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2016 AL West division preview: The Houston Astros are the team to beat

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Eric Christian Smith/Getty Images

The season is getting closer and closer, so it's high time we delve into our bitter AL West rivals' chances at success in 2016. We'll take a look at what's new, what to expect and if we need to be worried or not. Today we're looking at the Houston Astros.

Houston Astros

Who?

That other, less annoying team from Texas. You may have missed them since they used to be in the NL and were pretty terrible their first few seasons in the AL. They infamously tanked to stockpile draft picks and might have the coldest, most extreme approach of all the teams with an analytic bend.

Were they even good last  year?

The rebuild came to fruition sooner than expected as the Astros led the AL West for the majority of the season. Ultimately, they finished second in the wild card standings with 86 wins, though with a +111 run differential that was third-best in the majors, you could make the case that with a little better luck they should have run away with the division.

What'd they do this off-season?

Houston was clearly taking notes in their Division Series loss to the Royals, as revamping the bullpen seemed to be the priority this offseason. They surprisingly went against stat head convention and traded a haul of prospects - including first overall pick Mark Appel - to the Phillies for closer Ken Giles. They also picked up Wandy Rodriguez to be a left-handed swingman and penned veteran Doug Fister to be their fifth starter. Their line-up, which ranked sixth in the majors in runs scored, was kept mostly in tact, aside from a non-tender for slugging first baseman Chris Carter.

What is their strength?

Depth and talent from all angles. Carlos Correa and George Springer are superstars in the making. Jose Altuve and Carlos Gomez are All-Star caliber players while solid regulars like Luis Valbuena, Colby Rasmus, Jason Castro and Evan Gattis round out the line-up. Young first base prospect Jon Singleton looks to establish himself this year and they still have a host of position player prospects waiting in the wings.

The pitching staff is equally impressive, led by Cy Young Award winner Dallas Keuchel. Collin McHugh and Mike Fiers had their own breakout seasons, with Lance McCullers right on track to be another top starter for them. Veteran Doug Fister should provide bulk innings, while the revamped bullpen should hold things together most nights.

What is their weakness?

Good question. I suppose leaning on so many young players could have some drawbacks, though the sophomore slump seems to be more myth than reality. Even if guys like Valbuena and Rasmus take a step back after their break-through campaigns, there is still plenty on the farm to step in and take their place. Young first baseman Jon Singleton has yet to translate his minor league success to the majors. A classic three-true-outcomes hitter, he has struck out in 36% of his big league at bats. It will be a tall order for him to draw enough walks and hit enough long balls to make up for all those whiffs. He is still only 24 years-old, so if he were to take a step forward, the time would be now.

There isn't a ton of starting pitching depth if anything should happen to one of their top 5, with guys like Scott Feldman and Asher Wojciechowski waiting in the wings. New closer Ken Giles is among the best in the business, though every reliever that follows him is merely solid but unspectacular. Expect the enlightened 'Stros to get their money's worth and use their shiny new closer much more aggressively than the typical ninth inning, three-run lead guy.

So, what can we expect?

This is the trendy pick to win the division and with good reason. They are a good young team and are only getting better. That does not make a division crown a foregone conclusion. Everyone but the A's can make a reasonable case for giving the Astros a run for their money and bank on a tight division race throughout September.

What's the most accurate representation of the team in gif form?

Emilio