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Astros season preview: Key newcomers join young nucleus
Before the Astros stepped foot in their new spring training facility at West Palm Beach, Fla., virtually all the decisions regarding their 25-man roster were made, rendering the notion of Grapefruit League competition futile.
There were evaluations set to impact the fringes of the roster, but the series of offseason maneuvers executed by general manager Jeff Luhnow essentially eliminated the need for manager A.J. Hinch to stringently analyze every player in his clubhouse. The Astros knew what they were before they arrived by design.
"This is what a team that's going into the season that's profiled to be good, that has a lot of depth, is supposed to feel like," Hinch said. "It should be hard to crack our team."
The additions of Nori Aoki, Carlos Beltran, Brian McCann and Josh Reddick put Hinch in position to construct his batting order and defensive alignment before the club went through the paces of actually preparing for the season. The protracted, painful rebuild to contention manifested in a postseason appearance in 2015, and after a small regression last season, the Astros have made the leap to championship contender. They did so by blending the aforementioned veterans with their core of young stars who are in the throes of individual ascension.
By letting free agents Jason Castro (Minnesota Twins), Colby Rasmus (Tampa Bay Rays) and Luis Valbuena (Los Angeles Angels) walk, the Astros showed that what they acquired instead is sufficient, and that they are eager to approach the next organizational hurdle.
"We're going to miss the free agents that we lost, but we responded by bringing in some guys that have done some things in this game," Hinch said. "Reddick has played a lot of playoff games (21). McCann has played in some huge markets (Atlanta and New York) in some really big games. Aoki has played in the World Series (with the Royals). You can't substitute that type of experience easily."
The Astros remain defined by their core of standout position players: second baseman Jose Altuve, center fielder George Springer and shortstop Carlos Correa. Third baseman Alex Bregman appears set to join that mix. Add Evan Gattis and Yulieski Gurriel to the fray, and Houston comes equipped with a dangerous lineup.
The rotation isn't as intimidating. The Astros need ace left-hander Dallas Keuchel and promising right-hander Lance McCullers to rebound from injuries. The team toyed with pursuing an ace in the offseason, but offers for Rays right-hander Chris Archer and Chicago White Sox lefty Jose Quintana were ineffective. The Astros have enough talent in the minors to muster another pursuit of a frontline starter at the trade deadline should things not play out according to plan.
That was by design, too. The team payroll is just shy of $120 million this season, the highest it has been since Luhnow arrived prior to the 2012 season. However, the Astros still have the chips necessary to acquire more veteran talent should they need it, and that is a direct reflection of how well Luhnow has managed his duties.
"The fact that we were able to make the investments in the free agents and through the trades without giving up a lot of our farm system is a position that a lot of general managers wish they could be in, but because we started with relatively low payroll and (are) increasing every year, we've had the luxury of being able to follow that approach," Luhnow said.
"It can't go on indefinitely. At some point, we're going to have to essentially rely on other resources to acquire players. But right now, we're in a good spot."