Imagine your memory has been wiped clean, but you somehow know you love baseball. Or maybe you grew up in Iceland and learned to love baseball. You have no loyalty to specific laundry, no obligation to cheer for the same team as your dad. You can pick any team to be your team.
For 2017, you just might want to pick the Houston Astros, the most-fun-to-watch team in the majors.
Here’s what makes Houston a must-see club:
The core four
Even if you’re not an Astros fans, it’s OK to admit the following. There are no repercussions, no need to turn in your team loyalty card. You love it when Jose Altuve gets four hits in a game -- something he did eight times last season -- even when he does it against your team. When we watch Altuve play, we see the potential for greatness in ourselves.
Maybe you know the story. When he was 16 years old and showed up for an Astros tryout camp in Venezuela, he was cut the first day. Too small, of course. No chance a player shorter than the bat boy was a future major leaguer. Altuve showed up the next day anyway, then-Astros scout Al Pedrique saw something in the kid and the team signed him for $15,000. It was like buying Apple stock in 1997.
The Astros have built their foundation around their exciting group of four young stars, all 27 or younger this season. Carlos Correa, George Springer and Alex Bregman all were first-round picks with classic baseball bodies, lean and powerful. Altuve was the 5-foot-6 lottery ticket who became the heart and soul of the franchise. What was so impressive about his 2016 campaign is that Altuve found a way to get better, even after winning a batting title in 2014, capturing stolen-base crowns in 2014 and 2015, and leading the AL in hits both seasons. He improved his patience at the plate and added more power, posting career-best totals with a .396 OBP and 24 home runs. He finished third in the MVP voting.
The other three are pretty good as well. Corey Seager and Francisco Lindor might have stolen the spotlight last year from Correa in the pantheon of great young shortstops, but Correa's polished approach and power potential mean he could be the guy who finishes in the top three in the MVP voting in 2017.
Here’s a fun stat to consider: Only two teams since 1901 have had four position players age 27 or younger post 5-plus WAR in the same season -- the Red Sox and Yankees both did it in 1942. The Astros could do it this year, considering Altuve, Correa and Springer were all five-win players in 2016. Maybe that’s a little ambitious for Bregman in his first full season, but even if we lower the standard to 4-plus WAR, only two teams have done it in the past 30 years.
Beyond the numbers, Altuve, Correa and Springer possess an infectious zest for the game. Yes, there’s the obvious athleticism and skills to appreciate, but these guys are fan favorites for signing autographs and stacking cups in the dugout and having fun with Miguel Cabrera and becoming internet memes (“How many Altuves?”) and, yes, hitting home runs for cancer patients.
Put it this way: Astros fans would love Altuve even if he hit .238 instead of .338. It just helps that he hits .338.
The wily veteran
The Astros had the youngest average position player age in the AL in 2016. That won’t be the case in 2017 after Houston signed Carlos Beltran and Josh Reddick, traded for Brian McCann and claimed Nori Aoki on waivers. Beltran is no longer a smooth-gliding Gold Glover in center field and will probably be relegated to DH duties (he turns 40 on April 24), but his late-career consistency has turned him into a strong Hall of Fame candidate. He’s also on a quest: He has played in six postseasons with five clubs, but he has never won a ring.
One of just 37 players with at least 1,500 runs and 1,500 RBIs, Beltran could be the fifth Hall of Famer from Puerto Rico, joining Roberto Clemente, Orlando Cepeda, Roberto Alomar and Ivan Rodriguez, who will be inducted this summer. He’s a hero in Puerto Rico, and his Carlos Beltran Baseball Academy -- one of five private baseball schools on the island -- has helped create a baseball renaissance there after a dry spell in talent in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Correa is part of that renaissance.
If you want drama, check out the 19 Astros-Rangers games. Like Beltran, Adrian Beltre is looking for his first championship. The Rangers have won the past two AL West titles in large part by kicking the Astros’ butts, going 15-4 against Houston in 2016 and 13-6 in 2015. Plus, the addition of McCann and his “play the game my way” philosophy means there’s a 92.4 percent chance he and Rougned Odor throw down at some point during the season.
In fact, the addition of McCann should create an interesting dynamic with his more exuberant teammates. What will he do the next time Springer dresses up in a dinosaur costume?
The best bullpen you haven’t noticed
Roll call, please:
Ken Giles. The Astros gave up a lot to get Giles, and when he struggled out of the gate -- he had two losses and a blown save in April and his ERA hovered above 9.00 in early May after allowing four home runs in his first 10 innings -- everyone immediately wrote off the deal as Jeff Luhnow’s apocalypse (no, that was drafting Mark Appel over Kris Bryant). By the end of the season, Giles’ ERA still was 4.11, but he also fanned 102 batters in 65⅔ innings with his 97 mph fastball/slider combo. He is who the Astros thought he was: a dominant closer.
Luke Gregerson. The sinker/slider sidearmer has pitched eight seasons in the majors, and his 3.28 ERA last year was the worst of his career. While he has spent time closing the past two seasons, he’ll set up Giles this year and continue his run as one of the best middle relievers in the game. He’s fun to watch precisely because he doesn’t throw 98 mph.
Chris Devenski. One of the biggest “Who’s he?” guys to emerge last year, Devenski was acquired from the White Sox way back in 2012 for Brett Myers. His numbers make you drool like a basset hound being served prime rib: 108⅓ IP, 79 H, 20 BB, 104 K, 4 HR. He started five games, but A.J. Hinch often employed him as a multi-innings relief weapon. He pitched two or more innings in 25 of his 43 relief appearances and had a 1.61 ERA out of the pen. He’ll get many more high-leverage situations in 2017.
Will Harris. Oh, that’s right, he was an All-Star and owns a 2.07 ERA over the past two seasons.
This is potentially as much of a lockdown bullpen as any in the majors. I love the array of stuff, from Giles’ blazer to Gregerson’s sweeping slider to Devenski’s changeup and Harris’ curveball. I didn’t even mention Michael Feliz, a huge breakout candidate after striking out 95 batters in 65 innings. Hey, I just mentioned him.
McCullers and Keuchel
This is the game when I developed a crush on Lance McCullers Jr:
His fastball sits at 93-95, but it’s that wipeout curveball that makes him tough to hit and so entertaining to watch. He needs to improve his fastball command, and he has to stay healthy -- he made just 14 starts in 2016 -- but he has All-Star potential.
Health also is a key for Keuchel, who was unable to repeat his 2015 Cy Young campaign in part because of some shoulder issues. When he’s on, you see the art of pitching, a guy who throws 90 instead of 95, painting the corners and outthinking batters instead of simply blowing the ball past them.
A history to empathize with
What’s the old quote? "Rooting for the Yankees is like rooting for U.S. Steel." Well, we can amend that in 2017 to something like, "Rooting for the Cubs is like rooting for Facebook." No fun in that. Plus, the Cubs erased their tortured history. The Astros still have theirs: 1980, 1986, the playoff stumbles in the Jeff Bagwell/Craig Biggio era, the ALDS choke against the Royals in 2015.
The Astros have existed since 1962 and never won a World Series game. They were so bad just a few years ago that after winning their first game of the season in 2013, pitcher Bud Norris said, “To sit at 1-0 right now feels pretty darn good.” (They lost their next six games.)
So rooting for the Astros means rooting for longtime Astros fans to forget about Del Unser and Jerry Reuss and Lenny Dykstra and Bob Knepper and Nolan Ryan’s inability to win a big game and Bagwell and Biggio flopping and that moon shot Albert Pujols hit off Brad Lidge and that home run Scott Podsednik hit off Brad Lidge and bad-hop singles off Correa’s glove and fake grass and goofy rainbow uniforms and that 111-loss season ...
Well, let’s just say if you follow the Astros all season and they end up winning the World Series, you’ll have had a rollicking good time.