Jose Altuve's emergence is one of the reasons why these young Astros could take another step forward this season
You could argue that the Astros had nowhere to go but up in 2014. After all, they won just 51 games the year before and couldn’t afford another 100-loss season. But the Astros wound up making one of the biggest turnarounds in baseball last year, improving by 19 games and injecting some enthusiasm and promise into a franchise that sorely needed it.
The challenge now for the Astros under first-year manager A.J. Hinch is to take another giant leap forward and perhaps even flirt with a winning record. They addressed their biggest need by signing veteran relievers Pat Neshek and Luke Gregerson to bolster the back end of the bullpen, and they re-signed shortstop Jed Lowrie, who had spent the previous two seasons in Oakland after coming to the Astros in a trade prior to the 2012 season. The team also addressed their lineup by trading with the Braves for slugging catcher/outfielder Evan Gattis, signing free-agent outfielder Colby Rasmus, and acquiring third baseman Luis Valbuena along with pitcher Dan Straily from the Cubs for center fielder Dexter Fowler. Houston’s lineup still has a few holes, and the starting rotation could use another veteran arm to go along with Dallas Keuchel, Collin McHugh and Scott Feldman, but this team should be more competitive than it has been in years — especially if some of the highly touted youngsters, led by high-flying outfielder George Springer and slugging first baseman Jon Singleton, live up to their potential.
The pieces are slowly falling into place in Houston, where 100-loss seasons are in the rearview mirror and playoff contention could soon be on the horizon.
The Astros’ rotation lacks a true ace, though it has some depth. Keuchel emerged as one of the better lefthanders in the league last year, and righthander McHugh came out of nowhere and had a terrific rookie season. Then there’s Feldman, who pitched well when healthy and has stabilized the rotation. Keuchel and McHugh both had career years and will be asked to do it again. Keuchel went 12–9 with a 2.93 ERA in 29 starts, leading the team in wins, innings (200), complete games (five) and quality starts. McHugh, meanwhile, went 11–9 with a 2.73 ERA in 25 starts and finished fourth in AL Rookie of the Year voting. Lefty Brett Oberholtzer likely has the fourth spot in the rotation locked up, though he’ll have to pitch more consistently. The final spot in the rotation figures to be a free-for-all, but could end up going to Straily.
GM Jeff Luhnow set out in the winter to upgrade a bullpen that has blown 74 saves the past three seasons. He made a run at high-priced closers Andrew Miller and David Robertson and wound up with a pair of quality arms in veterans Gregerson and Neshek, who will combine with Chad Qualls in a formidable late-inning combo. Luhnow hinted that Gregerson would get his first chance to close games, but Qualls has quite a bit of closing experience, too. There is depth in the bullpen, with Josh Fields, who had periods last year when he was nearly unhittable, and lefthander Tony Sipp, who was a great pickup early in the season. Young lefty Kevin Chapman also returns, and the Astros picked up righthander Will Harris off waivers.
The Astros feel great about their middle infield with All-Star and 2014 MLB batting champion Jose Altuve at second base and newcomer Lowrie at shortstop. Altuve and Lowrie are familiar with each other, having played the entire 2012 season together in Houston, so there will be very little learning curve. Altuve isn’t headed for any Gold Gloves, but he’s an above-average fielder who isn’t fazed by his lack of size. And his incredible ability to put the bat on the ball — he hit .341 last year with a club-record 225 hits — puts him in the upper echelon of second basemen. Lowrie lacks range and arm strength, but he’s a steady hand when healthy and brings some veteran leadership the clubhouse was lacking.
The Astros had the majors’ worst output from the corner infield spots last year as third baseman Matt Dominguez regressed at the plate and rookie first baseman Singleton scuffled in his big-league debut. The Astros added Valbuena, who hit 16 home runs and posted an OBP of .341 with the Cubs last season. Valbuena figures to platoon with Dominguez if not replace him in the starting lineup. There’s plenty to like with the slugging Singleton, who hit 13 homers and had 44 RBIs in 95 games last year despite hitting just .168. He struck out a whopping 134 times in 310 at-bats, though, and was lost at the plate by season’s end. A contract extension was offered to Dominguez after he hit .241 with 21 homers and 77 RBIs in his first full season in the majors in 2013, but he slumped last year across the board.
Springer could blossom into a superstar in his first full season — assuming he remains healthy. He made his long-awaited debut last year and hit 20 homers and drove in 51 runs in just 78 games (he missed the final two-and-a-half months with a quad injury). Springer is capable of playing in center, but he will likely remain in right field with the addition of Rasmus. A career .246 hitter, Rasmus is capable of hitting 25 home runs if he stays healthy. The Astros are kicking themselves for releasing J.D. Martinez last spring after what he did for the Tigers. However, Houston is hoping it has solved this problem by acquiring Gattis. While he’s still a work in progress with the glove in the outfield, the Astros are hoping he will take dead aim at the Crawford Boxes with a swing that has produced 43 home runs the past two seasons. Alex Presley, Jake Marisnick, Robbie Grossman, Domingo Santana and L.J. Hoes are in the mix for one or two bench spots.
Despite a couple of years of trade rumors, Jason Castro remains the starter. He didn’t have a good season at the plate, and considering he’s approaching free agency, it remains to be seen whether the Astros make a long-term commitment to the former first-round pick. The Astros acquired Hank Conger to serve as the backup, a role that switch-hitting Carlos Corporan (traded to Texas in January) served in last year. Conger is a master at framing pitches. Gattis also is capable of getting behind the plate if need be.
Chris Carter blossomed into one of the most feared sluggers in the AL last year, finishing second in the league with 37 homers. Most of his damage came in a two-month span when he put up MVP-type numbers, hitting .296 with 23 homers and 55 RBIs from July 3-Sept. 5. The rest of the season, however, he was a strikeout machine. Marwin Gonzalez can play all over the infield, but he’s more suited to play shortstop and second. Valbuena can handle third, second and even shortstop in a pinch. Presley can play all over the outfield and has surprising pop for his size.
The Astros have restocked their farm system, which is now one of the best in the game. Much of that was done, however, at the expense of the major league club, but things are starting to turn around on that end, too. And after butting heads last year with former manager Bo Porter, GM Jeff Luhnow tabbed A.J. Hinch to take the club to the next level. Hinch has done practically everything in the game and works very much in lockstep with Luhnow, which was Porter’s undoing.
If the Astros get solid contributions from young players like Springer and Singleton, some added thump from additions Gattis and Rasmus, and bounce-back seasons from Castro and Dominguez, the lineup isn’t bad. There are still a few holes and question marks, but having players like Altuve and Springer at the top isn’t a bad place to start. And Carter and Lowrie have shown that they can be productive everyday players as well. The rotation is one starter away from being pretty good, but that’s assuming Keuchel and McHugh weren’t one-hit wonders. If nothing else, there is finally some hope in Houston.
2015 Prediction: 4th in AL West
2B Jose Altuve (R) Coming off a season in which he led MLB in hitting, Altuve has emerged as one of the game’s top bats.
SS Jed Lowrie (S) Lowrie, who started at shortstop for the Astros in 2012, signed a three-year deal to return to Houston.
RF George Springer (R) Springer could be a superstar in waiting after hitting 20 homers and driving in 51 runs in 78 games last year.
LF Evan Gattis (R) His glove may be suspect, but there’s no doubt about the power he could bring, especially at home.
DH Chris Carter (R) For two months last year, Carter was the most feared slugger in baseball. Can he do it for an entire season?
CF Colby Rasmus (L) Has hit 20-plus home runs three different times, but also has trouble staying healthy.
1B Jon Singleton (L) The Astros are committed to Singleton, who showed power flashes last year but struck out too much.
C Jason Castro (L) The veteran catcher slumped at the plate last year and will be aiming at a bounce-back season offensively.
3B Matt Dominguez (R) Dominguez fell off offensively last year, but the Astros still see some promise in a bat that’s shown some pop.
C Hank Conger (S) The Astros traded for Conger and raved about his ability to frame pitches and handle pitchers.
OF Alex Presley (L) Presley is a versatile bat with some power, which is why the Astros signed him to a $1 million deal.
3B Luis Valbuena (L) Acquired from Cubs as part of Dexter Fowler trade, could platoon with Dominguez or seize starting job outright.
INF Marwin Gonzalez (S) Gonzalez did a nice job filling in at shortstop last year, but he’s better suited as a versatile backup.
OF Jake Marisnick (R) Marisnick is one of the most athletic players on the team, but where will he play in a crowded outfield?
LH Dallas Keuchel After barely making the rotation out of spring camp, Keuchel emerged as one of game’s top lefties.
RH Scott Feldman The veteran provided leadership off the field and pitched well on the mound when he was healthy.
RH Collin McHugh The waiver pickup came out of nowhere last year and emerged as one of the top rookie arms in the AL.
LH Brett Oberholtzer Oberholtzer’s career has been up and down, but he’s shown enough potential to earn a rotation spot.
RH Dan Straily Went 1-3 in 14 games (8 starts) with A’s and Cubs last season.
LH Luke Gregerson (Closer) Should get his first chance to be the closer after being behind Heath Bell, Huston Street and Sean Doolittle.
RH Chad Qualls Qualls did a pretty nice job as the Astros’ closer last year, but he’s probably a better fit in the eighth inning.
RH Pat Neshek Signed a multi-year deal with the Astros after begging for a job a year ago, eventually landing with Cardinals.
RH Josh Fields Hard thrower had some very impressive stretches last year, but he still has to put it all together.
LH Kevin Chapman Had three stints in Houston last year and was scoreless in 12 of his final 13 outings.
LH Tony Sipp Veteran finished third among Astros relievers in ERA and had a .138 batting average vs. left-handed bats.
RH Will Harris Struck out 35 batters in 29.0 innings working out of Arizona’s bullpen in 2014.
Beyond the Box Score
Most valuable Jose Altuve had one of the most prolific seasons at the plate in club history in 2014. The 5'6" second baseman became the first Astros player to win a batting title by leading the majors with a .341 batting average. He led baseball and smashed Craig Biggio’s club record with 225 hits, and he also led the American League with 56 stolen bases en route to being named the team’s Most Valuable Player for the second time in three years.
Lone Star supremacy The Astros took the season series from their in-state rival Texas Rangers last year for the first time since 2006, and that enabled them to finally finish somewhere other than last place. Houston finished in fourth place in the AL West, three games ahead of the Rangers. The Astros, who went 2–17 against Texas in 2013, were 11–8 against the Rangers last year and took home the Silver Boot Trophy.
At home at the top For the third consecutive year, the Astros had the No. 1 pick in the MLB Draft, but they failed to sign their 2014 top selection. Houston took lefthander Brady Aiken with the first pick but couldn’t sign him after concerns cropped up about his elbow in a physical after he had agreed to terms. As a result, the Astros will receive an extra pick (No. 2 overall) in the 2015 draft, giving them two of the first five picks.
Flashing leather Lefthander Dallas Keuchel became the first Astros pitcher to win a Gold Glove in 2014. Keuchel led all pitchers in total chances (66) and assists (47), while ranking fourth among AL pitchers in putouts (18). He made just one error all season for a .985 fielding percentage, which ranked sixth among AL pitchers. Keuchel was one of only 12 qualifying AL pitchers to make one error or fewer, and one of four to do so in at least 200 innings, joining Corey Kluber, Mark Buehrle and Felix Hernandez.
Hack attack The Astros were the victim of an embarrassing hacking episode last year when confidential internal correspondence between team officials regarding trade talks with other clubs was made public on the website Deadspin.com in May. The Astros worked with MLB and the FBI to investigate the leaks. The information was released through a website in which users can anonymously share hacked information, and it was then picked up by Deadspin.
2014 Top Draft Pick
Derek Fisher, OF
The Astros took California high school lefthander Brady Aiken with the No. 1 overall pick in the draft but failed to sign him after elbow concerns emerged in his physical with the club. With the 37th overall pick (competitive balance round A), a pick the Astros acquired in the 2013 Bud Norris trade with the Orioles, they took Fisher. After hitting .281 with 17 homers and 127 RBIs in his three-year college career — and helping Virginia to the College World Series as the everyday left fielder — Fisher spent most of his first professional season at short-season Tri-City and hit .303 with a .378 on-base percentage with two homers, 18 RBIs and 17 stolen bases in 41 games. The Astros believe his speed-power combo could mean a quick move through the minor leagues.
Top 10 Prospects
1. Carlos Correa, SS (20) The former No. 1 overall pick was probably days away from being promoted to Double-A when he broke his leg after a great season at High-A Lancaster.
2. Mark Appel, RHP (23) Appel’s first full professional season was nothing short of a roller coaster, but he finished with strong showings at Double-A and the Arizona Fall League.
3. Josh Hader, LHP (20) The Astros stole Hader from the Orioles in the 2013 Bud Norris trade, and he dominated last year in a hitter-friendly environment at High-A Lancaster.
4. Colin Moran, 3B (22) Moran was taken five spots behind No. 1 pick Appel in the 2013 draft and was traded to Houston last year as part of the Jarred Cosart deal with the Marlins.
5. Vincent Velasquez, RHP (22) A favorite in the organization, the hard-throwing Velasquez has the tools and the makeup to be a successful pitcher if he figures out a way to stay healthy.
6. Michael Feliz, RHP (21) Fared well in his first full season in the U.S. last year, going 8–6 with a 4.03 ERA at Class A Quad Cities.
7. Brett Phillips, OF (20) A left-handed bat, he hit .310 in 130 games between Class A Quad Cities and Lancaster with 29 doubles, 14 triples, 17 home runs, 68 RBIs and 23 stolen bases.
8. Lance McCullers Jr., RHP (21) Secondary stuff still trying to catch up with his power fastball.
9. Teoscar Hernandez, OF (22) Hernandez, who stands 6'2", is bursting with athleticism and has 20-homer power potential in the big leagues.
10. Domingo Santana, OF (22) Hit .296 with 16 home runs at Class AAA Oklahoma City and went hitless in brief stint (17 AB) with big-league club.