Getting To Know The 2015 Houston Astros


This is the second in a series of posts previewing the 2015 AL West. Previous post: Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim. Next up: The Oakland Athletics.

Nobody hates the Houston Astros. Aside from many of their own fans, that is. How couldn’t they? The team responded to some good-but-not-quite-good-enough years by tearing it all down, switching leagues, losing over a hundred games a year for years, and slashing payroll to early 90’s levels. Longtime fans had every reason to hate what was theirs, if not to jump ship altogether. Some of them did. Most, maybe. I don’t know. How could I?

Last year was the first time in a long time where the Astros presented themselves as a bad major league team instead of The Replacements. This year they made a bunch of semi-win now moves, and appear more competent than they’ve ever been as an AL West team. This might be the year we hate the Astros. Maybe they’re about to emerge as a repulsive pest. Let’s just go forward under the assumption that the Astros are something we do not yet hate, but will soon.

The Rotation

LHP Dallas Keuchel
RHP Collin McHugh
RHP Scott Feldman
LHP Brett Oberholtzer
RHP Roberto Hernandez

Mar 2, 2015; Kissimmee, FL, USA; Houston Astros starting pitcher Dallas Keuchel (60) catches the ball during morning work outs at Osceola County Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

Ewwwwwww, is that a competent major league rotation? Gross, I think it is. I hate it I hate it I hate it. Or, rather, I would hate it, if it weren’t so middling.

Keuchel and McHugh both broke out in 2014, pitching like true top-of-the-rotation types. Now the question is this: which, if either, will sustain the gains they made last season? Okay, so maybe it’s both of them, and maybe the ‘Stros have two really good pitchers. They had two really good pitchers last year and lost 92 games. Not the end of the world.

One year ago Feldman was a legendarily mediocre opening day starter, and while he may not strike anybody out he’s still a serviceable mid-rotation pitcher. Oberholtzer doesn’t walk very many dudes, and despite an excellent ERA in 2013 and a less-than mediocre one in 2014 has actually been a consistently good pitcher by FIP over that span. Hernandez is a fifth starter’s fifth starter, which is to say he’s old and exactly good enough to hang around.

If Hernandez (or anyone, for that matter) falters in the early going, Houston has no less than three perfectly acceptable depth options: Dan Straily, Brad Peacock, and Samuel Deduno. The Astros have better rotation depth than the Angels. They might just straight up have a better rotation than the Angels. It’s an unlikely turn of events for a team who’s opening day starter a year ago was literally Scott Feldman.

The Bullpen

RHP Luke Gregerson
RHP Pat Neshek
RHP Chad Qualls
LHP Tony Sipp
RHP Josh Fields
RHP Will Harris
LHP Joe Thatcher

Mar 2, 2015; Kissimmee, FL, USA; Houston Astros relief pitcher Luke Gregerson (44) simulates throwing off the mound during morning work outs at Osceola County Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

Well, well, well, if it’s not another competent group of baseball-tossers. Out are the days of Josh Fields, Closer, and in are Gregerson and Neshek, two semi-major signings who will fill what has typically always been dead space at the back of Houston’s ‘pen. Qualls is still a fine arm, and Sipp was quietly excellent last year. Then there’s Harris, a waiver claim this offseason who is also a living example of the oft-excepted truism that the Diamondbacks are really bad at evaluating talent.

It’s a good group, all in all, or at least it appears to be. One thing that stands out – at least in the media – is that the two new big money relievers have a combined zero career saves. One or both of them will likely be Houston’s closer, unless Qualls holds tight to his old position. It’s hard to think of a worse evaluatory tool than career saves, and what’s important is that the Astros have three guys good enough to handle the ninth.

As with the rotation, the current state of the Astros bullpen counts as a surprising turn of events given where they just were. Last year Houston had the worst relief unit in baseball, and now they’ve got a pretty thorough and talented group. Good news for them, I guess, though personally I kind of liked the way it was before. Just sayin’.

The Lineup

2B Jose Altuve
3B Luis Valbuena
DH Evan Gattis
1B Chris Carter
RF George Springer
CF Colby Rasmus
SS Jed Lowrie
LF Jake Marisnick
C Jason Castro

Jul 9, 2014; Arlington, TX, USA; Houston Astros center fielder George Springer (left) celebrates the victory with first baseman Jon Singleton (28) against the Texas Rangers at Globe Life Park in Arlington. Mandatory Credit: Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

Were you starting to feel like the Houston Astros, of all teams, looked surprisingly strong on paper? Well, here’s their lineup. It’s way, way better than it used to be, when the team lost 100+ games every year. It’s still not great, and while the upside is undeniable it’s easy to see this going really poorly.

Altuve’s the batting champ and by this point is an actual star player, somehow. Gattis, Rasmus, and Lowrie are all offseason additions, and each has proven somewhat-to-quite useful at various points in the not-so-distant past. Carter just hit 37 home runs. Springer impressed in his first MLB showing before going down with an injury.

Yet there’s the feeling that this group isn’t really ready to take flight just yet. For instance, where the hell are they gonna put Jon Singleton? The former top prospect has been embattled, extended, and squeezed out of the lineup by the club’s offseason additions. Then there’s Marisnick, who has flashy defense but can’t hit at all. Then there’s Valbuena, 29 years old and coming off his first-ever season as an above-average hitter. The pieces fit, kind of, but it’s easier to see this not working than working.

This group is at least half-competent, but can’t be expected to carry Houston to a division crown or anything like that. The lineup is the big reason why the Astros are a high-variance team, as well as a team that doesn’t project as much of a legitimate threat.

The Bench

C Hank Conger
1B Jon Singleton
OF Robbie Grossman
IF Marwin Gonzalez

Apr 16, 2014; Houston, TX, USA; Houston Astros shortstop Marwin Gonzalez (9) commits an error during the seventh inning against the Kansas City Royals at Minute Maid Park. Mandatory Credit: Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

Good on Houston for swooping Conger up from the Angels, who also could really have used his services in 2015. Conger’s an underrated backstop who is juuuuust about starter material. He’s a plus defender with an absolutely passable bat. A great get for the Astros, who can lean on him if Castro again struggles to regain his all-world 2013 form.

Singleton should probably be playing every day, and the struggle to find him playing time has been a focal point of the Astros spring thus far. That being said, he didn’t exactly establish himself last year, when he hit .168/.285/.335. As a bat-only corner infielder without a lot of athleticism, he’s exactly the type of prospect I’m most leary of. Maybe not giving Singleton a guaranteed spot in the lineup is the right idea.

Grossman and Gonzalez are Astros that typify the kind of slop the team has been throwing on the field for the first half of this decade. If you haven’t seen them personally in orange over the last few years, you’ve at least seen a lot of players just like them. Neither is a lock for the roster, I think. Who knows? Who cares! This is the back end of the Houston Astros bench we’re talking about. These guys aren’t going to stand out, no matter what.


Mar 2, 2015; Kissimmee, FL, USA; Houston Astros manager A.J. Hinch (left) goes over the practice schedule with Lance Berkman during morning work outs at Osceola County Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

The Houston Astros are projected to finish 79-83, nine games behind the Seattle Mariners and in fourth place in the AL West. If they can pull that off it would be their best finish since going 86-75 in 2008. While it’s not quite a winning season, I have a feeling the team (and their fans) would gladly take it.

The roster’s not exactly as littered with breakthrough types as some make it seem, but there’s definite upside on this squad. Springer, most obviously, as well as the one-two starters. Altuve’s got a lot of maintaining to do, but he’s definitely a good player. Rasmus could be poised for a big bounceback year. Things could work out for Houston. No, really.

It won’t necessarily be a smooth ride, and there’s no guarantee this team doesn’t just completely fall apart. They’ve built up some nice depth, although the quality of that depth is more alright than sterling. But not every team in the division has depth, and that’s why perhaps the Astros are a better bet than most realize. 79 win projection? I’ll take the over, if only by a game or two.