Beginning tonight, the Texas Rangers and the Houston Astros begin their three game series, as the Battle of Baseball Supremacy in the State of Texas begins once again. This year’s Astros team may not be the same pushovers of the past couple of years, as there have been quite a few changes on the roster. To get a better sense of what the Rangers will be facing, we reached out to Jason Burke, editor of Climbing Tal’s Hill, our Astros site, to answer a few questions.
Two of the biggest surprises for the Astros last year were Colin McHugh and Dallas Keuchel, who the Rangers see Friday and Sunday respectively. What was the key to their success last year, and can they build off of that production?
As we saw on Monday night, Keuchel is at his best when he’s mixing speeds and keeping hitters off-balance. As for McHugh, he seemed to stop throwing his two-seamer and focus more on a four-seam fastball. He also varied his first pitch selection more than in previous years, using his off-speed pitches to set up his fastball rather than the other way around. He has yet to start this season, so his first opportunity to prove last season was not a fluke will be against the boom-or-bust Rangers.
George Springer had a decent rookie year last season, producing a .231/.336/.468 batting line with 20 home runs. What does he need to do to take that next step?
The easy answer is that he just needs to stay healthy. He produced that line in just 78 games played in 2014, so over the course of a full season we could see 35+ home runs, in theory. Like many Houston hitters, he strikes out a lot. Last year, he K’d in 33% of his plate appearances. With his speed, and the strikeout tendencies of the rest of the lineup Springer cutting his rate down in 2015 would be a huge step in his development.
The Astros plan to bottom out and rebuild through the draft received a lot of attention. How close are they to becoming a legitimate contender?
Depending how the next offseason goes, they could be in the hunt next season. Super-prospect Carlos Correa is starting the season in Double A, and should see a decent amount time in Triple A if he gets off to a hot start. He’ll likely be a September call-up to get his feet wet in the majors, and next season could be the starting shortstop in Houston. Of course, this is a bit optimistic, but that’s the plan right now. The Astros could still use an ace, and luckily enough there will be plenty on the market after this season. Expect them to land one of the big-name free agents in December.
The Astros made a lot of moves this offseason, upgrading their bullpen and offense. Which player do you think will have the biggest impact on the team this year?
Of the new acquisitions, I’d have to say Luke Gregerson. He is starting the season as the team’s closer, which should help solidify the bullpen. Even if he struggles closing out games, he’s been one of the league’s best setup men. Wherever he lands, he’ll be a huge boost over previous versions.
What are your predictions for the series?
The Rangers seem to have an every other approach to the season, and since they won yesterday we’ll go with a series win for Houston!