As we work towards Opening Day, John Pielli will be previewing each team based on past performance, offseason moves, minor league system, and overall outlook for 2015. Today: the Houston Astros.
The Houston Astros are the present example of what the complete rebuilding effort looks like. The Astros started moving players in 2010 and 2011, leaving themselves completely gutted for the 2012 season. They fired manager Brad Mills in 2012, though the performance of the team was not his fault. Bo Porter was hired for the 2013 season and by the end of last year, he too was out. Once again, a team that was not ready to compete blaming the manager for their woes. GM Jeff Luthnow may say the key is to have the right guy behind the bench. Perhaps thats why he hired A.J. Hinch away from the San Diego Padres scouting department, a place he had spent the past three plus years after managing the Arizona Diamondbacks.
The fact that the team managed to improve by 19 games in 2014 from 2013 shows some progress made by the organization. However, in 2013 the team was 51-111, so the Astros had to try very hard to play that bad of baseball. The 70 win version had a lot to do with three major blessings. Jose Altuve won the AL batting title and led the league in hits and stolen bases, DH Chris Carter hit a career high 37 home runs, and the team got some consistent starting pitching led by Dallas Keuchel (12-9, 2.93, 29 starts, 200 IP), Collin McHugh (11-9, 2.73, 25 starts, 157 Ks in less than 155 IP), and Scott Feldman (8-12, 3.74, 29 starts). The improvement of Altuve, Carter, and the starting pitching was the primary reason the Astros improved by 19 games in 2014.
I really like how the Astros went out and upgraded themselves in four positions offensively. They signed free agent SS Jed Lowrie (.249, 6, 50- coming off a .290, 15, 75 over the last two seasons in Oakland) to a three-year deal. Then they signed Colby Rasmus (.225, 18, 40 in 115 games after 2 straight 20 plus HR seasons in Toronto) to a one year deal replacing Dexter Fowler, who they traded to the Chicago Cubs for 3B Luis Valbuena (.249, 6, 51) and RHP Dan Straily (10-8, 3.96 in 27 starts in 2013 for Oakland). Then, they acquired OF Evan Gattis (.263, 22, 52 as a catcher in 2014) from the Braves in a deal centered around pitching prospect Michael Foltynewicz.
In spite of these acquisitions, the key to the Astros offensively will center around two of their top offensive prospects, both of whom got their first chance to play in the big league last season. OF George Springer (.231, 20, 51 in just 78 games) clearly has 40 HR power and should become that type of hitter assuming he stays healthy. 1B Jon Singleton (.168, 13, 44, 134 Ks in 310 ABs) had as bad of a rookie campaign as could have been imagined. He was given the chance to play in spite of his woes because the Astros knew they had nothing to play for. This season, they have given themselves some other options should Singleton struggle or not make the team out of camp. Gattis can play 1B, and so can last year’s 3B Matt Dominguez (.215, 6, 57). Backup catcher Hank Conger (.221, 4, 25 with Angels in 2014) is a suitable starting candidate with starter Jason Castro (.222, 14, 56 after a .276, 18, 76 2013 season) an option to DH. That can allow for Carter, who was primarily a 1B until becoming full time DH in 2014, to play 1B. The bottom line is that Gattis, Valbuena, Conger and OF Jake Marisnick (.249, 3, 19 with Miami and Houston) give the Astros options to have others start at 1B they did not have last season.
The 2014 Astros lineup should look something like this: Altuve 2B (.341, 7, 59, 56 SB), Lowrie SS, Springer RF, Carter DH (.227, 37, 88), Gattis LF, Valbuena 3B, Castro C, Rasmus CF, Singleton 1B or Dominguez (1B), Marisnick (CF) or Conger (C). Marisnick would start in CF, with Rasmus moving to left and Gattis to 1B. Conger would catch, like I said before, with Castro moving to DH and Carter to 1B. If I were Houston, I wouldn’t guarantee Singleton a spot as his upside is too valuable to waste struggling again in the big leagues. Have him start the season in AAA and bring him up when he is ready. Having Dominguez, Marisnick and Conger on the bench, along with Alex Presley and either Marwin Gonzalez or Jonathan Villar (and L.J. Hoes if Singleton starts the season in AAA) gives the Astros a quality MLB bench.
The Astros starting five will be led by Keuchel, with an AL leading 5 CGs and a Gold Glove Award, as well as McHugh and Feldman. Straily has a good shot of being the 4th starter, with the 5th spot going to be between Brett Oberholtzer (5-13, 4.29), Brad Peacock (4-9, 4.72) and free agent RHP Roberto Hernandez (8-11, 4.10 with Phillies and Dodgers). A couple of other options for the Astros are former top pitching prospect Alex White and RHP Sam Deduno, who came over from the Twins last season. Though 2013 number one overall pick Mark Appel should make his MLB debut this season, he will probably not come up until he is pitching very well in the minor leagues and his Super Two status is not an issue.
The Astros bullpen has added the likes of veterans Luke Gregerson (5-5, 2.12, 72 games for Oakland) and Pat Neshek (7-2, 1.87, 71 games for St Louis) to join veteran Chad Qualls (1-5, 3.33, 19 saves, 58 games), Josh Fields (4-6, 4.45, 54 games) and LHP Tony Sipp (4-3, 3.38, 56 games). Fields has closer stuff and had 70 Ks in less than 55 innings last season, but I think the Astros would be best suited to use Qualls in that capacity, at least at the start of the season. Qualls has the experience pitching in that role and though he is an average MLB closer at best, the unknowns of Gregerson and/or Neshek being able to close games has to be understood. I would rather go with the givens of Gregerson and Neshek as very good to great setup men over wasting one of them as a terrible closer. Plus, Qualls is more expendable and can give way to Fields if he becomes ready to take the reigns. And how about if Lance McCullers Jr. is pitching lights out and he joins the bullpen in August or September? Maybe he closes for the last two months of the season.
Appel and SS Carlos Correa should both be up this season, but simply to get a taste of big league action. The signing of Lowrie may slow down the eagerness of the Astros to make Correa their everyday SS, though it is not impossible to see the Astros use Lowrie at 3B or as a utility player is he doesn’t bounce back from his down 2014 in Oakland. McCullers is a long shot to play for the Astros this season.
The Astros seem to be headed in the right direction. I think they will improve in 2015, but it seems tough to envision a run for an AL Wild Card berth. Barring a Texas 2014 like injury collapse, I still think the Astros will finish in last place in the AL West. Their record will be 76-86, a 6-game improvement over 2014 and a game and a half above Las Vegas prediction of 74 1/2. Wait until you see who I have finishing just one game above them…