"Houston, we have liftoff."
This cheesiest of tag lines is an apt description of the Astros' 2014 season. While there were plenty of off-field issues -- more on those in a bit -- the team on the field won 70 games, a 19-win improvement over 2013's embarrassing 51-101 record. They had winning records in May and August, and even finished out of last place for the first time since 2010, when they were still in the National League. Jose Altuve morphed from a mandatory All-Star to a legitimate one, and the first wave of prospects from the most-hyped and scrutinized rebuild in MLB history hit the major leagues. To continue with the space theme, it was a giant leap for Astros-kind.
There were off-field issues, though. The team failed to sign top overall draft pick Brady Aiken due to concerns about the size of his ulnar collateral ligament and subsequent risk for future Tommy John surgery. This resulted in them being unable to sign a pair of other draft picks, earning them all kinds of scorn from everyone around baseball. They had a dispute with Comcast over their regional TV coverage, resulting in a 0.0 Nielsen rating for multiple games. Then, there was the firing of manager Bo Porter, which seemed a bit unfair given (a) Porter guided his team to the second-best win total improvement of any MLB club in 2014, and (b) the Astros didn't hire (or attempt to hire) Joe Maddon as his successor.
In spite of all those misgivings, 2015 is a new year. The Astros made a few win-now moves over the offseason, but also bolstered their organizational depth in the process. Newcomers Evan Gattis, Jed Lowrie, and Luis Valbuena provide big upgrades over those they will be replacing. Others like Dan Straily and Colby Rasmus provide breakout potential, and the farm system is one year closer to the major leagues. Will this be enough to get them into the playoff hunt?
The Astros have been in existence since 1962 (they spent three seasons as the Houston Colt .45's) but never had a batting champion until diminutive second baseman Jose Altuve hit .341 in 707 plate appearances last season. He also stole 56 bases in 65 attempts, resulting in 4.9 WAR on the year. While his .365 BABIP is unsustainable, there are signs that he is a much better player than the guy who accumulated just 2.3 WAR in the three seasons prior to 2014. Shortstop Jed Lowrie is back for a second tour of duty with the Astros, having signed a three-year contract in December. Lowrie may be trade bait before the end of that deal -- the Carlos Correa era is nigh -- but until then, he's an above average hitter at short who gets on base frequently.
Last year, third baseman Matt Dominguez was the worst everyday player in baseball, rating two wins below replacement level. The Astros made one of the more underrated moves of the offseason, in my opinion, to acquire Cubs third sacker Luis Valbuena. Valbuena, a left-handed bat who mashes righties, will be a sizable upgrade if he can maintain last season's 116 wRC+. Dominguez hasn't been much of an offensive threat throughout his brief career, but he did hit lefties better than right-handed pitching in 2014. However, there will not be a platoon; Valbuena is the starter, while Dominguez will be competing for a bench role.
Then, there is the logjam -- an honest-to-God logjam -- at first base and DH. Chris Carter hit 37 home runs in 572 plate appearances as the team's primary designated hitter in 2014, but hit just .227 with a .308 on-base percentage. For the third year in a row, he struck out in over 31 percent of his plate appearances. Jonathan Singleton struggled in the first 362 plate appearances of his career last season, but didn't sacrifice his patient plate approach in the process. He hit just .168 and struck out in 37 percent of plate appearances, but also walked 13.8 percent of the time. Former Braves catcher Evan Gattis won't be donning the tools of ignorance in 2015, and is the most likely player to see some time in the outfield if all three sluggers are in the lineup. Gattis' 24.2 percent strikeout rate is minuscule compared to Carter and Singleton, but so is his 5.5 percent walk rate. He hit homers at a similar clip, though, slugging 22 of them in just 401 plate appearances.
The Astros have a trio of talented-but-flawed outfielders in Jake Marisnick, George Springer, and Colby Rasmus. Springer, like the Carter/Singleton/Gattis troika, is a member of the "swing for the fences and ask questions later" club. He electrified the Astros' fanbase with 20 home runs in 345 plate appearances, but also struck out 114 times. Rasmus also strikes out a lot -- you're probably noticing that this is a theme -- but is just one year removed from a five-win season with the Toronto Blue Jays. Eight million dollars is a decent gamble for his upside, especially if it nets the team any sort of prospect return at the trade deadline. Marisnick was acquired from the Miami Marlins at last year's trade deadline, and he hit a respectable .272 in 186 plate appearances. However, he only walked five times and finished the season with a .299 on-base percentage in an Astros uniform. A former top-100 prospect that is 17 months younger than Springer, Marisnick is already in the third organization of his professional career.
To no one's surprise, the most saber-friendly organizations in sports is relying on a pair of pitch framing savants to handle their pitching staff. Hank Conger hit .221/.293/.325 in 260 plate appearances with the Los Angeles Angels last season, but only 81 of them came after the All-Star break as he lost ground to Chris Iannetta, who is still with the Angels. Conger ranked third among all MLB catchers in framing runs added, according to Baseball Prospectus. Jason Castro, who was 12th, also saw significant regression in his offensive game. Castro was an All-Star in 2013, but hit just .222/.286/.366 with 14 home runs last season.
While Scott Feldman is still the highest-paid pitcher on the Astros' staff, that fact isn't as sad as it was at this time in 2014. The reason isn't because of a breakout season from Feldman -- he was what we expected -- but rather breakout seasons from lefthander Dallas Keuchel and righty Collin McHugh. Keuchel led the Astros staff with 200 innings pitched and allowed a 2.93 ERA and 1.18 WHIP, earning him the nod for Opening Day this season. He struck out three batters for every walk and finished the year with a 3.21 FIP. He led the majors with five complete games thanks to his zone-pounding ways. His 3.73 pitches per plate appearance were lower than the league average, and he induced ground balls at a 63.5 percent clip. McHugh relied more on strikeouts -- he fanned 157 batters in 154 1/3 innings -- and had the lowest ERA and WHIP of any Astros starter in 2014. He isn't as safe of a bet in 2015 thanks to a low BABIP and previous command issues, but will be counted upon as a starter again in 2015.
Feldman was a solid innings eater in the middle of the rotation, allowing a 3.74 ERA in 180 1/3 innings. His 4.11 FIP was a result of a lackluster 2.14 strikeout-to-walk ratio, but that's par for the course with Feldman. Impressive stat: he averaged nearly 6 1/3 innings per start in spite of a 14 percent strikeout rate. More impressive stat: Feldman only had five outings with more than three earned runs all season, or the same number as Max Scherzer had in a one-month stretch from mid-May to mid-June. Lefthander Brett Oberholtzer is behind the other starters due to a lat injury that sidelined him for two weeks, but the 25-year-old is projected to be the team's fourth starter after allowing a 4.39 ERA and 3.56 FIP in 143 2/3 innings last year.
The fifth starter battle will become somewhat anticlimactic if Oberholtzer has to begin the season on the disabled list, but is still shaping up as a decent competition. Dan Straily was acquired from the Cubs in the Dexter Fowler deal, and represents the player with the most upside of this group. Asher Wojciechowski is making a case for himself with a stellar spring performance, but I refuse to type that name more than once this season so he better begin the year in the minors. Roberto Hernandez is a non-roster invitee with a decent chance of cracking the 25-man roster, while former Twins Samuel Deduno is still walking too many batters to be effective.
The Astros' bullpen had the highest ERA in baseball for the second consecutive year in 2014, allowing a 4.80 ERA in 468 2/3 innings. This was a stark improvement over the disaster that was 2013, however, as the Astros allowed a semi-respectable 4.11 FIP and threw 65 fewer innings in '14. After a failed attempt at new White Sox closer David Robertson, the Astros signed free agents Luke Gregerson and Pat Neshek, both of whom have built successful careers despite lackluster fastball velocity. Gregerson should get the first shot at the closer role after allowing a 2.12 ERA in 72 1/3 innings with the Oakland Athletics last year. Joining them will be holdovers Josh Fields, Chad Qualls, and Tony Sipp, who combined for 3.0 WAR in 2014. Advanced metrics indicate that this could be a much better unit than what we saw last year, especially if Gregerson and Neshek are able to repeat what they did last season.
Down on the farm
Other than the Chicago Cubs' crop of stud prospects, no farm system has drawn more media attention in recent years than the Astros'. After all, when's the last time a minor league system was put on the cover of Sports Illustrated? While the hype may be a bit overblown, the Astros possess a deep system with plenty of star talent, some of which has already graduated to the majors. Carlos Correa, a shortstop that could arguably be considered the best prospect in baseball, is the jewel of the organization. Mark Appel is another former top overall pick with high-end potential, and he steadied himself with a solid performance in Double-A late in 2014. There is plenty of outfield talent to pair with Springer and Marisnick, including Domingo Santana, who had an .858 OPS at Triple-A before a late-season call-up last year. Teoscar Hernandez provides a solid combination of power and speed to go along with his great name.
Player to watch: Evan Gattis
There are about a dozen different players that could feature in this section, but Gattis wins the tiebreaker because of his nickname (El Oso Blanco) and the fact that he doesn't wear batting gloves. His long road to the major leagues is an incredible story, but the former Braves backstop has done much more than make for a tale of Paul Bunyan-esque proportions -- an appropriate comparison, given his rugged, bearded profile. Gattis has hit 43 home runs in 783 career plate appearances and is now moving to one of the more homer-friendly ballparks for right-handers in the league. Fans in the Crawford Boxes will want to pay close attention when Gattis is at the plate, both for souvenirs and safety reasons. An above average pitch framer in 2014, the Astros will likely use him anywhere but behind the plate this year with so many other catching options in the organization. While this may decrease his overall value, it will give him more chances to add to his already gaudy home run total.
This has to be the year the Astros return to relevance, right? They haven't had a winning season since 2008, and this roster is much better than anything they have put on the field in the past few years. The offense might set a record for combined home runs, walks, and strikeouts in a season, but should be a vast improvement over the unit that finished 14th in the AL in runs scored last season. The bullpen will be better with Neshek and Gregerson handling a large chunk of the late inning duties, but starters like Keuchel and McHugh need to prove that their 2014 numbers were the real deal. While the latest set of improvements might not be enough to get them into the playoff hunt -- this division will be brutally tough once again -- they should improve on last year's win total and challenge for a .500 record.