2017 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 2017 season. Next up: The Houston Astros.

Every preview of the 2017 Astros is obligated to mention that, back in 2014, Sports Illustrated projected them to win it all this year. It got a lot of laughs at the time, but that was actually sort of bearish given that they pushed the eventual World Series champs to five games in the 2015 ALDS, which suggested 2016 could’ve even been a step beyond that. Houston faltered last year, however, and in their latest baseball preview, SI didn’t repeat that World Series claim from three years ago. They’re picking the Dodgers. So sad to see such lack of courage in one’s convictions.

I’m not sure I’d pick them to win it all this year either, but it should be a better year for the men in orange.

It all starts with their core. Jose Altuve, is a batting champ and MVP contender. 2015 Rookie of the Year Carlos Correa was just 21 last season and still put up a line of .274/.364/.451 in his first full season, fighting through some nagging injuries to do it. George Springer isn’t as good those two but he’s talented enough to feature as a key supporting player on a championship-caliber club. Alex Bregman had a nice debut season last year and will now look to consolidate success at multiple minor league levels into a solid full season in the bigs.

While last year the hope was that success would be be ensured by the young players progressing, the front office decided this past winter to beef up the roster by adding some quality veterans. In comes Josh Reddick and Carlos Beltran via free agency, and in comes Brian McCann via a trade. Reddick will slot in right field, Beltran will take over at DH and McCann becomes the starting catcher. Those additions make the Astros lineup one of the best in the American League. And that’s before you allow for the possibility that young guys like Correa and Bregman could break out in a big way. It’s also before you realize that Evan Gattis — who hit 32 homers last year — is now basically a bench bat. It’s a deep offensive attack that gives A.J. Hinch a lot of options, both to play the best matchups and to rest veterans.

Things aren’t perfect, however. The rotation is a problem.

2015 Cy Young Award winner Dallas Keuchel had a profoundly disappointing 2016 campaign. As did just about everyone else to whom Hinch gave the ball. Only Lance McCullers had an ERA+ over 100, but he only started 14 games. Jeff Luhnow went out and got Charlie Morton, but that’s not a big get. Otherwise the rotation is going to be fairly similar to last year: Keuchel, McCullers, Morton, Mike Fiers and Joe Musgrove. Collin McHugh will likely start the year on the DL and contribute eventually.

Keuchel had shoulder problems. Morton is coming off a big hamstring injury. McCullers was hurt last year and McHugh has dead arm now. It’s not a pretty picture. A bounceback season from Keuchel or a full season of health from McCullers would go a long way toward solidifying things. As of now, though, Houston may score a ton of runs, but they are going to have some trouble preventing them. There’s a reason why they are still rumored to be in on Jose Quintana. They could use him.

Thankfully the bullpen was a clear strength last year and it should look pretty similar this year, personnel-wise. Ken Giles will close with Luke Gregerson and Will Harris setting up with Tony Sipp, Chris Devenski and Michael Feliz contributing. It’s a nice group that, while not featuring any Andrew Miller-type relief aces, was the most valuable bullpen in baseball as measured by WAR. Even if WAR is not your favorite stat, it’s still a super solid group.

What does a a great lineup, a solid bullpen and a rotation full of question marks amount to? In the AL West I think it amounts to a good bit, actually, as no contender is perfect. If you do a bit of wishcasting with the rotation, it’s not hard to find a ton of separation between it and Texas’ overall. If Jeff Luhnow goes out and gets a starter, which I think he will, it could easily be better. That doesn’t make the Astros a runaway favorite, but I think it gives them a shot at a win total in the high-80s to low-90s, and I think that amounts to . . .

Prediction: First Place, American League West. But they’ll be battling for it all year in what I think will be a close division.

Bogaerts reportedly heading to the Padres for 11 years, $280 million

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SAN DIEGO — The San Diego Padres and Xander Bogaerts agreed to a blockbuster $280 million, 11-year contract Wednesday night, adding the All-Star slugger to an already deep lineup.

A person familiar with the negotiations confirmed the contract to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because it was pending a physical.

The Padres already had Fernando Tatis Jr. at shortstop, but he missed the entire season because of injuries and an 80-game suspension for testing positive for a performance-enhancing drug.

San Diego also met with Aaron Judge and Trea Turner before the big stars opted for different teams. The Padres reached the NL Championship Series this year before losing to the Phillies.

“From our standpoint, you want to explore and make sure we’re looking at every possible opportunity to get better,” general manager A.J. Preller said before the Bogaerts deal surfaced. “We’ve got a real desire to win and do it for a long time.”

The 30-year-old Bogaerts was one of the headliners in a stellar group of free-agent shortstops that also included Turner, Carlos Correa and Dansby Swanson.

Bogaerts, who’s from Aruba, terminated his $120 million, six-year contract with Boston after the season. The four-time All-Star forfeited salaries of $20 million for each of the next three years after hitting .307 with 15 homers and 73 RBIs in 150 games.

Bogaerts is a .292 hitter with 156 homers and 683 RBIs in 10 big league seasons – all with Boston. He helped the Red Sox win the World Series in 2013 and 2018.

Bogaerts becomes the latest veteran hitter to depart Boston after the Red Sox traded Mookie Betts to the Los Angeles Dodgers in February 2020. Rafael Devers has one more year of arbitration eligibility before he can hit the market.

Bogaerts had his best big league season in 2019, batting .309 with a career-best 33 homers and 117 RBIs. He had 23 homers and 103 RBIs in 2018.

In 44 postseason games, Bogaerts is a .231 hitter with five homers and 16 RBIs.