Just looking at what the Houston Astros are putting on the field, it can be difficult to see a light at the end of this long, dark tunnel. The franchise has lost more than 100 games three consecutive years and spent just $26 million to field a team last season.
When you are playing in the American League West with powerhouse teams like Oakland and Texas as well as free-spending teams like Los Angeles and Seattle, it's not going to be pretty to watch if you're a Houston fan.
No one is going to say that 2014 will be significantly better than the last three years, but the Astros will certainly be more fascinating to watch.
General manager Jeff Luhnow has done an outstanding job rebuilding the farm system in such a short time, trading away the few valuable MLB assets remaining and drafting well. It's easier to add impact talent when you are picking No. 1, but you still have to develop that talent and the Astros certainly appear to be doing that.
Patience is a virtue that every fan in Houston needs right now. Keep the optimism flowing, because the Astros' spring training should be one of the most fascinating to watch this season.
Here is a recap of what has happened to the Astros this offseason, as well as a look at what to expect when the team reports to camp.
RHP Scott Feldman (Free Agent), RHP Jesse Crain (Free Agent), RHP Peter Moylan (Free Agent), RHP Chad Qualls (Free Agent), OF Adron Chambers (Free Agent), RHP Matt Albers (Free Agent), SS Cesar Izturis (Free Agent), RHP Jerome Williams (Free Agent), OF Dexter Fowler (Traded from Colorado), 1B/OF Jesus Guzman (Traded from San Diego), RHP Anthony Bass (Traded from San Diego)
LHP Erik Bedard (Free Agent), RHP Philip Humber (Free Agent), SS Ryan Jackson (Traded to San Diego), OF Brandon Barnes (Traded to Colorado), RHP Jordan Lyles (Traded to Colorado)
No one can accuse the Astros of pocketing their money this offseason, though they won't be confused for the Yankees anytime soon. They handed out $41.7 million in MLB contracts this offseason, not including minor league deals that were signed.
Most of the moves were to address the pitching staff, which is understandable since Houston didn't have one starter who threw more than 153.2 innings last year and only one with an ERA under 4.59 (Bud Norris).
Scott Feldman's job is to give the Astros innings; anything more should be considered a bonus. Jesse Crain is a low-risk, high-reward investment if he's healthy, which wasn't the case when the White Sox traded him to Tampa Bay at the deadline last year.
No one the Astros lost was a valuable piece of the future, so the team's goal was to add more parts to give them more options while they wait for the arrival of the future stars in the farm system.
Jesse Crain, RHP
Jesse Crain was one of baseball's best relievers in the first half of 2013, boasting an ERA of 0.38 with 46 strikeouts and 11 walks in 36.2 innings, but didn't pitch after June 29 due to arm issues.
The right-hander underwent surgery in October to repair tendinitis in his right biceps, but Brian McTaggart of MLB.com reported on February 4 that Crain threw for the first time since the procedure.
Crain will play catch off flat ground again on Wednesday (February 5) and Friday (February 7), and he plans to ramp up his throwing and eventually get on a mound. When Astros pitchers and catchers report to Kissimmee, Fla., for Spring Training next week, Crain will be behind his teammates.
Considering how much time Crain missed last season and that he's just now started throwing, a trip to the disabled list to start the year wouldn't be a surprise. The Astros want him at full strength, either to provide depth in their bullpen or possibly dangle as trade bait in July.
Crain is no good to anyone if the Astros rush his return and another injury crops up that prevents him from pitching in peak form.
Alex White, RHP
Alex White, a former first-round pick of the Cleveland Indians, has had a rough two years. He posted a 5.51 ERA over 20 games with Colorado in 2012, was traded to Houston that December and had Tommy John surgery in April 2013.
Using the typical recovery time from Tommy John, White should be ready to start throwing in real games very soon. He told MLB.com in January that his plan is to compete for an MLB job this spring.
Daniel (Roberts, rehab coordinator) has been great with not only the physical part, but the mental part. Knowing when to take steps forward and push a little bit, when to step back and relax and let it recover. We've had a smooth recovery. I certainly don't want to jinx myself by saying that, but it's been great, the time and effort me and Daniel and [strength and conditioning coordinator] Brendan Verner have put in since April to be ready.
White seems best suited for a role out of the bullpen because of the elbow surgery and his\ track record in the big leagues, but he's also 25 and plays for a team that can afford to ride out any adjustments he needs to make as a starter without the threat of a demotion.
This spring will tell the Astros how far along White is in the recovery process and how his pitches and command look. That will make it easier for them to make a decision about where he will start the season.
Houston Astros 2014 Coaching Staff (Seasons with Team)
|Manager: Bo Porter (2nd season)|
|Hitting Coach: John Mallee (2nd season)|
|Pitching Coach: Brent Strom (1st season)|
|First Base Coach: Tarrik Brock (1st season)|
|Third Base Coach: Pat Listach (1st season)|
|Bench Coach: Dave Trembley (1st season)|
|Bullpen Coach: Craig Bjornson (1st season)|
As you would expect with a franchise going into the third year with a general manager and rebuilding everything from the bottom up, the coaching staff is still in the embryonic stages of its life.
Manager Bo Porter was put in a no-win situation last year, trying to lead a team that was destined to be the worst in baseball. But this quote from MLB.com near the end of his debut season shows why the Astros have the right man in place to lead this team out of the doldrums.
I've learned a lot about my team, and I've learned a lot about myself. It's been very challenging, but at the same time, I would not change all the experiences which I've been through. I think we needed to go through them as an organization. I need to go through them as a manager.
It's not the most resonant statement ever made by a manager, but Porter shows a humility and willingness to grow that a lot of ego-driven people in a similar position wouldn't have made.
The Astros are going to help him look a lot better when their future talent arrives. His overall record won't show it, but expect a much more confident manager and coaching staff in 2014.
Houston Astros Projected 2014 Lineup
|1. Dexter Fowler, CF|
|2. Jose Altuve, 2B|
|3. Jason Castro, C|
|4. Chris Carter, 1B|
|5. Marc Krauss, DH|
|6. Robbie Grossman, LF|
|7. Matt Dominguez, 3B|
|8. L.J. Hoes, RF|
|9. Jonathan Villar, SS|
|Carlos Corporan, Catcher|
|Jesus Guzman, 1B/OF|
|Cesar Izturis, SS|
|J.D. Martinez, OF|
The Astros did make some moves to improve the lineup, most notably acquiring Dexter Fowler to lead off, but overall it's still a bad collection of talent that will finish at or near the bottom of the league in runs scored.
Of course, Fowler has to prove he can hit outside of Colorado (.880 OPS). His career stats away from Coors Field are alarming (.694 OPS) and probably a big reason why the Rockies couldn't find a better trade package for the 27-year-old.
Albert Chen of Sports Illustrated highlighted why the move makes sense for the Astros, even if it's not a game-changing deal for the struggling franchise.
Fowler will earn $7.35 million in 2014 and stay under team control as an arbitration-eligible player in 2015, so the rebuilding Astros will have him manning the outfield in Minute Maid Park for the next two years. This is not a franchise-altering deal for the Astros, coming off a miserable 111-loss season—but it’s precisely the kind of deal they need to be making.
Besides Fowler, there are other pieces in the lineup who make the Astros worth checking out on a nightly basis.
Jason Castro continues to look like one of the best all-around catchers in baseball, hitting .276/.350/.485 in 120 games last year. His 4.3 WAR would have ranked third among catchers, behind Yadier Molina, Joe Mauer (who played more games at first base last season) and Buster Posey, if he had enough plate appearances to qualify for the batting title.
Chris Carter doesn't make a lot of contact, striking out in 36.2 percent of his plate appearances last year, but when he does, odds are good the ball is going to go far (55 extra-base hits in 506 at-bats).
Don't be surprised to see some roster turnover as the season moves on, with top prospects George Springer and Jonathan Singleton nearly ready to take their spots in the lineup.
Houston Astros Projected 2014 Rotation
|No. 1 Scott Feldman, RHP|
|No. 2 Jarred Cosart, RHP|
|No. 3 Brett Oberholtzer, RHP|
|No. 4 Jerome Williams, RHP|
|No. 5 Brad Peacock, RHP|
The Astros have taken some of the pressure off their bullpen by signing right-handed pitchers Scott Feldman and Jerome Williams this winter. Feldman is a proven innings-eater, willing to serve any role asked of him.
In 30 starts last year, Feldman posted a respectable 3.86 ERA and 132-56 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 181.2 innings. Anything close to that in 2014 would feel like a huge win for the Astros, who didn't have one starter throw more than 160 innings last season.
Astros general manager Jeff Luhnow explained why signing a pitcher like Feldman was a priority for the team (via MLB.com).
He's a guy that induces a lot of ground balls, he's a guy that throws strikes and doesn't walk a lot of guys and he's had success. He's had a lot of success the last couple of years, and the years he was with the Rangers. We thought the Cubs got a good deal in getting him and got a good return in trading him to the Orioles. We had him on the radar from the end of our season as one of the guys we were targeting.
Young starters like Jarred Cosart, Brett Oberholtzer and Brad Peacock no longer have to worry about carrying the burden when they take the mound, because Feldman's presence will give the rotation someone capable of throwing six or seven innings each time he takes the mound.
Like the lineup, expect to see a revolving door of prospects coming up later in the year, led by Mark Appel, Mike Foltynewicz, Asher Wojciechowski and Nick Tropeano.
Houston Astros Projected 2014 Bullpen
|Closer: Chad Qualls, RHP|
|Setup: Matt Albers, RHP|
|Setup: Josh Fields, RHP|
|Reliever: Kevin Chapman, RHP|
|Reliever: Josh Zeid, RHP|
|Reliever: Anthony Bass, RHP|
|Reliever: Lucas Harrell, RHP|
The Astros certainly viewed the bullpen as a priority this offseason, bringing in two free agents (Chad Qualls, Matt Albers) and acquiring Anthony Bass in a trade with San Diego.
When your team has the worst bullpen ERA (4.92), batting average against (.270), save percentage (52) and strikeout-to-walk ratio (1.66) in baseball, you can understand why some upgrades are necessary.
More important is the Astros were able to acquire arms for the 'pen without having to overpay for anyone. Albers and Qualls signed for just over $8.4 million combined. Bass is a pre-arbitration player coming off a down year in San Diego.
Qualls is listed in the closer role simply because he's healthy and has experience, but Brian McTaggart of MLB.com noted that Luhnow hasn't committed to anyone in the role.
It's not the most dynamic collection of arms, but for a rebuilding team like Houston, there's no point in committing dollars to the bullpen.
A pitcher like Josh Fields could take a step forward after averaging more than one strikeout per inning last year (40 in 38 innings), but he must stop giving up nearly two homers per nine innings.
Carlos Correa, SS
The list of Astros' spring training invitees is far more impressive than the MLB team that will take the field on Opening Day.
Carlos Correa is the best of the bunch, even though he won't reach the big leagues until 2015, at the earliest. He was the No. 1 overall pick in the 2012 draft, ahead of Byron Buxton and Mark Appel.
Lauded for his hitting ability coming out of the Puerto Rico Baseball Academy, Correa dazzled in his first full season of professional ball, posting a .320/.405/.467 slash line as one of the youngest players (18 on Opening Day) in the pitcher-friendly Midwest League.
If that doesn't get you excited, Houston, nothing will.
George Springer, OF
There are few prospects in baseball who can match Springer's value relative to position. He's an excellent defensive center fielder, with range for days and plus arm strength, and brings elite power potential with the ability to steal bases, as well.
His biggest flaws are a long swing and poor two-strike approach that lead to high strikeout totals, but even with those problems, Springer's average, on-base and slugging percentages and home run totals have gone up every year in the minors.
Scouting stat lines is always a fool's errand, and Springer isn't likely to be a .300 hitter in the big leagues with 150-160 strikeouts, but his ability to work deep counts and draw walks makes him a candidate to post high OBP totals with enough contact to hit 20-25 homers.
Springer tore up Double-A and Triple-A last season (37 homers, 1.010 OPS), so it shouldn't take long for him to arrive in Houston this year.
Mike Foltynewicz, RHP
Mark Appel gets all the hype among Astros' pitching prospects because he was the No. 1 overall pick last year, but Mike Foltynewicz is the most exciting arm in the system.
A strong 6'4", 200-pound right-hander, Foltynewicz can throw a fastball 100 mph like it's nothing. His kind of arm strength is rare to find, though there are holes that have to corrected for the 22-year-old to reach his full potential.
The secondary stuff is just OK at best right now. Foltynewicz throws a curveball and changeup, but the breaking ball lacks consistent shape and the change is thrown too hard with little command to fool anyone.
Commanding the fastball and seeing even a half-grade jump in the curveball and changeup will make Foltynewicz at worst a mid-rotation starter with the potential for more because the heater is so good.
Mark Appel, RHP
Admittedly I only saw Mark Appel in person once last season late in the year after he went through the entire college season and draft process, but he left me cold.
There's plenty to be excited about. Right-handers don't often come along with above-average command, easy mechanics that they repeat well and flash three above-average or better pitches right out of the gate.
But Appel wasn't missing any bats at Low-A, a level he's far too advanced to struggle in. It was just one game, so don't read too much into it.
Appel still has all the ingredients of a solid No. 2 starter. I look forward to seeing how he looks after an offseason to recover, as well as how aggressively the Astros push him this spring after an emergency appendectomy on January 30.
Jarred Cosart, RHP
Jarred Cosart's near no-hitter in his first career start on July 12 against Tampa Bay was about the only good thing to take away from Houston in 2013.
Despite being brought along as a starter, Cosart still seems destined for a role in the back of a bullpen. You like that the Astros are patient enough to let try starting, but control problems and some violence in the delivery make him a clear-cut choice to close when the team is ready to take the next step.
Because of Cosart's limitations in the rotation, calling him a breakout candidate is dangerous. But 23-year-old right-handers with a fastball that can touch 99 mph with a power curveball are rare to find.
It won't take much for Cosart to improve on his 35-33 walk-to-strikeout ratio in 60 innings last year, so keep a close eye on him in 2014.
L.J. Hoes, OF
The Astros acquired Hoes from Baltimore in the Bud Norris trade last July. He was a disappointing prospect in the Orioles system because the power never developed as expected, but he's always been able to get on base.
Hoes has had an on-base percentage under .354 just once in six minor league seasons. Since he plays a corner outfield, there has to be more in the bat than just slap hits and on-base percentage, but when you cost next to nothing, the return value is high.
Plus, the Astros finished 29th with a .299 on-base percentage last season. Hoes immediately improves that category and makes them a more formidable offense, even though it's not a traditional left-field profile.
Closer: Chad Qualls vs. Matt Albers vs. Jesse Crain
With Jeff Luhnow wisely not committing to a closer heading into spring training, the three leading contenders for the job are Chad Qualls, Matt Albers and Jesse Crain.
Crain is the best of the bunch when healthy, posting a 2.10 ERA with just 110 hits allowed and 176 strikeouts in 150 innings over the last three years. The key, of course, is his health. The right-hander missed the last three months of 2013 with arm problems and, as detailed earlier in the preview, just recently started throwing again.
Albers has been a solid reliever the last two years, posting a 2.77 ERA during that span, but lacks the traditional closer profile because he doesn't miss bats. The 31-year-old had just 35 strikeouts against 23 walks in 63 innings with Cleveland last year.
What Albers does do well is keep the ball out of the air. His groundball rate of 63.8 percent in 2013 was best in the American League.
Qualls is the elder statesman of the group, having turned 35 last August. He found great success with Miami in 2013, posting a career-best 2.61 ERA in 62 innings, but has been erratic throughout his career.
His season-by-season ERA totals since 2010 have gone from 7.32 to 3.51 to 5.33 to 2.61. No one embodies the volatile nature of relief pitching quite like Qualls.
Since Qualls is being paid the most total money, I still think he will have the edge in the competition. But as long as Crain doesn't have any setbacks in camp, he's the best option for the Astros to use in high-leverage situations.
Prediction: Chad Qualls
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