2016 - Season Recap
by Bob Hulsey
Fresh off their first postseason appearance in a decade, the Astros opened spring camp with boundless optimism. They had knocked on the doorstep of their first ALCS appearance and the talk was about going back to finish the job. With full seasons from rookie Carlos Correa, injury-prone George Springer and deadline acquisition Carlos Gomez, the Astros would surely be even better in 2016. So went the conventional wisdom.
Yet conventional wisdom took a beating in 2016, both in sports and other areas of life. So, too, the Astros struggled through April, faded in September and lost against the Rangers throughout to finish with an 84-78 record and out of the playoff picture. The Astros rallied in midseason and, at one point, had a high-percentage chance of either winning the division or becoming a wild card team but the young club wheezed through the final weeks like a marathoner on an uphill finish.
Before the year began, the front office was stung when outfielder Colby Rasmus chose to accept the qualifying offer for departing free agents. By accepting, Houston could not cash in on the hoped-for draft choices he would generate for signing elsewhere. Instead, he returned to the Astros at a $16 million price tag. Rasmus batted .206 and spent a couple of months on the disabled list.
It was determined that the one thing the Astros lacked in 2015 was a flame-throwing closer to dominate the ninth inning. General Manager Jeff Luhnow went all-in on Philadelphia closer Ken Giles who was young, hard-throwing and under club control. Houston made a 5-for-2 trade, which included prospects Vincent Velasquez and former overall number one choice Mark Appel, to get Giles but the new closer finished April with an 0-2 record, a 9.00 ERA, no saves and four home runs allowed over 10 innings.
He wasn't alone as a disappointment. The Astros got off to a 7-17 start and struggled to fight their way back into contention. After bouncing back with a 17-12 month of May, Houston hit their stride in June with an 18-8 record that left them five games over .500 but still nine games back of the West-leading Rangers.
Despite a mediocre month of July, the Astros were able to whittle that lead down to 2-1/2 games by July 27th but this was as close as they could get. Despite rumors of a deadline trade to spark the team, Luhnow stood pat while the Rangers traded for catcher Jonathon Lucroy (a Houston target) and outfielder/DH Carlos Beltran. That seemed to deflate Houston which relied instead on calling up infielder Alex Bregman from AAA and signing 32-year-old Cuban infielder Yulieski Gurriel who had not played since February while seeking official entry into the United States.
Our northern neighbors pulled away with the division lead while the Astros refocused attention on one of two wild card playoff spots up for grabs among a half-dozen teams. Ultimately, Baltimore and Toronto claimed those two berths with 89 wins each while Houston sputtered to a 12-16 finish over September and October.
What went wrong? You could begin with starting pitching where reigning Cy Young Award winner Dallas Keuchel (9-12, 4.55 ERA) struggled for consistency and was ultimately shelved for the final month. Number two starter Collin McHugh (13-10, 4.34) also regressed from his 2015 numbers. Between the two, they compiled 17 fewer wins than the year before.
Free agent signee Doug Fister (12-13, 4.64) was, at times, the team's most reliable starter but he fizzled badly down the stretch when he should have been cementing a big pay increase. Journeyman Mike Fiers (11-8, 4.48) held his own but performed mostly like the back-of-the-rotation starter he was expected to be. Injuries took a chunk out of Lance McCullers' (6-5, 3.22 ERA) season for the second year in a row.
The bullpen was a strength except for the closer role which fluctuated between Luke Gregerson (4-3, 3.28, 15 saves), Will Harris (1-2, 2.25, 12) and Giles (2-5, 4.11, 15). As a staff, the Astros suffered 20 blown saves. The only lefthander, Tony Sipp (1-2, 4.95, 1), was signed to a pricey two-year contract only to have a down season.
Two righthanders pitched well while splitting time between starting and relief. Chris Devenski (4-4, 2.16, 1) logged over 100 innings and showed promise while Michael Feliz (8-1, 4.43) acquired the vulture role of winning late or extra-inning games. Veteran Scott Feldman (5-3, 2.90) found his role reduced until he was traded while Joe Musgrove (4-4, 4.06) showed enough in 10 late-season starts to be seen as a rotation option. Overall, the Astros ranked fifth in team ERA (4.06).
Offensively, Jose Altuve (.338 average, 24 homers, 96 RBIs) found still another level of excellence in 2016. He finished third in league MVP voting. Correa (.274, 20, 96) had a mild sophomore slump while Springer (.261, 29, 82) was moved to the leadoff spot and responded with a personal best for home runs.
The Astros took Evan Gattis, a former catcher with sore knees, and moved him back behind the plate where it seemed his concentration improved when he had to run a game. Overall, Gattis (.251, 32, 72) led the club in home runs and held his own defensively. He backed up Jason Castro (.210, 11, 32) and played the DH position regularly.
Support from other places in the lineup were limited. Luis Valbuena (.260, 13, 40) split time at first base and third base then had a great summer before losing the last two months of the season to injury. Rasmus (.206, 15, 54) struggled then missed time to injuries. Gomez (.210, 5, 29) played so poorly that he was released in August. Jake Marisnick (.209, 5, 21) and Preston Tucker (.164, 4, 8) fell off significantly from their 2015 numbers.
The biggest lineup hole, however, was first base which became an open audition between Tyler White (.217, 8, 28) and A.J. Reed (.164, 3, 8) when it was not handled by Valbuena or the versatile Marwin Gonzalez (.254, 13, 51). After the All-Star Break, the third base role was given to Bregman (.264, 8, 34) while Gurriel (.262, 3, 15) arrived in August and was tried at first base, third base, left field and DH.
As a club, the offense finished 13th out of 15 AL teams in batting average (.247) and ninth in OPS (.735).
As the season progressed, it was easy to see one area that was holding the Astros back - their inability to beat the Rangers. Houston lost their first eight games against Arlington before Fister beat them, 3-1, on June 8th. Houston finished 4-15 for the season against the division champs.
The season left fans questioning if the Astros had enough pitching to compete in the postseason and whether the lineup could be turbocharged to produce like the league leaders. They'd get their answers over the winter as the front office chose to beef up the offensive attack while largely standing pat with their pitching staff.
3rd Place, AL West
To be added later.
Nov 19, 2015 - Traded Jonathan Villar (IF) to MIL-N for Cy Sneed (P)
Nov 19, 2015 - Released Robbie Grossman (OF)
Nov 25, 2015 - Traded Jed Lowrie (IF) to OAK-A for minor leaguer Brendan McCurry (P)
Nov 25, 2015 - Traded L.J. Hoes (OF) to BAL-A for cash considerations
Dec 2, 2015 - Traded Hank Conger (C) to TB-A for cash considerations
Dec 2, 2015 - Granted Free Agency to Chris Carter (1B)
Dec 12, 2015 - Traded Brett Oberholtzer (P), Vincent Velasquez (P), and minor leaguers Mark Appel (P), Harold Arauz (P), and Thomas Eshelman (P), to PHI-N for Ken Giles (P) and Jonathan Arauz (SS)
Jan 28, 2016 - Signed Doug Fister (P) as a free agent
March 28, 2016 - Traded Dan Straily (P) to SD-N for Erik Kratz (C)
March 31, 2016 - Released Jake Buchanan (P)
May 22, 2016 - Released Erik Kratz (C)
May 24, 2016 - Waived Asher Wojciechowski (P). Claimed by MIA-N
June 22, 2016 - Waived Juan Minaya (P). Claimed by CHI-A
July 16, 2016 - Signed Yulieski Gurriel (IF) as a free agent
July 23, 2016 - Waived Matt Duffy (IF). Claimed by TEX-A
Aug 1, 2016 - Traded Josh Fields (P) to LA-N for minor leaguer Yordan Alvarez (1B)
Aug 1, 2016 - Traded Scott Feldman (P) to TOR-A for minor leaguer Guadalupe Chavez (P)
Aug 18, 2016 - Released Carlos Gomez (OF)