Can the Houston Astros Be a Winning Team in 2015?
Apparently, the Houston Astros are done tanking now.
Yes, that's right, the Astros are ready to start winning games again. This is good news for the fans of Houston, who over the last four years have watched their team lose 106, 107, 111, and 92 games.
But if you listen to the team's general manager, Jeff Luhnow, that's all about to change.
Last week, Luhnow said, "The Astros, in my opinion, are going to have a winning record this year. Iâ€™ll go on record as saying that. I believe this is a winning team, and I think this is the beginning of many years of winning teams."
Optimism is a good thing, especially after four years of largely trying to lose on purpose. But do the Astros really have a shot at winning at least 82 games in 2015?
Let's break it down.
Powerful, But Strikeout-Prone, Lineup
Houston has done a number of things this off-season to bring some additional punch into their lineup. They traded for catcher/outfielder Evan Gattis and infielder Luis Valbuena and signed outfielder Colby Rasmus and shortstop Jed Lowrie to free agent contracts. They join a young lineup (with an average age of 26 and a half years old) loaded with power but also loaded with a ton of strikeouts.
Here's a look at what their everyday lineup could look like in 2015.
Going down the list, you see a lot of power there, led by Gattis, Rasmus, Chris Carter, and George Springer. However, what you also see are a lot of low batting averages, sky high strikeout rates and some below-average defenders as well.
Altuve is unlikely to hit .341 again, but one could assume he will hit over .300 and get on base at a clip that makes him a solid lead-off hitter. The pick-up of Valbuena makes them much stronger at third. The addition of Gattis was interesting because while he does play both catcher and outfielder, he's not very good at either position. He's also a high strikeout, high-homer guy, very much in line with the rest of the group.
However, because of their relative youth, especially with players like Jon Singleton, Carter and Springer, there is a real possibility this team could see a dip in their strikeout rate moving forward. That would almost certainly increase their numbers across the board and could make this lineup tough to handle. But if they don't, they will struggle to score runs again, much like they did last year when they finished 14th out of 15 American League teams in runs scored.
The Houston starting rotation didn't blow anybody away last year, but it was a little bit better than you may have thought.
Dan Straily came to Houston along with Valbuena in the Dexter Fowler deal. He finished fourth in the Rookie of the Year voting in 2013 with Oakland but struggled once he was moved to the bullpen last year with the Cubs. He has the inside track on the fifth starters job.
At the top of the rotation, Dallas Keuchel emerged as the ace of the staff, putting together a very solid season for Houston. Collin McHugh and Scott Feldman give the team a solid number-two and three spot in the rotation, and even their number-four starter, Brett Oberholtzer, was worth 2.4 fWAR last year for the Astros.
Last year, Houston starters put up a 3.82 ERA, tied for eighth in the American League. And in just about every other category, they were middle-of-the-pack in the AL.
The good news is Keuchel and Straily are just 26 years old, McHugh is 27, and Oberholtzer is 24. Only Feldman is older than 30, and he's just 31. The Astros don't miss a lot of bats, but they also don't walk a ton of guys and, given their youth, still have potential for growth.
The Astros did some things this winter to try and shore up what was easily the worst bullpen in the American League last year. Their bullpen's fWAR was a collective 0.4. It had a 4.80 ERA -- far and away the worst in the AL. It gave up the most home runs in the league (55), blew the most saves (25), had the fewest number of saves (31), and gave up the most earned runs (250). By a lot.
This is still an area of weakness for the Astros. They're hoping some of their younger arms will step up and perform better than they did last year.
The A's, Angels, Mariners and Rangers
Houston needs to see a 12-game improvement in order to become a winning team in 2015. Can they win enough games within the division to bridge that gap? While Houston did pretty good against its division rivals last year (33-43), it's fair to believe that Texas will be a bit better than they were last year. The Mariners have improved, and the A's and Angels could both still put up a fight in one of the toughest divisions in baseball.
Sure, a team like the A's, who have undergone a massive transformation, could take a step back. And the aging Angels could finally see their window closing. Both, probably, would have to happen for the Astros to see that 12-win increase.
There's no doubt Houston is a team on the rise that should be a lot of fun to watch this year. But it still feels like the offense is too one dimensional, the starting rotation is missing that one big ace, and the bullpen is still a huge question mark.
That's why, unless they swing a deal for a big-time starting pitcher before the beginning of spring training, the odds are still long that Houston will be a winning team in '15.