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2018 Record: 103-59
First Place, NL East
Team ERA: 3.11 (1st in MLB)
Team OPS: .754 (7th in MLB)
What Went Right
After winning the World Series in 2017, the Astros set a franchise record with 103 wins this season. The pitching staff was the envy of the sport with an MLB-best 3.11 ERA. The rotation — largely consisting of Justin Verlander, Gerrit Cole, Dallas Keuchel, Charlie Morton, and Lance McCullers — ranked first with a 3.16 ERA. Verlander’s late season success from 2017 transferred over to this year, as he posted a 2.52 ERA with 290 strikeouts over 34 starts. He’s a finalist for the AL Cy Young Award. Cole thrived during his first season in Houston, with a 2.88 ERA and 276 strikeouts in 32 starts. Morton made his first All-Star team before fading somewhat in the second half. Collin McHugh was squeezed out of the rotation, but he dominated out of the bullpen with a 1.99 ERA. Hector Rondon proved to be a great offseason addition while Ryan Pressly and Roberto Osuna were key in-season pickups. We can’t ignore the circumstances involved in the Osuna trade, however. The offense wasn’t as good as they were in 2017, with some notable drop-offs among some key players, but they didn’t really need to be. Alex Bregman was the team’s best position player, amassing 31 homers and 103 RBI while batting .286/.394/.532 over 157 games. He’s quickly become one of the best players in the game. Marwin Gonzalez had a huge second half, which was good timing with free agency approaching. Tyler White was a nice surprise for the offense, though he struggled in September.
What Went Wrong
For a team who won 103 games, quite a bit, actually. Carlos Correa, Jose Altuve, George Springer, Brian McCann, Lance McCullers, and Chris Devenski all missed time due to injury. Correa was bothered by a back injury and hit just .239 with 15 homers and a .728 OPS over 110 games even when he did play. Altuve was hobbled with a knee injury and saw his OPS drop from .957 to .837. He had surgery on his knee after the postseason. Springer, who was banged up with a variety of issues, had his OPS fall from .889 to .780, though he at least picked things up in time for the postseason. McCann posted a weak .640 OPS (79 OPS+) in 63 games while dealing with knee issues. McCullers went down in August with a forearm strain and required Tommy John surgery this week which will knock him out for the entire 2019 season. Ken Giles began the season as the Astros’ closer, but he struggled and was even demoted for a stretch before eventually being traded to the Blue Jays as part of the Roberto Osuna trade.
**On the heels of winning his first AL MVP Award, Jose Altuve was once again an early first-round pick in most mixed fantasy leagues this spring. He didn’t post the elite counting stats many were hoping for during the first half, but he was still well on his way to his fifth straight 200-hit season and perhaps his third-straight batting title. Hard to complain too much about that. However, Altuve was forced to the disabled list for the first time in his career due to a right knee injury in late July. After missing nearly a month, he hit .276/.366/.409 with four homers and three steals in 33 games down the stretch. It was very clear he wasn’t 100 percent, especially during the postseason. Altuve underwent surgery following the Astros’ ALCS exit, after it was revealed that he was dealing with a patella avulsion fracture in his knee. The good news is that he’s expected to be ready for the start of 2019. Still, he projects to be selected in the late first-round after a year like this.
**Is a bold prediction to say that Alex Bregman will be selected before Altuve in many drafts next year? It’s not crazy at all. Bregman arrived as a fantasy superstar in 2018, posting a .286/.394/.532 batting line with 31 homers, 103 RBI, 10 steals, and 105 runs scored over 157 games. He was just one of four qualified hitters with more walks (96) than strikeouts (85) and his contact rate was among the best in the game. He also produced increases in his average exit velocity and hard-hit rate. It’s hard to poke holes in anything that he did. Bregman will only be 25 in March, so it’s possible things could get better from here.
**Remember when it looked like Justin Verlander’s days as a fantasy ace were numbered? Me neither. After a dominant finish following the trade from the Tigers last season, Verlander compiled a brilliant 2.52 ERA in 34 starts this season while leading the American League with 290 strikeouts in 214 innings. In addition to posting a career-high strikeout percentage, he had the lowest walk rate of his career. He also maintained the velocity bounceback he had in 2017. Not bad for someone who will be 36 in February. There might be some hesitation about the age and the milage on his arm, but he’s earned his way back as a top-10 fantasy starter going into 2019.
**Verlander might have led the AL in strikeouts, but new teammate Gerrit Cole was nipping at his toes with 276 strikeouts in 200 1/3 innings. We saw excellence from Cole in the early part of his career, but his stock trended down a bit in recent years, including a 4.26 ERA in 2017. That didn’t stop the Astros from acquiring him from the Pirates last January in exchange for Joe Musgrove, Colin Moran, Michael Feliz, and Jason Martin. Cole greatly reduced the usage of his sinker with his new team and exploded with a 2.88 ERA and 1.03 WHIP in 32 starts. His strikeout and swinging strike percentages were easily the best of his career. Still just 28 years old, he’s comfortably inside the top-10 starters in mixed leagues. It’s a reasonable debate whether to take him over Verlander in 2019.
**Jose Altuve didn’t match the expectations associated with being an early first-round pick in mixed leagues, but Carlos Correa was the bigger disappointment as a back injury torpedoed his season. He alternated good and bad months in the first half before landing on the disabled list in late June. He ended up missing six weeks and batted just .180/.261/.256 with two homers and a .517 OPS in 37 games to finish out the year. Correa didn’t hide the fact that his back was still bothering him, but he played through it anyway. We’ll have to hope that an offseason of rest will do the trick. There’s no questioning Correa’s potential, but this is now back-to-back years where he’s missed significant time with injuries. He’s going to fall outside the first two rounds in most mixed leagues.
**Playing in 140 games for the second straight year, George Springer served a stint on the DL with a left thumb sprain and also missed some time with a quad injury. He endured a brutal slump from June through early July, which pulled down his overall numbers. The thumb injury undoubtedly impacted his power — his home run total fell from 34 to 22 compared to 2017 and his hard-hit rate suffered along with it — though he hit for a better average down the stretch. His power returned in time for the postseason, which should provide some optimism going into 2019. Springer hasn’t topped double-digit steals since 2018, so he’s not well-rounded enough to hang with the elite fantasy outfielders, but he gets on base plenty and it’s fair to expect a bounceback in counting stats with improved health. Odds are he won’t make it past the fourth round in standard mixed league drafts next year.
**In a controversial move, the Astros acquired closer Roberto Osuna from the Blue Jays in July after he completed a 75-game suspension for violating MLB’s domestic violence policy. Ken Giles and two prospects were sent to Toronto in the deal. It was hard to square Jeff Luhnow’s pronouncement of a “zero tolerance” policy with their desire to make the deal, but Osuna finished out the year as the team’s closer while posting a 1.99 ERA with 12 saves and a 19/3 K/BB ratio over 22 2/3 innings. Given his situation, there’s only a handful of closers who project to go higher in drafts next year.
**Kyle Tucker scuffled in a small sample during his first taste of the majors in 2018, but he could be in line for a regular role next season. One of the top outfield prospects in the game, Tucker batted .332/.400/.590 with 24 home runs and 20 steals over 100 games with Triple-A Fresno this past season. Top pitching prospect Forrest Whitley looked like he was headed toward making his major league debut this year, but he ended up making just eight starts in Double-A due to a failed drug test and a lat strain. It was a frustrating year, but he has a chance to play a major role in 2019. Keep an eye on both of these players in mixed leagues. Depending on how the offseason plays out, youngsters Josh James, Framber Valdez, and Cionel Perez could also contribute in the rotation.
Key Free Agents: Charlie Morton, Dallas Keuchel, Marwin Gonzalez, Evan Gattis, Brian McCann, Martin Maldonado, Tony Sipp
Team Needs: With Dallas Keuchel and Charlie Morton in free agency and Lance McCullers rehabbing from Tommy John surgery, the Astros will be in the market for starting pitching. Max Stassi and Chris Herrmann are the current catchers on the 40-man roster, so they also figure to make a move behind the plate either through free agency or trade. They’ve already been mentioned as a possible trade partner for the Marlins’ J.T. Realmuto.
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