How do you identify weaknesses for a team that lost 111 games the prior season? Well, the Houston Astros obviously have plenty of weaknesses. But in reality, the team isn't going to compete for much of anything in 2014, so how viable are these weaknesses? Does it matter if the team's starting pitching stinks, when only one or two members of the rotation are parts of their long-term future? Does it matter if this revamped veteran bullpen stinks when the only upside of having these guys around is to trade them in July?
Identifying actual weaknesses for this Astros team need to go beyond 2014. There are many parts of this team that are, quite frankly, replaceable, and their successes or failures in 2014 won't have much of an impact on the future of the Astros. If I had to pick a pair of long-term weaknesses, I'd choose to lack of progression from Jose Altuve in 2013 and the fragility of Jason Castro.
Last July, the Astros made a significant investment in their future, signing Altuve to a four year, $12.5 million contract extension with a pair of club options that could take Altuve's earnings to a total of $25 million over six years. The timing of the extension was funny, because Altuve was in the midst of a step backwards from his breakout 2012 season. The diminutive second baseman hit just .283/.316/.363 in 2013, compared to a line of .290/.340/.399 in 2012. From 2012 to 2013, his walk rate fell, his strikeout rate rose, his home run total dropped from seven to five (in more plate appearances), and he stole two more bases, albeit at a worse success rate than 2012's 75%.
In 2012, Altuve's stats put him in the top ten of all second basemen in baseball. He was in that Howard Kendrick/Daniel Murphy/Jason Kipnis/Brandon Phillips class of guys. In 2013, Altuve was among the worst second basemen in baseball. While guys like Kendrick, Murphy, and Kipnis all improved on their 2012 seasons, Altuve got worse – he was in the same class offensively Eric Sogard, Mark Ellis, and Dustin Ackley. While Altuve's contract isn't a burden like the contracts that the Reds and Braves have given to guys like Phillips and Dan Uggla, Houston is still counting on Altuve to be a big part of their future, and he'll need to do better this year to put Jeff Luhnow and company at ease.
There's still a lot to like about Altuve – he won't turn 24 until May, he's third among all players in baseball in stolen bases over the past two seasons (behind just Mike Trout and Carlos Gomez), his defense took a nice step forward from 2012 to 2013. Altuve also had a strong September for the Astros, probably due in part to minor league callups diluting the competition level of the league, and maybe he can build on that in 2014. If he's able to, and returns to being one of the top ten second basemen in baseball, this weakness will be a tremendous strength for Houston in the future.
The Astros' other big weakness is one that more difficult to get around. Jason Castro was the tenth overall pick in the 2008 Draft by Houston, He has played just 274 career major league games, and has already entered his first season of arbitration, meaning that he'll be a free agent after the 2016 season. Castro was awesome for the club in 2013, hitting .276/.350/.485 with 18 homers, comparing favorably to players like Buster Posey, Brian McCann, and Jonathan Lucroy.
But there's a dirty little detail about Castro that can't be overlooked – the man has had problems with his health over his entire career. He missed all of the 2011 season following a torn right ACL. He missed a month of the 2012 season following a meniscus injury in that same right knee. In 2013, he stayed healthy until the end of the season, when he fouled a ball off of yes, that right knee once again, eventually having surgery to remove a cyst.
Now, just because Castro has had numerous injuries to the same body part doesn't exactly guarantee that he'll get hurt again. He initially tore the ACL stepping funny on a base, and the surgery to remove the cyst is something that was going to need to happen sooner or later – so why not have it done after it was aggravated following a foul ball?
However, Castro is a catcher – 800+ innings of squatting every year is obviously not good for the health of your knees. And because of those injuries and his position, Castro's future value gets a little more cloudy. Could Houston count on him to remain healthy, be a part of their long-term core, and be worthy of a contract extension like the one that Altuve got?
What about Castro's value to another club if he's not receptive to a long-term deal? Would they be scared off by his injury history and inconsistency prior to 2013?
Finally, what if Castro's knee forces the Astros to play him less behind the plate? After Indians catcher Carlos Santana injured his LCL after being involved in a home plate collision in 2010, he's been getting more playing time at first base and DH, and will be getting work at third base this spring. Could the Astros do that more with Castro in 2014 to get his bat into the lineup for 150 games? With Carlos Corporan in the fold and Max Stassi waiting in the wings, Houston is set up pretty well behind the plate. Why not try to keep Castro healthy by using him as a DH every so often, especially if the expected platoon of Marc Krauss and Jesus Guzman struggles?
It sounds bizarre, but the Astros and their fans are in a relatively low stress position heading into 2014. The club isn't going to contend, and the most compelling part of their season will be seeing the progression of these young, talented players. Houston's main weaknesses this season are based on those low expectations, and deal with the franchise's future beyond 2014 as opposed to facets of their game that could prevent them from contending this season.