Best yet to come from Astros' 2017 middle IF

Altuve, Correa lead young, talented core group

Best yet to come from Astros' 2017 middle IF

HOUSTON -- The Astros certainly didn't achieve what they had hoped for in 2016, coming off their first postseason appearance in 10 years, but they found out enough about some of their players to make them optimistic about what '17 will bring.

After winning the American League Wild Card on the final day of the season a year ago, the Astros stumbled in September and wound up five games out of the playoff race at season's end, going 84-78. The finish didn't sit well with anyone, especially considering the expectations.

Still, a young nucleus continued to emerge. Rookie infielder Alex Bregman joined a lineup that includes Jose Altuve, George Springer, Carlos Correa and Evan Gattis. Cuban free agent Yulieski Gurriel showed in the second half that he had a bat that could make a difference as well.

There are question marks at some key positions, as well as in the rotation and bullpen, but the Astros should be contenders once again in 2017.

Opponent: The Astros open the 2017 season on April 3 at Minute Maid Park facing the Mariners, against whom they went 11-8 last year. The Mariners finished two games ahead of the third-place Astros in the AL West, and both clubs figure to challenge the division-champion Rangers. Former Cy Young winner Felix Hernandez should get the start for Seattle.

Opening Day starter: Lefty Dallas Keuchel, coming off a disappointing 2016 in which he missed the final month because of shoulder inflammation, is in line to make his third consecutive Opening Day start for the Astros. Keuchel, who went 20-8 with a 2.48 ERA in 2015 en route to the AL Cy Young, was 9-12 with a 4.55 ERA in 26 starts last season.

Opening Day lineup:

1. Springer, RF
2. Bregman, 3B
3. Altuve, 2B
4. Correa, SS
5. Gurriel, 1B
6. Gattis, DH
7. Teoscar Hernandez, LF
8. Jason Castro, C
9. Jake Marisnick, CF

The top six hitters in the order are solid, especially considering the additions of Gurriel and Bregman and Gattis' second-half surge this year. The team will have to address first base, left field and catcher this offseason. Colby Rasmus is a free agent and won't be back in left field, and Castro might not return either as a free agent.

Catcher will be a big focus this winter. Also, can Reed step up and grab first base? Marisnick's viability in the lineup likely depends on the strength of the rest of the lineup. He's a stellar defensive outfielder, but he hasn't carried much weight offensively.

Three reasons to be excited: 

1. New faces Gurriel and Bregman should play full seasons. Bregman, the No. 2 pick in last year's MLB Draft, shook off a slow start and proved his worth as an impact bat. He has star potential. Gurriel, the 32-year-old Cuban infielder the Astros signed midseason, can certainly hit, but he will have to deal with the rigors of playing every day in the big leagues.

2. Altuve and Correa are arguably the best middle-infield combo in the game, and their careers are still young. Altuve is coming off his season at 26 years old, and Correa had a solid first full big league turn at only 21. The best is yet to come for both, which is scary.

3. Rookie pitchers Chris Devenski, Michael Feliz and Joe Musgrove had big impacts last season, and there are more young arms on the way. David Paulino and Jandel Gustave got a taste of the big leagues, and hard-throwing Francis Martes might get his shot next year as well.

Brian McTaggart has covered the Astros since 2004, and for MLB.com since 2009. Follow @brianmctaggart on Twitter and listen to his podcast. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.