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2018 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 2018 season. Next up: The Houston Astros. 

Maybe I should’ve started with the Astros. They’re the champs, right?

I guess I didn’t because I can’t think of an easier pick in a division and obviousness bores me. Whatever the case, the Astros are gonna waltz away with the AL West again. They stand a quite reasonable chance of being even better than they were last year, when all they did was win 101 games and the World freakin’ Series.

They could be better for a couple of obvious reasons. First, they’ll have Justin Verlander all year, not just for September and the playoffs. Second, Carlos Correa will likely not miss a bunch of time with a freak injury. Third they added Gerrit Cole to the rotation. Fourth, key contributors like Correa and Alex Bregman — and fill-in pieces like Derek Fisher — are still painfully young and could actually improve. The farm system, though depleted from where it was a couple of years ago, still has top-half talent that can help one way (via trades) or another (via callups).

Not that the Astros are a perfect team. No team is. It’s easy to forget given the champagne-popping and trophy-hoisting, but A.J. Hinch had to do a lot of plate-spinning with his bullpen both during the regular season and in the playoffs. Things were shaky at times down there last year and, come October, Justin Verlander and Lance McCullers were being featured in high-leverage relief situations.

There will be a somewhat new look to the pen in 2018, as Houston signed right-handers Joe Smith and Hector Rondon in December. The trade for Gerrit Cole will likewise push swingman Brad Peacock into the pen full time, helping matters. Between them, Will Harris, Chris Devenski and Ken Giles it’s a pretty good looking group on paper, but obviously it’s hard to predict how relievers will fare from moment to moment, let alone year-to-year (ask Giles about his October, for example). Like a lot of managers say in spring training, Hinch has said he will change up roles frequently and use guys situationally. Given the Astros’ outside-the-box organizational ethos, he may actually do it.

Beyond that, it’s hard to find much fault with this club. Jose Altuve is a year older and it’s unreasonable to expect a repeat MVP year, but he’s but not yet old and is still among the best hitters in the game. Losing Carlos Beltran may not hurt in strictly baseball terms as he was a below average hitter last year, but the loss of his presence will likewise hurt at least a little. Evan Gattis in the DH spot full-time may expose his vulnerabilities a bit more than part-time DHing/backup catching does. There’s a lot of mileage on Brian McCann. Yuli Gurriel will miss the start of the season due to hand surgery but shouldn’t miss too much time. Even if he does, the Astros’ organizational depth and the versatility of Marwin Gonzalez will help cover that hole.

All of that being said, the lineup — which led all of baseball in runs, on-base percentage, slugging percentage and batting average, and which was second in homers, will score lots and lots of runs. The rotation is silly, with Verlander, Dallas Keuchel, Cole, Lance McCullers and Charlie Morton matchup up with the best groups in the game. As mentioned above, there are prospects which can be traded if and when injuries occur or holes otherwise develop. Top-to-bottom, it’s one of the strongest teams in the game.

Of course, all of that was said about the Cubs last year. Which is why these previews focus on the regular season. It’s worth remembering that the Astros were taken to two Game 7s last year on their way to the title. Anything can happen in the playoffs, and if things had happened slightly differently, a very different narrative about the club would’ve formed over the winter.

That narrative, though, would not have changed the fundamentals of the roster and their competitive chances in 2018. October will bring chaos and unpredictability, as it always does. From March through September, however, it’s hard to see anyone coming close to the Astros in the division and, quite possibly, in all of baseball.

Prediction: First place, AL West.

Yankees pound Hyun-Jin Ryu, beat Dodgers 10-2

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“We haven’t had many games like this,” Dodgers manager Dave Robert said after last night’s loss to the Yankees. That’s for sure.

There were no wild walkoff hits. There were no home runs by Dodger batters. There were two, including a grand slam, from Didi Gregorius, however, and he and New York batters pounded Hyun-Jin Ryu, perhaps the stingiest pitcher in baseball this year, for seven runs on nine hits in four and a third as the Yankees beat the Dodgers 10-2 in Dodger Stadium.

Aaron Judge, who has been slumping something terrible, opened up the scoring with a solo home run in the third. Two batters later Gary Sánchez matched him with a blast of his own. An A.J. Pollock RBI single in the bottom half of the inning made it a 2-1 game but after that the Yankees stepped on the gas with a five-run fifth highlighted by a Didi Gregorius grand slam. Gleber Torres would homer in the sixth, Judge would single home a run in the eighth and Gregorius would strike again in the ninth with a solo homer for his second blast of the night. That one gave the Yankees 57 bombs in the month of August, which sets a team record. There’s still a week left in August too.

As for the Dodgers, Ryu was uncharacteristically rusty, though it probably should be noted that this was his second poor outing in a row. struggled through his second straight sub-par outing. The last time out he lost to Atlanta. allowing all four Braves’ runs in 5 2/3 innings as the Dodgers fell 4-3. His ERA came in to this game at a still-MLB-best 1.64, but those seven runs in fewer than five — his shortest outing in nearly two months — puffed it up to an even 2.00.

The Yankees scored just nine runs in their three losses in Oakland. Last night they beat that by one. And they brought themselves to within one game of the Dodgers for the best record in all of baseball, which would determine home field in the World Series should these two powerhouses meet.

For now, though, Roberts is limiting the implications of all of this to Friday night, saying “fortunately, it only counts for one loss.” Yep. But man, it was an ugly one.