2016 Astros: Houston comes back to Earth

After coming out of nowhere to clinch the second American League Wild Card spot in 2015, the Houston Astros suffered too great of losses to maintain such high hopes heading into 2016.

Houston will be anchored by the return of the reigning AL CY Young Award winner Dallas Keuchel (20-8, 2.48 ERA) and Rookie of the Year shortstop Carlos Correa (.279 batting average, 22 home runs, 68 RBIs).

And while no one player lost will serve huge effect, the offense did lose a total of 44 home runs, 127 RBIs and 110 runs scored, while the pitching staff has parted ways with its No. 3 starter and set-up man through a contingent of players.

Even with the Astros’ core returning for a second helping of success, there are too many vacancies left by too many departures for repercussions not to be felt.

Despite an unimpressive .199 batting average former first baseman Chris Carter (Milwaukee Brewers) finished fourth on the Astros in home runs (24) and RBIs (64).

He was also something of a clutch performer, with his average shooting to .245 when his team was behind, and seven of his home runs (21 of his RBIs) coming in the seventh inning or later.

Along with Carter, Houston will have to replace third baseman Jed Lowrie (.222 batting average, nine home runs and 30 RBIs) and catcher Hank Conger (.229-11-33) who were both traded, to the Oakland Athletics and Tampa Bay Rays respectively.

Along with Correa, a trio of 20 home run hitters will be returning. Evan Gattis (27), Luis Valbuena (25) and Colby Rasmus (25) will all find themselves in the heart of the Houston lineup. None, though, collected 100 RBIs as only one qualifying Astro, Jose Altuve, finished the season batting above .280 (.313).

The All-Star second baseman was also the only Astro to score more than more than 67 runs (86).

Yet, even with so few standout individual performances, Houston boasted the game’s sixth-best run scoring offense (729 runs) because it was an attack predicated on moving the line.

It is for that exact reason that the losses of three players who accrued more than 200 at-bats is significant – every bat in such an evenly distributed offense is vital.

In replacing three moderate contributors to an explosive offense, Houston seems satisfied with relying on a pair of trade deadline acquisitions.

One of whom, Jonathan Villar, performed well beyond his prior career averages would have suggested, while the other, Carlos Gomez, has aside from All-Star seasons in 2013 and 2014 has failed to be a productive bat.

As the offense sees a likely drop off from a year ago, in order to remain competitive the Houston pitching staff will have to further improve upon the AL’s top team ERA (3.57).

Among the six pitchers who started more than 10 games with the Astros only four remain, with Scott Kazmir (3.10 2015 ERA) and Roberto Hernandez (4.36 2015 ERA) walking. Though Doug Fister (4.19 2015 ERA), who struggled in an offensively feeble NL East, will serve as a replacement.

Houston will also be heavily invested in front end of the rotation that brags no historical evidence to support the investment.

Keuchel, 28, who performed to career highs in wins and innings (232) as well as career lows in losses and ERA, will be asked to rebound from a robust 246 inning workload. No. 2 starter Collin McHugh, 28, also enjoyed career highs in wins (19) and innings (203.2), while 22-year-old rookie Lance McCullers (6-7) produced a 3.22 ERA while tossing 125.2 innings.

Relying so heavily on a largely unproven staff, while bidding farewell to a veteran with a track record for aiding the progression of such staffs, will prove to be a mistake.

Chad Qualls (Colorado Rockies) has also lifted off from Space City, taking with him a team second-highest save total (4), 10 holds and 60 relief appearances (T-4th on the team).

Like fellow recently departed Astros his individual loss is far from massive, but included alongside Joe Thatcher and Hernandez that is a total of 156.2 innings.

Defensively, Houston is well primed, as proven by its third-best fielding percentage in the AL (.986), with back-to-back Gold Glove winner Altuve at second base and 2013 Gold Glove winner Gomez in centerfield.

While watching the Astros fall back toward a .500 winning percentage, something to watch for more than a fall off in bottom-of-the-order production and pitching struggles will be the sophomore slump.

An absolute dynamo in 2015, Correa will see a drop in production.

That is not to say he won’t be able to rebound in 2017 and have an excellent career, but in his second season the shortstop, 21, will have to deal with the mental anguish of an impending second-year decline.

The Astros will be involved in the wild card race into September, thanks in large part to the second slot. Their season 82-80 record, though, will have them fall just short on their postseason aspirations.