added 09/30/2016 by Greg Thurston
The Astros' playoff hopes officially ended Thursday night when the Baltimore Orioles recorded a 4-0 win over the Toronto Blue Jays. A season filled with hope and promise ended prematurely, and without fanfare. Many of us are left searching for answers -- wondering where it all went wrong. And while it is natural to be disappointed, a certain segment of Astros fans are downright angry.
A veritable cyber lynch-mob has developed on Twitter, calling for the heads of A.J. Hinch, Jeff Luhnow, Dave Hudgens, and anyone else in a position of power within the Astros organization. But those who find themselves pointing fingers and placing blame might want to take a step back and look at the bigger picture.
Why is everyone so riled up? It's simple. One word. Expectations.
Ah, yes. Expectations. Few words in the English language can cultivate such a wide range of emotions. When one goes into something with great expectations, a big letdown is often the result.
Some are easier to push aside than others. A movie that didn't live up to the hype... no big deal. Being let down by someone you thought you could trust... a little tougher to take. Devoting six months of your life to a team that fails to meet expectations... now that's brutal.
But, in retrospect, I think many Astros fans came into the 2016 season with unrealistic expectations.
In order to truly understand this theory, one must look back to times when expectations weren't so lofty. At the outset of the 2015 season, only a few glass-half-full optimists thought the Astros had an ice cube's chance in Hades of even sniffing a shot at the playoffs.
Even though the 2014 squad had climbed from the depths of incompetence to post a "better than terrible" record of 70-92, respectability still seemed to be a distant speck on the horizon, visible to only those peering through rose-colored glasses.
Sure, Jim Crane had thrown a few dollars into the Free Agent pool, signing the likes of Luke Gregerson, Pat Neshek, and Colby Rasmus -- and the fruits of the farm system appeared to finally be ripening. But was that going to be enough to compete with the powerful big-spending behemoths of the American League? Probably not.
So we entered into the 2015 season with tempered expectations. Consequently, when the Astros overachieved, we were happier than a pig in slop.
That's right, I said "overachieved".
Pretty much everything went right for the 2015 Astros. Evan Gattis, Luis Valbuena, and Colby Rasmus brought much-needed thump to the lineup. All three newcomers experienced lengthy hot streaks and ended up posting career highs in home runs. Carlos Correa and Lance McCullers adapted quickly to playing on the big stage and Dallas Keuchel had a season for the ages.
Gregerson and Neshek helped transform the league's worst bullpen into one of the best. And, perhaps most importantly of all, the club lost fewer days to the disabled list than any team in the majors.
In short, Jeff Luhnow's master plan had worked much quicker than expected and all was well in H-Town. The laughing stock of the league just two short years ago, Luhnow's Astros were now a borderline elite force among the giants of the junior circuit.
But, just one short year later, the most fickle members of the fan base have conveniently forgotten how we got here -- and are convinced Luhnow and his underlings are a bunch of bums. But why?
It all boils down to expectations.
Expecting a young team (with a lack of veteran leadership) to continue to improve without experiencing some growing pains seems like a bit of a stretch. Expecting the front office to mortgage the future in an attempt to acquire that missing ingredient seems even more dangerous. And, expecting the injury bug to stay away for a second straight year seems utterly unreasonable.
As it turns out, the growing pains came early and often. The club seemed to fall victim to the expectation dilemma early in the season, playing as though they expected to win more than they wanted to win. Bad base-running and a porous defense contributed to a dismal April in which the team fell ten games below the .500 mark.
Was A.J. Hinch to blame for the team's lackluster start? Perhaps he shares some of the blame, but he wasn't the one out there on the field getting picked-off and making bad throws. Firing Hinch at that point may have been counterproductive, and, thankfully, the skipper was eventually able to get things turned around and headed in the right direction.
The Astros rallied to get back into the race, despite a string of extremely un-ace-like performances from Dallas Keuchel. With the only constants being Jose Altuve's greatness and an inability to beat the Rangers, it seemed obvious that the wildcard would be Houston's only chance to repeat last season's success.
With Lance McCullers and Doug Fister picking up the slack for Keuchel, a midseason surge brought the Astros to within 2-1/2 games of the division lead. But a hamstring injury to Luis Valbuena (who had basically carried the offense on his back for the month of July) was the beginning of the end. McCullers, Rasmus, and Keuchel would soon join Valbuena on the injured list, forcing unproven rookies to fill in the gaps.
Additionally, Carlos Gomez turned out to be a major flop and Fister disappeared down the stretch. Highly touted prospects A.J. Reed and Alex Bregman, who fans clamored for profusely, struggled to adapt to the big leagues. Although Bregman would eventually find his stroke, the same fans were quick to turn on both young infielders. Fickle much?
In the end, the Astros simply ran out of steam. And, although the front office declined to add payroll at the trade deadline, the farm system is still well-stocked and the future still looks bright.
Granted, changes will need to be made during the offseason, but I wouldn't expect to see heads roll. Hitting Coach Dave Hudgens and Third-base Coach Gary Pettis could be on the hotseat, but Luhnow and Hinch should remain at the helm.
With a handful of players headed to free agency, some money should be spent to upgrade the areas of weakness. A front-line starting pitcher, a left-handed reliever, and a left-handed hitting outfielder would be at the top of my wish list.
Stay tuned to Astros Daily as we follow the ongoings of the offseason. And try to keep expectations at a reasonable level.