Projected Division Finish
1. Seattle Mariners
2. Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim
3. Oakland Athletics
4. Texas Rangers
5. Houston Astros
2014 Finish: 70-92 (Fourth Place)
Projected Batting Order:
2B Jose Altuve
RF George Springer
SS Jed Lowrie
1B Chris Carter
DH Evan Gattis
3B Luis Valbuena
C Jason Castro
CF Colby Rasmus
LF Jake Marisnick
Projected Starting Rotation/Closer
LHP Dallas Keuchel
RHP Collin McHugh
RHP Scott Feldman
LHP Brett Oberholtzer
RHP Brad Peacock
CLOSER Luke Gregerson
The Astros are a team that went nuclear years ago and planned to rebuild. It’s been a longer re-build than some wanted, but there is light at the end of the tunnel. Last year, for the first time since their move to the AL, the Astros didn’t finish in last place. And while this team as gets better every season and should continue to grow in 2015, I still see them as a last place team.
They have some definite young talent and more than a few established players at this point. But there are still some questions on the roster and in the pitching staff. The future is bright, but questions and inexperience cloud the present.
I keep talking about improvement on the offensive side, but the team clearly has a long way to go. The offense ranked last in the league with a team AVG of 242. They were last in hits and second to last in runs. But they were second in stolen bases and third in HR. So they have some power and some guys with speed. The Astros hope that another year of experience and a few new pieces will help the team improve their AVG, so as to better utilize that power and speed..
Jose Altuve leads the Astros offense. Altuve was last year’s batting champ hitting 341. He also led the league with 56 stolen bases. He has been the Astros number 3 hitter for a while, but is a natural leadoff hitter who makes great contact and wants to steal bases. He can use the whole field and excels at creating offense. He should return to the leadoff hole this year. I like him for a 300 AVG, 40 SB and 90 R. Expect a drop in AVG because his 360 batting average on balls in play was about 30 points higher than his career norm.
Talented young outfielder George Springer is slated to be the everyday right fielder in Houston this season. He showed off his prodigious power with 20 HR in only 78 games last season after waiting out his service time requirements. But his AVG was low and he struck out in 114 of 295 ABs. The Astros hope with Altuve getting on and perhaps trying to steal, Springer will see more fastballs than normal and he can launch them out of Minute Maid Park. I don’t know how successful he’ll be, but I can see another 20 HR/10 SB season easily, with perhaps more if he can learn to lay off some of the stuff out of the zone. His AVG could be anywhere from 220-260. I’d be surprised if it was out of that range in either direction.
I put SS Jed Lowrie in the three hole. Lowrie is a guy who has done a little bit of everything in his offensive career, and his experience on this team makes him a good fit in this spot. A hand injury led to a down season in Oakland in 2014, but he was great there the year before hitting 290 with 15 HR and 75 RBI. In 2012, he played in 97 games for the Astros and hit 16 HR, albeit with a 240 AVG. I’d expect a season of 250-260 with 15 HR again.
I put Chris Carter in the cleanup spot and have him manning first base. He’s your classic slugger: lots of HRs, low AVG, lots of Ks, lots of walks. Last year was no different, as he hit 227 with a career high 37 HR and 88 RBI. The year before he hit 223 with 29 HR and 82 RBI. With Carter, you know what you are getting and you are okay with it. But you accept it because of his prodigious power and ability to work the count and earn a base on balls. Put him down for another 220 season with 30+ HR and 75+ RBI.
Evan Gattis was a big name added in a trade with the Braves. Gattis has played a lot of catcher and a little left field in the national league. I think he will be the Astros primary DH and hit fifth in their lineup. I think he will excel in Houston and be a 30 HR guy with an AVG around 250. The Astros moving Gattis to DH will keep him healthy and allow him to be a big RBI guy.
The rest of the lineup has potential, but also questions. Colby Rasmus was added on a one-year, make good deal. Last year he hit 225 with 18 HR, 40 RBI, 4 SB and 45 R in an injury-shortened 104 games. The year before he only appeared in 118 games, but hit 276 with 22 HR and 66 RBI. He’s had trouble staying healthy, only surpassing 150 games once in his career and only surpassing 140 games twice (only once in the last 5 years). However, I think he can really contribute if he stays healthy.
Catcher Jason Castro is looking for a bounce-back season after a rough 2014 after a great 2013 season. He saw a drop in every offensive category hitting only 222 with a mere 286 OBP. They are okay with Chris Carter hitting like that because he hit 37 HR last year. Castro hit 14 and plays poor defense. So the Astros brought in Hank Conger to push Castro a bit. Conger isn’t as good offensively but his defense is far better. If both struggle, Gattis could potentially catch on a regular basis, freeing Chris Carter to DH and letting power prospect Jonathan Singleton get another crack at first.
The last two spots are up in the air. Third base is a battle between Luis Valbuena and Matt Dominguez. Dominguez is the holdover, but hasn’t gotten the job done. His defense is fine, but he strikes out a lot, doesn’t hit for average and never gets on base with one of the lowest OBPs in the majors. Dominguez has seen his AVG drop 3 straight years. He hit 16 HR last year and 21 the year before, but the last thing the Astros need is another guy who can hit for power, but no AVG. The other third base option, Luis Valbuena isn’t as good defensively, but hit 249 with the Cubs last year and slugged 16 HR. With similar power outlays, Valbuena looks like the frontrunner because he hits for higher AVG, works more walks and strikes out less. I think he’ll win the battle to start at third, and if so may see time hitting second, to allow Springer’s power to drop into a better RBI spot in the lineup.
Left field is a battle between Jake Marisnick and Robbie Grossman. Grossman can play all three outfield positions and is really the only other option to leadoff for the Astros if they decide they want Altuve to hit second or third. Grossman features some speed and the ability to take a walk and work the count. His career OBP is 335, but his AVG is only 248. He’s better as a fourth outfielder. Jake Marisnick is the highly regarded prospect that they want to win the job. Marisnick has limited major league experience, but in 51 games with the Astros in 2014 hit 272 with 3 HR, 19 RBI and 6 stolen bases. He’s hot this spring and making a bid to stay with the big club. Interestingly, his biggest challenger is actually Jonathan Singleton, the number two first baseman. If Singleton can hit, it moves Carter to DH and Gattis to left. Alex Pressley is also around, fighting for playing time.
This offense, once again, will be very streaky. However, they could hit for a ton of power. Carter and Gattis can hit 30. Either third baseman can hit 15-20. So can Castro and Rasmus. And no one knows how many HRs Springer can slug. Altuve is a great player who can get on, steal bases and score runs. We’ll see this team swing for fences a lot in 2015. If they connect, they can score lots of runs. If not, this will be a long season.
The defense is also a little iffy because we expect so many guys to get playing time. Castro is terrible behind the plate. Conger is great. But Castro, the better offensive player, is supposed to play more. If he continues to struggle, they may let Conger take over or even let Gattis catch. Gattis is as good defensively as Castro, but far worse than Conger. Chris Carter is not at all good at first. Singleton is only average, but young and perhaps has room to improve. Altuve is a plus defender at second but Lowrie is average at best at short and has no range. Dominguez is solid at third. Valbuena is below average. The good news is the outfield should be good. Springer is great in right, Rasmus is good in center and Marisnick will be phenomenal in left. He can also play center, as can Springer, if Rasmus struggles. Gattis would be bad in left, but the hope is he can stay out of there. Robbie Grossman is a good defender who can backup all three outfield positions.
The Astros pitching staff is just as young as their offense. Last year, the Astros pitched a little better than expected to a 4.11 ERA. However, that mark was fourth worst in the league. They had to support a streaky offense that struck out a ton and struggled to score runs. Things don’t look much different this year, other than the defense which looks a little worse.
Dallas Keuchel led the team with 12 wins, a 2.93 ERA and 146 Ks. Interestingly, he is the most extreme groundball pitcher in the league. He doesn’t walk a lot of guys pitching to contact. His BAA is a little high (252), but as long as he’s got a solid defense behind him, he should be okay. I think he can win double-digit games again, but would expect his ERA to rise a bit as the defense behind him has gotten worse.
Collin McHugh was the other starter to emerge, going 11-9 with a 2.73 ERA. This was a shock, as he’s never shown this ability before. After struggling in the Mets organization he was picked up and subsequently dropped by the pitching-needy Rockies. But upon arriving with the Astros, he was coached up a bit, convinced to scrap his sinker and focused on throwing more cutters and sliders. The result was more Ks and his best season yet. He struck out 157 in 154 IP and pitched to a sparkling 1.02 WHIP and 208 BAA. I think he may become the true ace in Houston and have another double digit win season with an ERA around 3 and perhaps 180 Ks in 200 IP.
Scott Feldman is still around as the number 3 man. He does his job well, pitching in the middle of the rotation and getting groundball outs. He went 8-12 last year with a 3.74 ERA in 180 IP. It’s the innings that are important as he keeps the Astros in ballgames and saves the bullpen. But both his 1.30 WHIP and 266 BAA show that he’s prone to base runners, mainly via the hit.
The rest of the rotation will be made up of Brett Olberholtzer, Dan Straily and Brad Peacock. Peacock is likely to miss opening day and is shooting to be back with the big club by May 1st. He’s on schedule to this point, but he isn’t a game changer. Over 40 career starts, he’s 11-15 with a 4.68 ERA. He walks too many guys and gives up too many hits. Oberholtzer has seen his numbers trend the wrong way. After going 4-5 with a 2.76 ERA in 10 starts with Houston in 2013, he went 5-13 with a 4.39 ERA and 295 BAA in 24 starts last year. Dan Straily went 1-3 with a 6.75 ERA over 8 starts and 6 relief appearances for the Astros and A’s last year. He’s got a longer track record, but features a 4.54 career ERA with a 1.31 WHIP over 42 career starts. He and Oberholtzer will start the season in the rotation, but only because there are no better options. When Peacock comes back, the three of them will slug it out for the last two spots.
The Astros bullpen situation is kind of up in the air. Luke Gregerson is the favorite to be the closer. Gergerson has been a very successful setup man over his career and is hoping to make the transition to the 9th inning. He made 72 appearances for the A’s last year with 22 Holds and a 2.12 ERA. He’s not a big strikeout guy, but he doesn’t walk guys (1.01 WHIP) or allow a lot of hits (220 BAA). I think Gregerson can be successful, even without getting strikeouts.
His main competition is Chad Qualls, who has closing experience but didn’t pitch as well last year. He made 58 appearances for Houston going 19 for 26 in Save opportunities. He was fine, but not great with a 3.33 ERA (high for a closer) and gave up more hits than the Astros wanted (265 BAA….very high for a closer). He’s got the closing experience, but with a career 3.76 ERA, the Astros are hoping someone else can take the bull by the horns, leaving Qualls to be a quality setup man.
Pat Neshek is looking like the primary setup man in Houston after notching 25 holds and a 1.87 ERA in 71 appearances with the Cardinals last year. He struck out better than a batter an inning, had a 0.79 WHIP and 183 BAA. In short, he didn’t let anyone reach base. I expect more good things from him this year.
While the back end of the bullpen looks strong, the track record of the rest of the guys doesn’t breed confidence.
The Astros have an up and coming pitching staff. The bullpen looks strong at the back end. The starters look strong up front. But the holes in the middle will be a major thorn in the side of this Houston team.
You’ve probably seen this one coming for a while. I don’t like the Astros this year. I like them in the future, but not in 2015. The offense has potential, but may set a record for strikeouts. The pitching staff also has potential, but less than the offense this year. With major holes in both areas and very suspect defense, I think the Astros will finish with about 70 wins and end up in last place in the AL West.