Who Will Be MLB's Most Shocking Playoff Contender in 2015?

Zachary D. Rymer@zachrymerMLB Lead WriterFebruary 17, 2015

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Let's be honest. None of us will be shocked if a surprise playoff contender emerges in the 2015 MLB season. In this two-wild-card, high-revenue era, it's the sort of thing that's bound to happen.

But simply anticipating a surprise contender is easy. With Opening Day still moons away, the hard part at this juncture is narrowing down which team it's going to be.

Allow me to present my candidate: the Houston Astros.

Getting to them required a process of elimination that started with Baseball Prospectus' PECOTA projections for 2015, which project 13 teams to finish under .500. Technically, any one of them would be a "surprise" contender. But realistically, there are five exceptions:

Take those five away, and you're left with the Atlanta Braves, Philadelphia Phillies, Milwaukee Brewers, Cincinnati Reds, Arizona Diamondbacks, Colorado Rockies, Minnesota Twins and, lastly, the Astros.

With the exception of the Phillies—who are obviously terrible—each of these teams has at least one merit. The Braves have good pitching. The Brewers and Rockies have good lineups. The Reds have some stars. The Diamondbacks have some power. The Twins were last seen lighting up the scoreboard.

But the Astros? They have the kind of weaknesses you'd expect to see on a team that's riding four straight 90-loss seasons, but next to those weaknesses is a sneaky-good collection of strengths. And with the American League looking the way it does, they're in prime position to capitalize on those strengths.

If you're going to shift from perennial cellar-dweller to contender, it helps to make moves. And though they didn't get as much press as other active teams, the Astros made quite a few this winter.

They started by hiring A.J. Hinch as their new manager. Then they signed Jed Lowrie, Colby Rasmus, Luke Gregerson and Pat Neshek, and traded for Evan Gattis, Luis Valbuena and Hank Conger. That's a lot of key additions, and the only key departure was Dexter Fowler.

Knowing the Astros finished second to last in the AL in runs last year, it's no surprise that general manager Jeff Luhnow was mainly focused on acquiring bats. And in doing so, there's little question he upgraded the team's lineup.

Here, let's use OPS+, a park- and league-adjusted version of OPS where 100 denotes average, to compare how the Astros' new regulars would have compared to their old regulars in 2014:

Old Astros Lineup vs. New Astros Lineup
POS2014 Regular2014 OPS+2014 OPS+2015 Regular
CJason Castro8383Jason Castro
1BJon Singleton7575Jon Singleton
2BJose Altuve134134Jose Altuve
SSJonathan Villar7493Jed Lowrie
3BMatt Dominguez65114Luis Valbuena
LFRobbie Grossman91125Evan Gattis
CFDexter Fowler119104Colby Rasmus
RFGeorge Springer125125George Springer

If the Astros had had their 2015 regulars in 2014, they would have downgraded in going from Fowler to Rasmus. The upgrades at short, third and left, however, would have more than made up for that.

Now, there is an easy complaint to make about the projected Astros lineup, and the best way I can sum it up is like this: MY GOD, THE STRIKEOUTS.

Yup, there are going to be a lot of those. Per FanGraphs, the Astros already had the AL's highest strikeout rate last year at 23.8 percent. With Rasmus and Gattis joining fellow strikeout merchants George Springer, Jason Castro, Chris Carter and Jon Singleton, that rate is only going to go up.

As ESPN.com's Buster Olney noted, this is a risky approach to building a lineup. More strikeouts means a smaller margin for error, after all. If you're going to rack 'em up, you better be able to offset them.

Well, one thing that can help is power. The last three years have produced 12 teams that made the playoffs despite above-average strikeout rates, and 10 finished above average in isolated slugging.

You know what helps a team do well in that latter department? Dingers. That's what. And if you look at what Houston's packing...yeah, this is relevant.

Thanks mainly to Carter (37 homers) and Springer (20 homers), the Astros finished fourth in MLB with 163 home runs in 2014. With Rasmus and Gattis (40 combined homers in 2014) joining the mix and Singleton (13 homers in 95 games) poised for his first full season, the 2015 Astros project to have five regulars who could hit at least 20 home runs. Maybe six if Castro rediscovers his 2013 form.

As Luhnow put it to Evan Drellich of the Houston Chronicle, "We also have a very dangerous team with a lot of power threats, and that's going to be good for our ballpark."

That second part is just as important as the first. According to ESPN.com's Park Factors, Minute Maid Park was a top-10 home run park in 2013 and 2014. It is indeed a good place to hit dingers.

The point: You don't need to stretch your imagination to see the Astros as 2015's most powerful team.

And though their collective strikeout habit will create its share of problems, don't overlook how the guys at the top could help balance that out. Lowrie and reigning AL batting champion Jose Altuve were among the tougher hitters to strike out in 2014, so opposing pitchers will have to get through two tough outs before they tangle with the power. That's bound to create a lot of frustration.

So no, the Astros likely won't be among the AL's worst offensive teams again. On the contrary, they should score many runs. And if so, all they'll need to win games is for their run prevention to do its part.

Unlike with their offense, there's no major sales pitch required there.

One thing the Astros already had was a solid starting rotation. Their starters actually finished with a better ERA than those of the Detroit Tigers and 12th overall in FanGraphs WAR.

Keuchel mainly used MLB's highest ground-ball rate to post a 2.93 ERA in 2014.
Keuchel mainly used MLB's highest ground-ball rate to post a 2.93 ERA in 2014.Patric Schneider/Associated Press

Scott Feldman, Dallas Keuchel and the underrated Collin McHugh were mainly responsible for that, and they're still around. And though Brett Oberholtzer and new addition Dan Straily don't look like a strong back end, keep two things in mind: Straily at least has swing-and-miss stuff, and top prospect Mark Appel could be along later in the year to lend his support.

What the Astros didn't already have is a good bullpen. That's where Gregerson and Neshek come in, and here's ESPN.com's David Schoenfield highlighting how they can help:

They [the Astros] were just 57-11 when leading entering the eighth inning and 61-8 when leading entering the ninth, as the bullpen had the worst ERA in the majors. The average team lost 5.9 games when leading after seven and 3.3 when leading after eight. New relievers Luke Gregerson and Pat Neshek should help here even if they're just OK.

With Gregerson posting four straight sub-3.00 ERAs and Neshek coming off a sterling 1.87 ERA, the two of them could definitely be better than "just OK." If they are, the Astros will have a nifty bullpen core featuring the two of them, Chad Qualls and Tony Sipp.

There to help both Houston's starters and relievers, meanwhile, will be a catching duo unlike any other.

With Conger taking over for Carlos Corporan as Castro's backup, Astros pitchers can now look forward to throwing to two of baseball's premier pitch-framers. According to Baseball Prospectus, Castro and Conger both ranked in the top 12 in framing runs saved in 2014.

There's no guarantee those figures will carry over to 2015, mind you. But if by some chance they do, Castro and Conger will easily be MLB's top framing duo:

Top 2015 Framing Duos
PlayersTeam2014 Framing Runs
Jason Castro/Hank CongerHOU37.5
Jonathan Lucroy/Martin MaldonadoMIL26.4
Miguel Montero/David RossCHC21.0
Baseball Prospectus

While Castro and Conger should perform magic with their gloves in 2015, the same can't be said about the rest of the Astros defense. Baseball Prospectus had Houston as the No. 19 team in defensive efficiency in 2014, and drastic improvement wouldn't seem to be in the cards with Gattis taking over in left and Lowrie taking over at short.

But this isn't a deal-breaker. With a solid starting rotation, an improved bullpen and two elite framers, the Astros' run prevention looks fine. And with their dingerific offense there to provide the runs, they have what they need to win their share of ballgames.

If you want a precise number for Houston's likely win total, it's probably not 95. That would be outplaying their Baseball Prospectus and FanGraphs projections by about 20 wins, which is asking a lot.

It's not asking a lot, however, for these Astros to at least finish on the right side of .500 for the first time since 2008. They have enough talent for that. And if that talent meets with enough good luck, they could bounce into the 85-win range.

In this year's American League, that could be good enough. As I outlined last week, the AL's power structure has been completely cleared of dominant teams. There are at least 10 real contenders, and arguably more.

In a landscape like that, all you have to do to have a shot at October is stay in it to the bitter end. And though they've done so under the radar, the Astros have put together a team that's more capable of doing that than you might think.

Note: Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference unless otherwise noted/linked.

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