The 2014 Houston Astros will continue to rebuild following three consecutive 100+ loss seasons, which culminated in a club record 111 losses in 2013. Second-year manager Bo Porter will have his hands full again in 2014, although there are signs the Astros are finally turning a corner.
For starters, Fangraphs lists the Astros as the most-improved team in 2014 with a +18 increase in WAR. The results are somewhat skewed due to how bad Houston was last year, but it’s definitely a step in the right direction. The giant leap forward is due to the youngsters being another year older and GM Jeff Luhnow’s commitment to acquire veteran talent by signing right-handed starters Scott Feldman and Jerome Williams, trading for center fielder Dexter Fowler and signing relievers Matt Albers, Chad Qualls and 2013 All-Star Jesse Crain.
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The light gets even brighter when you look down on the farm. The ‘Stros have seven of MLB.com’s top 100 prospects in a farm system rated #1 by ESPN’s Keith Law (membership required), including top overall picks Carlos Correa (’12) and Mark Appel (’13). With the first selection again this year, the Astros could improve even further by selecting consensus top pick Carlos Rodon from North Carolina State.
The Astros led the majors last year in strikeouts with 1,550 and only three other teams had less than Houston’s 426 walks, leaving them with an AL-worst .299 on-base percentage. Fowler, whose .369 OBP was significantly higher than Houston’s .310 OBP from the leadoff spot last year, was brought in to help solve the problem. Second baseman and face of the franchise Jose Altuve was solid in the number two hole, batting .283 while leading the team with 35 stolen bases. Catcher Jason Castro, the lone Astros All-Star, hit .276 with 18 home runs and 56 RBI, although he needs to reduce the 130 strikeouts he accumulated in only 120 games last year.
Speaking of reducing strikeouts, let’s talk DH Chris Carter, who hit 29 home runs and drove in 82 to lead the team. Carter was the king of swing-and-miss, leading the majors in strikeouts with 212 and destroying Houston’s single-season mark of 145 by Lee May in 1972. Matt Dominguez, known for his glove at third base, delivered 21 home runs and 77 RBI in his rookie season and shortstop Jonathan Villar, who led MLB rookies with 18 stolen bases in only 58 games last season, anchor the left side of the infield.
Veteran Jesus Guzman, acquired from the Padres in December, will take over starting duties at first as well as spend time in the outfield spelling left fielder Robbie Grossman, who was impressive after a July call up before ending his season with an oblique injury in September. L.J. Hoes is the favorite to earn the right field spot while J.D. Martinez, Marc Krauss and Adron Chambers compete for backup positions. Waiting to make an impact in right field is George Springer, who hit a combined .303 with 37 home runs, 108 RBI and 45 stolen bases at two levels in the minors last year.
The Astros starting rotation is very young, although they will need to grow quickly if this team wants to improve in 2014. Feldman leads the way after posting a respectable 12-12 record with a 3.86 ERA while with the Cubs and Orioles last season. The No. 2-5 rotation spots will fall into place during spring training. Williams wasn’t overly impressive while posting a 9-10 record with the Angels last season, while Jarred Cosart looked very good posting a 1.95 ERA in 10 starts, including nearly throwing a no-hitter — although he needs to reduce the number of walks after posting 35 in only 60 innings of work. Brett Oberholtzer, who surprised some during his 10 starts with a 4-5 record and 2.76 ERA, will compete with Brad Peacock, Dallas Keuchel and Lucas Harrell for the remaining two spots.
The bullpen gets a significant overhaul after tying the D-backs with an MLB-worst 29 blown saves. Crain, who compiled a 0.38 ERA with 46 strikeouts and 11 walks in 36.2 innings before undergoing right biceps surgery with the White Sox last summer, would appear to be a frontrunner for closer if he’s ready to go when the club breaks camp. However, Porter indicated the Astros will start the season with a closer-by-committee approach with Crain, Qualls (5-2, 2.61 ERA in 62 IP with the Marlins), Albers (3-1, 3.14 ERA, 63 IP with the Indians) and Josh Fields (five saves with the Astros in his rookie season) sharing duties.
Opening day lineup
1. Dexter Fowler, CF
2. Jose Altuve, 2B
3. Jason Castro, C
4. Chris Carter, DH/1B
5. Matt Dominguez, 3B
6. Jesus Guzman, 1B
7. L.J. Hoes, RF
8. Robbie Grossman, LF
9. Jonathan Villar, SS
It’s a waiting game for most of the talent in Houston’s farm system, and several players could be in the majors in the next year or two. Appel, who is recovering from an appendectomy on Jan. 30 and won’t resume pitching until later this month, could develop quickly and make an appearance during September call-ups before competing for a starting role in 2015.
Jonathan Singleton, perhaps the future first baseman for Houston, should make the majors this year, but he is coming off a 50-game suspension. Waiting in the wings are outfielder Domingo Santana, who hit 25 home runs in the minors last year and has one of the best arms in the organization, and Correa, who was third in the Midwest League in average (.320) and led the league in OPS.
No surprise here: Houston will finish last in the AL West. However, the Astros are on the upswing. The team will improve mainly due to the plethora of young talent — both the players on the active roster who now have some experience under their belts and the future stars who are a step away from making the jump. This team won’t get anywhere near the postseason, but they will be making waves down the road.