Houston Astros Season Preview: Deep in the Tank
It was around 2007 when everybody started to realize that the Houston Astros were about to embark into a very long, dark period in their history. There were highlights â€“ a breakout by a young Hunter Pence, a solid campaign from Roy Oswalt, the rattling husk of Craig Biggio eking out his 3,000th hit â€“ but the real story of this team was the 188 innings of sub-replacement level ball they gave to a 40-year-old Woody Williams, whom they had signed to a six-million dollar contract.
This was the perfect storm of foreboding: an MLB club that was both old and bad, combined with a completely dry farm system and no top draft picks in sight. You could almost hear the sounds of a ghoulish wail and shaking chains down a dark hallway, like on Scooby-Doo.
The 'Stros held on for a few more mediocre seasons, and then they got really, really bad. Historically bad. Their winning percentage was lower than Nick Punto's OBP in that time. Last season, Chris Davis's home run count was higher than the Astros' win total, 53 to 51.
If you were an Astros fan, even assuming you lived in the 40% of the greater Houston area that actually gets the Astros' network, you didn't even get to see your team play spoiler in the final few weeks of the season. That's not because Houston didn't play contending teams down the stretch. They did. It's because they lost all of those games. Literally all of them. And not just to the contending teams. Houston is on a 15-game losing streak that continues to this day.
I would say that the only way to make the team watchable would be to market it as some sort of farce and play Yakety Sax while the TV announcers read off the lineup card. But since Houston was also the first team ever to achieve a 0.0 television rating, society can never be sure if that happened or not. If nobody was watching, how can we ever know if it was watchable at all?
That's a trick question, of course. It was baseball (sort of)! Of course it was watchable. And as we all know, if baseball is worth watching, it's worth analyzing.
The explanation of the 2013 Astros is pretty straightforward: they were terrible at scoring runs and even worse at preventing them, so they lost 111 games. They weren't even spared by any rainouts. But it takes a comparison to wrap your head around the real-life degree of that awfulness.
To put this in perspective, a pop quiz: what are the following four slash stat lines?A) .240/.299/.375
For those of you who are too lazy to click on hyperlinks (and I respect that), here are the answers:
So, essentially, the Astros' hitting was so bad it turned a below-average AL pitcher into Justin Verlander. And Astros pitching was so bad it turned an average AL hitter into Adrian Gonzalez. Remember how bad the A's looked in the ALDS against Verlander? That was the Astros against J.A. Happ.
It's a common assumption (let's call it the Yuniesky Paradigm) that a major leaguer who can't hit a lick is a great fielder. Fans rightfully have a lot of faith in the meritocracy of baseball â€“ how does a guy make it to the majors other than by outplaying his competition in some way? â€“ but the Astros operate on a different axis, in which Astros compete against other Astros to win jobs, then get pummeled by people who are better at baseball. The point of this paragraph is, Houston ranked in the bottom fifth of the league in defensive efficiency at .697.
At this point, I'm itching to deliver some good news, so here you go: it would be surprising if they failed to win 60 games for the fourth straight year. The Astros are still young. They underperformed their run differential. They acquired some new players (real players!). All of these factors tend to improve a team. But even assuming they manage to jump from so-bad-it's-almost-rude to merely very terrible, it's not like this is a playoff team, a bubble team, or even a team with a shot at .500. It's a team of limited players stretched beyond their abilities plugging holes as the farm system develops.
But limited players are awesome, so let's go deep! And let's be honest, if you're reading an article in February about the Astros, you're probably psyched to go deep anyway.
The Premium Positions
Conventional wisdom states that baseball championships are won with pitching and up-the-middle talent. Well, Houston can now pat themselves on the back and stake legitimate claim to fielding real, actual major league-caliber players at every up-the-middle position. Except shortstop. And pitchers don't count.
Second baseman Jose Altuve is probably the most famous of the group. Altuve is too short to ride some roller coasters (5'5"), but past that, his profile is pretty typical and reasonably valuable: a free-swinging, high-contact hitter who won't hurt you too much in the field, hits some doubles and has some value on the bases (positive baserunning runs added and more than 30 stolen bases in each of his two full MLB seasons).
The Venezuelan flashes a little more pop against lefties, but has pretty balanced hit tendencies overall, with a nice line drive rate helping to offset a slightly grounder-heavy swing. Altuve tends to actually be slightly overrated IRL because his stolen bases give him some empty fantasy value, and he's just about the only Astro who can really play at all.
His actual production is closer to marginal than decent, with just a .297 wOBA and 85 wRC+ last year. That's because most of his offensive value lives and dies by his volatile batting average, as his defense doesn't grade out very well and his secondary hitting skills are underdeveloped. Altuve had just 12 home runs and 72 walks over the past two seasons, and thanks to a slew of minor injuries, those secondaries aren't trending up.
The good news is that the injuries aren't soft-tissues ones or joint problems, which tend to recur; they're more in the freak variety (a dislocated jaw from a collision â€“ one of many Houston Astros collisions in 2013 â€“ foremost among them). He's still just 24, so with two legitimate MLB seasons under his belt, Altuve should stay healthy enough to be a valuable major league regular for a pretty long time. He's also managed to mostly avoid the â€œscrappyâ€ label so far, a commendable feat for a ballplayer shorter than Tom Cruise.
The other returning positive contributor is catcher Jason Castro. A former 10th overall pick, Castro has more pedigree than Altuve and, being a Stanford man, probably also your boss.
The 26-year-old is coming off a career year in which he batted a legitimately outstanding .276/.350/.485 and improved his defense to around league average. He even added a couple of runs worth of value on the base paths. Good for him! He also batted .351 on balls in play, struck out 26.1% of the time, slugged 117 points higher at home, had nine cheap home runs, and cost his team 3.7 runs as a framer according to CatcherReport on www.statcorner.com.
Naturally, Castro is a prime regression candidate, which is scary news for a team that lost 111 games. But he's entering his prime, and he does have an extremely high line drive rate for his career â€“ his 25.2% rate last season was actually down from his ridiculous 27.5% showing from 2012. Even if that gaudy line drive goes down, his BABIP should remain above-average, especially for a player without much foot speed. Either way, Castro isn't the center of a rebuilding movement, but he is firmly a championship-caliber catcher â€“ a solid lefty bat with a decent arm to make up for below average receiving skills. If the knee issues that ended his season early don't recur, Castro should be an above-average player for several years.
For the short term, center field will be manned by Dexter Fowler. This was one of the two clearest examples of the team's offseason efforts to play baseball better than some sort of clown posse.
Fowler is a legit premium athlete, with excellent speed and the ability to hit the ball a long way, not that you'd know any of that based on his stats. He makes fairly weak contact in game, managing only 33 extra-base hits last year in the hitter's paradise of Coors Field. To make matters worse, the switch hitter struggles from the left side; northpaws handled him to the tune of .237/.349/.392, and he hit only .214/.343.335 away from Coors.
An abnormally high percentage of his contact is ground balls, and Fowler failed to reach base on infield hits as frequently as you'd expect given his speed. He got caught stealing more than he should have. His athleticism doesn't even show on defense; he's been substantially below average in center field for the past two seasons according to dWAR, UZR and FRAA. This would be a bigger deal if Fowler's excellent on-base skills couldn't handle a corner, but assuming his defensive numbers improve with the easier assignment, he should make for a fine left fielder.
Fowler has a great selectively aggressive approach, identifying balls from strikes and swinging accordingly. He also hammers lefties, and he does add runs on the base paths in spite of mediocre stolen base efficiency (19-for-28 last year). At 28, he's smack in the middle of his prime. Most importantly, Fowler has nothing to do with the Afro Circus that was in the outfield for Houston during most of last season. So he isn't a breakout candidate. Big deal. He's a respectable major league regular in the mold of a sturdier, more emotionally stable Milton Bradley. And who doesn't love Milton Bradley? (Don't answer that question.)
I saved the worst for last. Sorry. Jonathan Villar is the only remaining chip the Astros got for Roy Oswalt (along with Anthony Gose and J.A. Happ â€“ yikes). Villar is a speedy, erratic warm body who plays shortstop poorly and swings and misses a lot. The most remarkable thing about Villar's profile is his crazy ground ball rate; over 65% of his balls in play were grounders, about half-again over the league average.
This may make him a useful fifth or sixth infielder on a team with fly ball-hitting middle infielders (since ground ball hitters tend to perform better against fly ball pitchers, and vice versa). But at his current level of development, Villar is stretched even in that role. The switch-hitting Dominican gets manhandled by junk ballers, and doesn't make nearly enough contact to allow his profile to play; it took some magic beans and a .362 BABIP to even allow him to hit the meager .243/.321/.319 he managed last year.
His approach at the plate isn't bad, and he earns points for enthusiasm on the bases, attempting 26 steals in just 58 games. But he makes too many mistakes to be much of a big-leaguer (he was caught in nine of those attempts). He did flash double-digit home run pop in the minors, so maybe there's a reason to be optimistic, although the power disappeared in the Show last year. Cesar Izturis is somehow on this team as well, and the only question about him is whether he'll finally manage an OBP that starts with the number 1.
Houston's awfulness starts to get weird at the corners. First, there's post-prospect first baseman, DH, and "left fielder" (how versatile) Chris Carter. Heading into his age-28 season, Carter is one of those guys whose profile seems recognizable at first: he's a big (6'4", 245) right-handed high-power/low-contact guy whose size and foot speed limit his defensive utility. Then you look closer and you realize that to fully comprehend Carter's contact issues would be to paralyze yourself with the knowledge of something so vast it blocks any possibility for your feeble consciousness to act again, like the horse that comprehends the universe.
Chris Carter struck out 212 times. "Wow, that's a lot," you think. But people have struck out more. You still have coping mechanisms in place that allow you to move on with your life. But then you realize it was in 506 at bats. You realize that he batted .223 even though his BABIP was .311. You realize that he missed half of the breaking balls he swung at. He missed a third of the fastballs he swung at. His contact rate is most similar to the contact rate of a pitcher batting. He struck out in 36% of his plate appearances against same-handed hurlers... and even more against lefties. Chris Carter is not Rob Deer. He is not Pete Incaviglia or Russell Branyan or even Mark Reynolds. He is their demigod.
Carter's contact woes aren't even because pitchers get him to chase â€“ his selectivity numbers are pretty good. It really is just that he can't make consistent contact with a regular pitch. To his credit, he still has enough power and patience to be a solid major leaguer in the right context. 29 home runs in 506 at bats is a lot of power in baseball today, and Carter walks enough to handily outstrip feast-or-famine peers like Mark Trumbo or Pedro Alvarez in OBP.
But figuring out that ideal context is challenging. Carter has a spotty platoon history; he managed to keep his whiff rate under control against southpaws when Oakland hid him from righties in 2012, but that advantage vanished last year. His batted ball data is practically nonexistent because of all the strikeouts, so any nickel-and-dime platoon advantages are basically moot until he can stop striking out so much. With the glove, he's limited to first base and DH (and terrible left field), so while his profile as a bench power threat is intriguing, he's a pretty inflexible commodity on which to spend a roster spot.
There's a remote chance he figures everything out and becomes Chris Davis, but for now, we just have to accept Carter for what he is: second-division player, and the Overlord of Strikeouts. As a 28-year-old with old player skills, there's not a great chance he'll age very well and still be productive when Houston is ready to contend.
The other infield corner, Matt Dominguez, is actually a player I quite like. Dominguez fell into the Astros' lap in 2012 when the 39-42 Miami Marlins developed an inexplicable craving for the final three months of Carlos Lee's career; Houston ended up with a nifty little third baseman for their troubles. Dominguez is something of a unicorn as a defense-first third base prospect â€“ most excellent defensive third basemen were shortstops in the minors (think Manny Machado).
But Dominguez's glove has translated into the majors beautifully; he was worth 1.3 wins by baseball reference's dWAR and Baseball Prospectus's WARP had him as almost a win better than average despite performing substantially below average on offense. And while his production was pretty gross in 2013 â€“ .286 OBP, anyone? â€“ his outlook at the dish for next year may not be so bad.
Dominguez popped 21 home runs in 2013 and doesn't have the an outrageous amount of swing-and-miss in his game to go with it. Instead, he has selectivity issues which seem to stem from pitch identification problems. Dominguez chases too many breaking balls and off-speed pitches off the plate â€“ he swung at about 40% of breaking balls and over half the changeups thrown to him out of the strike zone, compared to only 28% of fastballs - leading to a walk rate of under 5%.
Scouts were also discouraged by what they perceived to be a lack of solid contact from Dominguez. This helps explain some mediocre hitting peripherals like his basement BABIP of .254 and his mediocre speed-off-the-bat and home run distance numbers.
But the not everything screams â€œsoft contact;â€ Dominguez did have a roughly average line drive rate, hit a solid number of fly balls and saw a normal percentage of them leave the park, including six â€œno-doubtersâ€ and only four cheapies according to The Hit Tracker. So at age 24, and with a cheap contract, an elite glove, solid home run power, and a decent chance for BABIP improvement (though probably not a full regression to the mean), Dominguez is a guy I'd kind of like to have on my franchise.
At DH, the current projection is Brett Wallace. Wallace seems to be the kind of player who can get on base a bit or hit for some power, but never both at once. The Walrus was a highly touted line-drive hitting prospect back in the day, but he never hit for much power until last year. Unfortunately, Walrus's shiny new .210 isolated power coincided with a Carteresque K-rate spike and the evaporation of his once-lauded patience, and his OBP cratered at .284.
Wallace is basically the definition of a quad-A player at this point after batting .326/.398/.554 in AAA and only managing a .311 wOBA in the majors. He does have potential value as the lion's share of a platoon; lefties ruin him (.143/.200/.250 last year and .212/.264/.306 for his career), but he can handle a bat when he has the platoon advantage (.243/.307/.481 last year and .249/.324/.413 for his career). In Non-Astros-World, that isn't good enough to make him worth a roster spot given his defensive inefficacy. Even in Astros World, he's a little too long in the tooth to be much more than a placeholder.
For what it's worth, I still kinda like him, though my feelings perplex me. Marc Krauss, J.D. Martinez and Jesus Guzman round out the corner outfield/DH picture. Martinez is another 26-year-old AAA raker whose clunky swing mechanics led him to a .272 OBP in the majors last year in 310 PA. Guzman is a 30-year-old right-handed platoon player who can no longer hit lefties. Marc Krauss is left-handed, so he can't platoon with Wallace anyway. Oh, and last year he batted .209/.267/.366 in 146 plate appearances. But I bet they're nice guys.
Moving on, there's Robbie Grossman! Okay, so, um. Robbie Grossman. He is a man. He often wears a hat to work. He played some center field last year, but mostly not. He did some left fielding, some pitch-swinging, some hit-batting. Oh, and L.J. Hoes! He's a ballplayer, surely. An Astro, without doubt.
Apart from having strangely appropriate names for a small-business pimping partnership, Grossman and Hoes are pretty unspectacular major leaguers. They're both 24-year-old tweener outfielders, stretched defensively in center field. They both have some speed but neither is a burner. Grossman's minor league numbers suggest on-base skills he didn't show last year, when he struggled to put the bat on the ball against right-handed pitching and largely invalidated the advantage provided by his switch-hitting. (Is it just me, or does Houston have a lot of switch hitters?).
Hoes is the more athletic of the two, but unless he can fix his bizarre batted ball data â€“ last year he was an extreme ground ball hitter, as bad as Villar â€“ his odds of leveraging that athleticism into corner outfield-type offense are pretty slim. Hoes has fairly neutral platoon splits, so it's not impossible to envision a weird Hoes-against-fly-ballers, Grossman-against-ground-ballers platoon-lite. In this scenario, the Astros could maximize their assets and eke second-division production out of a corner outfield spot, which could give the Houston loyals a nice warm fuzzy feeling as the opposition ranches their favorite baseball team like angry Vikings.
On the Horizon
The reason I talk about platooning Grossman and Hoes is 24 years old and batted .311/.425/.626 at AAA last season, with 37 home runs and 45 steals over two levels. His name is George Springer, and he may be the best player in the Astros organization. I mean that literally. Majors or minors. The strapping Springer is an athletic beast and a very pretty man with a swoon-worthy smile.
Like basically everyone else in this organization, Springer has major contact issues which may suppress his overall numbers. But even if he can't hit .250 yet, he's selective, he'll hit for power and he'll add a lot of value on defense and on the base paths. That's already a more valuable profile than guys like Altuve or Fowler or Castro, and he may immediately take up the mantle of Houston Astros MVP â€“ at least, once the A-Team calls him up in May or June, giving them an extra season of Springer before arbitration.
First baseman Jonathan Singleton, the headliner of the Hunter Pence trade, is waiting in the wings as well, potentially snagging the 1B/DH role from Walrus to start the season. Singleton is the top first-base prospect in baseball, though that isn't saying much, since MLB first basement are usually converted third baseman, catchers, or outfielders.
The highly-touted Singleton disappointed scouts in 2013 by getting nailed with a marijuana suspension, coming back out of shape (munchies?), and struggling at AAA, though he did tee off on A and AA pitching. He could be a big lefty power bat with solid on-base and contact skills for Houston, but the makeup and conditioning concerns have hurt his stock.
The rest of the Astros position prospects have a bit too much refinement ahead of them to contribute in 2014. Shortstop-for-now Carlos Correa is a fabulous prospect, just behind the elite quartet of Chicago's Javier Baez, Minnesota's Byron Buxton, Boston's Xander Bogaerts and St. Louis's Oscar Taveras.
Correa is a premium hitter with a great glove and a great arm, but his size and average speed may force him off shortstop. His power projects well but doesn't play in-game yet. Outfielder Domingo Santana has a pure right fielder's profile, with big power and a big throwing arm, but he'll only be 21 and he strikes out too much (just like everyone else). Second sacker/outfielder Deleino DeShields Junior had some outstanding numbers in the minors, matching Correa in every way. He's an elite runner on top of it, but he's a few years away at least; makeup concerns, defensive indifference and limited power tarnish his prospect status.
Catcher Max Stassi finally overcame the injury bug to have a breakout season, and could be ready to contribute to the majors as early as this year. He's a balanced overall player who plays both offense and defense reasonably well, but won't unseat Castro in the short term. Stassi is probably destined for AAA in 2014.
As bad as the Houston hitters were, the pitching was that much worse. No starter reached the 162-inning threshold needed to qualify for the ERA title last year. Of the four that managed over 140 innings, the only one with an ERA lower than 5.15 (an ERA+ of 78) was the skulking ghost of Erik Bedard, who was a mere 12% worse than average. Bedard is no longer on this Houston team, anyway, which saves me the trouble of coming up with a joke about him.
Of the pitchers that will be dealing in Harris County this summer is another new horse â€“ the Astros' second real player acquired in just one offseason! Veteran ground baller Scott Feldman will be Houston's de facto ace next year, after recording a mighty 105 ERA+ in 2013. The big righty would be a nice fourth starter on a good team despite his modest velocity. He relied heavily on a 90-mph sinker/cutter mix, which generated a solid 53.5% ground ball rate and a .230/.320/.380 opposing batting line. Feldman also has a good curveball which he uses to get swinging strikes more often than any other pitch.
His other stuff is fringy at best, with a four-seamer that averaged below 90 mph last year, a nondescript slider and a show-me changeup that may as well have been served up on a silver platter. Houston's porous infield defense will affect Feldman's numbers, since his high grounder rate and middling K rate (6.6 K/9) will result in a lot of grounders sneaking through. Feldman is balanced and serviceable in just about every other way, making for a very aesthetically pleasing profile. But when you realize your state rival's ace is Yu Darvish and yours is Scott Feldman, you may find some of that pleasure ebbing for some reason.
Don't worry, things immediately start to get weird again. The nominal number two starter on this team is 23-year-old Jarred Cosart. Last season, Cosart pulled a delightful bit of small sample size wizardry: he started 10 games, threw 60 innings, had a 1.95 ERA and struck out fewer batters than he walked. Wait, what?
Cosart is a legit fireballer, throwing over 60% fastballs in his rookie season with an average velocity of 94.5 mph. It's a pity that everything else about him sucked. He had very poor location with his fastball, leading to over five BB/9. That's not so far out of the ordinary for Jay-C, whose minor league walk rate was 4.8 BB/9. But at least in the minors Jay-C showed some strikeout chops, punching out a batter per inning.
In the majors, he couldn't crack a 10% whiff rate with any of his pitches. Cosart does get a lot of grounders, making him a solid fit for the traditionally homer-friendly Minute Maid Park and tantalizing fans with the possibility of an efficient strikeout-groundball machine â€“ the kind that generates enough Ks and double plays and gives up few enough home runs to be a valuable starter or a rally-killing reliever even if he never fully gets his walks under control. But for now, Cosart is woefully miscast as a #2, although you'd rather he be in your organization than your rival's.
The remaining options in the rotation are intriguing enough, if marginal, pitchers. My favorite among them is Brett Oberholtzer, a command-oriented lefty from the Braves system who can throw quality strikes, retire righties with a really nice changeup (17.2% swing-and-miss rate) and reach 92 on the gun. Don't expect a repeat of Oberholtzer's 2.76 ERA â€“ his curveball is bad so he can't take advantage of his lefty-on-lefty platoon advantage, he stranded a fluky 76% of runners and allowed a BABIP of just .260 on a poor defensive team â€“ but his MLB and MiLB peripherals last year were encouraging, especially his 1.63 BB/9 with the big club.
I think Oberholtzer has a reasonable shot at joining Feldman as a league-average pitcher on the Astros staff. He definitely has a low ceiling (back-of-the-rotation innings eater, if he's durable enough), but he has a reasonable chance to reach it. There's always a chance he gets hammered out of the league, but on a good team he could be a flexible multi-inning bullpen lefty who's stingy with walks, and those are neat.
Other returning options are Dallas Keuchel and Brad Peacock. Keuchel is a soft-tossing lefty whose tosses are even softer than Oberholtzer's, clocking well within the Danger Zone at 89 mph. DK was the worst of both worlds last year: a ground ball pitcher who still managed to be plagued by home runs. He did pitch a little better than his 5.15 ERA last year; his .340 BABIP allowed and 17.4 HR/FB rates are unusually high. Then again, regression to the mean sometimes isn't a thing if a guy's stuff can't sniff the mean in the first place.
Peacock lucked his way into a .270 BABIP and still got hammered for a 5.18 ERA last year. Lefties butcher him and he's essentially a one-pitch pitcher; he threw over 60% fastballs, against which opposing hitters batted .272/.373/.533. Naturally, he's back for more. AL fans rejoice! Peacock could potentially be usable as a one or two-out righty specialist on a contender, but the fact that there's a major league team stretched enough in the rotation to consider starting a pitcher with his profile is pretty amazing. New addition Jerome Williams profiles similarly to Peacock, with more breaking balls, lower velocity, and six additional years on planet earth under his belt. Lucas Harrell's numbers were so bad that I'm not even going to look up his pitchFX data, which is how you know somebody's terrible, because I love looking up pitchFX data. On the plus side, Harrell is yet another Astros switch hitter, so that's something.
With all these bullpen arms in their rotation, what does the Astros actual pen look like? (The answer is: bad!) Based on merit alone, Josh Fields seems to be next year's closer favorite, which is pretty amazing given that he was below replacement level even with a .245 BABIP as a cushion. There's a possibility that Houston goes with one of a plethora of mediocre veterans as their closer â€“ Jesse Crain, Chad Qualls, Matt Albers â€“ in order to artificially inflate their trade value with saves, but this is a bad bunch. There's also Chia-Jen Lo, who walked thirteen men in less than twenty innings despite throwing basically only fastballs. This earns him a reasonable shot at the closer's job (amazingly) and an honorable mention as the closest thing the Astros have to Donnie Veal, who is my favorite baseball player and should be everybody else's too.
On the Horizon
While everyone else is celebrating that they get to face another year of Dallas Keuchel and Brad Peacock, Astros fans can take solace in a couple of minor league power arms that could be game-changers as early as the second half of this season: Mike Foltynewicz and Mark Appel. Appel, the number one overall pick in the weak 2013 draft class, is a polished Stanford man as close to a can't-miss pitching prospect as you'll find. He has a classic fastball-changeup-slider repetoire, the fastball sitting at 93 and touching 96, with good command. He needs a bit to figure out his secondary offerings, but scouts aren't worried. He'll be up and contributing by the second half, though he's likely to experience some growing pains moving so quickly.
Foltynewicz (henceforth â€œFoltyâ€) is a very different type of prospect: the kind that throws 102. Folty will probably always walk batters, with walk rates hovering around 4-to-4.5 BB/9 in the minors. His breaking stuff is immature but reasonably promising. But most importantly, he has a big, strong frame and maintains elite velocity deep into games. He's probably a late-innings bullpen arm, but if things break right, Folty could join Appel as a high-level starting pitcher in the majors.
So How Bad Is It?
Is hope on the way in East Texas? Well...sort of. A team that has been this miserable has gotten a whole lot of high draft picks, so the Houston farm system has some very valuable pieces. And since they're going to be terrible again, so they'll have the first crack at Carlos Rodon and his filthy slider in the 2014 draft. (My favorite part of that .gif: that batter is the DH. Just imagine what would've happened if Rodon threw that pitch to some utility infielder like Jordany Valdespin).
But while the Houston system is good, it's not elite yet. 2014 will be a fun year to monitor some of these up-and-comers, and the team might be sniffing the playofffs by 2016 or 2017. Is it uncouth to tank this hard for this long? Sure. But eventually, it'll work. In the meantime, go 'Stros.