Richard Justice

Astros aren't shying away from lofty expectations

Houston should be class of American League West this season

Astros aren't shying away from lofty expectations

HOUSTON -- This is the season Astros general manager Jeff Luhnow envisioned almost from the moment he was hired six offseasons ago. Perfect team? Don't be silly. Very, very good? There's a chance.

"What has this offseason gotten us?" Astros manager A.J. Hinch said Tuesday. "It's gotten us an opportunity."

The Astros this week announced their team slogan for 2017: Earn it.

However, Hinch had another one: "Bring it."

Astros' Spring Training information

Translation: It's OK to embrace expectations. Baseball Prospectus pegs the Astros at 92 victories, most in the American League and seven more than any other AL West club. The last time Houston won that many games was 2004, when it went 92-70 and won a postseason series for the first time in franchise history.

Fangraphs is also bullish: a 90-72 projection, which is six games better than the next-best AL West team (Angels).

Remember these are projections, not predictions. Too much can happen between now and October. And that's especially true for the Astros.

"We're healthy," Luhnow said, "but we know there's a long way to go."

"Knock on wood when you say that," Hinch added.

The Astros enter Spring Training cautiously optimistic that two of their top three starters -- Dallas Keuchel and Lance McCullers -- are healthy. Both finished last season on the disabled list with shoulder and arm issues. Had they been healthy, Houston probably would have gone to the playoffs.

That's probably also true of 2017, even though the remainder of the roster has been significantly reshaped. That's why Luhnow has attempted to add another veteran starting pitcher, with White Sox lefty Jose Quintana and Rays right-hander Jake Odorizzi high on his list.

To get one of those guys would mean giving up one or both of the Astros' top two prospects -- right-hander Francis Martes and outfielder Kyle Tucker -- and Luhnow has been unwilling to do that.

Regardless, no general manager had a better offseason than Luhnow, who added catcher Brian McCann, starting pitcher Charlie Morton and outfielders Carlos Beltran, Josh Reddick and Norichika Aoki in a flurry of moves.

Luhnow on team chemistry

Combine those with the additions of third baseman Alex Bregman and first baseman Yulieski Gurriel last year after the All-Star break, and Houston barely resemble the 2016 team that started 7-17 and needed 73 games to get above .500 for good. columnist Mike Petriello's recent analysis concluded the Astros have the deepest lineup in the Majors, which is a far cry from last season, when there were stretches in which they got offense from just three spots: second base (Jose Altuve), right field (George Springer) and shortstop (Carlos Correa).

"If we can avoid getting off to a bad start like we did last year, I think chances are good that we're going to be seeing baseball in October here," Luhnow said.

He offered a hat tip of Astros owner Jim Crane, who has approved the highest payroll in team history -- around $120 million.

"I gotta give our ownership group a round of applause for allowing us the resources to go after that many players," Luhnow said. "We feel like this sets us up very well for the next four to five years. Not only that, we maintain the medium- and long-term health of this organization."

When Crane hired Luhnow in December 2011, the owner promised to give his GM the resources and freedom to do a dramatic teardown and rebuild. Houston averaged 103 losses in the three seasons before a surprise playoff appearance -- the franchise's first in a decade -- in '15.

"If we think about it as an organization, how fortunate are we to have three years in a row [with] rookies coming up like George Springer, Carlos Correa and Alex Bregman," Luhnow said. "Those are three elite-level players that are going to be here for awhile."

Looking back on it, the Astros surprised even themselves by making the playoffs in 2015. Despite everything, they were in contention until the final week last season. One problem: Houston was 4-15 against the Texas Rangers, 37-20 against the rest of the AL West.

"We understand that the AL West goes through the Rangers," Luhnow said. "We haven't been good enough against them."

All of which seems to set the stage for 2017.

Richard Justice is a columnist for You can follow him on Twitter @richardjustice. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.