The Houston Astros have been the surprise of the MLB season.
After four-straight 90-loss seasons, the Astros are tied for the best record in the American League at 20-12, turning into a playoff contender quicker than anyone expected.
In June 2014, Sports Illustrated’s Ben Reiter profiled the Astros’ front office that has radically rebuilt the team’s farm system in recent years. Reiter light-heartedly dubbed the Astros “the 2017 World Champions.”
While that wasn’t necessarily an actual prediction, the point was that the Astros had a promising future, but weren’t ready to contend immediately.
Now, two years ahead of schedule, they’re looking like one of the best teams in baseball.
After GM Jeff Luhnow took over in 2011, he completely rebuilt the team around young talent. The Astros gutted their MLB roster, refused to spend money on high-priced free agents, and focused their energies on building a young core.
In 2013, the Astros were the worst team in baseball with a 51-111 record, no players hitting over .290, and no starting pitchers with an ERA under 3.50. They put out a team that had no shot of winning, and as Forbes’ Dan Alexander noted, the highest-paid player on the team was making $US1.15 million.
But while the team was struggling in the short term, the Astros turned their farm system to one of the best in baseball, as Reiter detailed in his SI article, and used a series of smart trades and signings to begin building a promising playoff contender.
Draft picks/farm system prospects
At the center of their development has been Jose Altuve, a 5’6″ second basemen who’s become one of the best hitters in baseball. Last season, Altuve was the Astros’ star, hitting .341 with a .377 OBP. He’s continued his strong numbers in 2015, batting .339 with a .390 OBP and 21 RBIs.
Right fielder George Springer has been another successful draft pick, though he’s currently injured. In 2014, Springer hit 20 home runs with a .468 slugging percentage.
Starting pitcher Dallas Keuchel has been another successful draft pick. He’s turned into a legitimate Cy Young candidate this season after a solid 2014. He’s currently 4-0 in seven starts with a MLB-leading 1.39 ERA, 0.85 WHIP, and 2.5 WAR.
Signings/Waiver wire pick-ups
The Astros’ bullpen has seen huge improvement this season. New York Times’ Victor Mather notes that the Astros had the worst save ratio in MLB last season, saving 31 games while blowing 26.
Luke Gregerson, a $US21 million free agent signing this offseason, has become an important member of the bullpen. In 14 appearances, Gregerson has two wins and seven saves with a 2.57 ERA.
The Astros also picked up reliever Will Harris off the waiver wire last November, which has proven to be a tremendous signing. Harris has a 0.60 ERA in 11 appearances, while allowing just three hits in 15 innings and averaging 12 strikeouts per nine innings. The Astros bullpen as a whole has the fourth-best ERA in the majors at 2.13.
Collin McHugh was another waiver wire pickup. He has arguably been the Astros’ second-best starter, posting a 3.23 ERA with 33 strikeouts.
On offence, the Astros have gotten good production out of Jed Lowrie, who signed a three-year, $US28 million deal last offseason. It’s Lowrie’s second stint with the team, and this time around, he’s hitting .300 with a team-best .432 OBP and .567 slugging percentage.
Arguably the best trade the Astros have made in the last two years has been for center fielder Jake Marisnick. Marisnick has given Altuve some help on offence, batting .319 with 13 RBIs this season, and he leads the Astros with a 81% success rate on nine stolen bases.
Marisnick’s defensive stats don’t necessarily illustrate his importance in center field, but he’s capable of coming up with big plays when needed:
Houston’s smart, analytical approach to team building is paying off sooner than expected. While it appears they still have a top-heavy roster, and some of their standout players could cool off, their early season success is all an added bonus for a bigger rebuilding picture.
Even if the Astros regress to playing .500 ball for the rest of the season, they have a legitimate shot to make the playoffs, something they have haven’t done since 2005.
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