- By Kevin Lyttle American-Statesman Staff
Baseball analysts, deep stat divers and Las Vegas are all in alignment on the Houston Astros stock market forecast for 2017.
Buy. Buy. Buy.
When the Astros open the season Monday night against Seattle at Minute Maid Park, they will not only go off as the favorite to unseat the Rangers in the AL West, they will be listed right behind Cleveland and Boston to win the American League and will boast the fifth-best odds (12-1) to capture their first World Series.
“People are looking at us this year, and we think we are ready,” second baseman Jose Altuve, coming off an MVP-worthy season that included an AL batting title, told reporters during spring training in Florida.
The young Astros, coming off back-to-back 86- and 84-win seasons, made significant roster additions without losing much. They brought in seven-time All-Star catcher Brian McCann for his brawn and his brains, and they added three veteran outfielders: Carlos Beltran, Josh Reddick and Norichika Aoki.
“We loaded up with a veteran presence, which should make us a lot tougher to deal with up and down the lineup,” All-Star shortstop Carlos Correa told reporters.
Respected numbers-crunching sites like Baseball Prospectus and FanGraphs both project major upgrades to the Astros’ win total in the 90-to-95 range.
To make that happen, though, Dallas Keuchel must pitch more like he did during his Cy Young Award season of 2015 — when he was 20-8 with a 2.48 ERA — than his pedestrian 2016 campaign of 9-12 and 4.55.
“Dallas is a good pitcher, there’s no question about that, and even last year he showed it at times. And he was dealing with some health issues, and that’s why he got shut down at the end,” said Astros general manager Jeff Luhnow.
“He’s feeling good, feeling confident and I do think there’s some — after you have an incredible year like he did in ‘15 and he pitched more than he ever had pitched before — there’s some natural regression to the mean, if you will.”
Many insiders expect the Astros to eventually deal for another top-of-the-rotation starter, perhaps Justin Verlander, Jose Quintana or Chris Archer. Houston definitely has enough high-end prospects to make a big splash.
For now, Keuchel will be backed by a few other starters who come with question marks.
Lance McCullers, who fills the No. 2 spot for now, has an electric arsenal, but the 23-year-old already has dealt with elbow and shoulder injuries . His 106 strikeouts in 81 innings last year demonstrate his upside; his 14 starts show his fragility.
Colin McHugh, the No. 3 man, needs to show some improvement. After winning 19 games in 2015, he dropped to 13 last year, and his ERA has jumped in three successive seasons: 2.73 to 3.89 to 4.34. He’ll also open on the disabled list with a “dead arm.”
The rest of the rotation is serviceable, although Joe Musgrove looked sharp enough as a rookie to indicate he could surpass expectations and win a dozen games.
Houston has several exciting arms on the farm in David Paulino, Francis Marte and Jandel Gustave, any of whom could make his presence felt at some point this season. And the Astros won’t fulfill their promise unless there are some unexpected contributors to the rotation.
The other thing Houston must do to win the AL West is beat the Rangers. Houston was 10-28 against Texas over the past two seasons, including 4-15 in 2016.
“Definitely a priority,” manager A.J. Hinch said, “because when they’re ahead of you and you lose to them, it’s like dropping two games in the standings.”
What nobody questions about the Astros is their hitting. They led the league in runs scored last year and their offense should be better thanks to the additions of Beltran and McCann.
Add in the natural progression that should come for Correa, third baseman Alex Bregman and first baseman Yulieski Gurriel, and opposing pitchers could dread facing this team.
“I’m excited to be here and get started,” said McCann, who has nine straight 20-plus home-run seasons. “I can’t imagine this lineup not scoring enough to win big.”