: Andrew Heaney, Noé Ramirez, Trevor Cahill, and Matt Harvey. An industry source tells NBC Sports that the interviews by federal agents are part of simultaneous investigations into Skaggs’ death by United States Attorneys in both Texas and California.

There has been no suggestion that the players are under criminal scrutiny or are suspected of using opioids. Rather, they are witnesses to the ongoing investigation and their statements have been sought to shed light on drug use by Skaggs and the procurement of illegal drugs by him and others in and around the club.

Skaggs asphyxiated while under the influence of fentanyl, oxycodone, and alcohol in his Texas hotel room on July 1. This past weekend, ESPN reported that Eric Kay, the Los Angeles Angels’ Director of Communications, knew that Skaggs was an Oxycontin addict, is an addict himself, and purchased opioids for Skaggs and used them with him on multiple occasions. Kay has told DEA agents that, apart from Skaggs, at least five other Angels players are opioid users and that other Angels officials knew of Skaggs’ use. The Angels have denied Kay’s allegations.

In some ways this all resembles what happened in Pittsburgh in the 1980s, when multiple players were interviewed and subsequently called as witnesses in prosecutions that came to be known as the Pittsburgh Drug Trials. There, no baseball players were charged with crimes in connection with what was found to be a cocaine epidemic inside Major League clubhouses, but their presence as witnesses caused the prosecutions to be national news for weeks and months on end.