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Astros have a plan for high-strikeout lineup

DUNEDIN, Fla. -- This is no lab experiment, says A.J. Hinch. This is a baseball team.

Are those Houston Astros, the juggernaut he is now managing, going to have times when they're capable of air-conditioning the entire state of Texas, considering all the strikeouts up and down their lineup? Yessir.

Are they going to do their best to balance out all those whiffs with long balls and crooked numbers? That's the plan.

And is it possible they're going to do both of the above at a level never before seen by any baseball team on earth? It totally is.

But all of that is for us to talk about and wonder about. They're just trying to field a baseball team.

"I would never describe any team as an experiment," the Astros' new manager said Monday. "This is a competitive league, where you're trying to put your best up against their best and come out ahead. So the goal is to have a dangerous offense that's productive, not just a dangerous offense where you can get information for future considerations."

His team went into this offseason with a roster that led the league in punchouts (1,442) and finished third in home runs (163) last year. It then added several players who have some familiarity with both of those categories:

Colby Rasmus -- who hit 18 homers but also K'd 124 times in 346 at-bats.

Evan Gattis -- who hit 22 homers but whiffed 97 times in 369 at-bats.

Luis Valbuena -- who hit 16 homers but fanned 113 times in 478 at-bats.

Add that group to some of the members of the Special K Club who remain from last year -- Chris Carter, Jon Singleton, George Springer and Jason Castro -- and, as Buster Olney wrote this winter, it's possible the Astros could field a lineup that includes five of the 19 hitters in baseball who struck out in at least 29.5 percent of their plate appearances.

It's also possible they could run out a lineup in which everyone but second baseman Jose Altuve and shortstop Jed Lowrie struck out in at least 20 percent of their trips to the plate last year. And that's a whole lot of swinging and missing waiting to happen.

But it's not as if Astros general manager Jeff Luhnow assembled this team and forgot to notice that. He's just prepared to live with it. And if you go around the diamond and think about all the home runs this team might hit, you'll see why.

FanGraphs' Steamers projection system foresees Carter, Gattis, Rasmus and Springer all hitting 20-plus home runs this year. And it projects 10 Astros to hit at least 10. Just to put that in perspective, no AL team had more than seven players with double-figure homers last year.

So if that's how this works out, with that many guys firing baseballs into the Crawford Boxes, this is a team that will be counting its runs scored, not its potential assault on the strikeout record.

"If the balance works out effectively and we're scoring enough runs," said assistant general manager David Stearns, "the strikeouts aren't going to concern us. Clearly, if they're strikeouts without power, we're not going to score as many runs as we would like. But our expectation is, we're going to hit a lot of home runs and we're going to score plenty of runs. If we do that, then we'll take the strikeouts that come with it."

If they're looking for expert witnesses, they have to look no further than the guy who played left field Monday -- Evan Gattis.

Two years ago, he played on a Braves team that led the National League in strikeouts but also finished first in home runs and fourth in runs scored. Then last year, he played on another Braves team that finished third in strikeouts but stopped hitting those home runs. So the Braves finished 11th in homers and next to last in runs scored -- and dismantled much of their team in search of more contact this season.

Gattis lived through both of those seasons. But after spending the past couple of weeks in the spring training camp of his new team, he doesn't see a repeat of last year's Braves coming up for this year's Astros.

"We'll see, you know?" he laughed Monday. "Stay tuned. We'll find out. But I think we'll score a lot of runs. And if you do, you win a lot. Who cares about the strikeouts if you win the World Series?"

OK, hold on one minute. These Astros may look like one of the American League's most improved teams, but they aren't quite constructed to win the World Series yet. And as they contemplate what it will take to win one, they should know the cold hard facts about teams that whiff a lot.

Over the past two seasons, they've struck out nearly 3,000 times -- 1,442 last year and an MLB-record 1,535 times the year before. And only one team in history has ever played in, let alone won, a World Series while even fanning 1,300 times. That was the 2013 Red Sox, who piled up 1,308 K's on the way to the duck boats.

But despite the hit-or-miss nature of the lineup they've assembled, the Astros aren't trying to pretend that strikeouts are just outs, or no different from any other outs.

"I don't think all outs are created equal," Hinch said. "I think you have to pay attention to the quality of your outs. I think there are game situations that you have to pay attention to. And strikeouts that are inside the strike zone are different than strikeouts that are outside the strike zone. And strikeouts where you're trying to do damage, versus just trying to score the runner from third with less than two outs. There are so many variables within our game that make it impossible for every out to be created equal or every game situation to be the same."

So they've talked about making productive outs and having good at-bats a lot more this spring than they've talked about striking out. And they're the first to admit that as much as they like their team, they're not totally sure themselves what all this is going to look like -- until it happens.

"I just think it's OK not to know. Know what I mean?" Hinch said. "In our shoes, on the field, it's OK not to know what the end result is going to be. We'll find out."