The 2013 Houston Astros were about as bad as any one team can get (ok, maybe not this bad), being outscored by 238 runs, hitting for an atrocious team TAv of .248, and posting the worst FIP in baseball (4.69). This season, the Astros shouldn't expect to be much better, though it is highly unlikely that they repeat the 111-loss total that they had last season. A new wave of talent is on its way, as Jeff Luhnow's extensive rebuilding project should bear some fruit this year by way of top prospects such as George Springer, Jonathan Singleton, and Mark Appel. While the results on the field should be poor this year, 2014 should tell us quite a bit about the future of the organization.
The Astros had a pretty busy offseason, acquiring more in bulk than quality (Feldman at three years, $30 million was the only major free agent signing), but they still drastically upgraded their roster. Their primary objective was to seemingly upgrade their bullpen (which finished last in pretty much every statistical category in 2013), and they did just that, signing a multitude of free agent relievers including a pair of closing options in Crain and Qualls.
They also went about adding a couple much needed rotation candidates in Feldman and Williams. Both should be able to provide roughly league average production over ~180 innings, a category which Houston desperately needed to fill considering the extreme youth of their rotation (their other 3 projected starters are all between the ages of 23 and 26). Considering just how bad the Astros' rotation was last year, Feldman and Williams represent vast improvements.
Houston also managed to acquire first baseman/outfielder Jesus Guzman from the Padres, giving them a solid bat off the bench. Guzman had a rough year in 2013 (94 OPS+), but he posted a combined 121 OPS+ over 196 games in 2011 and 2012.
The most noteworthy acquisition Houston made this winter was their addition of outfielder Dexter Fowler from the Rockies for a relatively cheap package of Brandon Barnes and Jordan Lyles. Fowler immediately becomes one of the two or three best players on the team, and is currently penciled in as the club's leadoff hitter this season. Nearly 28 and with two years of club control remaining, Fowler should be expected to put up another 2-3 WAR season this year, and a strong performance could lead the Astros to locking him up, or trading him for even more assets.
LHP Erick Bedard, RHP Jordan Lyles, OF Brandon Barnes
Houston really wasn't effected much this offseason as far as player departures. Barnes and Lyles moved on to Colorado, but neither appeared to have a future with the club, as Barnes seemed to be no more than a fourth outfielder and Lyles having posted three straight 5.00+ ERA seasons. Bedard, a free agent signing last offseason, was one of Houston's best pitchers in 2013 (4.59 ERA, 151 innings), though that has more to do with the quality of Houston's pitching staff than Bedard himself. He recently signed a minor league deal with the Rays.
Players to watch
The Astros don't have a lot of players facing make-or-break years, but they do have a number of guys who should be worth paying attention to this season.
Jesse Crain could become a valuable trade asset for Houston if he can fully recover from an October biceps surgery and put together a couple of healthy months. It will be interesting to see if the Astros install him as their closer, considering some teams still pay premiums for saves.
The development of their youth will likely be the most prominent storyline in Houston this summer. Right-hander Jarred Cosart was excellent in a 10-start stint with the big league club last year, putting up a 1.95 ERA in 60 innings. He will likely start the year in Houston's rotation, where expectations are high considering his once lofty prospect status and success down the stretch last season. The debuts and progress of top prospects such as Mark Appel and George Springer will also be worth keeping tabs on, as Astros fans will finally get a glimpse at a few of the team's so-called "saviors".
It could also be worth keeping tabs on already established players such as Fowler, Jason Castro, Jose Altuve, and Chris Carter. All four of them are in their early-to-mid twenties and are good enough that the organization could consider them a part of their long-term plans.
Best Case Scenario
The most optimistic outcome for the Astros is still pretty brutal. There isn't much to hope for in terms of team success, so individual player performances are probably the best way to go in terms of 2014 rooting interests. Here are a few things that would make the Astros' season a true success:
- Crain returns from injury and posts numbers similar to what he did for the White Sox during the first half of last year. He is traded away in July for a package of prospects.
- Cosart shows that his 2013 performance may not be completely out of line with what his expectations should be going forward, throwing roughly 175 innings with a 3.50 ERA and 8.0 SO/9.
- Castro, Altuve, and Fowler all turn in strong seasons furthering their cases to be a part of the team's future. Castro especially has a breakout season and emerges as one of the top 5 catchers in the game. Houston rewards him with a contract extension.
- Carter cuts down on his strikeouts while also maintaining his power production, making him a valuable trade chip for the 2014-15 offseason.
- Springer, Appel, Singleton, and Domingo Santana all make their major league debuts and perform well enough to warrant starting jobs in 2015.
- Other top prospects such as Carlos Correa, Mike Foltynewicz, and Vincent Velasquez continue to develop.
- Carlos Rodon...
- Nobody gets hurt.
Worst Case Scenario
Even the worst case scenario has some silver lining by way of a fourth consecutive number one overall pick. Really, the worst that can happen here is injuries and/or stalled development from some of their more notable prospects.
Baseball Prospectus' PECOTA projects the Astros to be a 66-96 team, and that number sounds about right. They're still probably one of the two worst teams in the league (don't worry Miami fans, at least you got Lebron!), but they have made enough improvements this offseason that 100 losses is no sure thing. 2014 will be tough to watch for Houston fans, but the future is clearly on the horizon.