Astros Team Preview: Signs of Progress

Astros Team Preview: Signs of Progress

This article is part of our MLB Team Previews series.


2015 Houston Astros Team Preview - Signs of Progress

The Houston Astros improved substantially in 2014, ending their streak of three straight 100-loss seasons to finish fourth in the AL West with a 70-92 record. While a 70-win season is nothing to write home about, the team took a giant leap forward during year three of general manager Jeff Luhnow's long-term rebuilding plan, increasing their win total by 19 games.

AL batting champion Jose Altuve was the star of Houston's 21st ranked offense, which also benefited from George Springer's long-anticipated arrival from the minors. Jonathan Singleton also made his big league debut, and while both players endured your typical rookie growing pains, they still exhibited star potential for the Astros. Consensus top-10 prospect Carlos Correa isn't far behind them, which bodes well for this improving offense. Houston's starting rotation was one of the team's biggest weaknesses entering 2014, but AL Gold Glove winner Dallas Keuchel and Collin McHugh emerged as reliable arms that the team can build around. The bullpen ranked dead last in the majors with a combined 4.80 ERA, but veteran reliever Chad Qualls was a bright spot among the relievers who more than held his own in the closer role.

New manager A.J. Hinch will look to turn Houston into a playoff contender in 2015, but a .500 record might be a more realistic goal for the Astros. Even still, team management made several quality moves this offseason that could make them contenders much sooner than we expect.

Offseason Moves

Lost Jorge De Leon (Athletics), Josh Zeid (Tigers) and Marc Krauss (Angels) on waivers. Lost Jesus Guzman (Japan), Jose Veras (Braves), Jesse Crain (White Sox) and Matt Albers (White Sox) via free agency. Lost Delino DeShields Jr. (Rangers) via the Rule 5 draft.

Houston let a handful of injury-prone relievers and a pair of disappointing platoon options at first base walk this offseason. The fact they left Delino DeShields Jr. unprotected from the Rule 5 draft was somewhat of a surprise, but playing time would have been hard to come by in Houston's outfield this season.

Traded Dexter Fowler to the Cubs for Dan Straily and Luis Valbuena.

Valbuena was quietly one of the most valuable players on the Cubs in 2014, hitting 16 home runs and drawing 65 walks, all while playing two valuable infield positions. Acquired by the Astros in January, a similar role in 2015 seems likely, but Valbuena's long-term future with the team is unclear.

Straily will get a fresh start with the Astros that should include an opportunity to earn a rotation spot during spring training. Considering the club helped Collin McHugh turn his career around, Straily may be worth a speculative endgame dart in deeper formats.

Traded Mike Foltynewicz, Rio Ruiz and Andrew Thurman to the Braves for Evan Gattis.

Despite being limited to just 108 games due to a back injury and various illnesses in 2014, Gattis still finished third among catchers in home runs, behind only Devin Mesoraco (25) and former teammate Brian McCann (23). His strikeout rate jumped by three percent (from 21.2% to 24.2%), but his BABIP improved by more than 40 points, resulting in a 20-point increase in batting average. He continued to struggle against breaking balls, as evidenced by his 36.0% whiff rate against such pitches last season, but his overall development at the plate was encouraging. The 28-year-old graded out as one of the worst defensive catchers in the majors, however, and an offseason trade to Houston only increased the expectation that Gattis will move to left field in 2015. Of course, Gattis is still catcher eligible in most leagues, and he may continue seeing occasional starts behind the plate when the Astros' regular catchers need rest, but his rotisserie value will likely drop off considerably if he loses catcher eligibility in 2016. For this season, he'll benefit from a higher volume of playing time and the opportunity to play half of his games in a much more hitter-friendly home park in Houston. With the flexibility of playing left field and the potential to DH, Gattis could reach the 30-homer plateau for the first time in his career this season.

Signed free agents Luke Gregerson (Athletics) and Pat Neshek (Cardinals).

Gregerson just keeps throwing exceptional relief seasons and 2014 was no different. He's also been very durable, appearing in 60 or more games in the last six seasons, and leading all of MLB with 435 games pitched over that period. Gregerson's strikeout rate has dropped the last three years (from 9.0 K/9 to 8.7, and again to 7.3 last season), but his walk rate has also dropped (2.6 BB/9 to 2.4, and again to 1.9 last season). The veteran right-hander relies heavily on his slider, but he actually threw it less in 2014 than he had at any other point in his career (47.1% in 2014 as compared to 68.6% in 2012). Signed to a three-year deal by the Astros in December, it's not immediately clear if Gregerson will compete for closing duties. The Astros should clarify his exact role as the winter progresses, but at the very least, he immediately becomes the team's most dependable arm at the back end of the bullpen.

Neshek fanned 68 batters in 67.1 relief innings for the Cardinals last season, posting excellent ratios (1.87 ERA, 0.79 WHIP) while compiling seven wins, six saves and 25 holds along the way. He'll likely have a similar role with the Astros after signing a two-year deal in December.

Signed free agent Jed Lowrie (Athletics).

Lowrie fell off a cliff in 2014, combining a huge batting average drop with an equally-large power decline. He finally played a full season in 2013 and responded with a .290 average and 15 homers, but even though he was able to play 136 games in 2014, he managed only six homers to go with his .249 average. Those numbers, combined with limited range and a poor arm at shortstop, led the A's to decline extending Lowrie a qualifying offer after the season and he thus became a free agent. Lowrie did injure his finger in mid-August which caused him to miss two weeks and likely affected his final month of the season, but he was struggling before the injury and even had back-to-back months in May and June where he failed to hit .200. Lowrie's past signs of power earned him a deal with the Astros to play short, but his 2014 was very concerning and there's little reason to think he'll return value as anything more than an endgame selection.

Signed free agent Colby Rasmus (Blue Jays).

Rasmus's final season in Toronto came with a career-high 33 percent strikeout rate, but he's established himself as a legitimate 20-homer threat despite a very aggressive approach. Most of the damage comes against righties, and on fastballs, and there's little reason to think that he's going to exceed his career batting average (.246) over a full season, especially since he's hit .225 or lower in three of the last four seasons. It's worth noting, however, that Rasmus had much better numbers on the road (.246/.302/.513) than he did at hitter-friendly Rogers Centre (.201/.270/.371) last season, so perhaps a change of scenery will help. At 28, he's likely a finished product, and one that never seemed to fully tap into his potential as a first-round pick (2005). Signed by Houston in January, Rasmus will initially serve as the Astros' primary center fielder, but he'll likely end up on the larger side of a platoon given the variety of options that are capable of sharing time with him on the depth chart.

Traded Carlos Perez and Nick Tropeano to the Angels for Hank Conger.

Conger was long thought to be the catcher of the future in the Angels' system after being selected in the first round of the 2006 draft, but the 27-year-old never quite put it together offensively as a member of the Halos, tallying a .618 OPS in just 80 games in 2014 while ceding the majority of time behind the plate to veteran Chris Iannetta. While Conger's power showed a sharp drop off (.104 ISO), he was able to increase his walks and cut down on strikeouts a bit in 2014. With a career punchout rate of 21.4%, he may continue to have a hard time getting his average above the .250 mark, but he has a better avenue to becoming a full-time catcher in Houston after incumbent starter Jason Castro hit a mere .222 in 126 games last season.

Traded Carlos Corporan to the Rangers for Akeem Bostick.

The acquisitions of Gattis and Conger made Corporan expendable, so the Astros dealt him for a 19-year-old pitching prospect who posted a 5.17 ERA and 1.37 WHIP with 64 strikeouts and 28 walks over 92.1 innings for the Rangers' Low-A affiliate last season.

Claimed Will Harris off waivers (Diamondbacks).

Harris posted a 0.99 ERA in 45.2 innings at Triple-A and a 4.34 ERA in 29 innings with the Diamondbacks last season. Despite the large ERA against big league hitters, he also had a 29.2% strikeout rate, which should help his chances of securing an Opening Day roster spot with Houston during spring training.

Signed free agents Roberto Hernandez, Joe Thatcher and Dan Johnson to minor league deals.

Hernandez went 8-11 with a 4.10 ERA and 1.39 WHIP in 32 appearances (29 starts) between the Phillies and Dodgers last season. He'll compete with Dan Straily during spring training for the Astros' final rotation spot. Likewise, Thatcher will compete for a bullpen spot this spring and has a decent chance of making the club due to his strikeout potential (career 9.23 K/9) as a lefty. Johnson will give Jonathan Singleton some competition this spring, but he's more of a longshot to make the Opening Day roster.

Projected Lineup (v. RHP/LHP)

1. Jose Altuve, 2B
2. Jed Lowrie, SS
3. George Springer, RF
4. Evan Gattis, LF/1B/C
5. Chris Carter, DH
6. Luis Valbuena, 3B
7. Colby Rasmus, CF
8. Jason Castro, C/Matt Dominguez, 3B
9. Jonathan Singleton, 1B

The Astros will miss Dexter Fowler (.375 OBP) in their lineup, but the team upgraded other positions, adding Lowrie, Gattis, Valbuena and Rasmus to complement their young nucleus of Altuve, Springer, Carter and Singleton. Castro struggled in 2014 and even sat most games against left-handed starters, but Hank Conger is an upgrade over Carlos Corporan as the team's backup catcher. Dominguez is a strong defender at the hot corner, so he should see plenty of starts at third base. Given this projected lineup, the 2015 Astros are likely to rank near the top of MLB in both home runs and strikeouts.

Projected Rotation

1. Dallas Keuchel
2. Collin McHugh
3. Scott Feldman
4. Brett Oberholtzer
5. Dan Straily/Roberto Hernandez

Scott Feldman, Houston's big free agent splash in 2014, should slide back a few spots in the rotation as the Astros' third starter behind AL Gold Glove winner Dallas Keuchel and the emerging Collin McHugh. Oberholtzer went 5-13 with a 4.39 ERA and 1.38 WHIP in 24 starts last year, so he'll need to show improvement if he wants to hold his spot in the rotation. Straily and Hernandez haven't been effective in recent years, so don't be surprised if we see a revolving door of fourth and fifth starters that includes Brad Peacock, Kevin Chapman, Samuel Deduno, Jake Buchanan and prospects Asher Wojciechowski, Thomas Shirley and Mark Appel.

Closer: Chad Qualls was one of Houston's best signings last offseason, bringing much-needed stability and a veteran presence to the back-end of baseball's worst bullpen. The 36-year-old posted a 3.33 ERA, 1.15 WHIP and 19 saves for the Astros, with an impressive 43:5 K:BB ratio in 51.1 innings. He went 19 straight appearances without allowing a run, and had it not been for his struggles against Oakland (0-4, 27.00 ERA and four blown saves in seven appearances), his final stat line would have been even better. Qualls enters 2015 as the favorite to close games for Houston, but Luke Gregerson, Pat Neshek and Josh Fields are capable replacements if he's ineffective in the role.

Key Bullpen Members: For the second straight offseason, Astros general manager Jeff Luhnow revamped the team's bullpen, signing relievers Luke Gregerson and Pat Neshek to multi-year deals through free agency. The veteran right-handers join Chad Qualls, Tony Sipp and Josh Fields to give the team plenty of experienced options for high-leverage situations. Kevin Chapman, Samuel Deduno and Jake Buchanan give the Astros flexibility as long-men out of the bullpen who can also start if need be.

Notes of Import, Fantasy and Otherwise:

Can the Astros make the playoffs in 2015?

A lot would have to go right for the team to have a realistic shot at the playoffs. First, the Astros' star players would have to avoid the injury bug. George Springer missed the entire second half last year and the team's offense suffered  by trotting out Jake Marisnick, Robbie Grossman and Alex Presley as outfield regulars. Repeat seasons from Keuchel and McHugh would benefit a shallow rotation that needs another starter or two emerge in a similar fashion. Finally, the bullpen must show marked improvement, as the team has struggled to hold leads late in games over the past two seasons. Combine all of these factors with a new manager and a competitive AL West division and a .500 record might be a more realistic goal for the Astros in 2015.

Strengths

Houston is rich with young talent. It might surprise you that Jose Altuve is actually younger (24) than George Springer (25). Evan Gattis and Chris Carter (both age 28) are in their prime power years. Jonathan Singleton (23) has plenty of time to improve, while Carlos Correa (20) and Mark Appel (23) should make their MLB debuts within the next few seasons. The Astros' farm system took a hit after the team dealt Rio Ruiz, Mike Foltynewicz, Andrew Thurman and Nick Tropeano in trades this offseason, but it still ranks among the top ten farm systems in baseball.

Weaknesses

There are holes in Houston's starting rotation behind Keuchel and McHugh, who both still have to prove that last year's success was no fluke. The Astros' offense has struggled to make contact with 2,977 strikeouts over the last two seasons, while the defense continues to play poorly, ranking 24th in baseball with 106 errors in 2014.

Rising: Collin McHugh opened 2014 in the minors after a disastrous spring (14.29 ERA), but the Astros called early when Scott Feldman's injury left a vacancy in the starting rotation. Once he arrived in Houston, he never looked back, going 11-9 with a 2.73 ERA, 1.02 WHIP and 157:41 K:BB in 154.2 innings (25 starts). His curveball and slider were particularly effective, attributing to a career-best 9.1 K/9 ratio. McHugh's impressive season put him in the AL Rookie of the Year conversation, and while he didn't win the award, he definitely assured himself a spot in the Astros' starting rotation to open 2015.

Declining: Jed Lowrie - see above.

Sleeper: Jonathan Singleton had a chance to break camp with the Astros last spring, but the rookie struggled (.154 spring batting average) and failed to stand out among far-less inspiring players like Jesus Guzman, Japhet Amador and Marc Krauss. The powerful lefty didn't let his spring slump bother him, however, as he smashed 14 homers in 54 games with Triple-A Oklahoma City before Houston finally called him up in June. A solo home run in his MLB debut gave Astros fans and fantasy owners a small taste of his power potential, but there were plenty of growing pains on display as the season progressed. The most alarming stats were Singleton's contact (57%) and strikeout rates (37%), and while he somewhat redeemed himself by exhibiting patience inside the batter's box (13.8% walk rate), a paltry .168/.285/.335 triple slash far outweighs the 14 home runs he hit in 95 big league games. Despite a poor rookie season, Singleton is the favorite to open 2015 as the Astros' starting first baseman. Even modest improvements to his strikeout and contact rates would put him back on fantasy radars.

Supersleeper: Josh Fields was dominant through stretches of 2014, fanning hitters at an elite 11.5 K/9 clip while significantly reducing his walk rate (2.8 BB/9) compared to the year prior. He earned four saves for the Astros, but failed to take the reins of the ninth inning after a few disastrous outings attributed to a lofty 4.45 ERA. A 2.16 FIP suggests he'll be much-improved in 2015, especially if his fastball velocity (94.4 mph) continues to trend upward. Fields is a dark-horse option to close games for Houston, with Chad Qualls, Luke Gregerson and Pat Neshek likely ahead of him on the depth chart to open the season.

Top Prospects

Carlos Correa, SS - Correa was tremendous for High-A Lancaster last season, hitting .325/.416/.510 with six home runs, 57 RBI and 20 steals in 62 games before fracturing his fibula in late June. Now over nine months removed from the injury, the 20-year-old shortstop is running, fielding grounders and taking part in other baseball-related activities, and should be fully recovered for the start of spring training. Despite the lost development time, Correa is still widely considered one of the top prospects in baseball. He's likely to spend most of the season, if not all of it, with Double-A Corpus Christi.

Mark Appel, RHP - Appel's bizarre 2014 started off on the wrong foot after his spring was cut short due to an appendectomy. Once healthy, he opened the season with High-A Lancaster and struggled (6.23 ERA) through four starts before the Astros sent him back to extended spring training to regain his velocity. Instead of sitting in the mid-90s, Appel was topping out around 90 mph, likely due to a combination of the appendectomy and difficulty adjusting to the Astros' tandem starter development system. The setback lasted just over a month before he was averaging 95 mph again, and while he endured further struggles upon his return to Lancaster, including wrist and thumb injuries, Appel persevered and began flashing the potential that made him the top overall pick of the 2013 draft. A somewhat controversial promotion to Double-A Corpus Christi was a risk that paid off for the Astros, as Appel responded with a 3.69 ERA and 38:13 K:BB over 39 innings with the Hooks. He was a standout pitcher in the Arizona Fall League as well, but despite his recent resurgence, Appel likely needs a big year at Double-A and/or Triple-A to earn a shot with the major league club in 2015.

Vincent Velasquez, RHP - Velasquez has a long history of injuries that includes Tommy John surgery in 2010, so it was no big surprise when a groin injury cost him two months last season. When healthy, however, the 22-year-old right-hander is a standout pitcher in the Astros' system. He's moved along slowly thus far (mostly due to injuries), but his first taste of Double-A is forthcoming this season after a strong 2014 pitching with the Gulf Coast League Astros and High-A Lancaster. Between the two affiliates, Velasquez went 7-5 with a 3.52 ERA and a remarkable 12.8 K/9 in 64 innings. With a low-90's fastball, plus changeup and improving curveball, he has mid-rotation potential in the big leagues if he can string together a few seasons of full health in the upper levels of the minors. His recent addition to the Astros' 40-man roster indicates he may be closer to the majors than we think.

Michael Feliz, RHP - Feliz, 21, went 8-6 with a 4.03 ERA and 111 strikeouts in 25 games (19 starts) for Low-A Quad Cities in 2014. At 6-foot-4, 210 pounds, he's an imposing presence on the mound whose fastball reaches the mid-90s. His control (3.2 BB/9) needs improvement, but he'll get the opportunity to work on that this season in the hitter-friendly confines of the California League. How Feliz performs in that environment should give the Astros a better read into his future as a starter or reliever, but the organization thought well enough of him to protect him from December's Rule 5 draft by adding him to their 40-man roster.

Colin Moran, 3B - Moran, the sixth overall pick by the Marlins in the 2013 draft, was traded to the Astros at the deadline last season as part of the Jarred Cosart deal. Rather than send him to the California League, Houston felt Double-A would be a better challenge, and he responded by slashing .304/.350/.411 with two home runs and 22 RBI in 28 games with Corpus Christi. Moran's doesn't possess the raw power that you often see with top corner-infield prospects, and rival organizations have complained about his lack of energy and inconsistent approach to the game, but his upside compares to Matt Carpenter or Bill Mueller. A return to Double-A appears likely to open 2015 with a promotion to Triple-A expected at some point during the season.

Josh Hader, LHP - Acquired from Baltimore in the 2013 Bud Norris trade, Hader earned a promotion to Double-A last season as a 20-year-old after posting outstanding numbers in the hitter-friendly California League. In 22 games (15 starts) with High-A Lancaster, the 6-foot-3, 160-pound lefty went 9-2 with a 2.70 ERA, 1.11 WHIP and 112:38 K:BB over 103.1 innings. While his big league future as a starter or long man out of the bullpen is unclear, due to his wiry frame and potential for breaking down in deeper outings, how Hader performs this season in the upper levels of the minors should better determine his path to the majors.

Lance McCullers, RHP - McCullers took the next step in his development with High-A Lancaster last season and predictably endured some growing pains in the hitter-friendly California League. He struggled with free passes (5.2 BB/9) and home runs (1.67 HR/9), but still struck out batters at an elite clip (10.7 K/9). McCullers' future as a big league starter or closer remains unclear, but how he pitches in a more neutral environment at Double-A Corpus Christi should give the Astros a better read on his path to the majors.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Ryan Rufe
Ryan has been helping RotoWire subscribers via the Ask An Expert feature since 2014. He occasionally fills in for MLB staff writers, contributing to the MLB Barometer and FAAB Factor series. Ryan previously covered the Houston Astros beat, wrote a weekly DFS article (Monday Lineup Card) and contributed to the RotoWire baseball magazine and draft kit. He's an NFBC and DFS enthusiast.
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