Coming out of spring training, the Houston Astros were already a popular pick to win the American League West.
"They should win it going away, shouldn't they?" one AL scout said the first week of April.
Yes they should, even more so after the way the first five weeks of the season has gone. Even more so now that we've seen how the 2017 version of Dallas Keuchel looks.
The Astros were a surprise playoff team in 2015, and a big reason was Keuchel's surprising run to the Cy Young Award. They're a better team in 2017, so good that Keuchel's return to Cy Young form earns them consideration as an early favorite to win the American League.
"The good teams usually have that ace," another AL scout said. "[The Astros] missed that last year."
They missed it because Keuchel was ordinary in 2016 rather than great. They have it back now because both the numbers and the eye test suggest he's back to being great.
"The crispness, the late life to his pitches that I didn't see from him last year," said the second scout, who saw one of Keuchel's recent starts. "He has that command, down in the zone, and that late life to his sinker."
The change from 2016 to 2017 has been dramatic, perhaps best illustrated by this tweet from MLB.com Statcast guru Daren Willman:
Daren Willman @darenw
Comparing Dallas Keuchel's April pitch location in 2016 to April of 2017... Wow what a difference. https://t.co/7QtpxrOaUE2017-5-4 16:11:53
It's no surprise, then, that Keuchel leads the major leagues with 85 ground-ball outs, according to Fangraphs.com. And it's no surprise he has completed at least seven innings in all seven of his starts (the only pitcher in the major leagues who has) or that the Astros are 6-1 in those games (with the only loss coming when the bullpen allowed six runs in the eighth inning on April 8 after Keuchel left with a 2-1 lead).
It's no surprise, either, that the Astros have won 20 of their first 30 games for just the second time in franchise history (and the first time since 1973). Keuchel got them going with seven shutout innings on Opening Day against the Seattle Mariners, and he put them back in first place with seven innings of one-run ball April 14 against the Oakland Athletics.
They haven't looked back since.
"It was obviously a great start to the season for him individually, but probably the impact for our team can't be overstated," Astros manager A.J. Hinch told reporters, including Brian McTaggart of MLB.com. "You have your first guy go out Opening Day and set a tone for the season that really kick-started the season for us."
Keuchel did the same thing in 2015, when he was the AL Pitcher of the Month in April with a 0.73 ERA. He was the April Pitcher of the Month again this year, with a 1.21 ERA.
Keuchel may be the same, but the Astros team behind him is different from two years ago. Different and better, because Carlos Correa, Alex Bregman, Yuli Gurriel, Carlos Beltran, Josh Reddick and Brian McCann have all been added to the lineup since the start of 2015.
"They're a real dynamic offensive team," the AL scout said. "And their bullpen could be really good."
The rotation was always the biggest question, and you'd have to say it still is. Joe Musgrove and Mike Fiers, for now the fourth and fifth starters, both own ERAs over 5.00.
For all the work general manager Jeff Luhnow did in adding to his team last winter, he never did acquire the ace many thought he needed. The Astros were repeatedly mentioned as a possible trade partner for the Chicago White Sox in a Jose Quintana deal, but the White Sox held to their high asking price and the Astros weren't willing to meet it.
Quintana could still be a possibility as trade talk heats up over the next couple of months, and other quality starting pitchers figure to be available this July. Even though Luhnow may have already acquired an ace by welcoming the 2015 version of Keuchel back, one more front-end starter could solidify the Astros as favorites.
"One more very good starter could make them really dangerous," the scout agreed.
They have time to find one. The Astros began play Sunday with a 4.5-game lead in the division, with none of the other four teams holding a winning record. With or without a trade, they should win the West, maybe even win it going away.
As good as they look and as good as Keuchel looks, they could win a lot more than just the division.
Danny Knobler covers Major League Baseball as a national columnist for Bleacher Report.
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