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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.

Dusty Baker hired to manage the Astros

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Note: This was first posted yesterday morning. Now that it has been confirmed by multiple outlets, we are updating it.

The Astros and Dusty Baker have an agreement to make Baker the new manager of the Houston Astros. Baker’s hiring was first reported by Bob Nightengale of USA Today yesterday. Today his hiring was confirmed by Marl Feinsand of MLB.com, citing multiple sources.

Baker recently interviewed with Astros owner Jim Crane who, as you know, was in the position of having to find a new manager on the quick given the suspension and subsequent firing of A.J. Hinch in the wake of the Astros’ sign-stealing scandal. Crane also interviewed Brad Ausmus in recent days.

In Baker the Astros are getting a manager who needs no training and needs no introduction. He has won basically everywhere he has managed, taking the Giants to the World Series in three postseason appearances, taking the Cubs to the postseason once, taking the Reds to the postseason three times and taking the Nationals to the postseason in both years at the helm. In 22 years as a skipper he has a record of 1,863-1,636. His worst single-team winning percentage is .497 with the Cubs. He was a .593 manager in Washington, a .540 manager in San Francisco, and a .524 manager in Cincinnati.

Baker has a track record of taking over poor-to-decent clubs and, almost immediately, making them winners. He did it in Washington, he did it in Cincinnati, he did it in San Francisco and, though it was only in his first season before running into some bad years, he even did it in Chicago. No one has the market cornered on assessing manager skill and quality, but the fact that Baker has won everywhere he’s gone probably means that, if they do eventually figure out what the special sauce is, Baker will be found to have possessed a vat of it.

He certainly has an interesting challenge in Houston. Unlike his past gigs, he’s taking over a monster of a team, winners of 107 games and the AL pennant last year and, of course, winning the 2017 World Series. With the exception of Gerrit Cole, who departed via free agency, basically all of the players who took the Nationals to Game 7 of the 2019 World Series will be back in 2020.

Which makes figuring out the expectations we should have for Baker an interesting thing. On the one hand, when a team loses Game 7 of the World Series like the Astros did, all but one outcome is a step back. Given that winning a World Series is no guarantee, ever, there’s a chance that even if Baker does an amazing job in Houston he ends his tenure being cast, again, as some sort of disappointment. A guy who couldn’t get it done in the postseason.

On the other hand the Astros have just been busted in a massive cheating scandal and — if you believe they were still cheating in 2019, which some do believe — they will have lost an advantage they once had. Between that, the departure of Cole and the overall fallout of the sign-stealing scandal and the scrutiny under which the team will be in 2020, it would not be at all shocking if they take a step back regardless of who was hired to manage. Which means that if Baker does win it all with Houston, man, it’d be a hell of an accomplishment. Or he could fall short of a World Series win and still be considered a massive success by virtue of keeping a team with every reason to be distracted to stay focused and play good baseball.

No matter how this plays out on the field, however, the fact of the matter is that, in addition to winning everyplace he’s ever been, Baker has long been praised for his management of the clubhouse. For motivating players and keeping them on an even keel. For bringing calm to places where one might expect storms. Win or lose, that’s exactly what this team needs right now. It’s exactly why, in our view, Baker is the perfect hire for the Houston Astros.