Even last October, when they were en route to winning the franchise's first World Series title, you could make the argument that there were better teams out there than the Houston Astros.
Yeah, the 2017 Astros were a fantastic, superstar-laden squad that won 101 games. But last year's Cleveland Indians were owners of a lethal bullpen and their own ridiculous lineup. Out in Los Angeles, the Dodgers - Houston's World Series opponent - made their case thanks to incredible depth at every position, while also possessing the best starting pitcher and closer in the game.
That's old news. They got nothing on the Astros now.
Houston went out on Saturday and acquired Gerrit Cole from the Pittsburgh Pirates for four players, and in the process not only boosted its rotation but shut down all arguments to the contrary that there are better baseball teams out there. We're still over a month from spring training, but already that title undeniably belongs to the Astros.
Cole joins a rotation that was not only already looking pretty great without him, but had actually become better by subtraction earlier this winter. Lest we forget that until Justin Verlander parachuted into Minute Maid Park last September the Astros still counted Mike Fiers - he of the 76 ERA+ - as part of their rotation.
Fiers led the Astros in innings pitched and games started last year, but he only made three starts after Verlander showed up, and wasn't on the postseason roster; he signed with Detroit earlier this winter, opening the door for Cole in Houston.
Combined, the Astros' 2017 starters were worth 15.2 wins above replacement, per Fangraphs, ranking sixth in the league. The four starters Cole joins in their rotation - Verlander, Dallas Keuchel, Lance McCullers, and Charlie Morton - totaled 9.9 WAR last year. Cole was worth 3.1 fWAR by himself in 2017, equaling the output of Houston's Brad Peacock, the swingman who was permanently pushed to the bullpen because of Saturday's acquisition.
Add Cole's 3.1 WAR into the 2017 Astros' starting staff, and you suddenly have a championship rotation that was worth a collective 18.3 WAR last season. That would have placed the Astros third, behind only the Diamondbacks and Cleveland. In 2018 - barring injury - they will get those full seasons out of Cole, Keuchel, Verlander, and Lance McCullers, making this rotation even tougher to beat on a daily basis.
Astros' projected 2018 rotation
*Verlander's 2017 totals do not include his starts with the Tigers
Beyond WAR, consider that Cole also brings some much-needed durability to the Astros' starting corps. Only one Astros pitcher - Fiers, he of 0.1 WAR in 2017 - started more than 25 games for the world champions last season; Cole took the mound 33 times for Pittsburgh, a mark that would have easily led the Astros one year ago.
In addition, Cole's 2.44 walks per nine innings would have led all Astros starters one year ago, while his 8.69 K/9 last season was better than what Keuchel did in his 23 regular-season starts.
This deal doesn't just help the Astros' rotation, though. It improved the depth of A.J. Hinch's staff all around, and might actually help the bullpen - perhaps the lone question mark remaining on this team, if there even is one.
Peacock, as mentioned, will have to move to relief to accommodate Cole, and the Astros are probably quite fine with that. Though he was certainly reliable during his 21 starts last year, it was in the bullpen where Peacock was simply untouchable: a 1.77 ERA and 11.5 K/9 in 13 relief appearances, while holding opponents to a .143 average. And that's not even mentioning his World Series performance out of the bullpen.
General manager Jeff Luhnow had already made improvements to the bullpen this winter, most notably by signing sidewinding right-hander Joe Smith - who had a quietly dominant 2017 season - and letting Luke Gregerson move on in free agency. Adding Peacock, and possibly Collin McHugh (if the latter isn't traded) only enhances that relief depth behind somewhat embattled closer Ken Giles.
Now add that ridiculous offense into the mix with this revamped and reloaded pitching corps, and it's hard to argue against the Astros right now. With Cole in tow, the Astros are not only better than they were yesterday, they're a better group of players than the ones who sprayed champagne in the Dodger Stadium clubhouse two months ago. And while there are plenty of other contenders for this title, only the Astros can say they have virtually no question marks with spring training closing in.
They are, unequivocally, the best team in baseball, and they're about to push hard for a repeat.
That's a very scary thought.
(Photos courtesy: Getty Images)