Surprise, the Houston Astros are legit. Not just next-year legit, not annoy more folks by accumulating draft picks legit, but contention right now, “Just Win, Baby” legit. The success of their 2015 season surprised even GM Jeff Luhnow, but winning the wild card and almost taking down the eventual world champs in the ALDS round left behind more than memories, it added star center fielder Carlos Gomez to their 2016 outfield and Mike Fiers to their rotation for years to come, and instantly made Houston a place free agents put back on their radar if they want to play on a contender. Because who wouldn’t want to play on a team built around shortstop Carlos Correa, lefty Dallas Keuchel, second baseman Jose Altuve and right fielder George Springer?
What do they need? I’d suggest a power arm for the bullpen, but they may well trust to their farm system to provide that. If they want to be ambitious, chasing after a right-handed power pitcher to slot in atop the rotation alongside Keuchel would be a nice upgrade over Scott Feldman or Collin McHugh, and would serve them especially well in the postseason.
But they might have no stronger need than making a decision about what to do at first base, left field and DH, where they have solid options on hand, but where they might decide to leverage what they have and level up to really go after flags, trophies and Champagne. If that simultaneously helps them deal with the club’s problems making contact in some way, that’ll reassure observers worked up about that, but the boom-or-bust offense isn’t something they need to get strung out about, not when they were one bad inning away from killing off those relentless Royals.
Guy on the rise: Correa is the easy, obvious choice, because he should be in the mix for “best player in baseball” conversations in the years to come. But I’d also put Springer in this category because, after missing a third of the 2015 season with injuries, he’s in a position to do a ton of damage in 2016. Springer managed to cut his strikeout rate almost 10 percent last year, and while his power dipped by 54 points of Isolated Power, you can put much of that on his wrist injury. A fully healthy Springer with better command of the strike zone is a guy who will do great things next season.
Prospects to anticipate: Even though Correa, Vincent Velasquez and Lance McCullers all made major impacts in 2015, the Astros are far from touching bottom as far as having guys on the way up to be excited about. At first base, A.J. Reed is coming off a huge season split between the high-offense High-A Cal League and his Double-A debut, ripping pitching for a 1.044 OPS and 34 home runs. He may have to leap-frog former top prospect Jon Singleton in the line to challenge for the Astros’ first-base job -- not the worst problem to have on a team that still has to decide how much longer it will indulge Chris Carter's swing-and-miss (often) approach. Perhaps even more interesting is third-base prospect Colin Moran, who came back from a broken jaw to add more power in the second half; an .840 OPS at Double-A suggests he’s not far from being ready, which is good to keep in mind given third baseman Jed Lowrie’s fragility.
Winter action plan Figuring out how to improve on what you have when what you’ve got is already good enough to contend is what separates champions from solid farm-faithful development plans. Luhnow came to Houston with a good grounding in a Cardinals organization that understands the difference; after already proving his creativity with last summer’s deadline deals, he’ll get to show that off even more so going forward. If there’s an upgrade to be made to his offense, he’ll make it, dealing from depth. If there’s a starting pitcher he can afford to add from among a deep pool of alternatives, he’ll sign him. Because this past October was not a one-off, it was a franchise built to win just getting started.
Christina Kahrl writes about MLB for ESPN. You can follow her on Twitter.