When I was a kid I played a lot of baseball video games, mostly MVP Baseball 2005 AKA the GOAT. My specialty was doing a fantasy draft in Dynasty Mode where I could easily draft multiple young superstars. The next step would be to supplement that core with the necessary supporting cast including some rock solid starting pitchers, a closer, and position players with speed. Within the next few months of game play I could pull off some advantageous trades and savvy free agent signings to construct the perfect team. What the Astros have done the last few years reminds me of this process. Let's take a look:
1. The Young Core
Three names come to mind when I hear "Astros", and that's Jose Altuve (27), Carlos Correa (22!!!), and George Springer (27). Now I'll admit both Altuve and Springer are a bit older than I would've guessed (though Correa is also a little younger than I thought) but these are the ages you want your best players to be at. Altuve was leading the AL MVP race up until September of last season. Correa is a former #1 overall pick, a Rookie of the Year winner, and likely a future MVP. Springer is maybe the best leadoff hitter in baseball. Throw in the upside of third baseman (and former #2 overall pick) Alex Bregman and this core is built to win both now and in the future.
2. Starting Pitching
Starting pitching was supposed to be the question mark for Houston entering the season. Dallas Keuchel followed up his Cy Young winning 2015 with an ugly 4.55 ERA last year while Lance McCullers had never shown the ability to stay healthy for a full season (and still hasn't). This led to plenty of trade rumors surrounding Jose Quintana. The Astros held off over the winter and, so far, that decision is working out for them. Keuchel is once again a favorite for the AL Cy with a 9-0 record and 1.67 ERA through 11 starts. McCullers, meanwhile, has a 2.71 ERA while averaging over 10 strikeouts per nine. If there's one mini flaw with this team it's the back end of the rotation, but that becomes less important in short postseason series. Assuming Keuchel and McCullers stays healthy they match up as well with anyone come October.
3. The Bullpen
Chris Devenski began 2017 on an absolute tear, and the Astros continue to use him as aggressively as possible. The set up man has been brought into games anywhere between the fourth and eighth innings. Once in he can get up to twelve outs if need be, since he was a starter so recently. Through 33 2/3 innings this year Devenski has struck out 51 with a 0.86 WHIP. The Astros can shorten games with Devenski but since they also have the luxury of Ken Giles they don't sacrifice the ninth inning to do so. Following a shaky start Giles has been one of the best closers in baseball, saving 15 of 16 opportunities with 28 strikeouts in 22 1/3 innings.
4. Veteran Leadership
The Astros arrived "ahead of schedule" in 2015, winning the AL wild card game before falling in the division series. Things didn't go quite as well last year. Houston recorded 86 wins but failed to qualify for the post-season. This was due to several reasons (mainly Keuchel's shoulder injury) but a quick look at the roster showed they were missing a key intangible component - veteran leadership. It's impossible to quantify, but having well respected veterans such as Carlos Beltran, Brian McCann, and Josh Reddick can only be a net positive for clubhouse chemistry. The front office must have identified this as they made moves to acquire all three this winter. These veterans will no doubt assist the young core in becoming complete players.
As of Sunday morning, June 4th, the Astros have a ridiculous 12.5 game lead over the second place Angels. That's, how do we say, a lot. They're a complete team and the numbers back it up. Currently Houston ranks third in the majors in runs per game, second in team ERA, and first in run differential. If all this wasn't enough the organization has prospects to trade if they still want to make a major splash this summer. With the division basically sewed up the decision will come down to whether or not the players being acquired can help the Astros in October. However, the team could also sit on their minor leagues and widen their window to win. That kind of flexibility, combined with being built to win both now and in the future, is what makes the Astros the perfect team.