Talented kids are on the way, but another last-place finish looms
For the Astros, it’s time to move forward. Coming off three consecutive 100-loss seasons, including a club-record 111 losses last year that included a franchise-record 15-game losing skid to end the season in their first year in the American League, the Astros are poised to take a step forward in their rebuilding process after bringing in some pieces this winter that should make them more competitive. In 2014, they should have the makings of a legitimate major-league lineup and bullpen to go along with a promising young rotation. The Astros finished the season with a payroll of about $13 million following years of trading away established players — including pitcher Bud Norris last year — in exchange for prospects. That allowed them to rebuild their minor-league system into one of the best in baseball, which should set them up well for the future. But knowing they couldn’t afford another 100-loss season while they waited on the kids to arrive in Houston, the Astros opened their pocketbook and added about $30 million in payroll by signing starting pitcher Scott Feldman to a three-year, $30-million deal and inking relief pitchers Jesse Crain, Chad Qualls and Matt Albers to bolster baseball’s worst bullpen. The team also made a trade to acquire center fielder Dexter Fowler from the Rockies and plan to plug him into the leadoff spot, giving the Astros a solid 1-2-3 combo at the top of the order with Fowler hitting first, second baseman Jose Altuve hitting second and All-Star catcher Jason Castro batting third.
The Astros have built a wealth of young starting pitching in their system over the last few years, and a few of those promising arms were anchoring the youngest rotation in baseball at the end of the season. What was missing was an established veteran, which led to the signing of Feldman, who split last year between the Cubs and Orioles. For much of the second half of 2013, the Astros went with a six-man rotation in which all were 25 years old or younger. That included rookie sensation Jarred Cosart, who flirted with a no-hitter during his July 12 major-league debut against Tampa Bay and wound up going 1–1 with a 1.95 ERA in 10 starts. He’ll be joined in the 2014 rotation by lefty Brett Oberholtzer, who was 4–5 with a 2.24 ERA in 10 starts (two complete games). Also returning is lefty Dallas Keuchel, who was 6–8 with a 4.90 ERA as a starter and tied with Lucas Harrell for the team lead in innings. The Astros signed veteran Jerome Williams — yes, he’s still in the league — in early February to add depth. It appears Williams will begin the season in the rotation. The highly regarded Brad Peacock, who was 4–3 with a 3.67 ERA in his last 12 starts, and Harrell, who had a disastrous 2013 after a breakout 2012, will be back pushing for a spot.
This was by far the Astros’ weakest link last year, especially after the club traded veteran reliever Jose Veras to the Tigers at the deadline. What followed was a series of late-inning meltdowns, as manager Bo Porter threw a bevy of young arms into closing roles without any success. The Astros led the majors in blown saves and had the highest bullpen ERA, so adding some veteran arms to the mix was the team’s No. 1 task in the offseason. The Astros signed Qualls and Albers — both of whom were drafted and developed by the Astros — and veteran Crain. Houston traded for Anthony Bass. None of the four has closing experience, however. While taking their lumps in the bullpen last year, the Astros did get a good look at arms with some upside in rookies Josh Fields, Chia-Jen Lo, Josh Zeid and Kevin Chapman. They should play even bigger roles during their second seasons in 2014. Alex White, who missed all of last year following Tommy John surgery, is competing for a spot as well.
Altuve slipped a little both offensively and defensively in 2013 following an All-Star campaign the season before, but the club liked him enough to sign him to a budget-friendly four-year contract extension in July. When he’s hot, there may not be a tougher out in the league. While former No. 1 overall pick Carlos Correa, a shortstop, makes his way through the minors, the club plans to get an extended look in 2014 at shortstop Jonathan Villar. The speedster made his debut at 22 last year and hit .243, but he stole 18 bases in 58 games and dazzled with his speed. He also struggled mightily on defense, making16 errors, and didn’t always make the best decisions on the bases.
The Astros found their third baseman of the future, thanks to a breakout 2013 season by Matt Dominguez, acquired in 2012 from the Marlins in the Carlos Lee trade. Dominguez was one of the best defensive third basemen in the AL and hit .241 with 21 homers and 77 RBIs at 23 years old for much of the season. Across the diamond at first base, things aren’t quite as settled. Brett Wallace, Chris Carter and Carlos Peña split playing time at first base last season, and only Carter returns. The slugger provided most of Houston’s punch with 29 homers and 82 runs batted in, while also setting the club record with 212 strikeouts The Astros acquired Jesus Guzman as an option to share time with Carter. Slugger Jonathan Singleton, one of the club’s top prospects, should be in the mix at some point this year.
Fowler will patrol the spacious center field of Minute Maid Park after doing the same at Coors Field the previous six years. He came to the Astros via trade and instantly becomes one of the club’s best offensive weapons and gives them a legitimate leadoff hitter. Astros leadoff hitters had a combined on-base percentage of .310 last year; Fowler's was .369. Robbie Grossman figures to start in left field, and he did enough during the second half of his rookie season to deserve a longer look. He struggled in his first stint with the club (hitting .198) but came back to Houston and hit .322 from July 28 to the end of the season and showed a little pop. Right field figures to be a mix between L.J. Hoes and Marc Krauss, although top prospect George Springer could play his way into the lineup. Springer is a center fielder, but the addition of Fowler means the club could move him to right field.
A former first-round pick by the Astros, Castro was finally healthy last year and wound up having an All-Star season. He should hit third in the lineup in 2014 after batting .276 with 18 homers and 56 RBIs last year. He missed the final three weeks of the season after he had a cyst removed from the surgically repaired knee that he injured prior to the 2011 season. Switch-hitting Carlos Corporan has proven to be a solid backup both offensively and behind the plate for Castro, and the club is also high on rookie Max Stassi, who suffered a concussion in his second career game last year and wound up playing only three games at the major-league level.
Krauss should get the bulk of the at-bats at the designated hitter. The bench isn’t deep. Corporan is a steady hand at catcher. Veteran Cesar Izturis is a solid defender in the middle infield, but provides very little offense thus can’t be counted on as a pinch-hitter. Krauss and J.D. Martinez are power threats who can play outfield and DH.
This will be the third year of general manager Jeff Luhnow’s ambitious overhaul of the roster. The organization has made huge strides in the minor leagues, but with the farm system stocked and the franchise now willing to spend some money, the pressure mounts on Luhnow to start winning more games. Porter made some rookie mistakes, but he held a young team together during 111 losses.
The Astros will probably be bottom-feeders in the league once again, but they have improved and should benefit from the arrival of more of their top prospects, including Springer, Singleton and pitcher Asher Wojciechowski. The veteran additions they made should make them more competitive on a nightly basis, but meaningful baseball in Houston in September is still a few years away.
CF Dexter Fowler (S)
New acquisition gives the Astros a dynamic presence at top of lineup with a career OBP of .365.
2B Jose Altuve (R)
Finished last season with a .283 batting average and 35 steals after a torrid stretch in September.
C Jason Castro (L)
The team’s MVP in 2013 when he hit .276 with 18 homers and 56 RBIs and was an All-Star.
1B Chris Carter (R)
Carter set the club record for strikeouts in a season with 212, but he mashed 29 homers and drove in 82.
3B Matt Dominguez (R)
A steady hand at third base, Dominguez showed surprising power in ’13 with 21 homers and 77 RBIs.
DH Marc Krauss (L)
The broad-shouldered Krauss made his debut last year and flashed some impressive raw power from left side.
RF L.J. Hoes (R)
Acquired from the Orioles in the Bud Norris trade, Hoes is still trying to establish himself in majors.
LF Robbie Grossman (S)
Grossman got better with more playing time and wound up hitting .268 with a .332 on-base percentage.
SS Jonathan Villar (S)
His speed makes him one of the most exciting players to watch, but he needs more discipline in his game.
C Carlos Corporan (S)
Did a solid job while backing up Jason Castro, hitting .225 with seven homers and 20 RBIs.
1B Jesus Guzman (R)
The Astros acquired him in a trade from the Padres as a right-handed option at first base with Brett Wallace.
OF J.D. Martinez (R)
The Astros removed him from 40-man roster after tough 2013, but he had a big winter in Venezuela.
INF Cesar Izturis (S)
The veteran won a Gold Glove and made an All-Star team back in the mid-2000s. More recently, he hit just .225 in only 143 games for four different teams over the past three seasons.
RH Scott Feldman
The lone veteran in the rotation; the Astros needed someone to eat innings and mold youngsters.
RH Jarred Cosart
Former top prospect had a dazzling debut in 2013. Now we’ll find out what he can do in a full season.
LH Brett Oberholtzer
Not considered one of the club’s top minor-league arms, but opened eyes with his solid debut season.
LH Dallas Keuchel
Bounced between the rotation and bullpen last year as the Astros shuffled starters. He’s better suited to start.
RH Jerome Williams
After being out of baseball in 2010, Williams set a career high in innings in 2012, then surpassed that total last season in 25 starts for the Angels.
RH Chad Qualls (Closer)
Returns to Houston as most experienced member of a young bullpen and the likely candidate to close games.
RH Matt Albers
Albers, who was traded from Astros in 2007, returns to hold down a back-end spot. He’s a strike-thrower.
RH Josh Fields
Former Rule 5 Draft pick was only Astros reliever to last entire season on roster, and showed promise.
RH Jesse Crain
Veteran put up tremendous numbers during All-Star season before injuries forced him to miss second half.
LH Kevin Chapman
Will take over as the situational lefty in the bullpen following the departure of Wes Wright.
RH Josh Zeid
Made 24 relief appearances in final two months of last season, posting a 1.23 ERA in September.
RH Lucas Harrell
Pitched in long relief last year after struggling as a starter, though he could wind up back in rotation.
2013 Top Draft Pick
Mark Appel, RHP
After taking a 17-year-old infielder out of Puerto Rico with their first pick in the 2012 draft, the Astros took Appel, a polished right-handed pitcher from Stanford, with the top selection last year. He was drafted high by the Pirates a year earlier and chose to return for his senior season at Stanford, where he was 10–4 with a 2.12 ERA. Appel, who was born in Houston and has tons of family in the area, made 10 combined starts between Class A Quad Cities and short-season Tri-City, going 3–1 with a 3.79 ERA. Appel, 22, will come to major-league camp this spring, but he’s not going to be competing for a spot in the rotation. Expect the Astros to allow him to pitch a full season in the minor leagues before they hope he becomes the ace of their staff sometime in 2015.
SS Carlos Co rrea (19)
Was the second-youngest player in the Midwest League and still led league in OPS (.872) and was third in batting average (.320).
OF George Springer (24)
Put together a monster season, hitting combined .303 with 37 homers, 108 RBIs and 45 steals between Double-A and Triple-A.
2B-OF Delino DeShields Jr. (21)
Will make the move to center field at Class AA this year after hitting .317 as a second baseman at Class A Lancaster.
1B Jonathan Singleton (22)
Should make major-league debut following tough 2013 season that included 50-game suspension for violating minor league baseball’s drug policy.
RHP Lance McCullers Jr. (20)
First full pro season for fire-baller resulted in 117 strikeouts in 104.2 innings at Class A Quad Cities.
RHP Mike Foltynewicz (22)
One of the hardest throwers in the system, he should begin the year in starting rotation at Triple-A.
SS Nolan Fontana (22)
An on-base machine, Fontana drew 102 walks in 104 games for Class A Lancaster in ’13.
RF Domingo Santana (21)
Has a big-time arm and can hit for power, mashing 25 homers at Double-A last year.
Beyond the Box Score
Junior Express Reid Ryan, the son of Hall of Fame pitcher Nolan Ryan, was named the Astros’ president of business operations on May 17. Ryan founded the Double-A Corpus Christi Hooks (Astros) and Triple-A Round Rock Express (Rangers) and was hired by owner Jim Crane to help restore some goodwill in Houston.
See you in court Crane filed a lawsuit in November against former owner Drayton McLane, Comcast and NBC Universal, saying the team had lost tens of millions of dollars or more because of what the plaintiffs contend to be an inflated television deal that was negotiated by McLane, Comcast and the owner of the NBA’s Houston Rockets. McLane sold the Astros to Crane’s group in November 2011.
Springer has sprung Outfielder George Springer had one of the finest seasons in minor-league history en route to Texas League Player of the Year honors. In 2013, he became the first minor leaguer in franchise history and the first since Grant Desme in 2009 to hit 30 homers and steal 30 bases in the same season.
Coaching turnover The Astros made a few changes to their coaching staff for 2014. Brent Strom returns to the Astros as pitching coach, the same role he held in 1996. Pat Listach (first-base coach) joined the organization, and Craig Bjornson returned as the bullpen coach for the second time in three years. Dave Trembley, who served as third-base coach, took over as bench coach, with former bench coach Eduardo Perez moving to the third-base box.
Top pick three-peat For the third consecutive year, the Astros will have the first pick in the MLB Draft in June. After taking shortstop Carlos Correa with the first pick in 2012, the Astros took Stanford pitcher Mark Appel with the top pick in 2013. They are the first team to have the No. 1 pick three years in a row.
Celebrating equality The Astros will play host to Major League Baseball’s Civil Rights Game on May 30 at Minute Maid Park against the Orioles. The game, which will be televised nationally on MLB Network, was developed by MLB to pay tribute to those who fought on and off the field for equal rights for all Americans.
Hope for the future? The Astros set a franchise record by putting six of their minor-league affiliates in the playoffs. Class A Quad Cities and short-season Tri-City both won their respective league championships.