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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.

The Astros continue to refuse to take responsibility for the Taubman Affair

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I’m calling it the “Taubman Affair” because writing “the incident in which a top front office executive — Astros Assistant General Manager Brandon Taubman — taunted a reporter for her past opposition to the team acquiring a domestic abuser, after which the team lied, aggressively about it, accusing another reporter of fabricating a story, then admitted that they lied but made no apology for smearing the reporter” is too unwieldy for a headline.

If you need catching up on it, though, you can read this, this or this.

The latest on it all: yesterday, after walking back their angry denial that the incident ever occurred and admitting that, yes, Taubman did in fact gleefully and profanely target a reporter for taunting, the team basically went silent and let Game 1 unfold.

Today General Manager Jeff Luhnow went on a team-friendly radio station (i.e. the station that broadcasts Astros games). In the entire segment he was asked only one question about it: “Your thoughts on the SI article, Jeff.” Luhnow said that he would withhold comment, but apologized to “everybody involved,” including the fans and the players, saying “this situation should have never happened.” You can listen to the entire segment here.

He did not, however, make any specific mention of what “this situation” was. Nor did he acknowledge that, actually, it’s at least two “situations:” (1) the initial behavior of Taubman; and (2) Monday night’s team-sanctioned attack of Sports Illustrated’s Stephanie Apstein, who reported it. Indeed, at no time in the team’s now multiple comments has anyone acknowledged that, as an organization, the Houston Astros’s first impulse in all of this was to attempt to bully and discredit a reporter for what has now been established as a truthful report to which the Astros have admitted. And they certainly have not voiced any specific regret or offered any form of accountability for it.

Major League Baseball is apparently investigating Taubman’s conduct. But it is not, presumably, investigating the Astros’ disingenuous smear of Apstein. A smear that the Astros likely undertook because they figured they could intimidate Apstein and, what may even be worse, because they assumed that the rest of the press — many of whom were witnesses to Taubman’s act — would go along or remain silent. If they did not think that, of course, releasing the statement they did would’ve been nonsensical. It speaks of an organization that believes it can either bully or manipulate the media into doing its bidding or covering for the teams’ transgressions. That part of this has gone wholly uncommented on by the Astros and apparently will for the foreseeable future. No matter how this shakes out for Taubman, if the Astros do not talk about how and why they decided to baselessly attack Apstein on Monday night, nothing they ever say should be trusted again.

More broadly, everything the Astros are doing now is the same as when they traded for Roberto Osuna in the first place.

In 2018 they wanted to do an unpopular thing — arbitrage a player’s domestic violence suspension into the acquisition of cheap relief help — while wanting to appear as though they were good actors who had a “zero tolerance for domestic violence” policy. To solve that problem they shoveled a lot of malarkey about how “zero tolerance” actually includes a fair amount of tolerance and hoped that everyone would go along. When not everyone did — when fans brought signs of protest to the ballpark or expressed their displeasure with Osuna’s presence on the roster — they confiscated them then hoped it’d all blow over and, eventually, via Taubman’s rant on Saturday night, lashed out at their critics.

Here, again, they want to do something unpopular: retain a boorish and insensitive executive in Taubman without him or the team suffering any consequences for it, be they actual consequences or mere P.R. fallout. Again, it’s kind of hard to pull that off, so to do so they falsely accused a reporter of lying and then circled the wagons when they caught heat for it.

I have no idea how long they plan to keep this up. Maybe they are calculating that people will forget and that forgetting is the same as forgiveness. Maybe they simply don’t care. All I do know is that folks will be teaching the Astros’ response to all of this as a counterexample in crisis management courses for years.