Astros' first half yields encouraging signs for future
Emergence of Springer, Singleton gives hope to Houston fans going forward
HOUSTON -- For all the road bumps the Astros hit during the first half of the season, they couldn't help but feel good about the strides they made in their rebuilding process.
The biggest development was the arrival of top prospects George Springer and Jon Singleton, who provided some much-needed pop and potential. Springer flashed superstar qualities while Singleton struggled at times, but their arrival signaled the stars of the future were here.
Still, the Astros had too many issues with their bullpen for the second year in a row and had too many holes in their lineup to take a giant leap forward, though hitting the All-Star break with 40 wins (most since 2009) and out of last place was a step in the right direction.
Five key developments
1. Emergence of Springer
The high-flying rookie outfielder energized the team and the clubhouse, and he has largely met expectations, though he'll have to cut down on strikeouts in the second half.
2. Jose Altuve is the real deal
Everyone knew Altuve could hit, but what he did in the first half was eye-popping. He led the Majors in hits for much of the season.
3. Bullpen struggles continue
The Astros acquired veterans Chad Qualls, Jesse Crain, Matt Albers, Anthony Bass and Jerome Williams to bolster the bullpen, but only Qualls has been effective and healthy.
|MVP: Jose Altuve
He's led the AL in hits, stolen base and batting average for much of season en route to his second All-Star appearance in three seasons.
|Cy Young: Dallas Keuchel
Keuchel didn't win a spot in the Astros' rotation until the final days of spring before blossoming into one of the AL's top lefty starters.
|Top rookie: George Springer
He got off to a slow start before setting club rookie records for homers (19) and RBIs (50) prior to the All-Star break.
|Top reliever: Chad Qualls
The lone offseason bullpen acquisition who hasn't been injured, Qualls has not allowed an earned run in 28 of his final 30 outings prior to the break.
4. Dallas Keuchel puts together his best season
The lefty was one of the top starters in the AL in the first half, giving the rotation a surprising and needed boost.
5. Astros have power surge
The arrival of Springer and Singleton helped the Astros have their fourth-highest home run totals prior to the All-Star break.
Five storylines to keep an eye on
1. Can Altuve reach 200 hits?
Only one Astros player has ever had as many as 200 hits in a season, and Altuve hit the All-Star break with a chance to become the second. Craig Biggio's franchise single-season hit record of 210 set in 1998 was within reach, considering Altuve finished the first half 130 hits and the club has 66 games remaining. How will he hold up in the second half?
2. Is Jason Castro's recent surge a sign of things to come?
An All-Star in 2012, Castro struggled at the plate for much of the season until manager Bo Porter put him in the No. 2 spot in the batting order behind Altuve, with the hope he'd see more fastballs. Castro responded by hitting .400 (10-for-25) in his final six games, which were interrupted by arm soreness that kept him out three games.
Players to watch in second half
Springer set club rookie records for homers and RBIs in the first half, and he is poised for bigger and better things in the second half.
There has been no getting around Singleton's struggles at the plate, so perhaps the best is yet to come.
The Astros can only hope he pitches more like he did during the first two months of the season than he did in his last four starts.
3. What to expect from Singleton?
Singleton homered in his first game in the Major Leagues and showed his tremendous power at other times during the season, including a June 15 grand slam against the Twins. In between the homers, though, were a lot of strikeouts and a few prolonged slumps that any rookie goes through. The Astros will need to see better development in second half to make them feel comfortable with Singleton.
4. Will the Astros escape the cellar?
The Astros have finished in last place the previous three seasons, but they hit the All-Star break nearly deadlocked with the Rangers in the AL West. Houston hasn't finished higher than last place since 2010, when it was fourth in the five-team NL Central. Considering the club is on an upswing in its rebuilding process, finishing ahead of any team could represent a step towards contention.
5. Will Dexter Fowler come back healthy and productive?
Fowler, acquired in a preseason trade with the Rockies, came as advertised by posting a .377 on-base percentage in 76 games with the club. The Astros struggled offensively without Fowler when he went on the disabled list June 27 with a right intercostal strain, going 6-10 in that span. They were a better team with him at the top of the lineup.