HOUSTON IS STILL THE CREAM OF THE A.L. WEST CROP

Astros fans, here's why the grass is still greener in H-Town

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Astros fans are getting close to panic mode these days as they hold their breath waiting for MLB to make their ruling on the sign-stealing scandal and deal with whatever punishment is handed down. The fact that both AJ Hinch and Jeff Luhnow could be facing lengthy suspensions, and the team could lose draft picks and get strapped with a significant fine has every Astros fan biting every last finger nail in hopes of some last minute saving grace.

While I get it that until the ruling comes down and the ramifications are known, it's a very stressful situation, the good news is, regardless of that decision and whatever moves the team makes between now and late March, your baseball team is still in the drivers seat to win another A.L. West title and another opportunity to compete for a World Series crown.

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Unlike in previous years when the competition in the division has either stood pat with financial concerns (A's), went for it with a quick fix plan for one year of success (Mariners), or overspent for over-the-hill, veteran, free agents and journeymen (Angels), this offseason the competition has been very savvy in their attempts to get on par with Houston. The Angels opened their checkbook and added Anthony Rendon to compliment Mike Trout, but they are still forced to deal with the Albert Pujols contract and a lack of pitching talent and depth.

The Mariners are in full rebuild mode and don't seem to be doing anything but getting worse in the short-term and the A's are standing pat with a solid core of young talent and the hope that they can keep the train moving forward for another season. The hated Rangers have traded for Corey Kluber to give them a legitimate Ace at the front of their rotation but still have significant holes to fill in their lineup as well as their pitching staff. If the trend continues for the rest of the winter and these are the biggest and best moves those 3 teams can muster, Houston should feel very confident heading to Florida for spring training.

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I get it if you are concerned about losing Gerrit Cole and have questions about Lance McCullers and the young arms being able to pick up the slack and replace the innings and stats. I also understand if you worry about who will play catcher and how many arms Luhnow will re-sign and add to the pen. I'm with you if you wonder what they are going to do to shed salary obligations and free up money to be able to plan for the upcoming contract issues they will face with George Springer, Carlos Correa and others, but those decisions are at least a year away and none of that should significantly impact the talent and lineup that will take the field for at least one more season at Minute Maid Park.

As long as you still have Justin Verlander and Zack Grienke at the top of your rotation, the core four of Springer, Bregman, Altuve and Correa in the middle of your lineup, complimentary pieces like Yuli Gurriel, Yordan Alvarez and Michael Brantley and a back end of the bullpen that consists of Ryan Pressly and Roberto Osuna, you are better than three-quarters of the rest of the league. I know it's not the preview you have gotten used to over the last three years when almost everyone made you their odds on favorite to win it all, but it could be a lot worse. You could be the Mariners or Orioles.

Most front offices and most fan bases would kill to have a team like that to cheer for, even for just one year, you will have it in place for yet another campaign and that should be more than enough for all H-town faithful to be thankful for while sitting around the tree next week. Of course, it's ok to have asked Santa for another starting pitcher, a solid veteran catcher and some bullpen help or a trade partner for Josh Reddick, but all in all, even though you didn't get Cole in your stocking the holiday should be a time to feel hungry, happy and satisfied.

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This time next week Jim Crane will have hired or be closing in on hiring the Astros' new manager. Who is it going to be? Considering Crane himself doesn't know yet, how the heck should I know? The candidate pool is deep in quality, four former big league skippers (none of whom have won a World Series) and at least three others who have never managed in Major League Baseball.

Dusty Baker. 70 years old. Over 22 seasons he steered four different franchises to the postseason. Tremendous people skills. I always felt his teams took on his upbeat but intense personality. Not a tactical wizard and a questionable resume re: handling of several pitchers. That's not a dealbreaker If Brent Strom is still the pitching coach.

Buck Showalter. Organized and prepared as all get out. Taken three different teams to the playoffs. More coincidence than anything else, the Yankees and Diamondbacks won the World Series...the season immediately after they fired Showalter.

John Gibbons. Low key personality. Two American League Championship Series trips with the Blue Jays.

Jeff Banister. LaMarque high school grad, played at UH. Back-to-Back AL West titles with the Rangers before their roster fell apart and the Astros took over the division. Also a lifetime big league batting average of 1.000. One at bat, he singled.

Any of those four would be a highly credible hire.

Those seeking experience by getting experience: Raul Ibanez, Will Venable, and Eduardo Perez. Where the Astros are, I would lean away from them. Incumbent bench coach Joe Espada is a more credentialed candidate than those three, but Espada was on A.J. Hinch's staff when the Astros are confirmed as cheaters, so can't see Crane going with him.

The experienced big league managers would command more money. That should play zero role in the choice, even though if the Astros stay largely healthy and avoid precipitous performance declines, you or I could manage their roster to 90 wins. Who is best equipped to navigate the S.S. Astros through some stormy seas bound to hit? Because, A. that's baseball, and B. they'll face some unusual stuff in their role as the lying, cheating villains of MLB. Can't know the answer to that.

Rockets fading from the spotlight

The Texans disintegrated on the field in Kansas City, the Astros' integrity turns out to have in part either disintegrated or been non-existent, leaving the Rockets among the big three to uplift the city's sports spirits over the next couple of months. Problem, relatively few seem to care. Glaring numbers of empty seats (even though sold) at Toyota Center, lower TV ratings, and a palpable lack of buzz to them. No shame in a 27-16 record, but that's not close to special and things just seem a bit stale. Dog days of midseason or larger problems?

The Rockets enter the weekend closer to the Draft Lottery than to the Western Conference leading Lakers. The Rockets are at best b-list contenders, waaaay more likely to get bounced from the playoffs in the first round than to win the West. They may be in serious trouble relative to this season's aspirations, and going forward.

Recent deep shooting slump aside, James Harden is a phenomenal offensive force, and Russell Westbrook is a force of nature. But a Harden/Westbrook backcourt headlines a non-championship caliber defense. And there just aren't good enough players around them. Harden is 30 years old, Westbrook is 31. Eric Gordon and his balky knee and erratic jumper, also 31. Over the next three seasons the Rockets are on the hook for those three guys at an average of about 106 million dollars per season.

For two straight off-seasons, the Rockets have been cheap with construction of the bench. Whatever the extent he's been following owner Tilman Fertitta's marching orders, among teams that fancy themselves contenders General Manager Daryl Morey has produced the worst bench in the NBA.

There are a bunch of teams with better overall talent, there are lottery teams with better young talent. It all adds up to the best guess being Head Coach Mike D'Antoni parts ways with the Rockets after the season. How good a job will the Rockets job be for the next coach? The answer might be, not very, in terms of pursuing an NBA championship.

While not being a big deal, it won't look good on the Rockets side if/when Chris Paul makes the All Star Game and Russell Westbrook doesn't.

Buzzer Beaters

1. If you were Kelvin Sampson would you leave UH for the Rockets? 2. The Pro Bowl is Sunday! 3. Things on TV I'd watch before the Pro Bowl: Bronze-Real Housewives of Anywhere Silver-A full XFL game Gold-Three hours of test pattern

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