Three key questions for the Astros…three key questions for a team that is essentially one giant question mark. It's great that the Astros appear to be moving forward with their plan and aren't wavering in the face of criticism, but they still have a ways to go. However, that doesn't mean there aren't some players and positions that we should be wondering about.
Can Jarred Cosart remain an effective starting pitcher?
Cosart's major league debut on July 12th against the Rays was nearly historic. Cosart went through 6 1/3 innings without allowing a hit to Tampa Bay, pitching into the ninth inning before exiting. But even in that remarkable start, Cosart showed a flaw that would be bothersome over his nine other starts of the season – his walk total. Cosart walked three and struck out just two on that Friday night at Tropicana Field, thriving because of his utter unhittability that evening and his propensity to get ground balls at a high rate.
For the season in the majors, Cosart struck out 33 hitters in 60 innings. That's not very good, but you can survive with a low strikeout rate as long as you don't walk many hitters. Well, Cosart failed there as well, allowing 35 free passes during his major league debut season. The 1.95 ERA that Cosart posted in those 60 innings was a mirage, spurred on by a .246 BABIP and an 85.9% strand rate. In eight of Cosart's ten starts, he walked at least three hitters – and Cosart threw six or fewer innings in six of those eight starts.
The low strikeout rate is more worrisome to me than the high walk rate – Cosart has always been a guy that has walked his share of hitters, but he's also done a good job at collecting strikeouts. During his major league trial run, he only got hitters to swing and miss at 5.7% of his pitches, a rate that would have ranked near the bottom of the league. Cosart will be just 24-years old in May, and there's still plenty of room for improvement in his game – but his 2013 season in the majors didn't answer every question that fans had about him.
Dexter Fowler: building block or stopgap?
Fowler was the return from the Rockies in the Jordan Lyles trade this offseason, and the deal caught a few people offguard. Fowler has been a five year starter in the outfield for Colorado, but a slight power spike in 2012 put him on the radar of many fans across the league.
Fowler is an interesting player – his .300 batting average in 2012 was influenced by a high BABIP, but he's never failed to walk at a double digit clip or steal double digit bases over his career. That 2012 power surge is misleading – his ISO was only slightly lower in 2011, and his 2013 ISO of .145 was closer to his career low of .141 than his career high of .174 due to a decline in the amount of triples he hit. That drop in triples isn't overly concerning, considering how much hitting triples is based on the positioning of outfielders and placement of the hit and that Fowler's batted ball marks remain consistent.
But Fowler turns 28 in March, and while he's been a fine player, he hasn't really seemed like a guy worth the $7.85 million he'll make in 2014. He's never failed to strike out more than 100 times in a season. His defense in center field is below average by advanced metrics. His OPS at Coors Field is nearly 200 points higher than his road OPS. He'll likely made at least $9 million in 2015, his final year of arbitration. Is this a player who will be manning the outfield for years to come at Minute Maid Park, or is he going to be dealt sooner rather than later when George Springer and Domingo Santana are ready for prime time?
Can this new bullpen help anything at all?
The Astros revamped their bullpen this winter, adding veterans Jesse Crain, Matt Albers, Anthony Bass, and Chad Qualls to a crew that blew 29 saves a year ago. On the bright side for the Astros, the authors of 15 of those 29 blown saves are gone. But let's be honest – it's not as if Josh Zeid, Kevin Chapman, and Josh Fields are going to strike fear into the hearts of their competition.
The new guys aren't without their flaws. Crain didn't pitch after being dealt from the White Sox to the Rays due to a sore shoulder that eventually required surgery. Albers has been incredibly inconsistent over his career, but has thrived when he focuses on getting ground balls. Bass has struggled when pitching away from Petco Park. Qualls was a complete and utter disaster from 2010-12 before rebounding in 2013 with Miami.
Houston's bullpen must be better this year, if only because of how bad they were last year. In 2013, Astros relievers cumulatively had a 4.92 ERA, the worst in baseball by nearly half a run. Only the Mets had a lower strikeout rate than the Astros, and only the Phillies had a higher walk rate. Houston reliever's allowed 21 more home runs than any other team in baseball.
Even if he improvement from 2013 to 2014 is only marginal, the Astros need whatever they can get. Jesse Crain doesn't need to be Craig Kimbrel, Chad Qualls doesn't need to be Mariano Rivera, and Matt Albers doesn't need to be Greg Holland for that to happen.