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When will the Astros break through?

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With a solid young core and good projections, is Houston ready to turn into a perennial contender?

MLB: Seattle Mariners at Houston Astros Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

The Houston Astros are often compared to the Chicago Cubs: Both are young teams, both are not-too-far-removed from rebuilds, and both have talent, prospects, and postseason aspirations. However, although both clubs made the playoffs in 2015, Houston failed to match Chicago’s improvements in the next season and fell short of the second Wild Card spot in 2016. Now, in 2017, the Astros look ready to compete again, and it seems worthwhile to ask whether this team has finally reached the status of “favorite” in the AL West.

With another year of experience and some new free agents, Houston projects to be one of the best teams in the American League this season. This projection should be accompanied by the caveat that the projections were nearly equally-favorable last season. However, with the talent and youth currently on the roster, 2017 is the best year for the Astros to find a new level of success.

Perhaps any examination of the current Astros team should start with their 2015 season. Years of rebuilding seemed to pay off early in the season, as Houston raced out to a 14-7 start, prompting an in-depth piece from Michael Baumann (then of Grantland) about whether the young Astros were ready for serious playoff contention. Houston tailed off as the year went on, but still managed to win 86 games, snag the second Wild Card spot, beat the New York Yankees in the Bronx, and then take the eventual-champion Kansas City Royals to the brink of elimination in the divisional round.

As 2016 began, almost everyone in the baseball world expected more improvements. Fangraphs ran a projection piece that called Houston and Chicago the only two locks to make the postseason, reflecting the consensus of nearly every writer or analyst. However, Houston’s 84-78 record — while not bad — left the team out of both the division and Wild Card races.

Houston wasn’t a bad team in 2016 by any metric. Finishing only two games worse than their 2016 mark, the Astros only truly failed relative to their expectations. There are some metrics that explain this drop-off — Astros hitters went from fifth in fWAR in 2015 to 13th in 2016 — but the real disappointment was that the team didn’t get any better.

Over the last two seasons, then, Houston finished as one of the best young teams in baseball, but then failed to improve on this impressive status during the subsequent campaign. Finishing just outside of the second Wild Card would be encouraging for a lot of teams, but for this Astros squad the expectations are much higher. Faced with rosy projections again for 2017, Houston is primed to finally take the next step toward solidifying itself near the top of the league.

Currently, FanGraphs predicts the Astros will finish with the best record in the American League, even after missing the playoffs in 2016. Dan Szymborski’s ZiPS projection is equally favorable, giving the hitters excellent marks. If the pitching can be good enough, which is what this projection argues for, then Houston should be in excellent shape.

The AL West is also a highly winnable division, opening up the door for the Astros even further. Houston boasted a better run differential than the division-winning Rangers last season, and has more talent and youth than every other team in this group. While one could have easily made a similar argument before the 2016 season, the Astros look like the safest bet to win the division this year.

The Astros also didn’t stand pat during the offseason, adding Carlos Beltran and Brian McCann to their roster. These two players are great additions for Houston, even if they don’t have the talent to immediately lift the team to a playoff run. Both McCann and Beltran are solid hitters — even at their advancing ages — who can also provide needed depth at key positions. Even if they should be primarily looked at as depth pieces, these two are still valuable players.

It’s not truly fair to compare the Astros to the Cubs, especially since one of these teams is coming off a World Series victory. However, it’s difficult not to see parallels between such young, talented teams. As the 2017 season draws closer, Houston looks ready to make the jump to championship contender. This may be the year when this talented young Astros team maximizes its potential.


Thomas Jenkins is a writer for Beyond the Box Score and Peachtree Hoops. You can also follow him on Twitter for tweets about sports.