The Astros made waves in 2014 when they gave up and coming first baseman Jon SIngleton a guaranteed $10 million over 5 years before he even stepped foot in Minute Maid Park. It was a deal that his fellow MLBers hated but gave the Astros their projected first baseman of the future at quite the nice price. His 2014 debut however, wasn't so nice. Singleton was able to crank 13 home runs and drive in 44, but he hit an abominable .168 and struck out a ridiculous 134 times in 362 plate appearances. If this trend continues over a full season, Houston may have actually overpaid for him. Chris Carter (37 home runs in 2014) is a strikeout machine himself at DH, but will take more at-bats from Singleton at first if he flails again. Second base is manned by the diminutive Jose Altuve. I had to take a shot at his size in the opening sentence because everything else I have to say about Altuve is incredibly positive. He won the American League batting title at .341 as well as leading the league in both stolen bases (56) and hits (225). He also set career highs in both home runs and runs batted in. Altuve doesn't fit the mold of franchise player but he is just that for Houston. At just 25 in May, he is a player that the Astros are building their infield around. They've locked him up until 2019 (with team options) and will probably extend him beyond that point in the near future. Next to him on the infield is Jed Lowrie. Lowrie is back for his second tour in the Lone Star State, but the 'Stros were in the NL last time he was in town. Don't read too much into Lowrie's three year deal with the club. He is a very versatile player and can provide depth at every infield spot. Shortstop will soon belong to Carlos Correa. Similarly to the Twins' Byron Buxton, freak injuries seem to be the only thing standing between Correa and the Major Leagues. He dominated each level he was in during his teens and is ready to take on Double and Triple-A this year. Whenever Correa makes his grand entrance, expect Lowrie to shift over to third. That position is currently held down by Luis Valbuena. Valbuena had been no more than a utility man throughout his career. Injuries and ineptitude gave him a chance at playing everyday last year with the Cubs. He responded with career highs in doubles, home runs, and RBIs. The Astros have plenty of cover around the infield as most of their backups (Jonathan Villar, Matt Dominguez, & Marwin Gonzalez) received valuable experience as starters last year. Catcher Jason Castro rounds out the infield on a sour note. The team's All-Star representative in 2013 regressed mightily last season. He finished 8th in the American League in strikeouts and hit just .222. He also became a liability behind the plate allowing 81 base stealers, ten more than his closest competitor in the AL. I don't expect new manager, former catcher A.J. Hinch, to have the same patience with Castro with new acquisitions Hank Conger and Evan Gattis in town.
Speaking of Gattis, the former Brave is part of a revamped Houston outfield. The bearded basher has hit 20 or more home runs in both of his seasons in the Majors and has to be salivating at the short porch in Minute Maid. The added plus of getting time at designated hitter means that he'll probably play more than his current career best of 108 games from 2014. That also means he could approach the 30 HR and 90 RBI plateaus. Now patrolling the weird hilled center field for Houston is Jake Marisnick. The soon to be 24 year old came over at last year's trade deadline from Miami in a deal that saw promising prospects go in both directions. Marisnick got to play everyday following his trade and did halfway decent. He showed some speed and an above average glove in center field. Sadly, he also showed another trait synonymous with being an Astros youngster these days. He strikes out a lot. The one hold over, and yes I am aware that I just said Marisnick was on the team last year, is right fielder George Springer. The 11th overall pick in 2011 hit 20 home runs and drove in 51 in just under a half a season in the bigs. His power numbers project out very well but with that would be some strikeout figures that could make Mark Reynolds blush. He is also a butcher in the outfield, leading the entire American League in errors by a right fielder in just 71 games played at the position. New signing Colby Rasmus provides a quality fourth outfielder or a replacement in center if Houston decides to start Marisnick's season at Triple-A.
The pitching staff was a pleasant surprise last year. Now that the American League has a book on some of the Houston young guns however, there may be some growing pains in 2014. Dallas Keuchel struggled mightily during his first two Major League seasons posting 5.00+ ERAs. He seemingly put all those woes behind him last year. He was one of two pitchers to end the season over .500 (12-9) and the only to pitch 200 innings. He led the American League with five complete games and won his first Gold Glove. The other pitcher to break past even was Collin McHugh (11-9). Like Keuchel, his pre-2014 numbers are gruesome. He didn't record a win in two years with the Mets and Rockies and had an ERA over 9.00. We'll see this year if 2014 was an abnormality or a turning point in these two pitchers' careers. The three hole in the rotation is filled by Scott Feldman. Feldman was signed to a 3 year deal last offseason to be a stabilizing force for a young team and be their pseudo-ace. Feldman has never been that type of pitcher and it showed. He should improve in 2015 by not having to face Houston opponents' best pitcher every five days. Brett Oberholtzer is the last pitcher to have at least a partially guaranteed rotation spot. The lefty's numbers aren't too impressive outside of the fact that he is an innings eater, a valuable asset for any organization that low in the rotation. The fifth position is currently being vied for by the likes of Roberto "Don't Call Me Fausto Carmona" Hernandez and the owner of one of my favorite baseball card photos, Samuel Deduno. The Astros are hoping by season's end that they'll both concede to 2013 number one overall pick Mark Appel. Appel has had a rough go of it in the minors, worst of all at High-A last year when he pitched to a 9.74 ERA in 12 starts. Luhnow trusts his process though and expects the turnaround Appel had at Double-A to be more indicative of the type of player they possess.
The bullpen last year was probably the team's most glaring weakness. They started off the season with the erratic Josh Fields as closer. That lasted less than a month until nondescript Chad Qualls took the reigns. As chances came few and far between, Houston started experimenting with other arms in save situations. Tony Sipp, Anthony Bass, and Jose Veras all got looks at the role at one time or another. This offseason management brought in two arms, Pat Neshek and Luke Gregerson, to really solidify the roles of all their bullpen arms. As of now, either Gregerson or Qualls will be the closer. The other will slot into the eighth inning. This grants A.J. Hinch with a lot more options in the middle innings. Sipp can go back to being a situational left hander, his bread and butter. He now has Neshek, who can be used more multiple innings or to just get one dangerous right handed hitter out. Joe Thatcher and Will Harris are two experienced arms for the middle innings as well. Fields is the odd man out as of now, but being a former closer only means it wouldn't be out of the question for a team to come asking about him in a trade.
The 2015 Astros will improve from last year. It won't be the 19 game jump that they took last year but it won't be a regression. Like the Rays did in the early to mid 2000's, the Astros look to be drafting smart and taking their time in getting those high picks to the Show. We'll see if they end up producing Rays-esque results at the end of this decade. Until then, take one step closer to the .500 mark and be happy.
LAST YEAR'S RANKING: #30 (UP 7)
PREDICTED RECORD: 75-87
PREDICTED ALL-STAR REPS: Jose Altuve (second baseman), Collin McHugh (starting pitcher)
Trevor Utley has been to Houston and probably played on the longest, shittiest shuffleboard table known to man.
Image Credit: Astros logo (sportslogos.net)