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Saturday, March 8, 2014

MLB 2014 Team Preview: Houston Astros

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MLB 2014 Team Preview: Houston Astros
By Wild on Sports MLB Analyst Aaron Dorman


2013 Overview:
The Astros looked historically bad in the first-half, but some timely rookie replacements in the rotation staunch the bleeding enough so that they “only” lose 111 games. So not only will they get a third consecutive no. 1 draft pick, but some suddenly a handful of current Astros who look like they could be part of a future contender.

Winter Grade: C 
Coming: Scott Feldman, Dexter Fowler
Going: Jordan Lyles, Erik Bedard
The Astros are a large media market and they have money to spend, but there’s no point in just throwing away money on veterans and it’s hard to attract top free agents to sign with a team that still has an uncertain timeline for contending. Scott Feldman is a pretty unsexy name to sign but he’s durable and Houston needs reliable innings eaters to offset the growing pains of their mostly green rotation. Acquiring Fowler was a comparably slick move, and even if he’s just a .241/.333/.361 hitter going forward (his career numbers away from Coors Field), he’ll still provide some defense and above-average speed. Nobody they gave up was worth much, anyway.
 
Wild Card(s):
He didn’t really show it last year, but shortstop Jonathan Villar has the potential for double-digit home run power, which when combined with his excellent speed could make him an above-average player or better. Similarly, Robbie Grossman hit .322 in the second half and he could be an OBP machine, something Houston sorely needs. Among pitchers, righty Brad Peacock could surprise; he couldn’t throw strikes in the early going but bounced back in the second half, going 4-3 with a 3.62 ERA over the final two months of the season. He could be at least as useful as the recently traded Bud Norris.
 
Key Contract Years:
On this team, there are no ‘true’ veterans (other than Feldman), so the question is not who is set to become a free agent, but rather who is set to be traded in July for more prospects? I wouldn’t be surprised to see the Astros shop catcher Jason Castro, or even Jose Altuve, currently the only Astro inked to a long-term contract.

Rookies:
Plenty of ‘em. And some good ones too. Outfielder George Springer hit .311 with 37 HR and 45 SB between AA-AAA; he’s an immediate 20/20 threat in the majors and could offset high strikeout totals with solid plate discipline and strong defense, along the lines of Mike Cameron (although that’s probably a best-case scenario). First baseman Jonathan Singleton is knocking on the door; he was almost on the opening day roster LAST year until he was suspended for marijuana use. He never got going in AAA so 2013 was just a lost year all around, but hopefully he can move on. The next round of pitching reinforcements may include strike throwers Jake Buchanan and Asher Wojciechowski, the latter whom has a great fastball and could be a mid-rotation starter or a bullpen ace.

Key Questions:
Who gets traded?
Does anybody get signed long-term?
Which young pitchers are for real?
Is there anyone in the lineup capable of displaying two offensive skills at once?
Can this team break the 60-win barrier and ‘avoid’ a fourth consecutive no. 1 pick?
Is that something they even want to do?

Farm System Overview: BLUE (elite)
Jeff Luhnow and his minor league development team really know their stuff. In addition to several successful years of hitting on high draft picks (Springer, Carlos Correa, etc), the Astros have done a good job acquiring interesting prospects in trades, and selling high on major league talent like Jed Lowrie and Jose Veras. They have impact talent just about everywhere (although their best lefties are in the lower levels), but in particular they boast formidable depth with potential right-handed starters and players up the middle (Correa, walk machine Nolan Fontana, 2b/OF speedster Delino Deshields, and more). Have extra prospects at one position will allow Houston to extract more in a trade if they choose to deal a young, cost-controllable asset like Castro or Altuve.

2014 Prognosis: Rebuilding
They’re going to be bad again. There are no aces among the current crop of young Astros starters, and probably a handful of duds (check out Cosart’s BB and K rates last year, he won’t have any trouble doubling that 1.95 ERA). Likely progress from Springer or Jon Villar will be mitigated by Chris Carter hitting .150 or Jason Castro getting traded. But by the end of the year, half the lineup could be playable, and the other half is most definitely within 1.5 years of the big leagues, which is a good thing. These Astros are watchable, and that’s more than you could say for them over the past 4-5 years.

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