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Why have you forgotten how good the Astros are?

(David Dermer)

Ever since the Red Sox were crowned as World Series champions in October 2018, the chatter has been pretty familiar. Can they repeat in 2019? Do the Yankees have enough talent to truly challenge them in the AL East? Will the third time be the charm for the Dodgers, or will the Nationals or Braves make a run at them with their new additions?
These are all good questions, but they're leaving out one obvious contender who has not been discussed much this offseason: the Astros. It was barely more than a year ago that they were the ones hoisting the Commissioner's Trophy, and even less since they looked like they were about to tear through the postseason bracket again in 2018.
The Red Sox stopped them in their tracks during the ALCS though, and ever since, Astros chatter has been strangely quiet. How can this be?

Here's a reminder as to why they should not be slept on as a strong World Series contender for 2019.
Their lineup is nearly identical to last year
Here was the Astros' final lineup of the 2018 season, deployed in Game 5 of the ALCS:
Alex Bregman, 3B
George Springer, RF
José Altuve, DH
Carlos Correa, SS
Yuli Gurriel, 1B
Marwin Gonzalez, 2B
Tony Kemp, LF
Martín Maldonado, C
Jake Marisnick, CF

No team in baseball has more wins since the start of 2017 than the Astros' 204. Most of the players who led them to the best OPS in baseball in that stretch (.789) are still there and raring to go. No one has forgotten what the likes of Altuve, Correa and Springer did during the championship run, and even in off-years, they more than held their own in 2018. Gonzalez and Maldonado might not return as free agents, but the Astros have already added Michael Brantley and Robinson Chirinos to fill their spots.
The opposing pitchers are going to going to have their work cut out for them.

Bregman looks like an MVP in the making
It's hard to believe that a mere three years ago, Bregman was in the Minors. The former No. 2 overall MLB Draft pick went from unassuming rookie in 2016 to sophomore standout in 2017 with a .284/.352/.475 showing that included some postseason heroics both at the plate ...

... and in the field.

Bregman was even better in 2018, hitting .286/.394/.532 with 31 homers, 6.9 WAR and a league-best 51 doubles. Numbers like that might have won him the MVP anyway in a year that didn't coincide with extraordinary performances from Mookie Betts and Mike Trout.
Bregman will only turn 25 on March 30, and we know he's not lacking in confidence. Incredibly, the best might be yet to come.
Strikeouts, strikeouts and more strikeouts
Justin Verlander.

Gerrit Cole.

Yeah, those guys are still there, and they combined for 566 strikeouts in 2018 with both earning serious AL Cy Young Award consideration. Fellow 200-K artist Charlie Morton left the Astros for the Rays and Dallas Keuchel remains a free agent, but the reinforcements are coming. Case-in point: potential Rookie of the Year contender Josh James, whose stuff is simply filthy.

Oh yeah, and he can also throw 102 mph. It's not clear yet if he will join the rotation or be yet another strikeout machine in the bullpen. Nonetheless, no matter who else joins Verlander and Cole -- be it James, Brad Peacock or Collin McHugh -- manager AJ Hinch can be confident that the strikeouts will follow.
The system isn't slowing down
Only the Padres and Braves had more prospects ranked in the most recent MLB Pipeline Top 100 than the Astros.
Outfielder Kyle Tucker has been overlooked in particular despite his high pedigree. He was the No. 5 overall pick of the 2015 MLB Draft and zoomed from being a teenager in Rookie Ball to the Majors in just three years. No, he did not hit well during his brief stint with the Astros in 2018, but keep in mind that Bregman himself went 2-for-38 upon his call to The Show in 2016.
Tucker has plenty of time to put it all together, and given that he had a .989 in 100 games with Triple-A Fresno, the smart play is to bet on the talent to shine through.

Meanwhile, pitcher Forrest Whitley showed flashes of excellence in both Double-A and the Arizona Fall League. He struck out a combined 70 batters in 52 1/3 innings with a 0.975 WHIP, and after catching the eyes of both Hinch and Verlander while hitting 110 mph in running throw exercises this winter, he looks ready to take the next step in 2019.

With a devastating offense, an overpowering pitching staff and even more blue-chip prospects in the pipeline, the Astros cannot continue to be ignored. Beware of them in 2019.