Using the phrase "rock bottom" to describe the Houston Astros' 2013 season might be an understatement. On the field, the team trotted out a payroll befitting a 1913 club en route to a 51-111 season, their third consecutive 100-loss campaign. Off the field, public relations debacles and a Mexican standoff between television companies further damaged the club's brand. The good news is that 2014 probably cannot get any worse, and all of the talent the team has been stockpiling in the minor leagues is starting to surface at the big league level. Whether this translates to a better win-loss record remains to be seen, but one thing is for sure: better days are ahead in Houston.
Manager: Bo Porter (2nd year)
2013 record: 51-111, 5th in AL West
SB Nation blog: Crawfish Boxes
First series vs. Tigers: May 5-8 @ Comerica Park
Unlike last year, the Astros were not opposed to loosening the purse strings this offseason. This allowed them to go out and trade for Colorado Rockies center fielder Dexter Fowler, who is due $7,350,000 this year. Fowler hit .263/.369/.407 last year, but his home/road splits are what have many concerned. If he can prove that the .184-point difference in OPS between games played at Coors Field and at sea level is simply a matter of enjoying home cooking, then the Astros are easy winners of the trade.
On either side of Fowler, a pair of position battles have yet to determine a hierarchy of playing time. George Springer will be along at some point (more on him later), but until then the onus falls on some combination of L.J. Hoes, Robbie Grossman, J.D. Martinez, and Adwin Chambers. Hoes and Grossman are the preferred options among most Astros fans, with the former providing all sorts of excellent pun opportunities. Martinez made some big changes to his swing after hitting .250/.272/.378 in 310 plate appearances last season. Chambers spent the last three seasons in the St. Louis Cardinals' system, and has spent all of Spring Training flaunting his 2011 World Series ring as motivation.
The Opening Day infield is nearly set, but it could look very different by the end of the season if and when prospects are called up -- as is the case with practically this entire roster. The only position of uncertainty is at first base, where Marc Krauss and Jesus Guzman are frontrunners to make the club. Krauss spent the majority of his time in the outfield last year, but is currently having a monster spring with a 1.177 OPS in 10 games. Guzman also spent time in the outfield for the San Diego Padres in 2013, but a precipitous two-year decline in his offensive production led to a trade during the offseason. Promising prospect Jonathan Singleton will probably spend another year in the minors for both professional and personal benefit. His recent bouts with both marijuana and alcohol addiction seem to have contributed to his poor numbers last season after he steamrolled his way through the minors in the previous three seasons. Japhet Amador is a spectacularly-named 315-pound slugger from Mexico who I am pulling for to make the team based on this description alone.
Elsewhere, things seem to be more set in stone than they were by this point in 2013. Jose Altuve will be the starting second baseman for the third consecutive season. His offensive numbers took a step back last season thanks to a 28-point drop in BABIP. When your walk and strikeout rates are as low as Altuve's -- 5.0% and 12.2% for his career, respectively -- that small drop makes a major difference. Third baseman Matt Dominguez will look to add a few more singles and walks to the 46 extra base hits and above average defense he contributed in 2013. Shortstop Jonathan Villar is an interesting stopgap option until Carlos Correa inherits the throne, but unfortunately, Villar's career-defining moment has already occurred.
The Astros' 2013 catching duo provided an interesting combination, accumulating the ninth-most WAR in baseball while still combining for the second-highest strikeout rate in the game. Jason Castro was worth 4.3 fWAR, hitting a robust .276/.350/.485 with 18 home runs in 491 plate appearances. It may go the way of Alex Avila's 2011, however, as Castro's 16.5% home run-per-fly ball rate is unsustainable going forward. Backup Carlos Corporan was solid defensively with an "eh, could be worse" .288 wOBA and 79 wRC+. By comparison, Gerald Laird had a 65 wRC+ as the Tigers' primary catcher in 2009. Corporan will be pushed by Max Stassi in 2014 and may be the odd man out soon after.
Tigers fans may chuckle at the idea of Scott Feldman being named the Astros' Opening Day starter, but it was not long ago that the likes of Jason Johnson, Mike Maroth, and Brian Moehler were toeing the rubber for the Tigers to begin the season. Feldman's 2013 season was a story of two halves, with the better part coming early in the season as a member of the Chicago Cubs. He held a slew of weak offenses to a 2.31 ERA in a seven start stretch in April and May, keeping his ERA low enough to entice a mid-season trade to the Baltimore Orioles. Once out of the National League, Feldman allowed a 4.27 ERA in 15 starts -- though it's worth noting that Porcelloing his final start of the season leaves him with a 3.57 ERA in 14 starts. Feldman signed a three year, $30 million contract with the Astros during the offseason.
While Feldman is expected to be the veteran leader of the staff, young right-hander Jarred Cosart will likely be the most talented pitcher on the roster come March 31st. Cosart posted some ugly peripherals in a 60 inning stint in the big leagues last year, but an 85.9% strand rate and 54.5% ground ball rate helped him post a tidy 1.95 ERA in 10 starts. Right-hander Mike Foltynewicz joined Mark Appel on Baseball Prospectus' top 101 prospect list this year, but both are expected to be sent down to the minor leagues for more seasoning. Barring injury, both should make their big league debuts in 2014.
Left-hander Dallas Keuchel seems to have the edge on the race for the fifth starter's spot, edging right-handers Jerome Williams and Lucas Harrell. Harrell was dynamite in his first start of the 2013 season, allowing one run in six innings against the Texas Rangers. Everything after that was a mess, however, leading to what some expect may be an outright release headed his way in a few days. Keuchel was not much better last year, but he had yet to allow a run during the spring until he got tagged for seven runs by the Miami Marlins yesterday. Don't worry, Giancarlo Stanton was involved. The last two rotation spots will likely belong to Brad Peacock -- who is rocking a new changeup this spring -- and Brett Oberholtzer.
It is not an understatement to say that the Astros' bullpen was an absolute dumpster fire last season. They finished the year with a 4.92 ERA and 5.09 FIP, both of which were (by far) the highest in baseball. By those measures, the Astros had the worst pen in the game since the 2010 Arizona Diamondbacks. Among the rubble, Kevin Chapman and Jose Veras were the only two pitchers to hold opposing teams to an ERA under 3.00. Only four more -- Erik Bedard, Rhiner Cruz, Josh Zeid, and Wesley Wright -- had sub-4.00 ERAs. Wright and Veras were the only ones in that group to throw 30 innings or more out of the pen (Bedard also made 26 starts). Zeid and Chapman are still around, but the rest have been shipped out of town. They have been replaced by the likes of Chad Qualls and Matt Albers, who are currently competing for the closer spot.
Player to watch: George Springer
For those that are unaware, Springer is a consensus top-50 prospect who had a monster 2013 season. Splitting time between the Astros' Double- and Triple-A affiliates, Springer hit .303/.411/.600 with 37 home runs, 108 RBI, and 45 stolen bases. He has a less-than-impressive .192 batting average this spring, and is likely going to be sent down to the minor leagues to begin the year in order to preserve his arbitration clock for as long as possible. A talent like Springer is exciting in itself, but the center fielder's eventual promotion is bigger than that. His elevation to the big leagues represents the next stage of the franchise's long-awaited rebuilding process. Springer is the first of several promising prospects that will make their big league debuts in the next couple seasons, and his production will give us an early idea of what to expect from this club over the next several years.
Given how awful 2013 was for the Astros and their fans, the club seems committed to showing a significant improvement in the team's win-loss record in 2014. They are not going to improve by 40 games and challenge for a wild card spot, but a 65 win season will demonstrate serious progress from an organization that punted 2013 in favor of putting all their eggs in the "win later" basket. There is not enough talent here (yet) to get them out of the cellar, but I think the influx of talent this club will see throughout the summer will be enough to avoid their fourth consecutive 100-loss season.