Close your eyes. Take a deep breath. Think of the best baseball team you’ve ever seen. Not an All-Star team or your dream fantasy lineup, but a real team, flesh and blood, one that competes for a World Series title. Whom do you see?
Keep that in mind because I’m going to tell you how we can make the 2018 Houston Astros the best team ever.
The club is pursuing a high-end starter. We know this because owner Jim Crane said Monday at a news conference that the Astros are “actively pursuing a high-end starter.” This could mean Gerrit Cole, a trade possibility that took a ride Wednesday on the roller coaster that is the hot stove rumor mill. Or maybe it means Yu Darvish, the top free-agent starter on the market. Or maybe it means a trade for Chris Archer.
If the Astros can acquire one of those three, it would be the final piece, not just in filling out an already deep rotation but also in giving the Astros a realistic chance of becoming just the third team in the 162-game era to win 110 games, joining the 1998 New York Yankees and the 2001 Seattle Mariners.
Consider all this:
Justin Verlander: He has his ring, but this is a guy who wants to be a Hall of Famer, a guy who wasn’t happy when he fell from his status as one of the game’s elite starters. He’s throwing with premium velocity again and coming off a fifth-place finish in the Cy Young voting, but what makes a monster season possible in 2018 is what happened after he came to the Astros: In five starts, he posted a 1.06 ERA and had a 43/5 strikeout-to-walk ratio.
OK, that’s small sample stuff, and September numbers can be misleading, but Verlander’s second-half improvement in 2017 can be traced back to a mechanical tweak that improved his fastball command. He also apparently changed the grip on his slider. Plus, he was throwing curveballs such as this one to Todd Frazier in the playoffs, as he was outright dominant at times on his way to ALCS MVP honors.
In the first half, he had a 4.73 ERA and 1.92 strikeouts for every walk. In the second half, he had a 1.95 ERA and 5.76 strikeouts for every walk. Good luck, American League.
Dallas Keuchel: Here’s what we know about Keuchel: At his best, he’s a Cy Young-level pitcher, getting batters to pound the ball into the ground and recording more strikeouts than you’d expect, given his below-average velocity. He won the Cy Young Award in 2015 and posted a 2.90 ERA last season over 145.2 innings, but he had a 1.67 ERA in early June when he went on the disabled list with a sore neck. He also pitched in the second half with a foot injury that required him to wear a walking boot after the season (though he didn’t need surgery).
Not that a bulldog such as Keuchel needs further motivation, but he’s in his walk year. The incentive to have a big season followed by a big payout is obviously there. Bottom line: When he has been healthy the past three years, he has been as effective as any starter in the American League (he pitched through shoulder pain in 2016 when he had a 4.55 ERA). This gives us Ace 1 and 1A.
Mystery man starter: Whether it’s Cole, Darvish or Archer, each could be accurately described as a fringe Cy Young contender, even if you don’t want to label him an ace. All three, however, are at the top of the food chain in pure stuff and capable of a sub-3.00 ERA season. Archer ranked seventh in the majors in strikeout rate, Darvish 12th and Cole 23rd. Consider each pitcher’s career high in WAR:
Darvish: 5.8 (2013)
Cole: 4.5 (2015)
Archer: 4.3 (2015)
Cole and Archer have even higher figures if you consider FanGraphs WAR instead of Baseball-Reference. With help from Houston’s analytical staff, you can expect a big season from any of these three.
Lance McCullers Jr.: His upside is All-Star, which he was in 2017, when he posted a 3.05 ERA before the break. A back injury limited him to six starts in the second half, though he pitched in the postseason. The stuff is explosive, and his wipeout curveball is difficult to elevate (he allowed just eight home runs in 118 ⅔ innings). We know the control can be spotty, and he has had other injury concerns, but there’s also a chance that he has not yet fully tapped his potential.
Charlie Morton: He signed with the Astros, was told to air out his four-seamer more often, saw his average fastball velocity increase to 95.0 mph, produced his best season with a 3.62 ERA and ended it by pitching the final four innings to win Game 7 of the World Series. His confidence will be sky-high heading into 2018.
That’s five starters, and we didn’t even mention Brad Peacock, who had a 3.00 ERA and ranked eighth in strikeout rate among pitchers with at least 100 innings, or Collin McHugh, who owns a 3.70 ERA the past four seasons. This gives the Astros rotation depth matched perhaps only by the Cleveland Indians. If everyone’s healthy, the Astros have two multi-inning relievers in the bullpen to help soak up innings and keep everyone fresh.
Now to the position players. Remember the Astros led the AL in runs last season.
Carlos Correa: He’s ready to explode on the league, though it’s difficult to imagine better production from a shortstop than the .315/.391/.550 line he put up last year. Keep in mind that he played only 109 games, so the Astros will be a couple wins better just by having him in the lineup for 150 games. He also got off to a terrible start, hitting .233 with two home runs in April. From May on, he hit .336/.411/.601 with 22 home runs and 21 doubles in 87 games. Prorate that over 150 games, and you get 38 home runs and 36 doubles.
That doesn’t even factor in improvement, which you might expect from a player who just turned 23 in September and has only 1,500 career plate appearances. In 2017, Correa cut his strikeout rate and improved his hard-hit rate. Jose Altuve is the reigning MVP, but he might not be the best MVP candidate on his own team.
Alex Bregman: He’s coming off a 4.1-WAR season in his first full year, but his OPS improved from .757 in the first half to .903 in the second. His Defensive Runs Saved total was minus-5, leaving room for growth there as he continues to gain experience at third base. It isn’t silly to think he could produce a 6-WAR season.
George Springer: We saw in the World Series how good he is when he’s clicking on all cylinders. He’s already pretty dynamic, having produced back-to-back 5.0-WAR seasons, but I wouldn’t discount the idea of him putting together an MVP-caliber season. He cut his strikeout rate way down in 2017, from 23.9 percent to 17.7 percent, as he and the rest of the lineup did such a great job of combining discipline with attacking early in the count. His season, however, was the reverse of Bregman’s, as he had 27 home runs and a .993 OPS in the first half and seven home runs and a .724 OPS in the second half (he had a DL stint with a quad injury). With a little more consistency, he too could be a 40-homer guy. Are you envious yet, AL West fans?
Designated hitter: The Astros led the AL in runs, even though they received poor production here, as their DHs (mostly Carlos Beltran) hit just .225/.285/.385. They don’t have a full-time DH on the roster, and with Derek Fisher ready to get more time in the outfield, it could be a rotation among backup catcher Evan Gattis and the other regulars getting a day off in the field. Or maybe Fisher is part of a trade to land Cole or to acquire Christian Yelich to play left field. How about this lineup:
Yuri Gurriel, 1B
Josh Reddick, RF
Evan Gattis/Marwin Gonzalez, DH
Brian McCann, C
I haven’t mentioned the bullpen. The bullpen is fine. Ken Giles was 34-for-38 in save opportunities. Worry about him next October? Sure. In the regular season? Not an issue. The Astros also could move Peacock to closer or sign Greg Holland or wait until the trade deadline to upgrade if necessary.
Yes, for the Astros to be a historic team, the bullpen will have to be a little better, as it ranked 17th in the majors in bullpen ERA. The pen also ranked second in strikeout rate, however, so the arms are here to do better. If the ‘pen lowers its ERA from 4.27 to 3.82, that’s 40 fewer runs — or about four wins of value.
Now, let’s do a little math. The Astros were 101-61 in 2017. Their Pythagorean record — estimated record based on runs scored (896) and allowed (700) — was 99-63. To get the Astros to 110 wins, they’d have to score 35 more runs and allow 65 fewer, or some similar combination.
Right now, FanGraphs projects the Astros at 97-65. That’s a big projection, as projections by nature are pretty conservative. Obviously, to get to 110 wins, you need optimal health and some career seasons. To get to 116 wins, you need some good fortune and the insatiable desire to remain focused to win every game.
Why won’t it happen? The biggest obstacle would be the AL West. The Los Angeles Angels are better. The Mariners could be better if their entire rotation doesn’t break down this season. The Oakland Athletics should be better. Right now, this looks like the best division in baseball. The ’98 Yankees were 11-1 against the Tampa Bay Rays and 9-3 against the Baltimore Orioles. They also took 10 games from the Kansas City Chiefs without losing one. The ’01 Mariners actually had another 100-win team in the division, in Oakland, but went 30-9 against the Angels and Texas Rangers. I’m not sure the Astros can go 30-9 against any two teams in the AL West.
The other obstacle is that teams now keep an eye on the postseason. The Astros will probably use a six-man rotation at times this year to keep everyone as fresh as possible. It’s unlikely that they’ll push as hard as the ’01 Mariners, who had three starters make at least 33 starts and kept playing their regulars down the stretch to chase the wins record. We also saw what happened last year with the Chicago Cubs, when they got off to a slow first half with what Joe Maddon described as a World Series hangover.
Still, it doesn’t take a delusional imagination to picture greatness. If everything does break Houston’s way and Correa, Altuve and Springer all finish in the top five in the MVP voting and Verlander, Keuchel and Darvish go 1-2-3 in the Cy Young vote, the Astros can reach 110 or 115 wins.
Then comes the hard part: They have to win the World Series.