added 04/25/2017 by Bob Hulsey
After last season ended, Jeff Luhnow knew the team needed a left-handed lineup presence and some guys who handled the bat well. His "Core Four", as Luhnow describes them, were all young and right-handed at the plate. Then you add Cuban import Yuli Gurriel, another right-handed hitter, and the dilemma became clear.
Luhnow did not have to wait long as the Seattle Mariners placed veteran outfielder Nori Aoki on waivers. Before you could say "Ichiro", Luhnow put in his claim and snared the 35-year-old from Japan. This was an unexpected dividend but just the sort of batter Luhnow wanted – a consistent .280 hitter who makes contact, takes his walks and runs the bases well. He doesn't have much power but he'd already been on two clubs that were world champions.
Luhnow had targeted outfielders Josh Reddick and Carlos Beltran in free agency. Reddick was a left-handed hitter with pop while Beltran, a former Astro who spurned Houston for the greener grass of New York in 2005, was coming off a great year for a 39-year-old.
The final brick in the puzzle was catcher Brian McCann, a former nemesis with Atlanta who plays with a mean streak. The former All-Star looked to have been phased out as a Yankee with an expensive contract but Luhnow was able to get him for two pitching prospects and an agreement from the Yanks to pay part of his salary.
So, to sum it up, the Astros replaced Jason Castro, Luis Valbuena, Colby Rasmus and Carlos Gomez with Aoki, Reddick, Beltran and McCann. The season is still young but the early returns have been tremendous. The lefty veterans and their hot start have been a key between the 7-17 April start the Astros had last year and the 13-6 April Houston has enjoyed so far this year, allowing them to sit atop the American League West.
Here were the four players replaced from 2016 during April:
Castro .140 BA, .511 OPS, 0 HRs, 2 RBIs.
Valbuena .183 BA, .540 OPS, 0 HRs, 4 RBIs.
Gomez .213 BA, .516 OPS, 0 HRs, 2 RBIs.
Rasmus .263 BA, .979 OPS, 7 HRs, 19 RBIs
Yes, Rasmus started the season red hot and carrying the club but he finished the year hitting .206, .641 OPS, 15 HRs, 54 RBIs. Now, contrast that with the start of their four replacements so far this month:
Aoki .325 BA, .803 OPS, 1 HR, 4 RBIs.
Beltran .257 BA, .673 OPS, 2 HR, 7 RBIs
Reddick .283 BA, .732 OPS, 1 HR, 5 RBIs
McCann .313 BA, .872 OPS, 2 HRs, 9 RBIs
Other than George Springer's home run spurt, the "Core Four" have been pretty ordinary. Springer has hit .216, Alex Bregman has betted .258, Carlos Correa a woeful .197 and Jose Altuve recovered from a slow start to bat .324. Fortunately, Gurriel has rebounded from a bad two weeks to hit .321.
As a team, the Astros are batting second in the AL with a .266 average. They are third in home runs (24), third in hits (170) and seventh in runs scored (82). They are second in on-base pct. (.340) and fourth in slugging pct. (.419) for a .759 OPS.
Houston's pitching meanwhile has plenty for both optimists and pessimists to chew on. Dallas Keuchel (3-0) seems to be back to his 2015 Cy Young Award form but Houston has five pitchers with ERAs over five (although one is now on the DL) and two of them are in the starting rotation. Number two starter Collin McHugh has yet to take the mound in the regular season. Several times already this year, the Astros have climbed out of some impressive deficits to pull out victories.
Then there's the bullpen with plenty (Chris Devenski, 1-0, 1.35 ERA; Will Harris 1-0, 1.13 ERA and Brad Peacock 2-0, 0.00 ERA) to get excited about while Luke Gregerson (1-1, 5.79 ERA) and Ken Giles (0-1, 5.00 ERA) keep the excitement in protecting leads.
Houston could use help in the rotation and I wonder if the Astros are keeping a seat warm for top prospect Francis Martes before turning to the trade routes. Trade target Jose Quintana (0-4, 6.17 ERA) of the White Sox has certainly lost some luster.
It all adds up to a positive start but the road gets tougher quickly with opponents like the AL Champion Indians and the arch-nemesis Rangers lurking on the horizon. If the Astros clear a few more hurdles with a solid lead we can feel more positive about that Sports Illustrated World Champions prediction.