MLB.com Columnist

Hal Bodley

Lofty expectations represent Astros' true test

Lofty expectations represent Astros' true test

CLEARWATER, Fla. -- Not only do the Houston Astros have to fulfill the mountainous predictions placed on them for 2016, they also have to overcome the dreaded jinx of being pictured on the cover of Sports Illustrated.

Years ago, during one losing season after another, the Astros were portrayed by the national magazine as a state-of-the-art franchise building to become a championship juggernaut years later and win the 2017 World Series. "Later" arrived with a mini-step last year when the Astros returned to the postseason for the first time since 2005 and advanced to the American League Division Series after beating the Yankees in the AL Wild Card Game.

Now, more mature and after tasting October baseball, Houston is expected to be even more successful this year. Maybe even make it to the World Series?

Will success spoil these young, boisterous and multitalented Astros?

"Expectations are external. They're nothing we have to deal with on a daily basis," manager A.J. Hinch said as the Astros prepared to leave Florida after a successful Spring Training. "It's more about what people say about us, not how we operate.

"Agreed, it's very flattering and it's nice and all that big things are expected from us, but when we wake up in New York on Monday, we're all 0-0. And we're all going to have aspirations of building a playoff team that's six months away. Expectations can be flushed down the toilet on that day [Monday]."

Even the regional Sports Illustrated cover that pictured 2015 AL Cy Young Award winner Dallas Keuchel, 2015 AL Rookie of the Year Award winner Carlos Correa and 2014 AL batting champion Jose Altuve.

Keuchel will continue greatness

"I'm very proud of the coverage we're getting and the excitement around our team, but it stops there," Hinch said Wednesday before Houston's Grapefruit League game against Philadelphia. "We haven't done anything close to accomplishing the things people are talking about.

"I love seeing the picture of our guys. They look sharp on the Sports Illustrated cover, but that's about all it's worth at this point."

When the Astros open their season, it will be Keuchel once again facing the Yankees. The left-hander shut them out, 3-0, with just three singles during six innings in the Wild Card Game victory.

Keuchel hasn't skipped a beat. In 17 Grapefruit League innings, he didn't allow a run and finished the spring giving up just seven hits and two walks with 16 strikeouts. In his final tune-up against the Phillies, Keuchel worked seven innings, allowing just two hits. In two regular-season starts against the Yankees in 2015, he did not give up a run, allowing just nine hits while striking out two over 16 innings.

"We're itching to get back to Houston," Keuchel said. "[The fans are] itching for us to get back, too. The fun begins on April 4, and that's what we're looking for."

Keuchel's incredible 2015 included a 20-8 record with a 2.48 ERA, a 15-0 home record, a start in the All-Star Game, a Gold Glove Award and, of course, the AL Cy Young Award.

The Astros play the Milwaukee Brewers at Minute Maid Park on Thursday and Friday, then head to Yankee Stadium for Opening Day. To Hinch, little compares to Opening Day -- especially the first.

"It's hard to ever top the first time you're get to walk out on a Major League stadium field," he said. "I was an active player [with Oakland in 1998] and walked out to the bullpen to catch Tom Candiotti, and then to face Pedro Martinez.

Keuchel on final spring start

"Little did I know that was going to be one of the most daunting challenges of my career," he added. "You have to pinch yourself, for sure. As a child, you dream of it and never know what it's going to feel like. It exceeds your expectations every time."

And Monday, Hinch said, will be equally special because so much is expected of the Astros as they begin their second season with him at the helm.

The thing about the Astros is they have what seems to be an endless supply of premier prospects who, when called upon, blend so easily with the clubhouse culture. The cerebral Hinch, 41, who holds a degree in psychology from Stanford, is the perfect skipper for this team. He's young enough to relate to the age group of his players, plus having played 350 games in the Major Leagues as a catcher, he can communicate with them from experience. Hinch has a knack for creating cohesion.

"We have to relish the moment and enjoy it," said outfielder Colby Rasmus. "That's what these guys are doing."

When general manager Jeff Luhnow took over in 2012, he was like a builder who tore down a dilapidated house on a beautiful lot and rebuilt it with a structure of beauty. Luhnow, who earned his stripes with the St. Louis Cardinals, rebuilt through the Draft and complemented the roster with veterans who helped produce a culture of winning.

Luhnow's plan, coupled with an extensive use of analytics, was the basis for the 2014 Sports Illustrated story touting the Astros as the team of tomorrow.

There's this lingering thought from 2015, adding a sobering tone to the expectations: The Astros were just six outs from eliminating eventual World Series winner Kansas City in the AL Division Series. In Game 4, three relievers coughed up a 6-2 lead in the eighth inning. The Royals went on to win it all.

Or the fact that on Aug. 26, with 34 games to go during the regular season, these Cinderellas had a 5 1/2-game lead over the Rangers in the AL West. Houston lost 19 of its next 34 games and finished two games behind Texas.

Hinch insists he's not running away from this year's expectations; they go with the territory for a team that is rapidly improving.

Now, he says, everyone wants to know just how good the Astros can be. They have 162 games to answer the question.

"And I welcome it," Hinch said.

Hal Bodley, dean of American baseball writers, is the senior correspondent for MLB.com. Follow him @halbodley on Twitter. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.