For the Houston Astros, there's nowhere to go but up. In each of the last three seasons, Houston's loss total has increased, bottoming out at 111 a year ago. Those three years were the worst three in team history, marking the only three times that the Astros have ever lost 100 games in a season. 2014 will probably end up being Houston's fourth-straight 100 loss season, but there is hope that this team will be very good very soon.
Depth Chart (as of 2/17)
C: Jason Castro
1B: Chris Carter
2B: Jose Altuve
SS: Jonathan Villar
3B: Matt Dominguez
LF: Robbie Grossman
CF: Dexter Fowler
RF: L.J. Hoes
DH: Marc Krauss
SP: Scott Feldman
SP: Jarred Cosart
SP: Brett Oberholtzer
SP: Jerome Williams
SP: Brad Peacock
CL: Chad Qualls
Houston added quite a few new players this winter, but their biggest acquisition was starting pitcher Scott Feldman, formerly of the Rangers and Orioles. Feldman was the second key acquisition in a week for the Astros, following the trade that brought center fielder Dexter Fowler from Colorado to Houston. The Astros were also quite active in bolstering their bullpen, signing Jesse Crain, Chad Qualls, and Matt Albers while picking up Anthony Bass in a trade with the Padres. Houston also added a second starting pitcher later in the offseason – former Angel Jerome Williams. Finally, the last major-ish acquisition by the Astros was Jesus Guzman, the former Padre that was acquired for a waiver claim (Ryan Jackson) that didn't play an inning with Houston.
Houston really only ended up losing two free agents that had an impact on their 2013 season – pitcher Philip Humber and Erik Bedard. And really, the Astros didn't trade off much in the way of talent this offseason either – the most significant deal they made was sending Jordan Lyles and Brandon Barnes to the Rockies in exchange for Fowler.
So uh, where do you want to start? I guess we'll just immediately look at guys on Houston's 40-man roster. Catcher Max Stassi spent some time in the majors last year, and could start the year on the active roster if one of Houston's catcher/DH/first base types gets dealt during the spring. The same probably can't be said for Jonathan Singleton, whose stock fell a bit in 2013 after he missed the first 50 games of the season because of a suspension for marijuana use and then struggled upon his return. Outfielder Domingo Santana was added to Houston's 40-man roster after the season following a tremendous 2013 in AA, but probably isn't going to be the first outfielder up – that would be George Springer, who hit 37 homers and stole 45 bases (in 50 chances, no less) between AA and AAA last season.
Who else is coming down the pipe for Houston? They have oodles of young talent on the mound, but the only one of their top ten prospects on the 40-man (not that it's a huge deal) is Asher Wojciechowski, who finished his year in AAA and held his own. Mike Foltynewicz spent most of his season in AA, but still struggled with his command at times and will probably need some more minor league seasoning. 2013 first overall pick Mark Appel only made ten starts in pro ball during his debut season, but will move fast – probably not to the majors this year, but you never know.
When you have a team like the Astros that doesn't mind throwing stuff at the wall to see what sticks and what doesn't, you'll have a lot of duels for jobs. 2014 is no exception with this team. Houston's offensive starters actually seem pretty dialed in, but Singleton could maybe press for an Opening Day job if he has a great spring and an older player like Chris Carter or Marc Krauss struggles. The aforementioned Springer may also get a look on Opening Day if Robbie Grossman or L.J. Hoes doesn't do much to stand out, but I wouldn't be at all surprised if the Astros just went with the Grossman-Fowler-Hoes outfield on Opening Day and let Springer mash in AAA to start the season.
Brad Peacock has the inside edge on the final rotation spot, but it could be easily taken from him by someone like Paul Clemens, Dallas Keuchel, or Collin McHugh. Perhaps even someone like Rudy Owens, who only threw 17 innings last year, could make a statement in the spring. Wojciechowski is another option for that final rotation spot, but I wouldn't call him a favorite by any means. Houston's bullpen is also a crap shoot – any of those guys I already mentioned could end up there, along with guys like Raul Valdes and Darin Downs. Lucas Harrell and Josh Fields shouldn't rest on their laurels.
Jesse Crain will probably start the year on the DL following offseason biceps surgery and a shoulder strain that resulted in him pitching zero games for the Rays after they acquired him from the White Sox. Starter Alex White also doesn't look like he'll be ready for Opening Day after Tommy John surgery last April. Rudy Owens should be good for Spring Training after foot surgery in April. Dexter Fowler had been day to day a lot during his career with the Rockies, and his right wrist has been a problem off and on over the past couple of years.
Jason Castro has gotten hurt a lot during his career, and his right knee has been the prime culprit – the same right knee that he had surgery t remove a cyst from this past September. Jose Altuve dealt with a number of injuries in 2013, and wasn't really the same player after suffering a subluxation of his jaw in May. Robbie Grossman's season ended in early September following a strained oblique. Nothing seems overly serious with the Astros since this is a young team, but Castro's injury history is something that ought to make them a little wary.
Wouldn't not losing 100 games be considered a monstrous victory for the Astros? It would be a monumental step forward, and while they would still likely have a top five pick in the draft and be in the AL West cellar, at least they would be going SOMEWHERE.
Finishing with a worse record than last year would be ugly for Houston. How can you keep selling the future potential of young talent if they keep going backwards? Futhermore, that could end up resulting in a Nolan Ryan takeover of the front office and everything that had been put into place being torn down in the interest of short-term improvement – and that would be a real disaster.
100+ losses, last place, but with a lot of excitement and hope for the future. I honestly think last year was when the Astros bottomed out, and that it will only get better from there. Imagine a 2015 starting lineup featuring Singleton, Altuve, Villar, Castro, Springer, and Santana – that would be a dream come true, and we're getting close to seeing it. But that's not going to happen this year, unfortunately.