With a rookie manager and a roster that was paid $7 million less than what Alex Rodriguez received by himself, the Houston Astros are increasingly becoming the baseball version of the Cincinnati Bengals. Not only are they the laughing stock for late night TV punch lines, the organization is on record pace to become the first major league team to lose 100 or more games in four consecutive seasons. Coming off a 51-111 season without any major free agent signings, things look bleak for the once proud franchise.
The starting pitching will look to have a jolt after no pitcher last season finished with a winning record. Dallas Keuchel and Lucas Harrell led the team with 153 innings but each finished with an ERA above 5.15. Considering Harrell regressed from 11 wins and a 3.76 ERA in 2012, the Astros are hoping for him to have a bounce back year. There is optimism with rookie sensations Brett Oberholtzer and Jarrd Cosart. Oberholtzer finished the year with a 2.76 ERA including one shutout after transitioning from middle reliever to front-end starter. Cosart was a late season call-up, positing a 1.95 ERA in 60 innings. Both represent the Astros ace in the hole and will compete for the coveted opening day start. Should they be able to build on their strong 2013 performance, the Astros will have two legitimate pitching stars under 25, reminiscent of the Chicago Cubs Mark Prior-Kerry Wood days. The signings of Scott Feldman and Jerome Williams will help as each are innings eaters and capable of keeping the team in the game. Jordan Lyles or Brad Peacock from the minors will need to step up to round out the rotation.
The average age for the hitters is 25 years old and it clearly showed in their 2013 numbers. The Astros were last in on-base percentage (OBP) and home runs. Manufacturing runs by playing small ball requires hitters to sacrifice outs but that cannot be done by leading the league in strikeouts. Too many hitters mimicked the play of Carlos Pena: swinging for the fences with a huge drop in batting average. Chris Carter led the team with 29 homers but his .320 OBP did not intimidate many opposing pitchers. He needs to assert more plate-discipline or he will soon become a platoon player. The upside with the Astros hitting is the potential from dynamic double-play duo Jose Altuve and Jonathan Villar. Each is under 25 and produced well in their rookie seasons. Villar posted 18 steals in 58 games while Altuve had 35 steals in 152 games. With one full season, each speedster could challenge the league lead in stolen bases and score over 100 runs. Catcher Jason Castro is undoubtedly the face of the organization. His rising stock included an All-Star selection after he posted a .276 average with 18 home runs and 56 RBIs in only 435 at-bats. With Altuve and Villar on the basepaths, Castro will see many fastballs at the plate. Should he continue his hot pace into 2014, the Astros have potential to at least be a .500 ballclub.
Roger Clemens was in town at the beginning of spring training mentoring pitchers. Even at 50, during his independent league starts, he was hitting as high as 90 mph on the radar. The Astros again will be towards the bottom in fan attendance, though this can change should they sign Clemens. It seems unlikely but the possibility will certainly be entertained if (and when) the team is out of contention for the playoffs by August. Likewise, Astros fans are in for another long season.
All stats are courtesy of http://www.baseball-reference. com/.