BREAKOUT YEARS

Patrick Creighton: 4 Astros to watch for 2018

Ken Giles should have a breakout season. Al Bello/Getty Images

Every championship team has its share of star players, but it’s the better-than-expected production from role players that makes the difference in getting a team over the top.  Sometimes it comes in the form of a veteran having a career year, sometimes it comes in the form of a young promising player ascending to stardom, but the production boost from places that were somewhat unexpected is a hallmark of every great team.

Last year, on their way to 101 victories and a World Series Championship, the Astros got top production from the places you expected: Jose Altuve, George Springer, Carlos Correa, Dallas Keuchel, and once acquired, Justin Verlander.

It’s also reasonable to assert that group of players may have even exceeded expectation.  Altuve was the AL MVP, setting career highs in AVG (.346) OBP (.410) SLG (.547) OPS (.957) Runs (112), as well as tying his career high in HR (24).  At 27 years old, Altuve is in the prime of his career, but his many career highs in one season have to be noted.

George Springer, who eventually went on to be World Series MVP, also had some career-best numbers.  He set personal highs in HR (34) RBI (85) AVG (.283) SLG (.522) OPS (.889).  He also dramatically cut down on his strikeout rate (career best 17.6% - he struck out 111 times in 629 plate appearances.  This is down from 2016, when he set his previous personal best of 23.9%).  Springer was a more efficient player in 2017 than ever before, scoring 112 runs in only 548 AB.  He scored a career high 116 runs in 2016 but in 644 AB.

Carlos Correa’s stats also represented many career highs:  .315 AVG, .391 OBP,  .550 SLG, .941 OBP, 24 HR, 82 Runs, all despite missing 53 games.

Dallas Keuchel, despite only pitching 145.2 IP due to a pair of DL stints, still managed to post his second best season in wins (14), ERA (2.90) and WHIP (1.12).

Justin Verlander, once acquired at the Aug. 31 waiver trade deadline, proceeded to go 5-0 in five starts, with a 1.06 ERA, 0.65 WHIP, with 43K in 34 IP.  That is incredible production over the final month of the year.

In addition to the increased production they received from some star players, the Astros also got major boosts from some unexpected areas, none bigger than Marwin Gonzalez.

Gonzalez, the team’s super utility player, set massive career highs all across the board: AVG (.303), OBP (.377), SLG (.530), OPS (.907) HR (23) RBI (team high 90), 2B (34) Hits (138) Runs (67).  Marwin’s huge season has him expected to receive 500 AB this season for the first time in his career, while still playing all over the field and getting some time at DH.

Josh Reddick also chipped in career highs in AVG (.314), SLG (.484), OPS (.847), Hits (150), and 2B (34), all while WOOing his way to the hearts of fans.

While the team will expect continued top production from Verlander, Keuchel, Altuve, Correa, and Springer, there will need to be role players (like Reddick) or young rising players (like Gonzalez) who will take a big step forward this year for everything to fall into place for an Astros repeat.

Here’s a look at 4 players who could be in line for career best seasons:

Alex Bregman

About to turn 24 years old right before the season starts, Bregman is a player Luhnow has pegged for stardom since making him the 2nd overall pick in the 2015 Draft.

Bregs got off to a slow start last season, mostly attributed to his participation in the World Baseball Classic that saw him spend a lot of time on the bench and not getting the regular reps a young player needs to prepare for the season.

Bregman hit a pedestrian .256/.338/.419 line in the first half, and really struggled in June, when his line fell to .215/.340/.342.  Bregman then figured it out for the second half and was one of the team’s best hitters the rest of the way, with a .315/.367/.536 second half line that is more in line with his abilities.

Bregman could deliver an average north of .300, OPS north of .900, and improve on the 19 HR he had last season.  His star is on the rise and he should deliver.

Ken Giles

Now 27, Giles enters his 3rd season as the closer of the Astros. A look at his overall 2017 numbers would indicate he had a much better season than fans would attest, and if you want to prevent your eyes from bleeding, don’t even look at those postseason numbers (Yikes!).

That being said, Giles has embraced his struggles with a determination to improve and succeed.  The issue with Giles has never been about stuff, but command (21 BB in 62.2 IP) and confidence.

Giles has succeeded in the everyday (1-3, 34 SV, 2.30 ERA, 1.04 WHIP)  but failed in the biggest pressure filled spots.  This is something of a make-or-break year for Giles.  If he can get past his confidence issues (and hopefully improve that walk rate), he could vault into the top tier of closers in the game.  If not, he could be the next Armando Benitez.

While only surrendering four HR in 62.2 IP in the regular season, when the pressure built in the postseason, he gave up three in just 7.2 IP to go along with 5 BB and 12 hits.  His confidence waned, and with it, so did his command.

The biggest things to watch for in Giles this year are the walks and the strikeout rate.  His K rate dipped in 2017 but was still very strong.  The walk rate is alarming for a closer. A strong start could go a long way for his confidence, which could lead to a new career high in saves (think north of 40) with great peripherals.  He has the stuff (only 44 hits allowed in 62.2 IP) to absolutely dominate.

Lance McCullers Jr.

LMJ may have the filthiest stuff in the Astros rotation. Unfortunately he may also have the crankiest shoulder as well.

McCullers  took two trips to the DL and made three starts after July 30th, none of which were good outings.  He started the season 7-1 with a 2.53 ERA, but then went 0-3 in his final 8 starts of the year, and did not record a single quality start in any of them, mainly due to health issues.  

A healthy McCullers did make an impact in the postseason against the Yankees and Dodgers, however (17.2 IP, 4 ER, 15K, save in Game 7 vs the Yankees, win in game 3 vs Dodgers, ).  Key word: healthy.

If McCullers can stay relatively healthy this season (lets define relatively healthy as 26 starts and 150 IP, which would be career highs) double digit wins and a sub 3.00 ERA are very possible.  Also, you will get to see some absolutely filthy strikeouts.

McCullers’ injury woes are why the Astros should not be trading Collin McHugh, who is likely to be unhappy in a bullpen role, but he is needed insurance.  However, a healthy Lance McCullers could put up the most dominant numbers on the staff.

Yuli Gurriel

Unlike Bregman, McCullers, and Giles, Gurriel is an older player who defected from Cuba to play MLB. Turning 34 in June, he’s not a player whose star is on the rise.

That said, the Cuban star has had only one year of MLB experience, and turned in a respectable .299/.332/.486 line with an .818 OPS.  Solid if unspectacular numbers, but the key here is now Yuli has been around the league.

As such, a smart, veteran player like Gurriel will have time this offseason to make the necessary adjustments to refine his game, specifically when it comes to pitch recognition and patience in the box.

Yuli too often swung at pitches he did not need to, and an improved eye (only 22 BB in 564 PA – that’s 1 BB per 25.6 PA) will not only improve his OBP but will give him better pitches to hit while working counts in his favor, which should allow him to improve his average and his power production (18 HR but 43 2B – Yuli has good natural power).

While a small sample size, Yuli did improve that rate to 1 BB per 18.25 PA in the postseason.  The result? Slightly improved average (.304 postseason to .299 regular season) OBP (.342 vs .332) and OPS (.864 vs .817).  Plus, 10 of his 21 hits were for extra bases, so seeing better pitches allowed him to drive the ball more.

With a full year behind him, a better approach at the plate due to a better knowledge of the MLB game and its players should result in improved stats for Gurriel.

The Astros have the core team to compete for a World Series again in 2018, but improvements from these four  players could put them over the top one more time.

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The Texans didn't have an answer for Derrick Henry. Photo by Frederick Breedon/Getty Images

Romeo Crennel made a valorous call that might have costed the Houston Texans from winning their second consecutive game on Sunday. Up by seven with 1:50 left in the fourth quarter, Crennel decided to call a two-point conversion following Deshaun Watson's one-yard touchdown pass to Brandin Cooks.

During the two-point conversion, Watson had a look at an open Randall Cobb, but Titans' defensive tackle Jeffery Simmons got a hand on the ball to deflect the pass. The failed conversion allowed the Titans to take a 42-36 victory over the Texans inside Nissan Stadium. Tennessee scored 13 unanswered points, which included a seven-yard touchdown pass from Ryan Tannehill to A.J. Brown to send the game into overtime.

"I think I would do it again," Crennel said during his media availability on Monday. "You are on the road against a divisional opponent who is undefeated, and if you could get that two-point conversion — you shut the door on them. We had a guy open, but unfortunately, the ball got tipped and we did not make it. I would do it again because it was a good choice."

The decision to not kick the field goal caused somewhat of an uproar, but it is understandable why Crennel made the call. Crennel had faith in Watson to put the Texans in a position to close the game, similar to his 4th-and-4 call during last week's victory over the Jacksonville Jaguars.

In the end, Crennel's risky decisions could stem from the lack of faith he has in the Texans' depleted defense.

Houston's defense hit an all-time low against the Titans. They gave up a franchise-worst 601 total yards — with Derrick Henry accounting for 212 yards on 22 carries. But despite their struggles against the run, the Texans' secondary were just as faulty. They gave up a total of 338 yards through the air and allowed Tannehill to go 8-for-9 down the field during the Titans' final drive of regulation.

Had Houston's defense made a stop during the closing seconds of the fourth quarter, the Texans could have ended the game 2-0 under their interim head coach.

"I wanted to go ahead and get the two points — I felt like that would have put the game out of reach for them," Crennel said. "If we had gotten it, we would have been in much better shape. But we did not get it. We did not perform well in overtime, and they [Titans] won the game."

Following Sunday's heartbreaking loss, Texans safety Justin Reid said it best, "Had we converted on the two-point conversion, this would be a totally different conversation. So it is what it is."

Up next, the 1-5 Texans will look to bounce back from defeat against the 4-1 Green Bay Packers, inside NRG Stadium on Sunday. Kick-off is at 12:00 PM CT.

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