After three straight years with at least 106 losses, the Houston Astros' rebuilding project finally started to bear fruit in 2014. With Jose Altuve, Chris Carter and George Springer leading the offense, and out-of-nowhere stars Dallas Keuchel and Collin McHugh anchoring the rotation, the Astros went from LOL to OK with a 70-92 record -- a 19-game improvement over the previous season. Having identified a core of quality players, they came out of hibernation this winter with a slew of moves for quality veterans. They signed free agent relievers Luke Gregerson and Pat Neshek to shore up a bullpen that ranked worst in MLB in both blown saves and ERA; they picked up Jed Lowrie and Luis Valbuena to fill their void on the left side of the infield; and they added sluggers Evan Gattis and Colby Rasmus to beef up the middle of their order. With a lineup full of legitimate big leaguers, a rotation of respectable starters, and some new help in the pen, these aren't the same old 'Stros. There are still pitfalls to avoid, as with any team, but this club could make a push for a .500 record. If a handful of things break just right, it's not even out of the question that Houston could contend for a Wild Card. Wouldn't that be out of this world?
Dallas Keuchel has the beard of Sean Doolittle and the endurance of Sonny Gray. -- Photo credit: Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports
C Jason Castro
1B Chris Carter
2B Jose Altuve
SS Jed Lowrie
3B Luis Valbuena
LF Colby Rasmus
CF Jake Marisnick
RF George Springer
DH Evan Gattis
Bench: Hank Conger (C), Jonathan Villar (IF), Marwin Gonzalez (IF), Robbie Grossman (OF)
1. Dallas Keuchel (L)
2. Scott Feldman (R)
3. Asher Wojciechowski (R)
4. Collin McHugh (R)
5. Roberto Hernandez (R) (the former Fausto Carmona)
DL: Brett Oberholtzer (L), Brad Peacock (R)
Depth: Dan Straily (R), Sam Deduno (R), Alex White (R) (but White may move to bullpen full-time)
CL: Luke Gregerson (R)
Key pen: Chad Qualls (R), Pat Neshek (R), Tony Sipp (L), Joe Thatcher (L)
Ranked on a scale of 1 (no big deal) to 10 (serious problem)
|SP Brett Oberholtzer||Blister on index finger; should return in April||1|
|SP Brad Peacock||Recovering from hip surgery (Oct. 2014); will open season on rehab in Triple-A||1|
|RP Josh Fields||Strained right groin; back in April or May||1|
Explaining the ratings: Oberholtzer's arm is fine, and an early-season blister isn't something that usually lingers for long. He'll be fine and the Astros will get a free look at Wojo and
Carmona Hernandez in the meantime. Peacock isn't actually out, since he'll be pitching in Triple-A, so he'll likely be available once he proves himself anew in the minors. Fields was better than you realized last year -- 11.5 K/9, 2.09 FIP -- because his excellent peripherals somehow translated into an ugly ERA. But again, his arm is fine, and there are enough other guns in the bullpen to keep things cooking until he can return. None of these injuries are big deals at all, and the Astros enter 2015 with a remarkably clean bill of health.
Springer fulfills his promise as an MVP candidate, blasting dingers to all fields and adding a few dozen steals. He joins with Carter, Gattis and Rasmus to create one of the most devastating lineups in baseball, and the Astros lead the Majors in home runs. Even better, they aren't solo homers anymore, because Altuve and Lowrie both hit .300 at the top of the order and there are always ducks on the pond. Jon Singleton fights his way back from the minor league doldrums, just in time to replace whoever gets hurt. Just kidding, no one gets hurt, they just have too many good hitters for one lineup. Astros fans keep that sentence in their wallet next to the picture of their kids so they can look at it from time to time and show it to their friends. Keuchel repeats his breakout 2014 and wins the Cy Young, and the rest of the rotation behind him is reliable enough to win a lot of 7-4 games. The wheel of fortune turns on Gregerson, now a closer, and he doesn't blow a save all year to even out for his bad luck last year in Oakland. When people write articles about the Astros, they actually write about them playing baseball instead of just making uninspired Altuve height jokes. Houston stuns the world by stealing the division title on the last day of the regular season.
Nope. Nope nope nope. The progress of 2014 was a cruel mirage; the clock strikes midnight, and everyone turns back into pumpkins. Carter's homers turn back into strikeouts, Altuve's batted balls stop finding holes, Keuchel reverts back into a No. 5 starter, and Springer struggles to make contact and even earns a brief demotion to the minors in June. Gattis turns back into a literal bear and runs away to make a new life in the woods. None of the other new veteran hitters step up, and none of the young pitchers do either. It's another long season, but it's even worse this time because no one in Houston saw it coming. Things were supposed to be different this time. The Astros lose 106 games, and Space City's enthusiasm is sucked into a black hole. Orbit, their surprisingly solid mascot, retires in shame and is replaced by Giffy the LOLbot, which is just an intern walking around the stadium holding an iPad that's playing a montage of Astros players running into each other and falling down.
The Astros are going to surprise people this year. In my larger 2015 preview, I picked them to finish third in the division, and while I'm less confident in the exact teams who will end up behind them I just have a feeling that Houston is going to take another step forward and pass somebody. Hopefully it won't be us. The lineup is going to mash, Keuchel is for real, and at least one more young player will step up. I would still set .500 as a marker for success, because an awful lot would have to go right for them (and wrong for their competition) in order to truly contend. But Houston will be one of the positive stories of the year for the first time in a while, and they still have one of the best farm systems in baseball waiting to make an impact in the years beyond. Underestimate Houston at your own risk. Record: 81-81
Sources: Rotation, outfield, 25-man roster
Also: 2014 Astros preview, to see how things have changed ... note that only three members of the '14 Opening Day lineup are still starting this year