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Best team ever? The 2018 Astros could be one piece away

From ESPN - January 11, 2018

Close your eyes. Take a deep breath. Think of the best baseball team you have ever seen. Not an All-Star team or your dream fantasy lineup, but a real team, flesh and blood, one that competes for a World Series title. Whom do you see?

Keep that in mind because I am going to tell you how we can make the 2018 Houston Astros the best team ever.

The club is pursuing a high-end starter. We know this because owner Jim Crane said Monday at a news conference that the Astros are actively pursuing a high-end starter. This could mean Gerrit Cole, a trade possibility that took a ride Wednesday on the roller coaster that is the hot stove rumor mill. Or maybe it means Yu Darvish, the top free-agent starter on the market. Or maybe it means a trade for Chris Archer.

If the Astros can acquire one of those three, it would be the final piece, not just in filling out an already deep rotation but also in giving the Astros a realistic chance of becoming just the third team in the 162-game era to win 110 games, joining the 1998 New York Yankees and the 2001 Seattle Mariners.

Consider all this:

Justin Verlander: He has his ring, but this is a guy who wants to be a Hall of Famer, a guy who was not happy when he fell from his status as one of the game's elite starters. He's throwing with premium velocity again and coming off a fifth-place finish in the Cy Young voting, but what makes a monster season possible in 2018 is what happened after he came to the Astros: In five starts, he posted a 1.06 ERA and had a 43/5 strikeout-to-walk ratio.

OK, that's small sample stuff, and September numbers can be misleading, but Verlander's second-half improvement in 2017 can be traced back to a mechanical tweak that improved his fastball command. He also apparently changed the grip on his slider. Plus, he was throwing curveballs such as this one to Todd Frazier in the playoffs, as he was outright dominant at times on his way to ALCS MVP honors.

In the first half, he had a 4.73 ERA and 1.92 strikeouts for every walk. In the second half, he had a 1.95 ERA and 5.76 strikeouts for every walk. Good luck, American League.

Dallas Keuchel: Here's what we know about Keuchel: At his best, he's a Cy Young-level pitcher, getting batters to pound the ball into the ground and recording more strikeouts than you'd expect, given his below-average velocity. He won the Cy Young Award in 2015 and posted a 2.90 ERA last season over 145.2 innings, but he had a 1.67 ERA in early June when he went on the disabled list with a sore neck. He also pitched in the second half with a foot injury that required him to wear a walking boot after the season (though he did not need surgery).

Not that a bulldog such as Keuchel needs further motivation, but he's in his walk year. The incentive to have a big season followed by a big payout is obviously there. Bottom line: When he has been healthy the past three years, he has been as effective as any starter in the American League (he pitched through shoulder pain in 2016 when he had a 4.55 ERA). This gives us Ace 1 and 1A.

Mystery man starter: Whether it's Cole, Darvish or Archer, each could be accurately described as a fringe Cy Young contender, even if you do not want to label him an ace. All three, however, are at the top of the food chain in pure stuff and capable of a sub-3.00 ERA season. Archer ranked seventh in the majors in strikeout rate, Darvish 12th and Cole 23rd. Consider each pitcher's career high in WAR:

Darvish: 5.8 (2013)

Cole: 4.5 (2015)

Archer: 4.3 (2015)

Cole and Archer have even higher figures if you consider FanGraphs WAR instead of Baseball-Reference. With help from Houston's analytical staff, you can expect a big season from any of these three.

Lance McCullers Jr.: His upside is All-Star, which he was in 2017, when he posted a 3.05 ERA before the break. A back injury limited him to six starts in the second half, though he pitched in the postseason. The stuff is explosive, and his wipeout curveball is difficult to elevate (he allowed just eight home runs in 118innings). We know the control can be spotty, and he has had other injury concerns, but there's also a chance that he has not yet fully tapped his potential.

Charlie Morton: He signed with the Astros, was told to air out his four-seamer more often, saw his average fastball velocity increase to 95.0 mph, produced his best season with a 3.62 ERA and ended it by pitching the final four innings to win Game 7 of the World Series. His confidence will be sky-high heading into 2018.

That's five starters, and we did not even mention Brad Peacock, who had a 3.00 ERA and ranked eighth in strikeout rate among pitchers with at least 100 innings, or Collin McHugh, who owns a 3.70 ERA the past four seasons. This gives the Astros rotation depth matched perhaps only by the Cleveland Indians. If everyone's healthy, the Astros have two multi-inning relievers in the bullpen to help soak up innings and keep everyone fresh.

Now to the position players. Remember the Astros led the AL in runs last season.

Carlos Correa: He's ready to explode on the league, though it's difficult to imagine better production from a shortstop than the .315/.391/.550 line he put up last year. Keep in mind that he played only 109 games, so the Astros will be a couple wins better just by having him in the lineup for 150 games. He also got off to a terrible start, hitting .233 with two home runs in April. From May on, he hit .336/.411/.601 with 22 home runs and 21 doubles in 87 games. Prorate that over 150 games, and you get 38 home runs and 36 doubles.

That does not even factor in improvement, which you might expect from a player who just turned 23 in September and has only 1,500 career plate appearances. In 2017, Correa cut his strikeout rate and improved his hard-hit rate. Jose Altuve is the reigning MVP, but he might not be the best MVP candidate on his own team.

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