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Astros season preview: Houston edging toward respectability

SB Nation 2015 MLB Preview A winning record is possible, if not probable. The Astros seem poised to take a necessary step forward this season.

Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

The smartest team in baseball did a lot of dumb stuff in 2014.

Months of leaked trade talks, failing to sign top draft picks and breaking up with a manager made the Astros brass look incompetent at times. All that off-field errata, though, hid what the front office did right. The Astros saw tangible improvements to the on-field product.

Now, Houston is poised to take the next step in their rebuild. They look like a team capable of winning half its games for the first time since 2008.

Houston may have had PR nightmare after PR debacle last season, but the team has consistently grown in talent. Starting pitchers Dallas Keuchel and Collin McHugh were revelations under new pitching coach Brent Strom. Jose Altuve warmed all of the hearts by winning the first batting title in franchise history. Touted rookie George Springer lived up to high expectations before his season ended prematurely due to injuries.

On top of all the on-field growth, the Astros added three big-league regulars and a fourth part-time player who should be close to average starters. Two years ago, the Astros only had one regular who could claim that.

Everything starts with Houston's decision to deal relief prospect Mike Foltynewicz, third baseman Rio Ruiz and pitcher Andrew Thurman to Atlanta for Evan Gattis and reliever James Hoyt.

With that, the Astros doubled down on both power and strikeouts. The team that came in second in the majors in whiff rate added more swing-and-miss to the lineup. Houston's hoping hitting homers and scoring runs will offset all the strikeouts.

In Gattis, the Astros added another 30-homer threat to designated hitter Chris Carter and Springer. In a league where offense is trending downward, the Astros could have three 30-homer hitters on the same team. No other MLB team has boasted that since the 2012 Angels. The Astros haven't done it since 2000, when Moises Alou, Jeff Bagwell and Richard Hidalgo all topped the mark.

Adding erstwhile catcher Gattis gives Houston three legitimate thumpers with Carter and Springer. Bringing free agent shortstop Jed Lowrie back to Houston brings balance to the lineup, as Lowrie isn't a strikeout machine like much of the rest of the starting line. He also gives Houston a bridge to top prospect Carlos Correa.

The outfield should be exciting, with free agent signee Colby Rasmus, 2014 trade pickup Jake Marisnick and Springer capable of playing all three outfield spots.

The Astros fixed a couple of troubling spots by trading Dexter Fowler to the Cubs for third baseman Luis Valbuena and pitcher Dan Straily. Fowler was entering his last season before free agency. The Astros picked up an upgrade at the hot corner and a back-end starting candidate, who will compete with non-roster invitee Roberto Hernandez nee Fausto Carmona and 2014 holdover Brad Peacock.

The Astros also added two solid arms to the bullpen in right-handers Luke Gregerson and Pat Neshek. Since the Houston bullpen has done its best Springfield Tire Fire impression for two straight seasons, these were necessary additions. Gregerson and Neshek both signed multi-year deals for much less than the high-end relief free agents did.

They give Houston a deeper bullpen, pairing with 2014 addition Chad Qualls and 2013 Rule 5 pick Josh Fields. Add in Tony Sippleft-hander , who was great for Houston after signing out of the Padres minor league system in May, and the Astros are well on their way to having a decent relief corps.

Every move the Astros made over the winter added depth on the big league roster.

Every move the Astros made over the winter added depth on the big league roster. If one of the catchers struggles, Houston could always move Gattis back there. If first baseman Jon Singleton struggles again in his second big league season, Houston can move Gattis there instead. If Rasmus' injury history rears its ugly head again, Gattis could play a bunch in left field.

Okay, so maybe the depth is all about Evan Gattis and the Legend of El Oso Blanco. But the point is, Houston has options. Could we have said that a year ago?

If depth wasn't enough, there was a surer sign that Houston is emerging from the muck of that rebuild.

This was the first offseason under GM Jeff Luhnow where the team hasn't traded away regulars for prospects. In fact, the Astros traded away prospects in two different deals for actual major leaguers.

Maybe the Astros aren't ready to contend this season. Luhnow and new manager A.J. Hinch have set the playoffs as a goal. But, most of the time, these things come in spurts and half-steps. Even the Royals made it to 86 wins in 2013 before that magical postseason run.

The Astros could see everything fall in place and make a run at a playoff spot, but the most likely outcome is a run at finishing above .500.

Considering that getting there would represent a 20 percent improvement in winning percentage over the horrid 2013 season, most Astros fans will welcome that progress.