Otherwise known as 2010's predicted 2013 Lehigh Valley Ironpigs. Mandatory Credit: Thomas Campbell-USA TODAY Sports

2014 MLB Season Preview: Houston Astros

2014 Houston Astros

Projected Lineup
Projected Rotation
CF Dexter FowlerRHP Scott Feldman
2B Jose AltuveRHP Jarred Cosart
C Jason CastroLHP Brett Oberholtzer
DH Chris CarterRHP Brad Peacock
3B Matt DominguezLHP Dallas Keuchel
RF George SpringerCL Jesse Crain
1B Jonathan Singleton
LF L.J. Hoes
SS Jonathan Villar

Projected AL West finish: 5th out of 5

Coming into this season, here at That Ball’s Outta Here we want to preview each team in the majors, with a different writer covering each division in the order of projected end of year standings. Today we begin with the Houston Astros, from the AL West.

Coming off of a 51-111 record, expectations for the Houston Astros in 2014 are modest, to say the least.

The team continues to chug along in their rebuilding strategy, entering year four of the process this April. While management probably expected to gain their third-straight number one draft pick last year, it’s unlikely that GM Jeff Luhnow and company quite expected to see over 110 losses.

In fact, I don’t know what’s more shocking: the overall record, or the fact that they had to lose every one of their last 15(!) games to get there.

However, between prospects finally reaching the majors and a couple prudent acquisitions, a fourth straight top pick might be *just* out of reach for the first time in a few years. While the Astros won’t be competing for at least another year, it feels safe to say that beginning this season, they remove the the “re-” prefix from “rebuild.”

Off-season Review:

Major Additions: CF Dexter Fowler, RHP Scott Feldman, RHP Jesse Crain, RHP Chad Qualls

This off-season introduced the idea to the masses that Houston might be capable of adding pieces. With the farm system as strong as hoped, the team has slowly transitioned from “sell” mode to “build” mode.

While avoiding any big name moves (though the team was reportedly a finalist for both Masahiro Tanaka and Jose Dariel Abreu), the team added new center fielder Dexter Fowler in a trade, and made a smart gamble on probable closer Jesse Crain.

Additionally, they brought in Scott Feldman for what feels like a significant overpay (which may have been required to attract talent to a not-yet-competitive team), and Chad Qualls was rewarded for a strong year in Miami on a one-year deal.

Recently, the team inked Jerome Williams to an incentive-laden one year deal. He looks to either compete for the fifth rotation spot, or fill his recent role of swingman out of the bullpen.

The Fowler and Feldman acquisitions in particular feel more like additions for 2015, than 2014. The Astros have definitely improved the product on the field despite a relatively quiet offseason, but don’t expect that to be enough to bring them out of last place in the AL West.

Offensive Potential:

Impact Bats: C Jason Castro, CF Dexter Fowler, OF George Springer

Despite the worst record in the majors, in 2013 the Houston Astros were only tied for 4th worst in runs scored, with …*gulp* the Philadelphia Phillies (610 runs). Fantastic.

Now, as we here experienced, 610 runs isn’t “good”, and they don’t have a lot to work with. However, the addition of Fowler really does help this team. Over the last two seasons he’s developed into a double-digit home run threat, is good for double-digit stolen bases every year, and is one of the most consistent on-base hitters in the majors.

He has a career average .349 wOBA, and has been worth over 2.5 oWAR for each of the last three seasons. Even if the home runs were a Coors Field illusion, he’s a prototypical lead-off hitter and should thrive in the role.

26-year old catcher Jason Castro provided a breakout 4.5 rWAR season in 2013 and was the only offensive stand-out for the team (with the possible exception of Jose Altuve Baggins). He did everything you could ask of a young catcher, and despite a high .351 BAbip has the tools to repeat, and cement himself as this team’s #3 hitter in the lineup.

New impact piece George Springer has yet to see the majors. Instead, he just happened to headline the team’s stacked farm system and spent 2013 keeping his OPS over 1.000 and breaking car windshields between double-A and triple-A.

If he rakes in Spring Training (as all indications point to him doing), the team will likely be pushed to include him on the opening day roster. If he can cut down on the strikeouts (easy for me to say), he profiles similarly to Marlins slugger Giancarlo Stanton.

How likely is that? You have to worry about a guy when he’s got a 30% strikeout rate in double-A. However, once it’s seen how he transitions to major league pitching, that will be much more clear.

Between Fowler, Altuve, Castro, Springer and other coming prospects, the 2014 Astros should show the forming of a competitive top of the order – just don’t expect them to actually be that quite yet.

Recent CF Addition, Dexter Fowler. Mandatory Credit: Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

Pitching Potential:

Impact Arms: RHP Jarred Cosart, RHP Brett Oberholtzer, RHP Jesse Crain

The Astros were dead last in almost every major pitching category last season. No way to sugarcoat that. Many of the souls scrapped together to pitch the most innings last year – Bud Norris, Jordan Lyles, Erik Bedard, and closer Jose Veras – are all either gone or shipped out.

Left in the rubble were two promising young prospects: right-handed pitcher Jarred Cosart (*shakes fists* PEEEEENCE!) and lefty Brett Oberholtzer – two 24-year old starting pitchers who received 10 starts a piece in 2013.

Each’s strong ERA (1.95 and 2.76, respectively) belied their shakier peripherals, as can be expected in the small sample size of a partial rookie season. Don’t be shocked if their peripherals improve as they adjust (specifically Cosart’s BB/9 and Oberholtzer’s K/9) but their ERAs regress to be more in line with their FIP values, over a longer season.

The entire opening day rotation projects to be making about $12 million, and $10 million of that is going to opening day #4 starter Scott Feldman, who was signed for $30 million over 3 years after pitching to a respectable  4.03 FIP between the Cubs and Orioles in 2013.

Rounding out the rotation, literal #4 starter Brad Peacock pitched well in AAA last season before struggling in the majors, and it’s expected that lefty Dallas Keuchel will beat out Jerome Williams for the fifth rotation spot.

Although Jesse Crain was signed with the closer role in mind, Chad Qualls will likely take the position opening day, as Crain will still be on the DL until mid-April.

It would be interesting to see Qualls (or whoever wins the job out of Spring Training) perform well until Crain returns to create some competition, but not being snarky, it is still the Astros – how many save opportunities will this pitcher have to prove himself in 2-3 weeks?

Crain should claim the role relatively quickly, upon his return.

Farm System:

Major Prospects: SS Carlos Correa, OF George Springer, RHP Mark Appel, RHP Michael Foltynewicz, RHP Lance McCullers, Jr., RHP Vincent Velasquez, 1B Jonathan Singleton, OF Domingo Santana, 2B Delino DeShields

The Astros boast one of the strongest minor league systems in baseball. The combination of across-the-board depth and high ceiling prospects puts Houston in the class of Minnesota, St. Louis, and Chicago (NL) as the best in MLB.

George Springer. Mandatory Credit: Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

There’s a debate to be had about the “spirit” of the strategy employed to gain this prospect depth, as management has purposefully put a product on the field that set team records for losses each of the last three seasons (a combined 162-324 record over that time).

However, the leagues’ collective-bargaining agreement has set up a system that rewards this kind of tanking.

Armed with additional money in the international spending pool and three straight number 1 draft picks, it’s been an effective way for GM Jeff Luhnow to rebuild.

Regardless of the position on the diamond, the team has a promising future.

19-year old Carlos Correa was the #1 overall pick in the 2012 draft, and hit .320/.405/.467 (.872 OPS) in 117 games at Full-A Quad City in 2013. He has All-Star potential, with above-average power, hitting, and solid defense regardless of if he stays at shortstop or moves to third base in the future.

2013′s first pick, RHP Mark Appel, pitched competently (if unspectacularly) after being drafted in June; his middling numbers possibly the victim of adding on to an already long college season.

He’s expected to be a fast-riser through the system, with an elite fastball and two strong secondary pitches. A possible top of the rotation starter, expect to see him in Houston sometime late this year.

More relevant to opening day, 24-year old George Springer is an athletic outfield prospect, who made a strong run at 40 HR/40 SB in 2013, between double and triple-A.

His largest hurdle will be bringing his strikeout total to a more manageable rate, but that hardly takes away from his 1.050 OPS, 45 stolen bases, and stellar defense last season. He should be an early favorite to break training with the club.

First baseman Jonathan Singleton, as many know, was traded to Houston in the bane-of-my-existence Hunter Pence trade of 2011. He’s still only 23, and is currently the best pure first-base prospect in baseball (this speaks more to the strength of the position than anything else).

His youth is very important; it gives him hopefully enough time to overcome his rough 2013 season. It included a 50-game drug suspension out of the gate, a .220 batting average across three minor league levels, and only 11 HR, with 110 strikeouts in 90 games.

However, he still has the same immense power, and he showed progress in the month of August. This fall, he dominated dominated Caribbean Winter League ball:

AB
H
HR
BB
SO
BA
OBP
SLG
OPS
1233392637.268.396.537.933

If he can produce anywhere near that level in Spring Training, expect him to be the everyday first baseman come April 1.

 

2014 Team Phase: Building.

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