The Astros, darlings of every projection system’s heart, have the enviable combination of some superstars, solid depth at every position, and backup plans should their players falter early on. Here’s their projected starting nine (as always, projections are from Fangraphs’ Steamer projections and MLB’s depth chart):
Catcher - Brian McCann
2016 numbers: .242/.335/.413 (103 wRC+), 1.3 fWAR
2017 projections: .230/.312/.408 (95 wRC+), 2.0 fWAR
After a year where Dallas Keuchel and much of the Astros’ pitching staff struggled, Jeff Luhnow decided it was worth a couple high-powered pitching prospects (though, as always, There Is No Such Thing As A Pitching Prospect) and a major financial commitment to deal for McCann. Despite being around for seemingly forever, McCann is only 32 years old; though his pitch framing skills have declined in recent years, they remain above-average and figured to help Keuchel get his mojo back. And his addition allows the ‘Stros to utilize Evan Gattis as more of a designated hitter rather than a full-time catcher.
1B - Yulieski Gurriel
2016 numbers: .262/.292/.385 (82 wRC+), 0.1 fWAR
2017 projections: .270/.311/.429 (100 wRC+), 0.9 fWAR
Gurriel’s ascension to the major leagues has been quick, and these projections represent a boatload of uncertainty. Gurriel and his younger brother Lourdes Gurriel Jr. defected from Cuba in February, and in mid-July the elder brother signed with Houston for $47.5MM over five years. After a grand total of 61 plate appearances in the minors, he was promoted to the majors and struggled there in an admittedly-limited sample. It’s far too early to say whether Gurriel will succeed in the majors, though he seems poised to be a quality defender at first despite only moving there last September. Should he falter, the Astros have Marwin Gonzalez, A.J. Reed, and Tyler White to combine for some plate appearances.
2B - Jose Altuve
2016 numbers: .338/.396/.531 (150 wRC+), fWAR 6.7
2017 projections: .312/.365/.465 (124 wRC+), fWAR 4.0
ZiPS and Steamer differ drastically on Altuve, as ZiPS has the minuscule middle infielder at 5.8 WAR. But no matter if you agree on the diminutive dinger-hitter’s power surge from last season (his 24 bombs is just three fewer than in his previous three years combined), Altuve is, quite simply, one of the best hitters in the game. He’s reached the 200-hit mark for each of the last three seasons, and though undersized at 5’6”, he’s had an outsized impact on Houston’s success - the small-scale Seattle Mariner-destroyer hit .389/.457/.611 against the M’s last year.
SS - Carlos Correa
2016 numbers: .274/.361/.451 (122 wRC+), 4.9 fWAR
2017 projections: .278/.359/.470 (125 wRC+), 4.8 fWAR
In 2011, the Houston Astros finished a god-awful 56-106. This gave them the first selection in the 2012 draft, which they used on Correa. The Mariners finished that same season 67-95, and as a result of those 11 meaningless wins, they were given the No. 3 overall pick, which they used on Mike Zunino. Correa already has over three times as many wins above replacement as Zunino. No, I’m not bitter, why do you ask?
(But the Mariners did get their own Puerto Rican player in this draft: one Edwin Diaz. Throwback alert!)
3B - Alex Bregman
2016 numbers: .264/.313/.478 (112 wRC+), 1.0 fWAR
2017 projections: .267/.330/.448 (111 wRC+), 3.0 fWAR
Awesome, just what the Astros needed: another star prospect coming up and taking over an infield spot. Bregman, the second-overall pick in the 2015 draft (man, the Astros really were bad for a long time, huh?), turns 23 this March, when he’ll also represent the U.S. in the World Baseball Classic. By contrast, I’ve only ever represented the U.S. in an eighth-grade math competition, when the Washington “Fightin’ Georges” beat out Oregon and British Columbia in a fierce battle to the death over mental math.
Anyway, Bregman was described as a glue guy by A.J. Hinch last September, and in the same article quoting the Houston head honcho, Altuve said to mark it down that Bregman will finish with 200 hits this year. That’s some heady praise for a rookie, and one figures his performance will go a long way to determine the Astros’ success this season. One final factoid to scare you: Alex Bregman’s top comparison on ZiPS? Adrian Beltre.
LF - Nori Aoki
2016 numbers: .283/.349/.388 (106 wRC+), 1.2 fWAR
2017 projections: .270/.334/.372 (95 wRC+), 0.3 fWAR
I’m as surprised as you are to learn that Aoki finished last season worth 1.2 fWAR. All I remember is Aoki’s noodle arm in left field and his noodle bat at the plate. But who’s laughing now? Aoki finished as an above-average hitter for the fifth straight season, yet both Steamer and ZiPS (97 OPS+) project him to fail to make it to that mark. If that happens, the Astros are probably overpaying Aoki for his production, at $5.5MM. But given the depth provided by the offseason signing of Carlos Beltran, Aoki could falter and the Astros could still get reasonable production out of left, and Beltran’s presence also means Aoki won’t be expected to play every day.
CF - George Springer
2016 numbers: .261/.359/.457 (124 wRC+), 4.5 fWAR
2017 projections: .259/.356/.462 (124 wRC+), 3.8 fWAR
Springer played in every single game in 2016, an impressive feat to be sure, and his power combined with an impressive 11.8% BB rate makes him a formidable top-of-the-lineup presence. If he can ever reduce his sky-high K rate (Springer struck out 178 times last season, tied for fifth-most in all of MLB), he figures to be one of the best center fielders in all of baseball - though he’ll remain the second-best in his own division as long as Mike Trout exists and has both of his arms.
That said, Springer’s career wRC+ of 128 is an incredibly valuable thing to have in center, and it’s hard not to root for a guy who dresses up as Carl Everett’s favorite imaginary creature.
RF - Josh Reddick
2016 numbers: .281/.345/.405 (106 wRC+), 1.2 fWAR
2017 projections: .267/.335/.453 (113 wRC+), 2.2 fWAR
Reddick struggled mightily after his midseason trade from Oakland to the L.A. Dodgers, hitting only two homers in 167 plate appearances and finishing at replacement-level for his southern California squad. But the soon-to-be 30-year-old signed a four-year deal with Houston this offseason and is projected to bounce back nicely next year (just look at that slugging percentage bump!). He’s not great, and four years might be a deal they regret later in the contract. But for now, he makes a solid team even solid-er.
DH - Carlos Beltran
2016 numbers: .295/.337/.513 (124 wRC+), 2.3 fWAR
2017 projections: .269/.322/.449 (108 wRC+), 0.7 fWAR
In 2004, Carlos Beltran, playing in his seventh major league season, finished just two homers short of becoming the fourth member of the 40-40 Club, reserved for players with at least 40 homers and 40 steals in the same season.
In 2016, Carlos Beltran stole a grand total of one base.
That’s what happens when you get older, but fortunately for the switch-hitting slugger, his power remains intact even at age 39. Beltran turns 40 in April, yet the Astros saw fit to offer him $16 million for the 2017 season thanks to his 29 dingers in 2016. Beltran might’ve gotten a bit lucky last year, as 17.3% of his fly balls turned into homers (his highest rate since 2012 and 6.2 percentage points higher than his 2015 rate), but if his power can remain mostly intact, the Astros have quite a slugger at DH - and even if he begins to struggle, the Astros are covered with Reed and Gattis able to step into larger roles.