We’re a few short days away from 2018 so it’s a good time to look back at the top 25 baseball stories of 2017. Some of them took place on the field, some of them off the field and some of them were more akin to tabloid drama. No matter where the story broke, however, these were the stories baseball fans were talking about most this past year.
The Houston Astros’ title drought lasted only about half as long as the drought ended by the Cubs in 2016, but at least the Cubs and their fans had a banner they could look at which told them, yes, as some point in our history we were champions. The Houston franchise had been in existence for 55 years — living under two names and playing in two leagues — without a title to show for it. That all changed in 2017, when the Astros beat the Dodgers in seven games to win their first ever World Series.
They drove a long road to get there.
The Astros of the 1990s and 2000s were always pretty good. Led by Hall of Famers Jeff Bagwell and Craig Biggio, Houston made the playoffs six times and won the NL pennant in 2005. By the time those two hung ’em up, however, the cupboard was bare. The major league roster was mostly devoid of talent and the farm system had almost no promising prospects — even marginal ones — in the pipeline. The team was sold to Jim Crane in 2011. That same year the Astros lost 106 games. Crane hired Cardinals scouting and player development executive Jeff Luhnow in December of that year and the rebuild was on.
It was not a pretty rebuild, at least at first. Luhnow and his staff — populated by analysts and scouts recruited from the masthead of Baseball Prospectus, among other places — tore things down to the studs and poured their efforts into the draft and international signings. The major league product suffered mightily during this time — the Astros lost 107 games in 2012 and 111 games in 2013 — but the talent began to emerge like green shoots in late winter.
The losing continued in 2014, but then something funny happened.
Taking a look at what Luhnow had been doing with the team’s rebuild and liking what he was seeing, Sports Illustrated’s Ben Reiter wrote an article in June about the promise in the organization. It became SI’s cover story that week, with the words “Your 2017 World Series Champs” cheekily applied. The cover was widely mocked, as no one in their right mind thought the Astros — often dubbed the “Lastros” in those days — would be an elite team so quickly, even if it was expected that they’d be at least somewhat better.
Houston shocked baseball the very next season, however, winning 86 games and taking the eventual World Series champion Kansas City Royals to a Game 5 in the ALDS. In 2016 they took a step back, winning only 84 and missing the playoffs. This year, though, everything clicked and Houston won 101 games, walked away with the AL West and, vindicating Sports Illustrated’s seemingly crazy prediction, won the whole dang thing.
They may have more whole dang things in their future.
There are no guarantees in baseball, let along guarantees of multiple championships, but the Astros have built an organization that doesn’t seem to be going anywhere. Their core — led by Jose Altuve, Carlos Correa, George Springer, Alex Bregman, and Lance McCullers — are under team control for several years. They have aces Dallas Keuchel for 2018 and Justin Verlander for the next two seasons and, if his player option vests, one more in 2020. Role players Josh Reddick, Brad Peacock and Collin McHugh are under team control for at least a couple more years. Prospects Derek Fisher, Kyle Tucker, Francis Martis have promise. Beyond just them, the Astros have a top-10 farm system according to most experts.
Are the Astros a perfect team? No, even with 101 wins and a title under their belt. Manager A.J. Hinch had to employ some industrial smoke and mirrors when it came to his bullpen usage in the postseason. They certainly could’ve used one more starter for long stretches of the regular season but got away with it somehow. As with any team, there are always flaws to address. And, of course, injuries can always change the game, even with the most talented of squads.
But the 2017 Houston Astros season is over. It ended with a World Series championship. It was, by our estimation anyway, the top baseball story of 2017.
Have a happy and safe New Year, everyone.