The Houston Astros have rolled up 324 losses over the past three seasons. And the best part is that nobody seems to mind! Let’s keep it that way.
When a conductor is in the midst of directing a grand symphony, you’d be best served to stay out of his way. And Astros GM Jeff Luhnow has been orchestrating a masterful rebuilding project in Houston. He has compiled what is generally considered to be one of the best minor league systems in the game, featuring shortstop Carlos Correa (ranked the #8 overall prospect by mlb.com at just 19-years old) and company.
This offseason he brought in Dexter Fowler via trade, which gives them a legitimate centerfielder of the future. Fowler, along with Jason Castro and Jose Altuve mark the forming of a legitimate base of offensive talent, which should grow quickly in time. Luhnow also coaxed veteran starting pitcher Scott Feldman into town on a 3-year deal to help lead a young and improving pitching staff.
If ownership continues to let Luhnow execute his strategy, and all indications are that they will, then Houston will begin to climb out of the doldrums soon. Give this team 3-4 more years of good fortune in the health and player development departments and they will begin making substantial noise in the American League West.
Best Case Scenario for 2014
On the field, less than 100 losses would be considered a substantial victory. But honestly, who cares? The measures of success that can be achieved by this ballclub include the continued development of their minor league core, that same group of prospects staying healthy, and ultimately showcasing a few of them (such as George Springer) at the major league level in 2014 to provide real-life examples of their blueprint to a still strong fan base.
Most Important Astros
At age 26, Jason Castro is starting to look like the real deal. He hit .276, popped 18 homers, 35 doubles, and posted an impressive .350 on-base % in 2013. His burden will not only be to continue to rake at the plate but to be a rock behind it for a pitching staff that will continue to rotate faces and evolve over the next several seasons. Castro, perhaps more than any other player, controls the destiny of this club.
For a team that maintained a payroll of around $20M in ’13, paying free agent starter Scott Feldman $30M over three years was a statement. Feldman has put up two solid seasons in his last three and was plucked by Luhnow to be the veteran presence in an otherwise unstable rotation who will not only eat up innings but mentor the incoming arms. Feldman will produce at a respectable level but it’s what he does outside the lines that will likely provide the most value to the Astros.
Potential Breakout Players
Entering his age 24 season, the time may be now for George Springer. The talented outfielder has lit up the minor leagues in his first two full seasons of pro ball. In 2013, between AA and AAA he combined to hit .303 with a robust .411 on-base %. Most impressive though is his extremely rare power/speed combo. Springer smashed 37 homers and stole 45 bases in 53 attempts. He is a high strikeout guy but does major damage when he connects. With an outfield of Fowler and potentially Robbie Grossman and LJ Hoes slated to start on Opening Day, there has to be room for Springer. Not only is he ready physically but pulling him up for a full season, rather than playing the ‘keep the player under team control’ game, would send a message to Astros fans that the plan is working.
The trio of Brad Peacock, Jarred Cosart, and Brett Oberholtzer all have a chance to make the starting rotation out of camp, and all possess the type of upside to break loose at the major league level. With the kids in the minors on the fast track, these guys would be wise to embed themselves in Bo Porter’s good graces. Of the three, Cosart probably has the best chance to step right in and produce.
Worst Case Scenario
On the field, it’d be hard to do much worse than 111 losses, but again, that’s not the concern here. Worst case scenarios would consist of another down year from high-end prospect Jonathan Singleton and injures befalling their talented young arms.
Areas of Concern
Sometimes sticking to the plan can be a tall task when the losses keep mounting but the Astros have been unwavering in their approach. Over 1.6M fans came out to see what was by far the worst product in baseball in 2013. Playoff caliber teams such as Tampa Bay and Cleveland saw less fans come through the gates.
Alienating a fan base is always best to avoid, which is why I think the Houston faithful will need to see guys like Springer and Singleton come up to the big club this year just to reward the patience, if nothing else.
The biggest concern is probably the simple fact that so many high-end baseball prospects flame out and never truly dent the major leagues in a positive way. But since Houston has such a massive stockpile of talent they should be ok here.
Who Needs to Bounce Back From a Down 2013
They weren’t necessarily down years based on expectations, but the power games that Matt Dominguez and Chris Carter showed with 21 and 29 homers respectively has to have Astros fans intrigued. If Dominguez could improve his on-base skills (only 30 walks and a .286 on-base % in ’13) and Carter could cut down on his dramatic strikeout rate (record-breaking 36.2%) even a little bit then the Astros would be able to keep games interesting more often than not.
On the mound, if Anthony Bass and Alex White can get it going that would immediately infuse two more young and talented arms into the organization. Bo Porter doesn’t have an elite group to pull from but he does have options and can offer opportunity. You have to figure that some of these guys will step up.
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