After success in 2015, Astros poised for encore

Houston stacked with young talent, hoping to go beyond last year's achievements

March 16th, 2016

KISSIMMEE, Fla. -- What do the Astros do for an encore? To put it another way, does magic have an expiration date? Or can Houston deliver another basestealing, wall-crashing, homer-hitting run to the postseason?

"Last year, they got a taste, and they know how good it feels," said center fielder Carlos Gomez, who arrived in a Trade Deadline deal with the Brewers.

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Gomez fit in perfectly with his chatter, hustle and happiness, and he believes the Astros are just getting started.

"This year is when they're going to really enjoy it," he said. "They know they're a good team."

To watch the Astros play last season was to feel their energy, youth and joy. Their dugout could have passed for the happiest place on earth in good times and bad. And they made the playoffs for the first time in 10 years -- this from a club that averaged 104 losses from 2011-14.

"It was the most fun I'd had since my travel team in high school," designated hitter Evan Gattis said. "It was unbelievable."

Now what? Houston is a solid favorite to win the American League West, and it is a team with few weaknesses, which is remarkable considering how far the franchise has come in just one season.

Teammates marvel at the maturity and play of 21-year-old shortstop Carlos Correa and feed off the energy of right fielder George Springer. In second baseman Jose Altuve, the Astros have a guy who has led the AL in hits and stolen bases the past two seasons.

"I look around the room and wonder where all these good players came from in such a short amount of time," 2015 AL Cy Young Award winner Dallas Keuchel said. "That's special."

Can the Astros sustain all that energy, all that emotion? Maybe that's the question. Will they still have that edge?

"It's how we play," manager A.J. Hinch said. "It's not really having to sustain anything. It's our personality. We play with energy. We've got a ton of passion. We have a lot of fun. Guys pull for each other. Rather than having to be a certain way, we just have to be ourselves and enjoy it."

Does it even matter? Talent is talent, and Houston has plenty. The Astros have experience, too, having endured a season in which they didn't clinch an AL Wild Card berth until the final day of the season.

"That whole last week, we played essentially a Wild Card Game every night," Springer said.

Springer was the spiritual leader with his acrobatic plays along with his laughter and energy.

"Springer plays the same way every game -- 100 mph," Altuve said.

Upstairs in the front office, the Astros believe general manager Jeff Luhnow has created an organization that can remain competitive, beginning with a core of talented young players -- Correa, Springer, Keuchel, etc. -- and a deep farm system. These players see last season as a sweet step in the right direction and nothing more.

"Once you get a taste of the playoffs, I think it's going to motivate me for the rest of my career," Keuchel said.

Besides that, Houston didn't actually do what every team sets out to do. The club got to the postseason and won the AL Wild Card Game at Yankee Stadium, and then when it was six outs from winning a clinching AL Division Series Game 4 against the Royals, it let it slip away and then lost Game 5 as well. Season over.

"Bittersweet," Springer said. "We watched the team that beat us have a great run and win the World Series. It took about three weeks to be able to reflect on things."

The 2016 Astros should be a lot like the '15 Astros: home runs, stolen bases, great defense and a deep bullpen.

And if newly signed right-hander Doug Fister has the bounceback season the Astros think he'll have, their rotation -- Keuchel, Collin McHugh, Scott Feldman, Mike Fiers and Fister -- should be good.

One of last year's rookie stars, right-hander Lance McCullers, will begin the season on the disabled list with a sore right shoulder, but Houston hopes he'll be able to contribute at some point.

"Last season is something we're never going to forget, but there are steps beyond that," Springer said. "It was fun and special. It was hard the way that it ended, but we'll learn from that and go from there."