2015 Season Previews: Houston Astros

Over the next several weeks, The Baseball Haven will be creating season previews for all 30 MLB teams. You’ll find their projected records (based on PECOTA records from Baseball Prospectus, as of 2/15/2015), each team’s top three players (based on Steamer WAR projections from FanGraphs), and some valuable notes on each team, including likely bounce-back candidates, potential breakout players or fantasy sleepers, as well as a look back at offseason transactions which led to each team’s projections. Stop back frequently to see where your favorite team ranks! 

Houston Astros

Courtesy: MLB.com
Courtesy: MLB.com

2015 Projected Record: 77-85 (5th in AL West, 24th in MLB)

Manager: A.J. Hinch (1st season with Houston, 89-123 in two seasons overall)

Top Three Players: 2B Jose Altuve (3.2), LHP Dallas Keuchel (2.8), OF George Springer (2.5)

Bounce-back Player: OF/DH Evan Gattis

Gattis doesn’t really make sense in a bounce-back spot due to posting an .810 OPS in 2014. After all, he hit 22 home runs in just 108 and 401 plate appearances. However, people seemed to sour on the slugger due to his ineffectiveness behind the plate, as he allowed 53 stolen bases and threw out just 20 percent of would-be base stealers (league average was 28 percent). Gattis, though, was likely miscast in that role anyway, and his move to the American League presents the opportunity to DH, especially with the Astros having Jason Castro, Hank Conger, and Max Stassi as options at catcher. Gattis will likely play left field a majority of the time, keeping Chris Carter at the DH spot, but this will allow Gattis to play every day. Based on his power numbers, you’re looking at a left fielder with 30 or more home runs in a quickly improving Astros lineup. While he may not be “bouncing back”, Gattis will certainly be jumping forward with his most productive season, as he is in his prime (age-28 season) and will get plenty of at bats.

Singleton/Springer the new Bagwell/Biggio?  Courtesy: sportsonearth.com
Singleton/Springer the new Bagwell/Biggio?
Courtesy: sportsonearth.com

Fantasy Player to Watch: 1B Jon Singleton

Some fantasy fans will be scared off from Singleton due to his .168 batting average and the fact that he struck out in 37 percent of his at bats in his 2014 season; however, you can take advantage of his faded future stardom by others jumping off of the bandwagon. There were several positives in his atrocious .168/.285/.335, mainly his 13.8 percent walk-rate and his .168 ISO, which would have matched Adrian Beltre and Hunter Pence for right about 55th in MLB (if he had enough plate appearances to qualify). Additionally, Singleton’s .238 BABIP showed quite a bit of bad luck, and some of those balls may fall (or fly out of the park) in 2015. Plus…Singleton had a 20.7 percent infield fly ball rate, which would have led MLB – if that is something that someone actually “leads”. He won’t turn 24 until the middle of September and he has a ton of power, patience at the plate, and a team willing to play him despite the strikeouts (see Carter, Chris) – if they don’t go away.

Offseason Overview: The Astros were able to get 3B Luis Valbuena and RHP Dan Straily from the Cubs for Dexter Fowler, while acquiring OF Evan Gattis from the Braves for a package of solid prospects (3B Rio Ruiz, RHP Michael Foltynewicz, and RHP Andrew Thurman). They signed OF Colby Rasmus and SS Jed Lowrie, and, suddenly, the team has another fresh look. The Gattis trade may go down as a steal for the Braves (Ruiz is very good and Foltynewicz has the arm to be an elite reliever if he doesn’t make it as a starter), but Matt Dominguez still has four seasons of team-control (including this season), and the club acquired Colin Moran from the Marlins last season, so the depth was there. The deals that they made provided a lot of depth, as Houston has three very good options at catcher, Dominguez and Valbuena can share third and be productive, while Rasmus appears to be a bench player if he is unable to beat out Jake Marisnick for the job in right, as Gattis should be in left and Springer will be in center. We will see if the philosophy that Jeff Luhnow has developed ends up working, but this winter definitely improved the roster.

The Verdict: PECOTA sees the Astros falling back into the AL West cellar, and with the rotation that they have, that seems likely, but they’re also predicted to win SEVEN more games than they did in 2014. While they’ll still have one of the lowest payrolls in MLB, the organization appears ready to make moves necessary to improve the team, even dealing away pieces of their future due to the tremendous amount of depth that has been created within the system. Slowly but surely, the Astros are getting there. We’re another season away from seeing RHP Mark Appel, SS Carlos Correa, RHP Vincent Velasquez, and OF Brett Phillips in major roles for the big league club, and once they are there, the rebuild will officially be on the verge of taking the leap to contention. Until then, it’s another season to hope for positive gains and see if the Astros make a run at some of the huge names who will be available next winter.

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Pretend GM: Signings and Trades That Should Be Made

With the big signing of Masahiro Tanaka by the New York Yankees on Wednesday, the market for free agency and trades could explode over the next several days. With that in mind, I was thinking about some deals that would make tremendous sense for several teams…although, they could just make sense to me. Regardless, here are some deals that I’d like to see made over the next few weeks before pitchers and catchers report.

Cincinnati Reds Trade Brandon Phillips to the New York Yankees for Brett Gardner

PhillipsWhy This Trade Makes Sense: The Yankees clearly want to get back to the top, as their $155 million investment in Tanaka showed. With Brian Roberts, Kelly Johnson, and Scott Sizemore as the current options at second base, New York could use a more reliable name to replace Robinson Cano. While the Reds don’t have an immediate replacement ready for Phillips (outside of Henry Rodriguez or another position change for Billy Hamilton), they need to clear some payroll in order to lock up Mat Latos, Johnny Cueto, and Mike Leake, all of whom are eligible for free agency after the 2015 season, as well as Homer Bailey, who will be a free agent after the 2014 season. Phillips, who is due $50 million over the next four years, could be a bargain based on the current market, while his ability to play defensively at an elite level will provide quite a bit of value, as well. Gardner is unlikely to provide the on-base skills that Shin-Soo Choo provided last season in Cincinnati, but he would provide elite-level defensive skills, speed, and solid on-base skills (career OBP of .352). Gardner, earning $5.6 million in 2014 prior to reaching free agency after the season, would be an upgrade over a 2014 version of Hamilton, while providing quite a bit of financial flexibility to shore up the rotation for the coming seasons in Cincinnati. Even if Cincinnati had to chip in $10 million in salary relief, it would be an interesting deal for both clubs.

Baltimore Orioles Sign A.J. Burnett to a one-year, $14 million deal

burnettWhy This Signing Makes Sense: In 2012, the Baltimore Orioles surprised the world by contending and finishing 2nd in the AL East with 93 wins. In 2013, there was a slight regression, as the team dipped to 85 wins after doing very little over the offseason. The Orioles have been very active in the minor league free agent market this winter, but they could use a splash, and Burnett would be a tremendous addition to the club’s rotation. Chris Tillman, Wei-Yin Chen, Miguel Gonzalez, Bud Norris, and Kevin Gausman make a good, young rotation, but Burnett would be the anchor for the staff, and his presence would allow the club to move Norris to a (more appropriate) bullpen role. Burnett is from Maryland and he has been rumored to be retiring if he doesn’t re-sign with Pittsburgh, but Baltimore is close to home and he can keep his wife happy, and the spare change for one year would be worth it for both sides. Burnett rebuilt his value with two tremendous seasons with the Pirates, and he is worth a one-year deal for Baltimore for another shot at the AL East for the tattooed right-hander. Sure, it seems like it is going to be Pittsburgh or bust, but the Orioles are contenders with a healthy Manny Machado and consistent production from Adam Jones, Chris Davis, and Matt Wieters – the O’s need to do their due diligence here.

Toronto Blue Jays Sign Matt Garza to a five-year, $60 million deal (I know he was rumored to have signed with Milwaukee for four-years, $52 million pending a physical, but it isn’t official…yet)

GarzaWhy This Signing Makes Sense: The Jays need another solid option in their rotation to compliment R.A. Dickey, Mark Buehrle, and Brandon Morrow, so that their offense isn’t wasted on sloppy rotation options like Esmil Rogers, Ramon Ortiz, Aaron Laffey, and Rickey Romero, who combined to make 27 starts last season. While Garza has some injury concerns, the Blue Jays have already given him a dynamic weapon – Dioner Navarro. With Navarro as his catcher, Garza has logged 338.1 innings and managed a 3.25 ERA and a 1.26 WHIP, while Garza has posted a 4.07 ERA and a 1.29 WHIP with anyone else behind the dish. While there is risk involved due to Garza spending 170 team games on the disabled list the last three seasons with right shoulder and elbow injuries, the Jays need a pitcher who is capable of pitching in the AL East (Garza has done it before), can toss 180 or more innings (Garza has done it four times), and would be a significant upgrade over Rogers, Todd Redmond, and J.A. Happ, while the club waits for Marcus Stroman, Aaron Sanchez, Alberto Tirado, Daniel Norris, and Sean Nolin to reach the majors. Garza may not be a number one starter, but he is a strong number two or three option on a club that should compete with an absolutely loaded offensive group.

Philadelphia Phillies Sign Ubaldo Jimenez to a five-year, $85 million deal

Why This Signing Makes Sense: The Phillies first round pick, seventh overall, is protected, so while Jimenez would require draft-pick compensation, it would only be a second round pick going to Cleveland for Jimenez. After a tremendous second half in 2013 (1.82 ERA, 1.14 WHIP over 84 innings), Jimenez rebuilt his value, and, at the age of 30, would be a solid right-handed option for the Phillies to place between Cole Hamels and Cliff Lee. Jimenez has had some success during his career in the NL East:

I Split W L ERA GS GF CG SHO IP H R ER HR BB SO WHIP SO/9 SO/BB
Atlanta Braves 3 5 3.79 9 0 1 1 54.2 47 25 23 6 28 66 1.372 10.9 2.36
Miami Marlins 1 2 4.07 5 0 0 0 24.1 23 19 11 1 16 31 1.603 11.5 1.94
New York Mets 2 3 3.40 6 0 0 0 39.2 27 15 15 4 21 29 1.210 6.6 1.38
Washington Nationals 5 1 2.61 7 0 0 0 48.1 39 14 14 1 16 36 1.138 6.7 2.25
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 1/22/2014.

For those who don’t want to do the math, Jimenez is 11-11 with a 3.39 ERA, 1.30 WHIP, and a 162:81 K:BB over 167 innings and 27 starts, and while that isn’t perfect, especially in a ballpark that is more favorable to hitters, Jimenez should, at least, be worth the money as an innings eater if he isn’t elite like he was in the second half of 2013. The Phillies may not be contenders, but they’ll always be spenders. They don’t have any arms ready in their system and Jimenez would be a huge upgrade over Roberto Hernandez and Ethan Martin, who appear to be options for the rotation currently.

Oakland Athletics Sign Nelson Cruz to a three-year, $27 million deal

Why This Signing Makes Sense: The Cruz market appears nearly dead after there was draft-pick compensation added to a PED suspension, but Cruz is still just 33 and he is coming off of an All-Star season with solid production (27 home runs and 76 RBI in just 109 games). With very little interest and risk involved, it’s the perfect opportunity for Oakland to swoop in and make an interesting signing. While the club has some solid right-handed pop in Yoenis Cespedes and Josh Donaldson, the remainder of the lineup is filled with left-handed hitters, including Josh Reddick, Eric Sogard, Brandon Moss, as well as switch-hitters Coco Crisp and Jed Lowrie. Another right-handed, middle-of-the-order bat would be a tremendous addition, as Reddick or Moss could sandwich between Cruz and Cespedes, providing quite a bit of value and production for a team that struggles to find offense in a cavernous home ballpark. However, Cruz has struggled in Oakland, posting a .192/.248/.352 triple-slash in 202 career plate appearances there. The late first round pick and discounted contract, though, could be enough to overlook his struggles, while providing a little more punch to the Oakland lineup.

Texas Rangers Sign Bronson Arroyo to a two-year, $24 million deal

ArroyoWhy This Signing Makes Sense: Arroyo has been homer prone in the past and doesn’t have the stuff to avoid bats, but he has averaged 211 innings pitched over the last nine seasons and is someone whom the Rangers could count on with Colby Lewis and Matt Harrison coming back from injuries and Derek Holland on the shelf until mid-2014. Arroyo survived in a bandbox in Cincinnati over the last eight seasons, so he would be just as likely to post 200-plus innings and an ERA around 4.00 in Texas, especially with spacious ballparks like those in Seattle, Oakland, and Anaheim within the division. There isn’t draft-pick compensation tied to Arroyo, and with Masahiro Tanaka gone and no real hope of acquiring David Price in a trade, the Rangers just need five starting pitchers, and Arroyo is a nice, reliable addition for the middle or back-end of the Texas rotation.

Atlanta Braves Trade Alex Wood to the New York Yankees for Gary Sanchez

Why This Trade Makes Sense: C.C. Sabathia, Masahiro Tanaka, and Hiroki Kuroda make a great top three and Ivan Nova showed drastic improvements last season, but the Yankees are relying on David Phelps, Michael Pineda, Adam Warren, and Manny Banuelos at the back of the rotation in 2014. While Alex Wood has one of the more violent deliveries you’ll ever see, he has solid stuff and is ready to be productive immediately in a major league rotation. With Brandon Beachy healthy and David Hale and Gavin Floyd capable of filling the back of the Braves rotation, Wood could be expendable for Atlanta to seek a long-term option at catcher with the departure of Brian McCann to the Yankees via free agency. Evan Gattis has a lot of power and Christian Bethancourt has tremendous defensive skills, but neither seem like strong options as an everyday catcher for Atlanta. While Sanchez still needs some seasoning and he could use a change of scenery due to his makeup and maturity concerns, the Braves have several upcoming arms, as usual, and they have a long-term need at catcher. Sanchez could be the answer and the eventual elbow surgery that Wood will need is worth this type of deal for Atlanta, and the production that the Yankees get out of Wood could be useful, as well.

Hot-lanta At It Again

BravesThe Atlanta Braves won their 12th straight game on Tuesday night against the Washington Nationals. Sitting 14.5 games in front of the second place Nationals in the NL East, the Braves seem capable of walking the finish line to make the playoffs this season…barring another catastrophic collapse. This whole winning a lot of games thing is nothing new for this Braves team, after all, they started the season off by going 12-1.

However, the team with the best record in baseball entering play on Wednesday hasn’t been as productive as it could have been.

Atlanta’s pitching hasn’t been a problem this season. The Braves starting pitchers have been solid, currently ranking 6th in MLB in ERA (3.64) and 8th in WHIP (1.23). The club’s depth, with Alex Wood and Brandon Beachy stepping in with injuries to Tim Hudson and Paul Maholm, will continue to have value as the season goes on, as Julio Teheran may reach an innings limit this season. The bullpen is 1st in ERA (2.41) and WHIP (1.12), thanks to Craig Kimbrel, Luis Avilan, Jordan Walden, and David Carpenter being lights out.

Braves OFThe offense…wow…who would have thought the club would have won all of these games with the offense performing the way that it has in the 2013 season? Sure, the Braves rank 15th in average (.253), 8th in on-base percentage (.326), and 9th in slugging percentage (.412), but that is with Justin Upton hitting just four home runs from May 1 through July 31, Dan Uggla hitting .193, B.J. Upton hitting .188, and Jason Heyward hitting just .234 (including just .220 on July 27). Freddie Freeman and Chris Johnson, who was sharing the third base job with Juan Francisco at the beginning of the season, have been the only year-long contributors, while Brian McCann has done a stellar job since returning from injury, as well. The Braves have had some punch from Evan Gattis and surprising pop out of Andrelton Simmons, but, given the struggles of their offensive superstars, at least the people who were supposed to make huge contributions this season, it is shocking that they are where they are today.

Bream1Since the All-Star break, Atlanta is 3rd in average (.269), 2nd in home runs (23), and 1st in runs scored (99). B.J. Upton has returned from a recent DL-stint and the club is firing on all cylinders. For a team that, mind-numbingly, won 11 consecutive NL East titles from 1995-2005, the tradition of winning in nothing new in Atlanta; however, with Chipper Jones gone, the new core of talent could very well lead the team in the same direction. With 12 games against Washington, Miami, Philadelphia, and the New York Mets ahead of them, the Braves could make the division into an embarrassment.


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