A Look at the AL West: Can the Astros take it all?

Last year was the Astros’ third year in the American League, and the first year in seemingly forever where they showed the ability to be a real playoff team in the MLB. After being the consistent bottom-feeder of the NL Central and not showing greater success in their first couple of years with the AL West, Houston had a breakout 2015 season, finishing just 2 games back of the Rangers in the division and locking up a wildcard spot. They took out the New York Yankees in the play-in game, but lost the Divisional Round series 3-2 to the eventual World Series champion, Kansas City Royals.

Dallas Keuchel brings not only a strong beard game, but is pretty good at the whole MLB pitching thing too. Photo courtesy of MLB.com.

So the question remains, can the Astros repeat last season’s success in 2016? I think the team is primed and ready to do so for a couple of reasons: The maturation of young talent on the mound and the explosiveness of their hitters, both at the plate and on the base path. The Astros had the best team ERA in the American League in 2015, just 3.57. Dallas Keuchel has really come into his own over the past couple of seasons, and should continue to improve as number one in the rotation. Lance McCullers record from last season may not be the most impressive, just 6-7, but he should be pitching a lot more comfortably this season, with his first professional season behind him.

The remaining three pitchers for the staff have all seen some success throughout their careers, and it’s just a matter of returning to form. Collin McHugh has been remarkably better with Houston the past two seasons than his previous two, he should continue to trend in the right direction on the mound.

Doug Fister probably had the roughest season of these five starters in 2015. He started the year with a starting rotation spot with Washington, but some consistency issues ended up getting him demoted to a bullpen spot by the end of the year. If he’s able to regain his composure with a new team and pitch like he did in 2014 with Washington (16-6 2.41 ERA in 25 starts), this Astros rotation looks suitable to defend its position as one of the best in the AL.

Carlos Correa and his middle infield partner Jose Altuve will continue to set the tone for the Astros bats in 2016. Photo courtesy of MLB.com.

The offense is spotted with stars like Jose Altuve and Carlos Correa. Correa became the first number 1 draft pick overall to win Rookie of the Year in the American League last season. However Correa has already made it very clear that he does not intend to stop there, and there’s no reason to believe otherwise. Correa could begin making his case as an elite talent in the MLB over these next few years, in the same league as guys like Bryce Harper and Mike Trout, if he continues to improve on his impressive opening season.

Altuve has hit over .300 in his past two seasons, and has begun to find more power in his bat, recording his first double-digit home run season. He also solidified his glove work, posting a .993 fielding percent in 2015.

Correa and Altuve could be a middle infield duo that terrifies the division for years down the road.

The rest of the Astros bats are supplemented with some solid veteran talent combined with rookies looking to mature and make their first big splash at the plate. As of right now, the team’s starting 9 are all returning from 2015, so they have the element of chemistry on their side as well.

The Mariners and A’s are continuing to find themselves and presently should not provide too much of a threat to the Astros within the division. The Rangers are coming off a year where their pitching ranked 3rd worst in the AL in terms of ERA, over a point higher than Houston’s. Although the Rangers are hoping Yu Darvish’s return from injury and Cole Hamels will help fix this problem, I don’t think it will be enough. While this team has great hitting, I think that, outside of Darvish and Hamels, it lacks the pitching depth required to make a serious postseason run. The Angels continue to see great production out of Mike Trout, but long-time slugger Albert Pujols numbers seem to be trending downwards, and their admittedly solid rotation currently lacks a true ace on the level of Keuchel and Hamels.

I think the Astros will continue to see themselves in the top half of the AL West standings for a long time with the young talent they have accrued over their time at the bottom of the MLB. Carlos Correa will only get better (a scary proposition) and young batters will only continue to improve with just the right amount of veterans around them.

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