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.