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Goals remain lofty at Astros camp

@alysonfooter
March 14, 2019

Several years ago, the Astros' front office pledged two things: to build a winner, and to make that winning sustainable over a long period of time. It delivered on both promises. The forecast for the 2019 club is similar to the previous two seasons, both of which extended far into

Several years ago, the Astros' front office pledged two things: to build a winner, and to make that winning sustainable over a long period of time.

It delivered on both promises. The forecast for the 2019 club is similar to the previous two seasons, both of which extended far into October and a World Series title in 2017 the big payoff.

The Astros have strong starting pitching and one of the best lineups in baseball, and they will enter the 2019 season as favorites to win the American League West title for a third consecutive year. They have four legitimate AL MVP Award candidates and two likely AL Cy Young Award finalists, and a chunk of top-shelf talent in the Minors waiting for that first big league opportunity.

The Astros, looking to build a dynasty, have the personnel to coast to a title in a somewhat pedestrian AL West and, if healthy, are in a good position to compete for their second World Series title in three years.

What's the goal?

The goal for this year remains the same as it has been for the past two: win the World Series. The Astros' window is still wide open, and should be for a while longer, but with free-agency uncertainty regarding several key players beyond this season -- including co-aces Justin Verlander and Gerrit Cole -- there is also an element of urgency.

Houston has a strong pipeline of young talent that will be in the big leagues soon enough, making it unlikely the club will have to break everything down and rebuild in the immediate or distant future. But veterans have a reliability factor that can't be matched, and having experience in the current rotation and lineup makes this a prime year to go for it again.

What could go wrong?

Health -- what else? -- could be a factor. Remember how the 2018 season ended? Jose Altuve had a broken kneecap, Carlos Correa had a bad back and Lance McCullers Jr. pitched briefly in the playoffs despite needing Tommy John surgery. The Astros rolled through the AL Division Series and looked like they might run the table, but a week later their season was over.

Of the players who will be on the roster this year (McCullers will be back in 2020), Altuve's knee appears to be fine, though he's been slowed this spring by soreness in his left side, and Correa looks strong. But the regular season is six months, not six weeks, and it hasn't been that long since Houston's injuries cost the team the season. It's probably too early to assume with confidence the Astros are 100 percent past those issues. The season's midway point will likely be a better indicator.

Who might surprise?

The Astros acquired Aledmys Diaz to replace Marwin Gonzalez who, though "just" a utility man, showed time and again why he was an indispensable part of the club's core for six seasons. Diaz has half the amount of big league service time and a fraction of the experience at many of the positions he may be asked to play this year, making him less of a sure thing. Especially compared to Gonzalez's final three seasons in Houston.

But the Astros have high expectations and even higher hopes for Diaz, a sound offensive player who has shown an aptitude for moving around the diamond. The offensive makeup hasn't changed dramatically since last year, but the loss of Gonzalez may be felt more than the club expects. A better-than-expected showing from the new guy would help ease the transition.

Alyson Footer is a national correspondent for MLB.com. Follow her on Twitter @alysonfooter.