2014 Houston Astros Team Preview
In the midst of a long-term rebuilding project, expectations weren’t exactly high for the Astros entering 2013. On the heels of consecutive seasons with 106 or more losses, Houston was projected to finish near the bottom of the AL West standings after coming over from the NL Central. Sadly, the team went on to suffer its worst season in franchise history, enduring 111 losses to finish with the league’s worst record for the third straight year. Of course, switching leagues wasn’t the only reason the team took a big step backwards in 2013. The Astros’ youth movement continued as fifteen players made their MLB debut for the club last season. The lack of experience was evident in many facets of the game.
As a whole, the offense struggled to score runs, posting the fourth-fewest total in all of baseball. They ranked last in the AL in several offensive categories, including OBP (.299) and SLG (.375). Astros hitters also lacked plate discipline whilst setting the MLB record for strikeouts in a season with 1,535. Baserunning was another issue for Houston, as the team was caught stealing more than any other in the majors. The numbers weren’t any better on defense, as the Astros accumulated 125 errors during the season -- another league high. Finally, Houston’s pitchers carried the worst ERA (4.79) and WHIP (1.49) in baseball while issuing the most walks (616). The bullpen was particularly bad, lacking an established closer and reliable arms that could simply hold onto a lead.
Fast forward to 2014, where Houston’s patient approach to building a contender may not lead to many wins, but improvement should at least be noticeable. General manager Jeff Lunhow was very busy in the offseason, making solid additions to the team via free agency and trade. Combine those moves with the anticipated debuts of some of the club's top prospects and the team should begin to regain their footing in the AL West.
Lost Jimmy Paredes (Marlins) and Jake Elmore (White Sox) on waivers. Lost John Ely (Red Sox) and Eric Thames (Korea) via free agency.
Elmore is perhaps the most notable departure from this list after he became the first player in Astros history to play all nine positions in a single season. He will look to earn a super-utility role in Chicago. The remaining players carried some hype early on in their careers, but have struggled to make a lasting impact in the major leagues to this point.
Signed free agents Jorge De Leon, Adron Chambers, Peter Moylan, Cesar Izturis and Gregorio Petit to minor league deals.
Not much to see here. All will report to spring training with the hope making an impression on the club. Izturis and Petit will give Marwin Gonzalez some competition for the utility infielder role, but none of those three are terribly exciting.
Claimed Darin Downs off waivers (Tigers).
Downs carved out a role as a lefty-specialist out of the Tigers' bullpen last season, holding left-handed hitters to a .219 batting average. He projects to hold a similar specialty role out of the bullpen in Houston this season.
Signed free agent Jesse Crain (White Sox).
Crain had a career year as the setup man for the White Sox last season, posting a 0.74 ERA over 38 appearances out of the bullpen. A strain in his throwing shoulder ended his season prematurely, and offseason surgery to repair biceps inflammation was a small hiccup, but Crain resumed throwing in early February. The 32-year-old right-hander averaged 11.3 K/9 last season while holding right-handed hitters to a .174/.230/.217 line. If healthy, he will play an important role in the Astros' bullpen, be it as their closer, setup man or simply a pitcher who comes in during high-leverage situations.
Traded Ryan Jackson (claimed off waivers from Cardinals) to the Padres for Jesus Guzman.
Guzman will provide the Astros with positional depth in 2014, as the 29-year-old can play first base and the corner outfield positions. Fortunately for Guzman, those are the positions where the Astros have openings, although they'll likely employ platoons there during the first half of the season. Guzman had a disappointing .226/.297/.378 line at the plate in 2013, but he'll look to get back on track with his new team.
Claimed Collin McHugh off waivers (Rockies).
In 15 major league appearances (nine starts) between the Mets and Rockies, McHugh has gone 0-8 with a 8.94 ERA and 5.3 K/9. The 26-year-old right-hander has much better numbers (3.58 ERA, 8.2 K/9) at the Triple-A level, which is where he'll likely end up to begin 2014. Given the lack of quality starting options in Houston, however, McHugh could be called upon at any time this season as long as he's pitching well.
Signed free agent Matt Albers (Indians).
In 56 appearances with the Indians in 2013, Albers went 3-1 with a 3.14 ERA, 1.27 WHIP and 35:25 K:BB ratio over 63 innings. The 31-year-old right-hander returns to his hometown team with the Astros, where he'll carry over an excellent 4.33 GB/FB mark from last season. Albers' contact-inducing skills could be useful in situations where a groundball might induce a double-play.
Traded Patrick Schuster (claimed off waivers from Diamondbacks) to the Padres for Anthony Bass.
Bass appeared in 24 games for the Padres last season, posting a 5.36 ERA in 42 innings out of the bullpen. The 26-year-old right-hander is likely ticketed for a long-relief role in Houston unless the team feels he could use more seasoning at Triple-A.
Signed free agent Chad Qualls (Marlins).
Qualls enjoyed a nice bounce-back season with the Marlins last year, with a 2.61 ERA and 1.23 WHIP over 62 innings. While he's unlikely to repeat those numbers, considering his career 3.79 ERA, Qualls brings much needed experience -- and perhaps most importantly, closing experience -- to the Astros' bullpen. Three seasons have passed since Qualls last recorded a save, but Houston could turn to him if Josh Fields and/or Jesse Crain don't pan out in the role.
Signed free agent Scott Feldman (Orioles).
Feldman split time evenly between the NL and AL last season, drawing 15 starts in each league to finish with a combined 12-12 record with a 3.86 ERA, 1.18 WHIP and 132:56 K:BB ratio over 181.2 innings. To no one's surprise, Feldman's numbers regressed after the move to the AL, as he posted a 4.27 ERA, 1.22 WHIP and 3.1 BB/9 with the Orioles compared to a 3.46 ERA, 1.14 WHIP and 2.5 BB/9 with the Cubs. The soon-to-be 31-year-old is no stranger to the AL West division after spending eight seasons in Texas, but keep in mind that he struggled there as a starter. He could run into those same problems again in Houston when he squares off against the potent lineups of Texas, Oakland, Anaheim and Seattle.
Traded Brandon Barnes and Jordan Lyles to the Rockies for Dexter Fowler and a Player to Be Named Later.
After posting a career .298/.395/.485 mark at Coors Field, Fowler brings a disappointing .241/.333/.361 slash line at road venues to Houston. Despite the disparity in splits and a history of injuries that have cost the 27-year-old 99 games over the past three seasons, Fowler is a welcome addition to the leadoff spot in the Houston lineup. He's likely to produce decent counting stats -- RBI excluded -- as long as he remains healthy in 2014.
Projected Lineup (v. RHP/LHP)
1. Dexter Fowler, CF
2. Jose Altuve, 2B
3. Jason Castro, C
4. Chris Carter, DH
5. Matt Dominguez, 3B
6. Marc Krauss RF/Jesus Guzman, 1B
7. Robbie Grossman, LF
8. Brett Wallace, 1B/L.J. Hoes, RF
9. Jonathan Villar, SS
When the Astros acquired Dexter Fowler via trade in December, manager Bo Porter already had a sense for the top of the lineup. Fowler, who hit leadoff for Colorado for much of 2013, will give Houston a respectable presence at the top of the batting order -- something they sorely missed last season. Jose Altuve, the team's best hitter over the past two years, will slot behind him with All-Star Jason Castro in the 3-hole. After those three, things get a bit murkier, but Chris Carter will likely hit cleanup. If Carter hits one of his cold streaks, he may drop a spot or two in the order until he breaks his slump. Matt Dominguez is a solid bet to hit fifth after showcasing decent power and run production last year. The Astros will most likely employ a platoon between several options at first base and right field, with left-handed hitters Marc Krauss and Brett Wallace in the lineup against righties while Jesus Guzman and L.J. Hoes handle the southpaws. Of course, that arrangement could easily change when George Springer and Jonathan Singleton arrive.
1. Scott Feldman
2. Brett Oberholtzer
3. Jarred Cosart
4. Brad Peacock
5. Dallas Keuchel
The Astros filled a major need with the signing of Scott Feldman, a 31-year-old right-hander who can provide quality innings while the team’s crop of young pitchers continues to develop. Brett Oberholtzer and Jarred Cosart showed promise last season while Brad Peacock struggled initially, but pitched better over the final two months. Still, no one’s rotation spot is assured for the entire season. If anyone falters, we could see a revolving door of starters with Paul Clemens, Lucas Harrell, Collin McHugh and prospects Asher Wojciechowski and Mark Appel.
Closer: Josh Fields does not have extensive closing experience, but he did manage to pick up five saves down the stretch for the Astros last season after the team traded Jose Veras. The hard throwing right-hander possesses the strikeout repertoire (9.5 K/9) and fastball (93.7 mph average) that is typically desired for the role, but will need to earn the job this spring after Houston signed veteran relievers Chad Qualls and Jesse Crain. The two main things working against Fields are poor control (4.3 BB/9) and a case of “gopher-itis” (1.9 HR/9). If he can improve those ratios, he has a good chance to reclaim the ninth inning, otherwise Qualls (51 career saves) and Crain (1.98 ERA over the past three years) are the favorites to close for the Astros. If you’re looking for a dark-horse candidate for saves, keep a close eye on Josh Zeid (24 saves in the minors). Just keep in mind that save opportunities will likely be hard to come by in Houston no matter who earns the job.
Key Bullpen Members: General manager Jeff Lunhow revamped the bullpen this offseason, targeting veteran relievers through free agency after last year’s group imploded due to inexperience. The aforementioned Chad Qualls and Jesse Crain, along with Matt Albers, should be relied upon heavily -- more so in high-leverage situations -- while Josh Fields, Josh Zeid and Chia-Jen Lo could all benefit from their presence.
Notes of Import, Fantasy and Otherwise:
With nothing left to prove in the minors, when will George Springer make his MLB debut for the Astros?
Fantasy owners are eagerly anticipating the arrival of Springer, but the hype-train may have to stall even longer. Houston is not expected to compete for an AL West title this season, so the Astros may wish to delay Springer’s arbitration clock by keeping him in the minors until mid-to-late June. That decision appears to be in the team's best interest, although a slight chance remains that he could still break camp with the club.
Is a fourth-consecutive 100-loss season in store for the Astros?
It's possible, but Houston did enough in the offseason to where breaking the 62-win barrier is a reasonable expectation. Still, the Astros have another year or two of rebuilding before they can even approach the .500 mark. It has been a long, slow climb, but they appear to be on the right track.
Is there anyone left on the roster to trade after the club moved Jose Veras and Bud Norris at the deadline last season?
Arguments can be made for and against trading All-Star Jason Castro. On one hand, Castro is an injury-risk whose trade value may never be higher than it is right now. On the other hand, the cost-controlled 26-year-old is just now entering his prime and there are no real options to replace him on the roster (unless the team receives a starting catcher back in return). Carlos Corporan is a career backup and Max Stassi could use some additional seasoning in the minors before the Astros consider handing him a regular job. Of course, how the Astros fare during the first few months of the season will determine whether or not this conversation even occurs. Others who could be on the move this season include Brett Wallace, Lucas Harrell, Jesse Crain and Matt Albers. The latter relievers signed one-year deals with the club and could be in high demand at the trade deadline by teams in playoff contention.
The club's biggest strength is a top-ranked farm system that sent six of its seven minor league affiliates to the playoffs last season. The team also has the first overall pick in the 2014 MLB draft, so even more young talent is on the way. Houston appears to have the right pieces in place at the managerial and front office levels.
While steps were taken to improve the pitching staff as a whole, their starting rotation is still among the weakest in baseball. Houston also lacks a proven star in their lineup, something they’ve missed ever since Hunter Pence was dealt at the 2011 trade deadline. Poor baserunning and defense are major concerns.
Rising: In 2013, Jason Castro finally had the coming out party that many were expecting earlier in his career. Not only did he stay relatively healthy, appearing in a career-high 120 games before a cyst in his right knee forced him to miss most of September, he earned All-Star Game honors and won the American League Player of the Week award twice. Backed by a .276/.350/.485 line with 18 home runs and 56 RBI, Castro was one of the better offensive catchers in fantasy, especially since the Astros used him as a middle-of-the-order bat in their rebuilding lineup. The 26-year-old is expected to be ready for spring training and build off his success from last season, but don't ignore his chronic right knee issues have forced him to the disabled list in each of the past three seasons.
Declining: Brett Wallace looked lost at the plate in April, going 1-for-24 with 17 strikeouts to kick of his 2013 campaign. The Astros subsequently optioned him to Triple-A, which proved to be a wise decision as it resulted in a turnaround for the 27-year-old. When Houston recalled him to the big league club, Wallace put up respectable numbers in July (.273 batting average, five home runs, 14 RBI) before the wheels came off again to close out the season. The left-handed hitting first baseman mustered up a .205 batting average with 59 strikeouts over his final 44 games. He finished the year with a 0.17 BB/K ratio and a terrible 36.5 percent strikeout rate, the latter of which would have led MLB if he played in enough games to qualify. Wallace will enter a competition this spring with Jesus Guzman, Jonathan Singleton and Japhet Amador to earn a roster spot with Houston.
Sleeper: George Springer, 24, was a finalist for USA Today's 2013 Minor League Player of the Year award after hitting a combined .303 with 37 home runs, 108 RBI and 45 steals over 135 games between Double-A and Triple-A. The right-handed slugger's 1.050 OPS at Triple-A would have led the league if he had played enough games there to qualify. Perhaps one of the only knocks on Springer is his high strikeout rate (26.5% in the minors for his career), but he possesses the rare combination of power and speed that fantasy owners crave. Springer is one of the most exciting prospects in baseball, and he appears likely to join the Astros at some point in 2014.
Supersleeper: Japhet Amador, 27, was signed midseason by the Astros from the Mexican League club Diablos Rojos del Mexico. The right-handed hitting first baseman is a physically imposing presence at 6-foot-4 and 300-plus pounds, and the guy can flat-out rake. He hit .361/.409/.655 with 36 home runs and 123 RBI over 114 games between the Mexican League and Triple-A Oklahoma City (10 games). Amador will likely return to Oklahoma City to begin 2014, but he could quickly become a factor in Houston if his hot-hitting ways continue in the United States.
Carlos Correa, SS - Correa, the No. 1 overall pick of the 2012 MLB draft, got off to a slow start in April (.221 batting average), but really turned up the heat after that to finish his first full season with an impressive .320/.405/.467 line despite missing time with a pair of hand injuries. He didn't hit for much power (nine home runs), but he tied for sixth in the Midwest League with 33 doubles and ranked fourth with 86 RBI. Those numbers, combined with uncertainty surrounding Correa's long-term defensive position between shortstop and third base, drew comparisons to the Orioles' Manny Machado. Regardless of what position he plays, the 19-year-old Correa has immense upside. For now, he will reside near the top, if not at the very top, of the shortstop prospect rankings.
George Springer, OF - See above.
Mark Appel, P - Appel, the No. 1 overall pick of the 2013 MLB draft, pitched at two levels in his first professional season, accumulating 10 starts between short-season Tri-City and Low-A Quad Cities. He was impressive in those starts, posting solid ratios (7.8 K/9, 2.1 BB/9) en route to a 3-1 record with a 3.79 ERA and 1.18 WHIP. With a major league ready three-pitch arsenal that includes a mid-90s fastball, hard slider and circle changeup, Appel proved more than capable of getting a significant number of his outs on the ground (2.24 GB/FB) and subsequently, kept the ball inside the park (0.5 HR/9). The 22-year-old will likely open the season at Double-A Corpus Christi. If all goes well, Appel is a solid bet to join the Astros at some point this season.
Jonathan Singleton, 1B - After serving a 50-game suspension for marijuana use, Singleton made his season debut at Low-A Quad Cities in May and advanced to Triple-A Oklahoma City in less than a month. There, the 22-year-old hit .220/.340/.347 with six home runs in 73 games. While it seems likely that Singleton will require more seasoning at Oklahoma City before the Astros bring him up, his recent addition to the team's 40-man roster indicates he is likely to make his major league debut at some point this year. Even after the lost development time, Singleton has very little blocking his path to becoming a regular in the middle of the rebuilding Houston lineup.
Mike Foltynewicz, P - Foltynewicz, the Astros' 2012 Minor League Pitcher of the Year, turned in a fine season for Double-A Corpus Christi after a brief stint with Houston's High-A affiliate. The 22-year-old flamethrower appeared in 23 games (16 starts) for the Hooks and went 5-3 with a 2.87 ERA over 103.1 innings. Opposing batters hit a mere .207 against the right-hander, but they also took 52 free passes as Foltynewicz's control problems remained. If he improves his walk rate (4.5 BB/9 in Double-A), Foltynewicz's stock will go up even higher as he emerged as one of the better pitching prospects in the minors last season. He will likely make the jump to Triple-A this season, while the possibility of a late-season callup is not out of the question if he performs well there.
Lance McCullers, P - McCullers, a second generation hurler, performed exceptionally well in his first full season in the minors. In 25 appearances (19 starts) for Low-A Quad Cities, McCullers went 6-5 with a 117:49 K:BB over 104.2 innings. His walk rate (4.2 BB/9) was a little high, but he more than made up for it by keeping the ball on the ground (2.00 GO/AO) and inside the park (0.3 HR/9). The 20-year-old's aggressive three-pitch arsenal includes an upper-90s fastball with excellent movement, an above-average slider and changeup. While his future as a big league starter or closer remains uncertain, how McCullers fares this season -- most likely in Double-A -- should give the Astros a better read on his path to the majors.
Delino DeShields, OF - With 19 stolen bases in the month of July alone, DeShields recovered from a somewhat sluggish first half to finish 2013 strong at High-A Lancaster. No, he didn't come close to the 101 steals that he recorded in 2012 (he finished 2013 with 51), but his elite speed, combined with his ability to get on base (.405 on-base percentage), almost assures him a promotion to Double-A this season. DeShields even got some extra time in this offseason during the Arizona Fall League, where he continued to get on base and steal bases at an extraordinary clip while adjusting to a conversion on defense from second base to his old high school position (center field). His speed suits him well in the outfield, and with Jose Altuve signing a long-term extension with the Astros, his path would have blocked at second base. With plenty of room left for development, DeShields likely won't enter the mix for a roster spot in Houston until 2015 at the earliest.