Team Preview: Houston Astros

By: Josh Wasserman – Chief MLB Writer.

In the coming weeks leading up to Opening Day, FSLR will be previewing the 30 MLB teams and their respective chances for the 2014 season. Starting with the AL West, the Houston Astros are up next…

AL West:
Day 1: Seattle Mariners
Day 2: Oakland A’s
Day 3: Los Angeles Angels
Day 4: Houston Astros
Day 5: Texas Rangers

Houston Astros

2013 Record: 51-111 (5th)
2014 Projected Record: 70-92 (5th)

The Astros are due. Since their World Series appearance in 2005, they’ve plummeted to the worst team in baseball. Their rebuilding stage has lasted for the greater part of a decade and it seems like every first overall pick they make and each transaction they take part of carries them further away from success. That being said, this offseason has had Astros fans feeling optimistic. A series of trades and signings has netted them pitchers Anthony Bass, Jesse Crain, and Jerome Williams, and outfielder Dexter Fowler. Their squad is the definition of a youth movement; only eight players on their roster are over the age of 30. And these youngsters aren’t just prospects; they have talent. Expect the Astros to find a better groove this year than in years past, but don’t be surprised when they finish the season in last in the AL West and with a losing record.

Projected Lineup:
1) Dexter Fowler, CF
2) Jose Altuve, 2B
3) Matt Dominguez, 3B
4) Chris Carter, 1B
5) Jon Singleton, DH
6) L.J. Hoes, RF
7) Robbie Grossman, LF
8) Jason Castro, C
9) Jonathan Villar, SS

​To baseball novices, this bunch looks like a Triple-A All-Star team. But to baseball enthusiasts, this lineup is a dangerous group that will prove to be a threat for years to come if the low-budget Astros can keep these players around. Let’s start with the few who are known around the league. Fowler, shipped over from Colorado, is one of the speediest center fielders in the league. He contributes great fielding, a solid batting average, and relatively good power. And the Astros snagged him for next to nothing, only needing to give up reliever Jordan Lyles and extra outfielder Brandon Barnes. Second baseman Jose Altuve, who has lacked any sort of presence in front of him in the order, will benefit immensely from Fowler’s addition to the lineup. In a league with very few above-average middle infielders, Houston is incredibly lucky to have a player of Altuve’s ability. At just 23 years old, Altuve has blossomed into a star and is undoubtedly the most essential cog in the Astros’ offense. His production has suffered because of the aforementioned issue, but he has provided the men behind him with innumerable RBI opportunities. And Matt Dominguez and Chris Carter have not squandered those chances. Last year, the two power hitters combined for 50 home runs and 157 RBI’s, roughly 33% and 28% of their team’s totals last year respectively. Their first seasons seeing unabated action were tremendous and their productive springs foretell another season of success in the heart of the Astros lineup. The rest of the lineup is relatively unknown, yet they’ve performed pretty well when manager Bo Porter puts them in the game. L.J. Hoes, who arrived from Baltimore during the 2013 season, hit .287 in 46 games while adding a speed component as well (he stole seven bags in eight attempts). Robbie Grossman also did a fine job last year, putting up a .268/.370/.702 line in 63 games. Those two, in conjunction with Jon Singleton, Jason Castro, and Jonathan Villar, will have to support the top four in the order if the Astros want to see any kind of success this year. The pieces are young and largely inexperience, but the pieces have the potential to function together as a whirring, formidable machine.

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Projected Rotation:
1) Lucas Harrell, RHP
2) Scott Feldman, RHP
3) Dallas Keuchel, LHP
4) Brad Peacock, RHP/Brett Oberholtzer, LHP
5) Jerome Williams, RHP/Brett Oberholtzer, LHP

​And now we reach the crux of why the Astros are constant bottom-feeders. Last year, the Astros pitching staff allowed the most runs in the league, had the highest ERA in the league, gave up the third most home runs in the league, and conceded the third highest opposing batting average in the league. A formula for disaster one could also call it. Lucas Harrell, the supposed ace of the rotation, had a dreadful year posting a career high in losses and ERA. Brad Peacock, who looked promising in the Oakland A’s minor leagues before arriving in Houston in the Jed Lowrie trade, also had a tough time acclimating to the Houston area and, more generally, the major leagues. Unfortunately, his one Spring Training start so far was horrid, not boding well for the regular season. However, although Dallas Keuchel had a rocky 2013 campaign, he’s been showing well so far this spring, failing to allow a run in two starts. Moreover, the Astros have added two veterans to the pitching staff in Jerome Williams and Scott Feldman in an attempt to provide some guidance for their young pitchers. Feldman had himself a solid year last year, though he bounced around among a few teams. Williams also has experienced somewhat of a renaissance, posting sub-4.60 ERA’s the past three years for the Angels after being essentially out of the league for the five before those. Brett Oberholtzer is the dark horse to make the rotation after putting on a nice display towards the end of last year. I’m not sure if he’ll get the initial start, but he’ll be trusted to take a few spot starts at the beginning of the season and will most likely be worked into the rotation by May or June. As you can see, the Astros still have way too many doubtful starters, and a lot will have to go right for the rotation to climb out of the MLB pitching staff cellar.

Projected Bullpen:
MR: Anthony Bass, RHP
SU: Jesse Crain, RHP
CL: Chad Qualls, RHP

​The Astros bullpen has undergone a major transformation, with the pieces coming from every team and transaction type around. Anthony Bass, picked up from San Diego, has pretty good stuff and has the makings to become a pretty good long reliever who can even make a few starts if injuries decimate the rotation. Jesse Crain had a few good years for the White Sox before they let him go and has veteran experience to bequeath upon his juvenile counterparts. And the likely closer, Chad Qualls, is also on the home stretch of his career, looking to close out a second stint with the Astros in style. Qualls is actually a bit underrated so the ninth should look relatively safe for Houston if they can keep the lead for that long. The rest of the bullpen is suspect at best, comprised of young minor leaguers with no major league experience and veterans whose time never really came. It’s going to be a tough year again for the Astros pitching staff and hopefully (the Astros are praying), the lineup can keep the team afloat at least until the summer.

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