The Houston Astros had been the laughingstocks of baseball for a few years, but they finally showed improvement in 2014. Could this young team actually contend for a playoff spot in '15? Houston has a wins total of 75 on 5Dimes MLB odds.
Recap of 2014
Most times a 70-92 record isn't much to cheer about, but it was almost worth a parade in Houston a season ago. Consider the franchise's records the previous three seasons: 51-111, 55-107 and 56-106, certainly the worst three-year stretch in team history and among the worst in modern baseball lore. But then we knew the Astros were going to be lousy as they went all Philadelphia 76ers on us. Houston slashed payroll and compiled high draft picks. That once-stocked farm system started to pay dividends last year -- for one glorious week or so in late May the Astros were the hottest team in baseball, winning seven straight games. And, hey, at least Houston was the best team in Texas. The Astros didn't finish last in their division for the first time since 2010.
So what went right last year? Certainly it has to start with All-Star second baseman Jose Altuve, who won the big-league batting title with a .341 average and set a franchise record with 225 hits -- only 57 of which were of the extra-base variety for the 5-foot-6 mighty-mite. Designated hitter Chris Carter was among the MLB home-run leaders with 37, and rookie George Springer showed why he's such a touted prospect with 20 homers in just 295 at-bats. Pitching-wise, Dallas Keuchel and Collin McHugh were huge surprises -- so was Jarred Cosart, but he was traded to Miami during last season.
Despite all the positives, Houston fired Manager Bo Porter on Sept. 1 with the team at 59-79. GM Jeff Luhnow simply said that the team needed to go in a "new direction" and that the decision was not based on "our current level of competitiveness." You have to feel for Porter, who was put in a total no-win situation.
Outlook for 2015
The guy leading the team this season is A.J. Hinch. He managed the Diamondbacks from May 2009 until July 2010, when he was fired after a 31-48 start. Hinch had then been the vice president of professional scouting for San Diego since 2010. Luhnow said hiring a manager with experience, which Porter didn't have, was important. If you read between the lines, Luhnow clearly thinks this franchise is about to embark on a new era and needed a fresh outlook in the clubhouse.
The Astros' Opening Day lineup should have a few new faces. It all starts at the top with Altuve, the first-ever Astros batting champion who had 47 doubles and an AL-best 56 steals. It's hard not to like that guy no matter your team preference. There will be a new third baseman in Luis Valbuena, who was acquired along with minor-league pitcher Dan Straily from the Cubs for starting center fielder Dexter Fowler. Valbuena a solid player and Fowler was going to be a free agent after this season so it was a solid trade. Straily was good a couple of years ago in Oakland.
The middle of the order (in whatever order) of Springer, Carter, outfielder Colby Rasmus, outfielder/DH Evan Gattis and catcher Jason Castro, will hit a ton of homers but strikeout an incredible amount. It's possible that Jonathan Singleton, another touted prospect but one who struggled mightily last season, could play first, send Carter to DH and Gattis to left field. Last year, Springer whiffed 114 times in his 295 at-bats, Carter 182 times in 507 at-bats, and Castro 151 times in 465 at-bats. Rasmus was signed as a free agent from Toronto and had 18 homers last year but 124 strikeouts in 346 at-bats. Gattis was the team's biggest acquisition as the Astros sent young players to Atlanta for him. Gattis had 22 homers in 369 at-bats but whiffed 97 times. If Singleton moves into the lineup, he hit just .168 with 13 homers but 134 strikeouts in 310 at-bats as a rookie. If this team doesn't lead the majors in Ks it will be a shock. Houston finished second in that category to the Cubs last season.
The top four of the pitching staff should be what it finished last season as with Keuchel (12-9, 2.93), McHugh (11-9, 2.73), Scott Feldman (8-12, 3.74) and Brett Oberholtzer (5-13, 4.39; he has battled a left lat strain this spring and could miss start of season). The No. 5 spot will go to Roberto Hernandez or Sam Deduno or Asher Wojciechowski. The team could call up former No. 1 overall pick Mark Appel to slot into the rotation later this season. Chad Qualls will close things out.
Houston Astros Season Win Total: Is this team at least five wins better than last year? A full season of Springer and the additions of Valbuena, Gattis and Rasmus would seem to indicate yes. With all those free-swingers the Astros could score 10 runs one night and be blanked the next two games, making them unpredictable for your MLB Picks. The pitching staff is questionable. Go 'over' the wins with another fourth-place finish likely in the AL West.