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    Friday, July 14, 2017

    2017 Champions? Revisiting the Famous Astros Sports Illustrated Cover, and How Well My Prediction of Their Plan Has Held Up

    Three years ago, Sports Illustrated published a notable* cover in which they declared the Houston Astros “Your 2017 World Series Champs”. It got some derision at the time, seeing as the team was then in the middle of a 92-loss season coming on the tails of three straight 100-plus-loss seasons (all of which saw them finish with the worst record in the majors). Some writers, myself included, defended the call, though.

    *and pretty cool-looking

    And then immediately after that, the Astros started the next season on a hot start and rode that all the way to the Division Series. In fact, they came a bad eighth inning away from going even further. In any case, the people who had been critical of the original cover mostly shut up at that point. However, the cover is getting renewed attention lately, partially because it’s the year Sports Illustrated originally gave, and partially because this year’s stellar Astros team is looking like Galactus, devourer of punier baseball teams, in turn making SI look like a bunch of prophets. So with that, I wanted to go back and look at my original take on the article and see how much of it came true to get the Astros to where they are today

    The first thing I noted back in 2014 was the strength of the Astros’ farm system: they had six prospects in Baseball America’s Top 100 rankings from that year. I noted that it wasn’t realistic to expect all of them to hit their best-case scenarios, and that certainly happened. Mark Appel (now with Philadelphia) still hasn’t reached the majors at 25, Jon Singleton saw some time at the Major League level back in 2014 and ’15 but is back at AA, and Mike Foltynewicz is with Atlanta now* (but finally putting together his first above-average season, so good for him at least).

    *Folty and Rio Ruiz, who I also name-dropped in my original piece, were part of the package to bring Evan Gattis and another key 2017er to Houston. Part of the upside in prospects though is being able to trade them for things you need, so it’s probably fair to call this one a success for the Astros as well, even if Foltynewicz isn’t himself an ace.

    But the rest of the list is leading the charge for the 2017 Astros: Carlos Correa and George Springer are both posting wRC+ figures over 160 at up-the-middle positions, and Lance McCullers has a 3.05 ERA and a 2.73 FIP. All three garnered All-Star nominations (a first for both Springer and McCullers), and according to Fangraphs have combined for 10.4 Wins Above Replacement on the year, making them the team’s second-, third-, and fourth-most-valuable players. That’s about as good as you can hope, if you’re a rebuilding team with a deep farm system.

    Then, I went through the lineup, rotation, and bullpen to look for which areas could stand to receive the biggest improvements. For fun, let’s look at how each of those components ranks in WAR at the All-Star Break today when compared to where they were at the 2014 All Star Break:

    Group 2014 ASB WAR 2017 ASB WAR
    Lineup 6.7 20.1
    Rotation 5.8 8.2
    Bullpen -0.7 4.9
    Total 11.8 33.2

    It’s actually kind of surprising how close the rotation then is to the one now, with under 3 WAR of difference between the two. It’s certainly not nothing (they ranked twentieth in the majors at this point in 2014, while they rank sixth now), but better than you might have expected from a team heading for 92 losses.

    In any case, my verdict at the time was with five recent top pitching prospects (McCullers, Appel, Foltynewicz, Jarred Cosart*, or Brady Aiken, who they had drafted at that point but wouldn’t end up signing), they only needed one of them to succeed, which McCullers did. I then mentioned that maybe they’d need a second in case Dallas Keuchel regressed, but Keuchel actually improved on his 2014 breakout, so that wound up being unnecessary. I also offered that maybe someone else might become a solid mid-rotation guy, I just didn’t expect that guy to end up being Brad Peacock (who was a member of that 2014 team, but more on that in a moment).

    *Who, like Folty, was instead traded for players who became important to the 2017 edition of the team; he went to Miami with Enrique Hernández for Jake Marisnick, current Astros top prospect Francis Martes, and still-intriguing minor leaguer Colin Moran.

    At the time, I sort of glossed over the bullpen, noting just that they were fickle and could turn around quickly. That wound up being an understatement, as they had the twelfth best bullpen (by WAR) in 2015 and the best one in 2016 and so far in 2017 thanks to a series of fascinating moves. Leading the way this year has been All-Star Chris Devenski*, but he’s had help. Will Harris**, Ken Giles***, Michael Feliz*^, James Hoyt^, and Peacock^* have all had pretty notable contributions this year as well. And to give you a sense of the total turnover that’s taken place, only Peacock and Tony Sipp remain from that dismal 2014 bullpen. ^**

    *Who was never a top prospect, but was nevertheless acquired as a minor leaguer in 2012 for Brett Myers.

    **A waiver selection from Arizona way back in 2015, who’s did well immediately upon arriving.

    ***Acquired from the Phillies for a package led in part by Appel.

    *^A normal international free agent signing.

    ^The other name acquired in that Evan Gattis deal.

    ^*Acquired back in 2013 with Chris Carter as part of the first “Astros send Jed Lowrie to Oakland” deal.

    ^**While I’m noting all the improbable places the Astros have acquired their useful pitchers, I’ll throw in that former back-end-top-100-prospects-turned-fifth-starters Joe Musgrove and David Paulino came to Houston in the “Brandon Lyon-to-Toronto” and “Jose Veras-to-Detroit” deals that you’ve probably forgot about. For as much as some people mocked them for selling every player not nailed down, it’s clearly paid dividends. And Collin McHugh, whose been injured this year but has proven invaluable in recent seasons, was a waiver claim.

    Compared to that hodgepodge, the lineup looks pretty straightforward. As I noted then, just getting starter-level play everywhere would bump them up substantially, but they went way above and beyond that. Jose Altuve was a burgeoning star back in 2014, just picking up his second All-Star nod and well on his way to his first batting title, and he’s only built on that in the intervening years. As mentioned earlier, super-prospects Carlos Correa and George Springer did exactly what they were supposed to do and progressed to superstars. Alex Bregman, 2015 #2 overall pick and former top prospect himself, joined them at the major league level and has held his own so far, even if he isn’t a superstar himself yet.*

    *Derek Fisher, another top prospect who has looked ready in his short call-up to the majors, also may qualify here soon, and is himself the indirect product of the Bud Norris trade, as I mentioned last time.

    A lot of prospects failed along the way to those successes, though, which is why the team looked externally to strengthen itself. Evan Gattis and Brian McCann came to bolster the lineup through trades. Yuli Gurriel was a bit of a gamble as an international free agent out of Cuba, but he was filling an area of need and had a track record, and that gamble is now looking reasonable*. Josh Reddick was one of the top free agents on the market this year, and the team correctly identified him as a top target; of course, even this route is hit-and-miss, as Nori Aoki and Carlos Beltran have struggled this year, but again, having a lot of irons in the fire paid off.

    *And it’s worth remembering that Houston just missed out on adding Jose Abreu, another slugging first baseman out of Cuba, a few years ago.

    Really, the only real surprises on offense this year has been the team’s depth. Of course, we knew Gattis would be a potent bench bat going in, given his track record and the signings of Reddick, Beltran, and Aoki that forced him out of the lineup. Fourth outfielder Jake Marisnick took a step forward offensively, but he showed good enough defense to be a starter in years’ past and was himself a former back-end Top 100 prospect. Again, going in, it wouldn’t have been too much of a stretch to call him the league’s most overqualified reserve outfielder. Utility man Marwin Gonzalez* is probably the only complete surprise, but even like Marisnick, he had shown useful in years past.

    *Acquired waaay back in 2011 in a rule 5 draft deal with the Red Sox after they plucked him from the Cubs.

    Again, this really goes back to Correa and Springer. The team already had one great player in Altuve; if you knew going in that the team would add a pair of superstars like them in the coming years, that number. The team basically took up enough prospects to make one “hit” very likely, and two plausible. I set 20 WAR from their lineup as the benchmark in 2014, and a core three like that makes that mark easy to match. Three above-average, 3-WAR players would mean the other six lineup starts only need starter-level players. If those core three get closer to 4- or even 5-WAR players, you get even more leeway.

    Once that was accomplished, it wasn’t impossible to image them finding a way to fill in 2-win guys at the five or four or three or however many roster spots they needed. Once again, the team opted for quantity to fill those spots, acquiring a variety of players to fill in the last few years, giving them time to develop and working out the best mix-and-match of players. Plus, they’d have enough money to make a big signing (like Reddick), that would just get them even closer to that 20 WAR they needed should they wind up with a hole. This basically lines up with what I pointed out three years ago.

    It just so happened that all of their Big Three are playing at an MVP, 6+-WAR rate and their veteran pickups all played well, which is how they’re currently over 20 WAR from their lineup at the halfway point of the season. Obviously, no one would have predicted that optimistically three years ago, but it also was never out of the realm of possibility, either, and there were contingencies built in just in case. In the end, though, the basic plan they’ve been adhering to since that famous Sports Illustrated cover three years ago ended up paying off exactly like everyone behind it hoped.

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