The Astros' experiment appears to be slowly coming to fruition. After refusing to pay to stay even mildly competitive, the 'Stros brought up a ton of young talent in 2014 and finished with more than 56 wins for the first time since 2010 – even finishing ahead of the hapless Rangers in the AL West.
While 70 wins is hardly the stuff of legends, Houston's impressive array of talented young hitters is slowly but surely forming into a legitimate squad. The only question is whether they can progress enough in a single season to stay truly competitive in a tough division.
The Astros went out and brought in a bunch of veterans to help the process, and signed new manager A.J. Hinch to guide the squad. What can we expect from the 'Stros in 2015?
Batting Average: 25th
Notable Additions: Jed Lowrie, Evan Gattis, Luke Gregerson, Pat Neshek, Luis Valbuena, Colby Rasmus, Dan Straily, Hank Conger, Roberto Hernandez, Joe Thatcher
Notable Losses: Dexter Fowler, Jose Veras
1B: Chris Carter, Jon Singleton, Evan Gattis:
All three of these guys are capable of putting up big power numbers but only two will win the everyday first base and designated hitter duties. Of course, there's also a decent chance Gattis ends up in the outfield.
Carter was lights out for the Astros last season, belting 37 home runs and driving in 88 runs despite batting just .227. We know what we get in Carter: a high OPS, a low batting average, a lot of strikeouts, and a lot of pop despite a lack of doubles. Still, with an OPS of .770 or higher in three straight seasons, Carter, despite the lack of discipline, has become one of the game's premier power hitters, not unlike Adam Dunn was at his peak.
A top prospect since 2011, Singleton showed an ability to hit for a lot of power in the minors but strikes out a lot and posts low batting averages, not unlike Carter. In 95 games in the Bigs, Singleton flashed the power, hitting 13 homers and driving in 44, but struggled mightily at the plate as he posted a .168 average and struck out 134 times. At just 23, Singleton has a lot of developing to do but the power stroke is definitely there.
Gattis can play first, outfield, and DH. He can also play catcher but that's unlikely as Houston will want him as fresh as possible all season. His first and second seasons were very similar. In 2013, he batted .243 with a .771 OPS, 21 HR, 65 RBI, and 44 runs. Last season, he batted .263 with an .810 OPS, 22 home runs, 52 RBI, and 41 runs. If he can play a full season (he's never played more than 108 games) and avoid the catcher position, there's no reason Gattis can't hit 30 homers with a middling batting average.
2B: Jose Altuve, Marwin Gonzalez:
In his fourth Big League season, Altuve flourished into a star, leading the league with a .341 batting average, 225 hits, and 56 steals. He also added a crazy 47 doubles, 85 runs, 59 RBI, and struck out 53 times (compared to 85 the previous year).
This was a big leap to make from his previous season (.283 BA, 31 doubles, 35 steals, 64 runs) so it's hard to expect another ridiculous performance but he'll likely fall somewhere between his 2013 and 2014 stats in 2015. Probably somewhere around a .290 BA, 35 steals, 80 runs, and 35 doubles.
Gonzalez proved a very capable utility man in 2014, batting .277 with a .727 OPS in 285 at-bats. He doesn't have much pop or speed but can play all over the infield.
3B: Luis Valbuena, Matt Dominguez:
After six seasons split between the Mariners, Indians, and Cubs, Valbuena broke out in 2014 and proved he's a very capable third baseman. In his first season with more than 108 games, Valbuena batted .249 with a .776 OPS, 16 home runs, 51 RBI, 68 runs, and 33 doubles. He can get on base, hit for extra bases, and has a passable glove. If he can repeat last season's numbers, that's as good as the Astros could possibly hope for at third.
Dominguez had a promising 2013 run, hitting 21 home runs and driving in 77 runs but struggled mightily last season. Dominguez batted just .215 with a well-below-average .586 OPS, 16 home runs, 57 RBI, and 51 runs. That's pedestrian for a starter but he makes for a solid backup infielder with some pop off the bench.
SS: Jed Lowrie:
Lowrie was stellar in 2013, batting .290 with a .791 OPS, 15 HR, 75 RBI, 80 runs, and 45 doubles.
In 2014, he saw that drop to a .249 BA, .676 OPS, six homers, 50 RBI, 59 runs, and 29 doubles.
Which Lowrie will we see in 2015? History shows that Lowrie is a lot closer to a .250 hitter with little pop than the All-Star caliber shortstop we saw in his first season in Oakland. In his last stint with the Astros in 2012, Lowrie batted .244 with 42 RBI, 43 runs, and 18 doubles in 97 games. I don't expect he'll be a whole lot better than that this season.
C: Jason Castro, Hank Conger:
Like so many others, Castro looked promising in 2013, even reaching the All Star game, before seeing his numbers fall significantly the following season.
After posting a .276 BA, .835 OPS, 18 HR, 56 RBI, 64 R, and 35 2B in 2013, Castro batted just .222 with a pedestrian .651 OPS, 14 HR, 56 RBI, 43 R, 21 2B, and 151 strikeouts. He doesn't walk at all and doesn't seem to hit the gaps consistently but he's got a solid glove and a bat that's better than a lot of catchers in the league.
Conger is your typical backup catcher with a low batting average, a bit of pop, and a solid glove.
The Astros outfield is crowded (especially if Gattis is considered for a spot) and a lot of questions will need to be answered in Spring Training.
Obviously the big star is former top prospect George Springer who belted 20 home runs in just 78 games in his rookie season. Despite posting a low .231 batting average and striking out 114 times to 39 walks, Springer posted a .336 on-base and an .804 OPS.
There's a few things to consider with Springer. He doesn't hit a lot of doubles so he's pretty reliant on the home run. He strikes out a lot but makes up for it with a strong on-base percentage. The power is obviously there but what about the speed? In the minors he stole as many as 45 bases in a single season. Last year he stole just five bases in the Bigs.
The power is there and, despite the low average, he does most everything else well. The speed will likely be there as well but likely not at the 40 steals per year level. He's a good bet in fantasy drafts this year as a poor man's Giancarlo Stanton but don't overspend for a guy who may only help you in one category.
The Astros signed Colby Rasmus to replace Dexter Fowler but Rasmus doesn't bring the same impact. Last season he batted just .225 (he's batted .225 or lower in three of his last four seasons) with 18 homers, 40 RBI, and 45 runs. He doesn't hit for doubles, seldom walks, and doesn't steal. The Astros would have been better off leaving centerfield for one of their prospects. And they still may.
The Astros acquired Jake Marisnick from the Marlins late in the season and he looked solid, batting .272 with a .669 OPS, three homers, 19 RBI, 18 runs, and six steals in 51 games for Houston. In the minors, the former top prospect showed an ability to steal 20+ while doing a good job of hitting extra-base hits and walking. So far in the Majors, he's walked just 14 times in 105 games, though, but certainly has the ability to be a speedster. He's too raw to draft this season in fantasy leagues but the Astros desperately need him to develop into a starting-caliber outfielder. His strong glovework should keep him in the lineup and give him that chance.
Robbie Grossman and Alex Presley are the fourth and fifth outfielders, presumptively, but neither is particularly impressive.
Dallas Keuchel: After posting 5+ ERAs in his first two seasons, Keuchel found his stride and posted a very impressive 2.93 ERA, 1.18 WHIP, and led the league with five complete games in 2014. He's a ground ball pitcher which doesn't make him for an ideal fantasy baseball pick but if he can play anything close to the way he did last year then Houston has found a true ace.
Collin McHugh: Though rarely mentioned, McHugh was one of the big surprises of last season, finishing fourth in Rookie of the Year voting. He went 11-9 with a 2.73 ERA and 1.02 WHIP while striking out 157 batters to just 41 walks in 154.2 innings. If you're looking for a 2015 sleeper, here's a guy who wouldn't have to do much else except pitch like he did last season.
Scott Feldman: Though he went just 8-12, Feldman posted a solid 3.74 ERA and 1.30 WHIP, which is around par for the course for a middle-of-rotation AL pitcher. He doesn't strike out too many batters and puts a lot of men on base so I would avoid him in fantasy but he makes for a decent starter for Houston, but certainly not an ace.
Brett Oberholtzer: Oberholtzer looked promising in limited action in 2013, posting a 2.76 ERA and 1.10 WHIP in 71.2 innings. He struggled last season, though, going 5-13 with a 4.39 ERA and a 1.38 WHIP while striking out fewer than six batters per nine innings. He's a decent back of the rotation starter who would have put up better numbers if he had a better defense around him but certainly not a fantasy-level arm.
Dan Straily: After going 12-9 with a 3.94 ERA and 1.26 WHIP in his first two seasons, Straily struggled mightily in an injury-riddled 2014 season, posting a 6.75 ERA and 1.48 WHIP in 52 innings between the A's and Cubs. Straily isn't a bad pitcher when healthy, and could actually be a big steal for Houston if he can start 25+ games this year.
Brad Peacock: Peacock is recovering from hip surgery and may not be ready to start the season but that's the least of his concerns. The former top prospect has been unable to live up to anywhere near his potential in his first two years with the Astros, going 9-15 with a 4.90 ERA and 1.49 WHIP in 215 innings. He walks way too many batters and has been hurt by the longball often so at this point, at 27, it's getting hard to see him developing into a strong Major League starter.
The Astros imported two new relievers to man the eighth and ninth innings but the bridge between the starters and those innings is still a bit shaky.
Houston invested over $6 million per year in Luke Gregerson to be their closer even though he has just 19 saves through six Major League seasons. Still, Gregerson is one of the best bullpen arms around, posting an ERA over 2.75 or lower in four straight seasons, including a career-best 2.12 last year. He doesn't have the electric arm most closers do but he does limit baserunners (1.01 WHIP last season, 1.08 career WHIP). The bigger problem may be the longball, he gave up six homers in 72 innings last year, which isn't a great trait for a closer.
The Astros also spent around $6 million per year to bring in Pat Neshek after a stellar season with the Cards in which he posted a 1.87 ERA, 0.79 WHIP, a 7.5:1 strikeout:walk ratio, and reached the All-Star game. Should Gregerson struggle, Neshek would be next in line for the closer job after saving six games last year.
Chad Qualls is a solid veteran but doesn't pitch a ton of innings. Tony Sipp was solid in his first year in Houston but has never been especially consistent. Kevin Chapman, Will Harris, and Josh Fields all struggled last season while Samuel Deduno is a failed starter converting into a full-time reliever.
Offense: C+ (B- if the youngsters can develop)
Starting Pitching: C+