Astros poised to contend again in 2016

Young club led by Rookie of the Year Correa, Cy Young Award winner Keuchel

Astros poised to contend again in 2016

HOUSTON -- Instead of ending the year with enough questions to fill an afternoon game show, the Astros -- fresh off their surprising run to the postseason in 2015 -- have positioned themselves to contend in the American League for the next few years.

The Astros, who went 86-76 and won the second Wild Card spot in the AL after leading the AL West for most of the year, aren't perfect. Far from it. There is uncertainty at the bottom of the starting rotation, a largely unproven closer and questions about who will start at first and third base.

Even answering those questions, the Astros are banking on starters Dallas Keuchel, Collin McHugh and Lance McCullers to have another great season, outfielder Colby Rasmus to back up what he did last season and youngsters George Springer and Carlos Correa to take another step forward. When you expect to contend, there's no time for stepping backward.

Here's a look at five questions the Astros will face as 2016 starts:

1. How good is the bullpen following the offseason acquisitions?
The Astros were six outs away from eliminating the Royals in Game 4 of the AL Division Series, but we all know what happened. Houston's bullpen surrendered a four-run lead, and the Royals went on to beat the Astros in five games and eventually were crowned World Series champions. With that in mind, the Astros beefed up their bullpen by trading for hard-throwing closer Ken Giles of the Phillies and re-signing Tony Sipp. A good bullpen last season has the potential to be great with Luke Gregerson, Pat Neshek, Will Harris and Josh Fields joining Giles and Sipp, which could help the Astros advance deep into the postseason.

Astros introduce Giles

2. Can Correa contend for the MVP?
Correa, who made his debut in June at 20 years old and became entrenched as the starting shortstop, was as good as advertised. Correa hit .279 with 22 doubles, 22 home runs, 68 RBIs, 14 stolen bases and an .857 OPS in only 99 games in 2015, and he was batting third for the team in the postseason. He's only scratched the surface of his superstar potential, and don't be surprised to see him in the AL Most Valuable Player mix at the end of what would be his first full Major League season.

Correa goes 4-for-4 vs. Royals

3. How does Keuchel keep it going?
Keuchel is just the third player in franchise history to win the Cy Young Award, joining Mike Scott (1986) and Roger Clemens (2004). He went 20-8 with three complete games and a 2.48 ERA in 33 starts last season and was unbeatable at home. The pressure will mount for him as the ace of a team that's expected to contend in the AL in 2016, but with two terrific years under his belt, the proper mindset and the thirst to compete, there's apparently not much that could derail Keuchel.

Keuchel honored to win Cy Young

4. Will A.J. Reed make an impact in 2016?
Expect the slugging first baseman to reach the Astros at some point in 2016, but when remains up in the air. Reed led all of Minor League Baseball in home runs (34), RBIs (127) and OPS (1.044) while hitting a combined .340 between Class A Advanced Lancaster and Double-A Corpus Christi. He doesn't have an at-bat yet in Triple-A, so don't be surprised to see him start in Fresno and reach Houston at some point, especially if the Jon Singleton-Matt Duffy-Tyler White triumvirate isn't working out.

Reed dominates AFL Hit Challenge

5. Who will fill out the bottom of the rotation?
The Astros left the Winter Meetings still in pursuit of a middle-of-the-rotation arm to compete for innings. The club is set with Keuchel, McHugh and McCullers at the top of the rotation, and it has other solid options in Mike Fiers and Scott Feldman, who's coming off a shoulder injury and may or may not be ready for spring. That's why the Astros would like to add another arm. They haven't ruled out bringing left-handed starter Scott Kazmir back after he posted a career-best 3.10 ERA last season.

Brian McTaggart is a reporter for and writes an MLBlog, Tag's Lines. Follow @brianmctaggart on Twitter and listen to his podcast. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.