2014 Season Preview: Houston Astros

It may still be cold outside and snowing in some portions of the country, but spring is nonetheless in the air. 

With the baseball season just around the corner, Greg Kaplan and Alex Herd preview each of the 30 MLB teams and how they will fare in 2014, division-by-division. 

AL West

Houston Astros (51-111 last season)

Starting Line-Up

C: Jason Castro (26) – 120 games, .276/.350/.485, 18 HR, 56 RBI, 63 runs, 35 doubles, 130 OPS+, 4.5 bWAR All-Star

1B: Marc Krauss (26) – 52 games, .209/.267/.366, 4 HR, 13 RBI, 11 runs, 9 doubles, 74 OPS+, -0.4 bWAR

2B: Jose Altuve (23) – 152 games, .283/.316/.363, 5 HR, 52 RBI, 64 runs, 35 SB, 89 OPS+, 1.0 bWAR

3B: Matt Dominguez (24) – 152 games, .241/.286/.403, 21 HR, 77 RBI, 56 runs, 96 strikeouts, 89 OPS+, 2.4 bWAR

SS: Jonathan Villar (23) – 58 games, .243/.321/.319, 1 HR, 8 RBI, 26 runs, 18 SB, 79 OPS+, 0.1 bWAR

LF: Robbie Grossman (24) – 63 games, .268/.332/.370, 4 HR, 21 RBI, 29 runs, 70 strikeouts, 95 OPS+, 0.1 bWAR

CF: Dexter Fowler (28) – 119 games, .263/.369/.407, 12 HR, 42 RBI, 71 runs, 19 SB, 102 OPS+, 1.7 bWAR (w/ Rockies)

RF: L.J. Hoes (24) – 47 games, .282/.332/.365, 1 HR, 10 RBI, 24 runs, 7 SB, 94 OPS+, -0.2 bWAR (w/ Orioles & Astros)

DH: Chris Carter (27) – 148 games, .223/.320/.451, 29 HR, 82 RBI, 64 runs, 212 strikeouts (Led MLB), 112 OPS+, 0.5 bWA

Good News:

Jason CastroAstros for 2014 sleepers! I kid.  The Astros has a miserable season in 2013 and 2014 isn’t going to be the year they make a push for the postseason, but they should be better.  Dexter Fowler is 28 years old and elderly compared the rest of the starting lineup which shows the Astros commitment towards spending the time to develop players for the future.  So the analysis of this team is going to have less to do with how they’ll perform this season and more about who could be on this team a few years from now when they do, hopefully, have the pieces for a playoff run.

The future for the Astros has to start with catcher Jason Castro.  Castro was an All-Star during his 3rd season in the majors where he put up a 136 OPS+.  Although Castro’s BB and K percentages are trending in the wrong direction, he has improved his ISO, AVG, OBP, SLUG, and RPP (defensive metric for catchers) over that time.  His AVG did benefit from a rather high BABIP in 2013 but if the power keeps coming and he can improve patience at the plate, he could be a building block for the future.

The only new player in the projected starting lineup from last season is Fowler who comes over form the Rockies.  Fowler is a great addition for the Astros. His career triple slash of .270/.365/.423 combined with good speed and decent power make him a nice “veteran” presence on the team.  Jose Altuve and Jonathan Villar represent very young players who also bring speed into the equation.  Altuve has 68 SB in his two full seasons in the majors and Villar had 18 in only 58 games last season which means 40+ is in play for him during a full seasons.

Bad News:

As I mentioned above, the Astros are still quite a way from making a true playoff push.  The biggest issues for the Astros are strikeouts and defense.  Before delving into the stats, it’s worth mentioning that all of these players are young and can work out the kinks, but as of now, they are glaring problems.  Fangraphs defines striking out more than 20% of the time as below average and more than 25% as poor. Last season, only Altuve, Matt Dominguez and LJ Hoes struck out less than 20% of the time, with 4 of the 9 striking out over 25% and 3 players strikeout out at least 29.5% of the time (Chris Carter is at a monster 36% and led the majors in K’s) which falls in the category of “awful”.

For defense, a UZR of 0 is average, -10 is poor and -15 is awful.  Of the 8 position players in the starting lineup, none scored a UZR above 0 last season.  4 players had UZR/150 (UZR extrapolated to 150 games) of -19 or worse while in the field (5 if you include Carter’s OF stats).  This is now the 14th preview I’ve done and no team’s defense has come anywhere close to being this bad as a unit.  Small sample sizes and very young players are present here but huge strides need to be made defensively.

Pointing out the weaknesses in the Astros lineup any further is unnecessary since this is a team that needs to be viewed through the lens of someone looking towards the future.  There will likely need to be a lot more players developed or acquired before the Houston lineup is competitive but the team has some of the right pieces and a 100% commitment to rebuilding has been shown, which is what needs to happen.

Bench

C: Carlos Corporan (30) – 64 games, .225/.287/.361, 7 HR, 20 RBI, 16 runs, 60 strikeouts, 79 OPS+, 0.7 bWAR

1B/OF: Jesus Guzman (29) – 126 games, .226/.297/.378, 9 HR, 35 RBI, 33 runs, 17 doubles, 94 OPS+, 0.1 bWAR (w/ Padres)

IF: Marwin Gonzalez (25) – 72 games, .221/.252/.319, 4 HR, 14 RBI, 22 runs, 8 doubles, 58 OPS+, 0.4 bWAR

OF: Alex Presley (28) – 57 games, .276/.313/.373, 3 HR, 15 RBI, 17 runs, 2 triples, 92 OPS+, -0.1 bWAR (w/ Pirates & Twins)

Skinny:

Although there’s no one particularly exciting off the Astros bench, they have the pieces needed to give guys days off and pinch hit.  Marwin Gonzalez is the most likely candidate for pinch hitter since he can hit from both sides of the plate and Alex Presley can be considered “scrappy” and if he can develop further may be an interesting option.  Overall though, these are the backups to the worst team in the majors last season so what do you expect?

Starting Rotation

#1: Scott Feldman (31) – 30 starts, 12-12, 3.86 ERA, 181.2 IP, 6.5 K/9, 2.36 K/BB, 1.18 WHIP, 105 ERA+, 1.6 bWAR (w/ Cubs and Orioles)

#2: Jarred Cosart (23) – 10 starts, 1-1, 1.95 ERA, 60 IP, 5.0 K/9, 0.94 K/BB, 1.35 WHIP, 208 ERA+, 2.6 bWAR

#3: Brett Oberholtzer (24) – 10 starts, 4-5, 2.76 ERA, 71.2 IP, 5.7 K/9, 3.46 K/BB, 1.10 WHIP, 147 ERA+, 2.1 bWAR

#4: Lucas Harrell (28) – 22 starts, 6-17, 5.86 ERA, 153.2 IP, 5.2 K/9, 1.01 K/BB, 1.70 WHIP, 69 ERA+, -1.6 bWAR

#5: Dallas Keuchel (26) – 22 starts, 6-10, 5.15 ERA, 153.2 IP, 7.2 K/9, 2.37 K/BB, 1.54 WHIP, 78 ERA+, -0.1 bWAR

Skinny:

Brett OberThe good news for the Astros is that they are not paying their rotation a lot of money, though Feldman making $30M over the next 3 years is an interesting use of funds.  I’m going to run through this pretty quickly because it can easily be summed up in, the Astros are waiting for prospects to develop.  Scott Feldmadid have the 2nd best year of his career in 2013 but his 1.6 bWAR, which was 1.5 higher than the year before, is not ace material.  Consider that Feldman will be in his mid-thirties before the Astros can reasonably expect to make a push for the playoffs and he’s probably just going to make his money through 2016 and be on his way, unless he turns his career around in that time span.

As for the rest of the staff, the bright spots last season came from Jarred Cosart and Brett Oberholtzer.  Perhaps I’m going out on a limb here but I would not count on a repeat performance by either.  Cosart’s 1.95 ERA may turn heads but so will his 0.94 K/BB for the wrong reasons.  A K/9 under 5 and a BB/9 over 5 is not a recipe for success at the major league level.  Cosart’s FIP was 4.35 and xFIP was 4.68 which is why his fWAR was only 0.4, as compared to a 2.6 bWAR.  Oberholtzer had a much better overall season with a BB/9 under 2 and a FIP of only 3.65 so if any of these 5 emerge as an option for the Astros to keep into the future, my bet would be on him.  However, his walk rate and FIP were better than they were at almost any stage in the minor leagues so regression is to be expected.

Bullpen:

Closer: Chad Qualls (35) – 66 games, 5-2, 2.61 ERA, 62 IP, 15 holds, 7.1 K/9, 2.58 K/BB, 1.27 WHIP, 148 ERA+ (w/ Marlins)

Closer: Matt Albers (31) – 56 games, 3-1, 3.14 ERA, 63 IP, 5.0 K/9, 1.52 K/BB, 1.27 WHIP, 120 ERA+ (w/ Indians)

Closer: Josh Fields (28) – 41 games, 1-3, 4.97 ERA, 38 IP, 6 holds, 9.5 K/9, 2.22 K/BB, 1.30 WHIP, 82 ERA+

Set-Up: Kevin Chapman (26) – 25 games, 1-1, 1.77 ERA, 20.1 IP, 4 holds 6.6 K/9, 1.15 K/BB, 1.30 WHIP, 232 ERA+

MR: Anthony Bass (26) – 24 games, 0-0, 5.36 ERA, 42 IP, 6.6 K/9, 1.55 K/BB, 1.69 WHIP, 64 ERA+

MR: Brad Peacock (26) – 18 games, 5-6, 5.18 ERA, 83.1, 8.3 K/9, 2.08 K/BB, 1.38 WHIP, 78 ERA+

LR: Jerome Williams (32) – 37 games, 9-10, 4.57 ERA, 169.1 IP, 5.7 K/9, 1.95 K/BB, 1.39 WHIP, 82 ERA+ (w/ Angels)

Skinny:

Chad QuallsWith the state of the Astros rotation, the bullpen is due for a lot of work in 2014.  They’ve planned for this as both Brad Peacock and Jerome Williams can fill the role of long relief.  If (when) the current rotation begins to struggle, either guy may see a move to the rotation later in the season.  At least while Jesse Crain is on the DL, the Astros will likely use a committee approach to closing out ball games. The options they have are a bit of a mixed bag but, as with all other aspects of this team, it’s about giving young arms some work in pressure situations and seeing how they respond to see who makes the cut for the future.  Last season, Kevin Chapman and not-as-young, Matt Albers had the best numbers and may be able to turn in repeat performances this season.

Top 10 Prospects (MLB.com)

1. SS Carlos Correa

2. RHP Mark Appel

3. OF George Springer

4. 1B Jon Singleton

5. RHP Lance McCullers

6. RHP Mike Foltynewictz

7. OF Delino DeShields

8. OF Domingo Santana

9. RHP Vincent Velasquez

10. RHP Michael Feliz

Skinny:

It should be no surprise that the Astros commitment to rebuilding has resulted in one of the best farm systems in the MLB.  Carlos Correa and Mark Appel are the two best and have a lot of excitement around them but it’s the next two who will have an opportunity to make an impact on the team sooner rather than later.

George Springer has the upside to be an elite outfielder in the MLB.  Last season, he became the 3rd minor leaguer in the past 40 years to hit 30 HR and steal 40 bases and was only 3 HR shy of a 40-40 season which would have been the first in 50 years.  Throw in above average fielding and it’s hard to not be excited for his MLB debut. Jon Singleton did get suspended for illegal substances, again, in 2013 but as long as he stays on track, he’s an exciting prospect who may get called up this season.  MLB.com has him as the best 1B prospect in all of baseball and he represents some hope for the Astros in the future.

Season Prediction:

The Astros are playing the waiting game as they let their top notch farm system develop and that will be very apparent when they take the field in 2014.  That being said, Astros fans aren’t watching the team to see what record they end up with, they’ll be watching to see which young players can stand out and become building blocks for the future.  I do think the Astros will improve from last year but not be too much and there’s no chance they finish better than last in the division.

Projected Record: 59-103, 5th in AL West

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