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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The Astros Fire Manager for Failing?

Why fire someone who was bound to fail?
Why fire someone who was bound to fail?

The Houston Astros have been historically bad since the start of the 2011 season, losing 100 games in each of the last three seasons. This season, the squad is 59-79, needing just four wins over the next 24 games to avoid a fourth such disastrous season, but it wasn’t enough to save the job of the Astros’ manager, Bo Porter. Porter was, ironically, relieved of his managerial duties on the day that we all celebrate the hard work and efforts of those in the labor force.

Porter’s squads have not been good, going 110-190 over the last season-plus (.367 winning percentage), but it didn’t have a lot to do with what Porter was doing on the bench. Ken Rosenthal recently reported tension between Porter and General Manager Jeff Luhnow stemming from Mark Appel making an appearance in Houston for a bullpen session for Astros’ pitching coach Brent Strom that Porter had to explain to players on his roster, who were upset over the struggling prospect’s possible special treatment from the organization. Beyond that issue, there appeared to be some separation from the analytical team at the top of the organization and what was being done from the bench by Porter, which was creating relationship woes within the organization.

The Rosenthal piece details those woes at greater lengths, but the firing of Porter clearly wasn’t for what he was doing on the field, as he can’t be held accountable for the recent failures of the franchise.

Jeff Luhnow, GM, Houston Astros
Jeff Luhnow, GM, Houston Astros

Luhnow, hired away from the St. Louis Cardinals in December of 2011, developed an awkward approach to rebuilding the Astros’, essentially gutting the entire roster and eliminating as much payroll as possible to field a horrific team that would be capable of landing high-upside talent through the draft, while building the farm system and promoting talent from that pool to compete for championships within a window. Upon taking the position and immediately producing horrific seasons, the team was able to “earn” the No.1 overall pick in back-to-back seasons (after having the No.1 overall pick in 2011, which Luhnow used on Carlos Correa), Luhnow’s plan was becoming somewhat relevant, as the Astros will, likely, finish ahead of the Texas Rangers in the AL West in 2014, barring some kind of sudden change from the injury woes to the Rangers’ 2014 season.

Porter, though, had done well with what he had. He and his coaching staff had guided a very young, inexperienced squad to some very high peaks among the very low valleys, watching Jose Altuve become a star, while handling the franchise’s quick rising future stars, as Jon Singleton, George Springer, and Jake Marisnick had arrived to showcase their talents at the Major League level. He had very little control over the day-to-day roster, watching Jarred Cosart, one of his top pitchers, get dealt at the deadline (which brought Marisnick but didn’t help the pitching staff), while having limited options in the rotation and a horrific group to run out of the bullpen.

Of course, Porter was bound to be limited in his roster, as the club wasn’t going to call-up a player sooner than necessary and risk service-time becoming an issue, especially as the team continued to try to limit their expenditures.

Perhaps the complete breakdown of the roster was too bold, and perhaps the club had a manager with too much emotional attachment and fire to sit back and wait for the Astros to build a team that he could truly manage successfully. Regardless, what looked like an intelligent move in guiding the Astros to become what Sports Illustrated called the 2017 World Series Champions, suddenly became much more complicated, and whether Bo Porter was actually part of the long-term plan or not, his firing has created a lot of questions about the long-term goal of the Astros’ organization, as well as the ability for Jeff Luhnow, who was so quickly admired for his plans, to work well enough with those around him for his ideas and visions to become a reality.

Bo Porter didn’t fail as a manager of a horrible team, he failed at working with an ego that had grown beyond repair. Jeff Luhnow must now build this winner from the front office and the field, as he has no one else to blame for the team’s future struggles but his own actions and decisions.

MLB TV Contract Eliminates Excuses for the “Small Markets”

Wendy Thurm (@hangingsliders) had a post at Fangraphs discussing the National TV contracts for Major League Baseball and the value that they will provide for each team. Within the article, Thurm had several valuable bits of information:

ESPN will pay MLB $700 million per year for the right to broadcast games exclusively on Sunday nights, other games (non-exclusively) on Monday and Wednesday nights, extended highlights for Baseball Tonight, the Home Run Derby and other All-Star activities (but not the game) and one Wild Card Game. The deal also includes national and international radio and digital rights.

MLB announced a new national TV contract with Fox and TBS, which also covered the 2014 through 2021 seasons. Under that deal, MLB will receive $800 million per year in combined revenue from the two networks, in exchange for broadcasts rights for the Saturday game of the week on Fox, the Sunday game on TBS and all of the postseason games — save for the one that will be broadcast on ESPN. Fox also retains the rights to the All-Star Game.

That’s $1.5 billion in national TV revenue per season that will go into MLB’s Central Fund, or $750 million more than under the contracts that just expired. MLB can spend money from the Central Fund in a variety of ways, but it’s been assumed in the reporting that the league will distribute the TV money to the teams. If so, each team will receive $25 million more in national TV revenue in 2014 through 2021 than they did in 2013.

Teams aren’t obligated, of course, to use all or even part of that additional $25 million on player salaries. That money can also be helpful to expanding a team’s national and international scouting operation, or its data analysis department, or marketing, or all three.”

AL TV Deals
Local AL TV Deals (courtesy Fangraphs.com)

Beyond the television money being received directly from Major League Baseball, each team has their very own local television contract, as well. The dollars being tossed towards clubs has reached absurd levels, as the Los Angeles Dodgers will bring in $340 million per season through 2032 in local television money alone, meaning roughly $390 million including the money coming from MLB. When the Dodgers have that kind of money coming in before averaging 46,216 fans per home game, ranking No.1 in 2013 MLB attendance, you can see the revenue and profitability that comes from these mega deals.

Local NL TV Deals (courtesy Fangraphs.com)
Local NL TV Deals (courtesy Fangraphs.com)

The money is huge, and when you factor in how many teams are being extra cautious with the contracts that they hand out, it makes it seem unreasonable for clubs to cry “small market” any longer. There is no “small market” when a team is streaming revenue of $43 million from television contracts like the Pittsburgh Pirates and Miami Marlins were in 2013, and that number will go up to $68 million with the additional $25 million in 2014. And, while so many were upset with the Marlins and their owner, Jeffrey Loria, for the club’s consistent losing, fire-sales, and sticking Miami with an expensive stadium with a Triple-A worthy roster playing each night, it can’t be as hard as it is for Houston’s fans to watch the Astros pocket $105 million in television deals in 2013, while fielding a team with a payroll of $26 million.

Jeff Luhnow, GM, Houston Astros
Jeff Luhnow, GM, Houston Astros

With international signing limits and caps on spending within drafts, it doesn’t seem fair that owners and teams are able to sit on millions of dollars of revenue while doing very little year in and year out to field a competitive team. Certainly, the Astros are utilizing the wizardry of Jeff Luhnow to develop a dynamic farm system, which is ranked in the upper-half of the league after being one of the most vacant systems in all of baseball for nearly a decade. However, if other teams decided to gut their major league rosters to build in the same manner, how could MLB and its commissioner tell fans that they were fielding a solid product?

When the Tampa Bay Rays, Oakland A’s, and Boston Red Sox publicly entrenched their baseball operations within data analysis and the sabermetric way, they also committed to spending wisely and finding value, possibly bargains, by linking players and their abilities to areas that the club needed to improve. By signing their young players to lucrative contracts early in their careers, the Rays were able to manage the long-term salary of their stars by avoiding the arbitration process, while, simultaneously, taking on a huge risk by investing in a player who may battle an injury or be unable to make adjustments when the league caught up with their skills. Evan Longoria, for example, was signed to a six-year, $17.6 million deal (with team options for 2014 through 2016), after just seven days in the majors. The A’s have been very careful with their payroll over the years as Billy Beane has utilized the Moneyball way to build success out of a spacious ballpark and on-base driven offensive players, though that has changed with players like Yoenis Cespedes and Josh Reddick being key members of more recent teams. Boston, on the other hand, seems to have learned their lesson from the failures of mega-contracts that were given out to Adrian Gonzalez and Carl Crawford, shipping the huge deals to the Dodgers and finding payroll relief and success through finding strong character players, which landed them a championship this season behind the leadership of new additions like  Jonny Gomes, Mike Napoli, and Shane Victorino.

When looking at teams that have created unique ways to be competitive, though, does it show a pattern or a method to success, or can spending money guide a team to a title? The Dodgers, for example, have over $190 million committed to their payroll in 2014 before free agency has even started. Add on the rumors of the club is interested in acquiring David Price via trade with the Rays and being a major player in the posting process and negotiations with Japanese import Masahiro Tanaka, and the Dodgers could have a starting rotation (that’s right, five guys) earning over $100 million in 2014. The New York Yankees tried for several years to build a contender through free agency, but the club was most successful when they were building from within with Mariano Rivera, Derek Jeter, Jorge Posada, Bernie Williams, and Andy Pettitte in the mid-to-late 1990’s and early 2000’s…though, they did win a title in 2009.

Joe Mauer, C, Minnesota Twins
Joe Mauer, C, Minnesota Twins

No team can duplicate the science that one team has perfected, but they can certainly try. As teams like the Twins and Marlins continue to try different techniques in finding success, one thing remains evident: they need to spend money to be successful. The Twins have struck gold with recent international signings and drafts, adding Byron Buxton and Miguel Sano to their system, but how will they help Joe Mauer at Target Field with the terrible pitching that they continue to produce? The Marlins tried to buy success when they signed Jose Reyes and Mark Buehrle prior to the 2012 season. That experiment lasted all of one season before Miami sold off several pieces to rebuild with prospects that they received from the Blue Jays.

Every team should be active when free agency begins. There is no excuse for the “small market” teams when each team is receiving nearly $50 million dollars from MLB each season from the league’s national TV deals. Add on a minimum of $18 million for local TV deals (which the Marlins and Pirates have, lowest of all teams), and you’re looking at $68 million in revenue before the team takes the field, provides marketing space in the stadium, sells a ticket, or sells a t-shirt this season. Of course, there are operating expenses for a team and their employees, but how much exactly? Why exist if the owner is more focused on the bottom line and profitability of the club than the club’s long-term success? After all, we’re talking about billionaire owners paying millionaire players, and every time an owner complains about how much money they aren’t making, you can look at the figures that were provided above and laugh…as you make five-figures and save for months to pay $200 or more to take your family of four to a game once or twice per season.

Another major question could be: is there too much money in baseball? If a team like the Dodgers is bringing in nearly $400 million in revenue on television deals alone, how can the Pirates and Marlins compete against them? The Dodgers could sign Tanaka, trade for Price, and add Robinson Cano to play second base, and the club would still have nearly $150 million in annual salaries before reaching $400 million, over five-and-a-half times the amount that the Pirates and Marlins have in revenue. If or when Clayton Kershaw reaches free agency, if or when Mike Trout reaches free agency, and if or when Bryce Harper reaches free agency, what are the smaller revenue clubs to do? My answer to that…see the Tampa Bay Rays, who compete in the AL East with much smaller revenue numbers than the Boston Red Sox, New York Yankees, and even the Toronto Blue Jays and Baltimore Orioles, by being smarter, more creative, and careful as to how they have built their roster each season.

And if there is still concern about your team and wanting to cry “small market”, remember this:

Astronomically Slow, Yet Perfect, Rebuild

HoustonWhen the Houston Astros named Jeff Luhnow their GM in December of 2011, he brought a tremendous resume with him, highlighted by his strong performance as the Vice President of Scouting and Player Development for the St. Louis Cardinals from 2006 through his hiring with Houston. The first three Cardinals drafts overseen by Luhnow produced 24 future major leaguers, the most of any team during that period. Several players who made important contributions to the Cardinals’ victory in the 2011 World Series, including  Jaime Garcia, Allen Craig, Jon Jay, and Lance Lynn, were drafted during Luhnow’s control of scouting for the Cardinals. 

LuhnowSince taking control of Houston, this is what Luhnow has done:

12/14/2011: Traded Mark Melancon to the Boston Red Sox for Jed Lowrie and Kyle Weiland

1/11/2012: Claimed Fernando Martinez off waivers from the New York Mets

1/2012: Signed Hector Corpas, Jack Cust, Chris Snyder, Zach Duke, Livan Hernandez, Jordan Kreke, Jordan Brown, Mike Hessman, Jair Fernandez, Rayderson Chevalier, Carlos Vasquez, and Tomas Lopez via free agency

2/2012: Signed Justin Ruggiano, Jose Martinez, and Angel Heredia via free agency

3/14/2012: Signed Landon Powell via free agency

3/20/2012: Traded Jason Bourgeois and Humberto Quintero to the Kansas City Royals for Kevin Chapman

4/8/2012: Claimed Justin Maxwell off waivers from the New York Yankees

5/2012: Signed Armando GalarragaJarico Reynoso, Randy Cesar, Jean Carlos Cortorreal, Arturo Michelena, Harold Arauz, Elieser Hernandez, Juan Hernandez, Edwin Villarroel, and Erick Hurtado via free agency

6/2012: Signed Carlos Correa, Brady Rodgers, Andrew Aplin, Terrell Joyce, Brian Holmes, Joe Sclafani, Erick Gonzalez, Ricky Gingras, John Neely, M.P. Cokinos, Daniel Minor, Dan Gulbransen, Aaron West, Austin Elkins, Angel Ibanez, Christian Garcia, Jordan Jankowski, Michael Dimock, Travis Ballew, Joe Bircher, Kenny Long, Ryan Dineen, Marc Wik, Brett Phillips, Mike Hauschild, Michael Martinez, Lance McCullers, Rio Ruiz, Nolan Fontana, and Tyler Heineman, all draft picks and non-drafted free agents, as well as Hector Ambriz, Hector Roa, and Rauldison Rodriguez via free agency

7/2012: Signed Luis Payano, Kristian Trompiz, Victor Tavarez, Lance Day, Edwin Gomez, Gera Sanchez, and Jon Carnaham via free agency; Signed Preston Tucker and Jesus Castillo, draft picks and non-drafted free agents; Claimed Chuckie Fick off waivers from the St. Louis Cardinals, Steve Pearce off waivers from the Baltimore Orioles, and Mark Hamburger off waivers from the San Diego Padres;

7/5/2012: Traded Carlos Lee and cash to the Miami Marlins for Matt Dominguez and Rob Rasmussen

7/25/2012: Traded Wandy Rodriguez to the Pittsburgh Pirates for Colton Cain, Robbie Grossman, and Rudy Owens

7/29/2012: Traded Chris Johnson to the Arizona Diamondbacks for Bobby Borchering and Marc Krauss

8/2012: Acquired Garrett Mock (Boston Red Sox), Chris Devenski (Chicago White Sox), and Tyler Greene (St. Louis Cardinals) for cash via trade; Signed Brian Sanches and Edgar Gonzalez via free agency; Traded Ben Francisco (Tampa Bay Rays for Theron Geith) and Steve Pearce (New York Yankees for cash)

9/2012: Claimed Brandon Laird off waivers from the New York Yankees

10/2012: Claimed Che-Hsuan Lin off waivers from the Boston Red Sox

11/2012: Claimed Sam Demel and Jake Elmore (Arizona Diamondbacks) and Philip Humber (Chicago White Sox) off of waivers; Signed Jose Valdez, Edgar Gonzalez, Trevor Crowe, and Sergio Escalona via free agency

12/2012: Claimed Josh Fields (Boston), Nate Freiman (San Diego), and Mickey Storey (New York Yankees) in the Rule V Draft; Traded Wilton Lopez to the Colorado Rockies for Alex White and Alex Gillingham; Signed Jose Veras via free agency

1/2013: Signed Jason Jaramillo, Rick Ankiel, Erik Bedard, and Carlos Perdomo via free agency

3/2013: Signed Ronny Cedeno and Raoul Torrz via free agency; Traded Mike Kvasnicka to the Minnesota Twins for Gonzalo Sanudo;

4/2013: Traded Jake Goebbert to the Oakland Athletics for Travis Blackley; Traded Chris Wallace to the Cleveland Indians for Eric Berger;

Then, the 2013 season got underway. A lot of moves here. Nothing really sticks out as fantastically brilliant outside of getting Justin Maxwell for a waiver claim and getting the Pittsburgh Pirates to take on Wandy Rodriguez‘s contract while getting a couple of solid-but-not-spectacular prospects in Grossman and Owens; however, the true value in what Luhnow has done has happened in the drafts the last two seasons.

CorreaIn 2012, the Astros took Carlos Correa No.1 overall. While he was worthy of the pick and has performed very well, they were able to sign him below the recommended slot, allowing the club to draft and sign Lance McCullers at No.41 overall, a young, hard-throwing high school arm. The club seems to have several very good prospects in the system from the 2012 draft, but none have the potential impact that 2013 No.1 overall pick Mark Appel could bring to Houston.

AppelThe Astros signed Appel on Saturday for $6.35 million, roughly $1.44 million under slot. This will allow the Astros to possibly go over slot to sign later picks, such as college juniors Andrew Thurman and Kent Emanuel, additional college arms that could provide solid depth to the Astros’ system.

The Astros lost 213 games in 2011 and 2012 and their minor league system was in shambles. While some solid young players are finally reaching Minute Maid Park, it will take several more years of replenishing the system to create a team capable of contending in a strong, financially top-heavy AL West. Acquiring cheap, young talent will be the best way for the club to turn things around without mortgaging too much of the club’s financial future on long-term, free agent contracts. Look for moves involving Jose Veras, Bud Norris, and Carlos Pena as the trade deadline comes and goes in 2013, and while the returns may not be fantastic, it will be additional resources and bodies for a team in desperate need of talent and depth within the organization.

For the time being, these are the players to look forward to watching in Houston:

1) Mark Appel, RHP

2) Carlos Correa, SS

3) Jonathan Singleton, 1B

4) George Springer, OF

5) Jared Cosart, RHP

6) Delino DeShields, Jr., 2B

7) Lance McCullers, RHP

8) Mike Foltynewicz, RHP

9) Nolan Fontana, SS

10) Jonathan Villar, SS

11) Domingo Santana, OF

12) Asher Wojciechowski, RHP

13) Max Stassi, C

14) Kevin Comer, RHP

15) Nick Tropeano, RHP

Astronomical Strikeout Rates

AstrosThe Houston Astros are going to be bad in 2013. People in Houston and around the world should have known that before the season even started. The first game, an 8-2 win over the Texas Rangers, may have been the high point of the season. It was Opening Day, the Astros’ first as an American League club, while Houston  won their 4,000th game in franchise history.

Since then, the Astros haven’t scored a run over two games, including coming just one out from having a perfect game tossed against them by Rangers’ right-hander Yu Darvish on Tuesday night. In fact, in Tuesday and Wednesday’s games, the Astros managed just seven hits, and things don’t look bright for the Astros going forward.

Certainly, a 162-game season could result in a total turn-around and a drastic change in the club’s roster, but after three games, the Astros lineup has a miserable .172/.206/.258 line over 93 at-bats. Sure, it’s a small sample size, but the team has an incredible 43 strikeouts in 93 at-bats, with just four walks.

The Major League Baseball record for team strikeouts is 1,529 by the 2010 Arizona Diamondbacks. Mark Reynolds (211), Adam LaRoche (172), Justin Upton (152), Kelly Johnson (148), and Chris Young (145) seemed to allow Chase Field to go air condition free with the free swinging they provided that summer, but if the Astros keep up their current pace, they’ll strikeout 2,322 times.

Brett Wallace, Chris Carter, Carlos Pena, and Rick Ankiel have combined for 26 strikeouts in just 39 at-bats, so with their pace and their history of high strikeout rates, all four would be capable of over 170 strikeouts over 500 at-bats. Wallace will likely be gone from the picture when Jonathan Singleton proves himself ready after his 50-game suspension for marijuana abuse has been completed, but the wind in Houston could reach extreme levels throughout the summer.

With a club likely to lose upwards of 110 games in 2013, fans of the Astros have to root for excellent trades from GM Jeff Luhnow later this season. With a philosophy of acquiring talent through trades and drafts, the rebuilding process in Houston will take time. Luhnow was the head of the St. Louis Cardinals player development staff for several years prior to moving to Houston in December of 2011, and as you look at their minor league system, you can imagine what the Houston Astros could become in five years.