“Mission Accomplished” – A Houston Astros preview

Between 2011 and 2013, the Houston Astros won 162 games and lost 324 of them. They scored 1,808 runs and allowed 2,438 of them. They averaged finishing over 42 games out of first place per season. It was a stretch so futile that even the early 00’s Detroit Tigers were rendered speechless and took a bow.

Jeff Luhnow took over the general manager’s role in Houston after the 2011 season. The organization had just finished trading off almost everything of value (mostly to the Philadelphia Phillies) and the team was set up for another season in the abyss. Brett Myers was the closer, Carlos Lee was still getting semi-regular at-bats, Lucas Harrell started 32 games (sort of successfully!) and a 5’6” second baseman by the name of Jose Altuve was set to start at second base after posting just a .654 OPS in his rookie season. To start the Astros’ mission to contend, Luhnow didn’t begin with a bunch of marketable trade assets or even a respectable farm system. He was “starting from square one” in every sense of the phrase. Let’s look at how the AL West juggernaut was built.

High Draft Picks

The lean years in Houston gave Luhnow the gift of the first pick of the draft each year from 2012-2014 and the second overall pick in 2015. His selections illustrate great arguments for and against tanking. While Mark Appel and Brady Aiken both proved to be a complete waste of seasons with a winning percentage below .350, Carlos Correa and Alex Bregman would eventually combine to give the Astros an elite combination on the left side of the infield.

Player Development

World Series record-breaker George Springer certainly panned out for the Astros as a power-hitting outfielder (who significantly reduced his strikeouts last season), but it’s hardly unusual for an 11th overall draft pick to turn into a star. The humble beginnings of some of the other Houston stars are far more remarkable in retrospect. American League MVP and all-around offensive force Jose Altuve was the Astros 28th-ranked prospect heading into his rookie season, per Baseball America. Dallas Keuchel was a grade-C pitching prospect who turned into one of baseball’s premier wormkillers. Swiss Army knife Marwin Gonzalez started the 2012 season as a Rule 5 pick by the Red Sox that got flipped to the Astros and ended the 2017 season with a .907 OPS. Whether you want to call it great coaching or great luck, the Astros developed some breakout stars from unexpected places.

Low-Key Transactions

The Astros have done quite well in the dumpster-diving department. Curveball artist Collin McHugh has done good work in the Astros rotation since he was claimed off waivers from the Rockies; he’s in the bullpen now because they’re so deep. Relief ace Chris Devenski was a player-to-be-named-later in the White Sox’ deadline acquisition of Brett Myers (d’oh!) in 2012. Electric swingman Brad Peacock was an older prospect who looked like he might wash out when he was the second piece in Houston’s return for Jed Lowrie back in 2013. Peacock kept the Astros humming as a fill-in starter and extremely reliable fireman, depending on where they needed depth over the course of last season.

Higher-Profile Trades

The late-August acquisition of Justin Verlander immediately springs to mind when thinking of major recent Astros trades. The former Detroit ace racked up nearly two WAR in five starts in Houston last season before anchoring the Astros’ rotation for the playoffs. He’s off to another frighteningly good start this year, and the White Sox’ bats will have their work cut out for them tonight.

Still, a bigger portion of Houston’s championship roster was assembled via trade than you might recall. Low-OBP slugger and underrated defensive catcher Evan Gattis was acquired from the Braves before 2015 for the would-be-superfluous Mike Foltynewicz and a couple others. Offense-oriented catcher Brian McCann came over from the Yankees before last season. McCann’s framing ability has slipped since his heyday, but he’s still a competent offense-oriented catcher with the ability to enforce all the rules that MLB failed to put in writing (they ran out of time before completing Section 10.00–Tomfoolery). The Astros were also able to pluck glove man Jake Marisnick from the Marlins in the Jarred Cosart deal. Last but not least, they sent Vince Velasquez (among several others) to the Phillies for yet another big relief arm in Ken Giles.

Free Agency

The Astros had built their team so well that they didn’t need to dip too deep into free agency to round out their roster. Still, their efforts in this department have been very successful. Signing Josh Reddick turned out to be a stroke of brilliance, as the contact-hitting outfielder was a consistent force in the lineup and a means to help wash away the memory of Houston’s strikeout-laden lineups of the recent past. Beanball savant Charlie Morton was healthy enough last season and ate league-average innings all year, but what everyone will remember is the way he held down a potent Dodgers lineup in the last four innings of Game 7 of the World Series.

***

The Astros doubled-down on their strong position by acquiring Gerrit Cole from the Pirates over the offseason. Cole’s 40% strikeout rate so far this season makes him one of four Houston starters (Verlander, Morton, Lance McCullers) who have been striking out at least one of every three hitters. This is the deepest and probably best pitching staff in baseball, which will make Houston World Series favorites yet again. Jeff Luhnow entered this situation on a mission to take the deplorable state of the Astros organization and build a perennial contender through patience and an analytics-oriented process. Mission accomplished.

Probable Starting Pitchers

Probable Lineup

  1. George Springer – CF
  2. Jose Altuve – 2B
  3. Carlos Correa – SS
  4. Josh Reddick – RF
  5. Alex Bregman – 3B
  6. Yuli Gurriel – 1B
  7. Evan Gattis – DH
  8. Brian McCann – C
  9. Derek Fisher  – LF

Pitching

  • SP1: Justin Verlander – RHP
  • SP2: Dallas Keuchel – LHP
  • SP3: Lance McCullers – RHP
  • SP4: Gerrit Cole – RHP
  • SP5: Charlie Morton – RHP
  • CL: Chris Devenski – RHP
  • RP1: Brad Peacock – RHP
  • RP2: Ken Giles – RHP
  • RP3: Will Harris – RHP
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Patrick Nolan
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knoxfire30

Its amazing that a team who whiffed that big on Appel and Aiken and released JD Martinez for nothing still has this unbelievable a roster. They did just about everything else right.

Otter

Yes but Aiken became Bregman, so it worked out for everyone except Aiken and another draftee whose name I forget.

I have no clue who the Sox would have taken at #6 in the 2015 draft, but that’s where Benintendi went. But the Red Sox loved him, and they’d still be drafting before the Sox. Maybe it’s Tate or Jay who fall to 6 in this alternate universe, maybe it’s Rodgers or Benintendi. But the Sox ended up with Fulmer and oh well.

EDIT: Yes, you could also argue the Sox wouldn’t have Rodon if the Astros hadn’t tried to get too cute in 2014 and/or Aiken’s bad medicals came back prior to the draft.

lil jimmy

I don’t think the Astros would have paid what Boras said he wanted.

Trooper Galactus

If Rodon hadn’t been available, there were rumors that the White Sox were interested in Aaron Nola, which would have panned out equally well.

Reindeer Games

Equally well? I’d much rather have Nola at this point than Rodon.

Trooper Galactus

Taking health into consideration, of course, but I think if Rodon is able to right himself he’s as good a pitcher. Of course, the likelihood this is going to be an ongoing drama with him seems pretty high.

karkovice squad

Ahead of the draft, I thought Rodon’s college workload and the performance dip in his final year were concerning enough to make Nola at least worth considering.

Nola’s had his own elbow injury and back trouble, though. And Rodon’s shoulder surgery was reportedly about as good an outcome as you could hope for.

Trooper Galactus

Yeah, I recall Nola being set back a couple years ago.

Josh Nelson

I’ve got a bad feeling about this series.

gibby32

Way to go out on a limb.

Anohito

Well people had a good feeling about the Detroit series and we all saw how that went.

Josh Nelson

Talent gap. I’m 75% sure on Monday’s Sox Machine Podcast we are going to be talking about a team that is 10 games below .500 15 games into the season.

Josh Nelson

Let it ride!

Reindeer Games

Is the 3:1 bet in # of beers or ABV. Like is Patrick buying Miller Lite and Josh buying Delirium Tremens?

NateDPT12

Did you type that in a Han Solo voice Josh?

I’m already resigned to approaching every Sox game with, “How did Moncada / Anderson do?” “How did Giolito/Lopez/Fulmer pitch?”

The score is secondary at this point. 

Josh Nelson

I did!

MonicaMG

I think this is the more sane approach.

karkovice squad

Sox might set a record for most strikeouts in a 3 game series.

Otter

Just wait until the Astros play Baltimore.

karkovice squad

That matchup set the current record.

Otter

THE MORE YOU KNOW

karkovice squad

It’s a terrible prediction. But not an unlikely one.

zerobs

As long as nobody gets injured as the starting pitching can go at least a combined 15 innings I won’t feel bad about getting swept.

knoxfire30

Im just pumped that tomorrow I get the 1/4 zip pull over. First 15,000 get em… so everyone there likely gets 2

L2R

If you take time to look around, those who deep dive into stats are happier than those who don’t dig too deep. When one stat disappoints, they go on a search until they uncover some other interesting tidbit. It doesn’t even need a positive stat so long as it is obscure. Sort of like being the first person to find a meteor headed towards earth.

For the rest of us amateurs, we are stuck with one stat- the win/lose column. When we lose continuously, it gets old pretty quickly and we grumble and complain a lot sooner and louder than the others. The stat guys seem to stuggle with our poor attitudes and can’t figure out why we aren’t happy that someone’s BABBIP/OBS*LISP is on the rise.

Baseball orgs need to understand this if they want their attendance to grow. Not everyone owns a microscope. Some people just want their team to win.

I am happy to support a team who is competitive. Win or lose, make the playoffs or not, i just want to tune in and think we have a reasonable chance at winning on any given day. So, I guess I will continue working in the yard, check the final score and if good things happen, I will sit down and enjoy the game. That is my plan for 2018 and RH and company don’t deserve more.

Josh Nelson

You should post your before and after yard work photos. Paired with Jim’s bathroom remodeling, we can have a 2018 home improvement section on Sox Machine. We’ll call it “Look what the 2018 White Sox made me do.”

Ted Mulvey

“Your 2018 White Sox: helping fans to never stop improving!”

Right Size Wrong Shape

They should gear their merchandise in this direction. I would totally buy a White Sox clog remover, or an insulation blower with Bruce Rondon’s picture on the side.

Lurker Laura

Get Brooks Boyer on the phone. I see giveaways in our future.

Lurker Laura

I have a “cleaning 15 years of clutter out of the basement” project that I can contribute!

Jason.Wade17

I knew it wasn’t going to happen, but I was still hoping for a Kopech call up. Mostly cause I’m selfish and have tickets for tonight.

NDSox12

On the bright side, that means no Gonzalez against the Astros.

Otter

How bad are things for the Sox pitching staff? The Gonzalez replacement when he gets DFAed in about a month will be either Beck or Covey.

lil jimmy

Carlos Rodon?

Greg Nix

Hope so. I don’t think he’s going to get appreciably more “ready” than he is right now, but I’m worried the Sox will play the Super Two game with him.

Otter

I don’t think we see him until the All-Star Break. Maybe a little before, but I highly doubt the Sox risk him being a Super 2.

PauliePaulie

Is this because Santiago and Volstad are already in the SR after the Shields’ DFA and Fulmer’s demotion?

Otter

If Santiago is the answer, the question must be worse than “who replaces Gonzalez?”.

Greg Nix

I doubt Gonzalez has a month left if he keeps pitching like this.

PauliePaulie

With the Tigers and Royals possibly splitting wins, the Sox see an opportunity to make their move.