Play ball! Astros open season full of optimism

Spring has sprung and the sound of ball striking bat can only mean one thing – the start of the Major League Baseball season. Nowhere in the nation is there more optimism for the upcoming campaign than right here in Houston with the Astros.

Astros GM Jeff Luhnow has done a masterful job adding key components to the roster. The team had already assembled a dazzling nucleus of young talent featuring All-Star second baseman Jose Altuve, former No. 1 overall draft selection shortstop Carlos Correa, centerfielder George Springer and Evan Gattis.

To that mix add hotshot second-year sensation Alex Bregman at third and Cuba All-Star Yulieski Gurriel, who both showed their value in a short sample size (two months) last season.

If that wasn’t enough, Luhnow added former All-Star catcher Brian McCann, outfielders Josh Reddick and Norichika Aoki, and the venerable outfielder Carlos Beltran for his second tour of duty as an Astro.

“We feel pretty good about the additions,” skipper A.J. Hinch said. “We also feel pretty good about the guys we’re bringing back, and I think it’s important to understand that the goal of the offseason was to supplement the good core group that we have returning. I think we’ve done that.”

Altuve affirmed the offseason moves.

“It seems like a new team,” Altuve said. “We already had a good team the last couple of years, but it seems like with this team they put the pieces together. It is interesting what we’re going to do. I know that people have a lot of high expectations, so do we. I think we are on the same page.”

Last season, the Astros finished in third place in the American League West with a record of 84-78.

For the team to reach its lofty expectations in 2017 they have to get more consistency from their starting pitching staff. They need ace Dallas Keuchel to return to his 2015 Cy Young winning ways instead of the 9-12, 2016 version with a 4.55 ERA in 26 starts.

They need a healthy Lance McCullers who in 2015 looked like a tremendous young prospect. They hope that the right elbow problems that plagued McCullers last season are in the past.

“I feel like a brand new guy,” Keuchel said. “It felt a little weird, playing catch at first and then getting off the mound the first time…But it all came together rather quickly, and that was good to see. It just felt so good to get off the elevated ground and throw to a catcher, and hear a little bit of a pop from the mitt.”

Expect Collin McHugh, Mike Fiers and Joe Musgrove to round out the starting pitching staff. If they can provide serviceable outings, they will turn the ball over to one of the Majors’ best bullpens.

The bullpen will consist of left-hander Tony Sipp and right-handers Chris Devenski, Brad Peacock and Jandel Gustave, Ken Giles and Luke Gregerson. In Giles and Gregerson, the Astros have virtually two closers who can lock up opposition hitters in the eighth and ninth innings. They both throw sliders that are virtually unhittable.

The Astros are a solid, experienced team, offensively and defensively. If they can stay healthy expect a deep playoff run and possibly a World Series opportunity.