The Houston Astros front office have been quite busy this offseason, determined to improve their batting lineup depth and make a strong bid for the playoffs this coming 2017 season. It’s no secret that the Astros organization, spearheaded by general manager Jeff Luhnow, have seen some tough times, and have been in something of a rebuilding process for the past seven or so years. But it is only recently that the Houston Astros are looking to be true AL contenders. In 2015, after a long drought following their loss in the 2005 World Series sweep by the Chicago White Sox, the Astros returned to the playoffs under manager A.J. Hinch. With a pitching staff led by All-Star member Dallas Keuchel - who was a masterful 15-0 at Minute Maid Park that season - and a batting staff that gained notoriety for being serious power threats, the Astros were looking damn good. They finished second overall in MLB team Home Runs (230) - the Toronto Blue Jays with an additional two dingers - and defeated the New York Yankees in the AL Wild Card Game 3-0. They would advance to a thrilling AL Division Series, taking the Kansas City Royals to a fifth game where the Astros eventually succumbed 7-2. The Royals went on to become the 2015 World Series champions.
While the sting of what could have been in an overall stellar 2015 season still lingers, the front office has been smart and retained much of that 2015 and 2016 starting core for their 2017 lineup; albeit with a few transitions for the better. The acquisitions of Carlos Beltrán, Brian McCann, Josh Reddick, and Norichika Aoki provide some much needed batting depth in an otherwise entirely right-handed starting lineup.
Last season - and despite Jose Altuve ending the year as the AL leader in Batting Average (.338) - the Astros ranked a pitiful 24th overall in Batting Average, batting .249 versus right-handed pitchers and .240 versus left-handed pitchers. They also saw a significant power drop, with 198 Home Runs overall while retaining a high strikeout rate. It appeared that Jeff Luhnow had his work cut out for him this offseason, and he delivered. While Houston’s front office agreed-to-terms with key players such as George Springer, Dallas Keuchel, Will Harris, Mike Fiers, Marwin González, and Jake Marisnick, they also lost veteran left-handed batters in Colby Rasmus, Luis Valbuena, and Jason Castro. Looking to the free agent market to fill their lineup woes, the Astros made significant moves.
Approaching the age of 40, Beltrán is no spring chicken; yet in 2015 in 151 games played he managed to finish the season with a .295/.337/.513 batting line, knocking-in 93 runners on 163 Hits and 29 dingers. Versus right-handed pitchers, Beltrán sported a .279/.321/.484 batting line with 20 HR's and 63 RBI’s. It’s also worth noting that Beltrán had amazing clutch ability in 2016, posting a batting line of .257/.308/.464, 7 HR's and 59 RBI’s with Runners In Scoring Position (RISP). While Beltrán can play outfield, his knees are worrisome and manager A.J. Hinch has already iterated that the future Hall-of-Famer is to be their primary Designated Hitter this coming 2017 season - at most starting 30-40 games at Left Field. Beltrán brings a veteran presence to a relatively young team, although he is not entirely new to the organization. Back in 2004, he played outfield for the Houston Astros for half a season in what was a monster year for him but opted to sign with the New York Mets following a disappointing end when the Astros lost the NL Championship Series versus their rivals, the St. Louis Cardinals. In 2017, and what might possibly be his last season in the majors, Beltrán looks to stay healthy and repeat what he did in 2016 - which for the Astros, is more than welcome.
Brian McCann has seen better years. It’s been four seasons since McCann has hit for more than a .250 Batting Average, but at least he has always remained a power threat. He has managed to knock at least 20 or more dingers a season, and has sported a decent On Base Percentage in that same time span. In fact, with the loss of Jason Castro, A.J. Hinch figures McCann to be on rotating duties with Catcher/DH Evan Gattis, a former teammate from his Atlanta Braves days. While this is possibly the primary reason Luhnow signed him, don’t let his waning years at the bat fool you. Compared to his predecessor, Castro, who slashed an atrocious .210/.307/.377, McCann is a monumental improvement. In 2016, McCann hit 20 HR's while sporting a batting line of .242/.335/.413. Versus right-handed pitchers that line was .249/.340/.430 with 17 HR's. With key losses in Rasmus, Castro, and Valbuena, McCann looks not only to share catching duties with Gattis, but fill a hole in which the aforementioned players provided: left-handed At-Bats versus right-handed pitching. It also wasn’t too long ago that McCann made an All-Star Game. In 2013, McCann hit for a .256 Batting Average and once again reached the 20 HR mark. In 2015, he earned his sixth Silver Slugger Award, knocking a career-high 26 HR's out of the playing field. Like his fellow catcher Gattis, McCann provides a significant power threat and it seems as though Luhnow is hoping for a return to 2015 Astro scariness - you know, the kind that opposing pitchers dreaded.
Signed to a four-year contract, the Astros must think very highly of Josh Reddick. While Reddick has been visited by the injury bug on more than one occasion throughout his 8-year career in the Majors, he has still managed to remain a threat in the batter’s box. Last season, Reddick played in 115 games. In that time span, his batting line versus right-handed pitchers was a superb .322/.386/.485. All 10 of his HR's came off righties. Overall he finished the season with a .281/.345/.405 batting line, 37 RBI’s and 53 Runs scored. The previous year in 2015, Reddick displayed impressive clutch ability posting a .289/.359/.489 batting line and an .848 OPS with RISP. It’s no doubt that the Astros are hoping for the veteran player to remain healthy in 2017 and repeat his superb numbers versus right-handed pitchers - hell, maybe even reach 20 or more HR's again (2012, 2015) - but the question is: what happens to an otherwise overcrowded outfield? With the acquisitions of Beltrán, Reddick and Aoki, superstar George Springer, and platoon players like Jake Marisnick and possibly Tony Kemp - not to mention possibilities in Evan Gattis, Preston Tucker, A.J. Reed, and Tyler White playing Left Field - the outfield has never looked more crowded. For now, A.J. Hinch’s mind is set on Springer moving to Center Field, Reddick becoming the everyday Right Fielder, and Aoki and Marisnick sharing Left Field duties - with Beltrán stepping in on occasion and Evan Gattis remaining a power option off the bench. If that seems complicated, keep in mind A.J. Hinch has also already stated that players will move when it comes to the elite defender Marisnick, so it gets even more complicated than that. Nonetheless, Josh Reddick looks to be a pivotal part in a stacked lineup, whether playing Right Field or accommodating for Marisnick.
The Japanese veteran has had a long successful career between Nippon Professional Baseball and the MLB. 2017 will be his sixth season in the Majors. Claimed off waivers, the Astros were not only looking for a serviceable outfielder, but to add batting lineup depth - as Jake Marisnick is only good at one thing, can you guess which one that is? While largely seen as a platoon player, in 2016 versus right-handers, Aoki posted a batting line of .300/.364/.428 in 118 games played total. Not much of a power hitter, Aoki provides good OBP and is quite speedy. He provides just the kind of role that the Astros need, a plug-in-and-play guy who can hit at the top or the bottom - though I’m gonna go out on a limb here and say either Altuve or Springer remains batter no. 1. His best seasons came back in 2012 and 2013 with the Milwaukee Brewers, where he posted for a combined batting line of .287/.355/.401, hit 18 HR's, 87 RBI’s, scored 161 Runs, and stole 50 bases. Since then he has been on three different teams. The Astros will be his fourth. While A.J. Hinch figures to sit Aoki versus left-handed pitchers, he’s still going to hit for .280-something, give them a high OBP, and probably get them double-digit Stolen Bases because that is what Aoki has mostly done while in the MLB.
With these four major batting acquisitions, it wouldn’t be surprising for the Houston Astros to post 2015 numbers again, although that largely depends on their pitching staff and whether or not these acquisitions actually do what they’re supposed to do. Already, Houston’s starting nine look titillating. Led by MLB superstars Carlos Correa, Jose Altuve, and George Springer, who have all impressed with their Gold-Glove level play and dangerous batting, the rest aren’t too shabby either. The emergence of Alex Bregman, who is currently the youngest member of Team USA in the 2017 World Baseball Classic, has Front Office and fans on watch for a breakout year after showing flashes of brilliance in 2016. Cuban veteran Yulieski Gurriel looks to continue his transition to the Majors, and can play both first base and third base. While slugger Evan Gattis is expected to once again drive-in runs with his power hitting.