If you’re hoping 2014 will be the year the Astros turn it around and become playoff contenders, well, keep on hoping. It’s not happening. In 2014 the Astros won’t come close to contending or even finish near .500, but that doesn’t mean the season can’t be considered a success.
Over the last three seasons, the Astros have gone from 106 losses to 107 and last year’s 111. I can assure they won’t lose more than that in 2014, so there’s one in the success column, but judging the Astros by wins and losses is short-sighted. When you evaluate this club, think progress, not wins. It may not seem like it, but they’ve made some.
Going into last season the Astros made additions to the roster, but they added the likes of Carlos Pena, Rick Ankiel, Jose Veras, and Erik Bedard. Veras worked out better than they could’ve ever imagined, the others, as expected did not. This winter, the Astros made more additions, but they picked up players that can actually play.
Dexter Fowler is a legitimate leadoff hitter who knows how to get on base and can run down anything in centerfield. His numbers weren’t good with Colorado last season, especially away from Coors, but the talent is there and a change of scenery will do him some good. Acquiring him for Jordan Lyles and Brandon Barnes was a big move, but it wasn’t the Astros’ biggest move of the winter.
Scott Feldman will start the Astros opener on Tuesday night at Minute Maid Park. In December, the Astros gave him a three-year contract worth $30 million, the largest contract handed out by the Jim Crane/Jeff Luhnow regime. His numbers don’t jump out you, just 6.5 strikeouts per nine innings with a 2-1 walk to strikeout ratio, and he’ll likely see some regression to the 3.86 ERA he posted last season with the Cubs and Orioles due to a low average on balls in play, but he did throw over 180 innings and that’s where he’ll be valuable, and that’s where you’ll start to see some progress.
In 2013, the Astros ranked 27th in innings pitched per start. That number looks a lot worse when you consider the Astros sported the league’s worst bullpen. Feldman won’t cure all of those ills on his own, but he should be able to give them six innings a start, like he did last season in Baltimore and Chicago, which is a step in the right direction. The 31-year old will be followed in the rotation by Jared Cosart and Brett Oberholtzer, who as rookies had some success at the tail end of last season, and by the time September rolls around Mike Foltynewicz and last year’s first overall pick Mark Appel could join them. If that were to happen, it would mean they pitched well in the minors while staying healthy.
Among the Astros’ position players, Fowler and first baseman Jesus Guzman are really the only newcomer. Everyone else likely to be in the opening day starting lineup finished last season on the club’s big league roster, but that could change. First base prospect Jonathan Singleton had a disappointing 2013 season after serving a 50-game suspension for a positive marijuana test. He’ll start the season in AAA along with George Springer, who had a record breaking 2013 in AA and AAA. Singleton was seen as a bit of a long shot to make the club out of Kissimmee, and that shot became longer after a slow spring training start. Springer starting the season in the minors is surprising, but he hit well below .200 this spring and struck in a third of his at bats. If he cuts down his strikeout rate he’ll be on the big league roster and if Singleton can go on a tear in Oklahoma City, he’ll get the call as well. Two top prospects working their way on the big league roster would be progress.
The Astros play in the toughest division of baseball’s toughest league. The losses are likely to pile up, but that’s ok. Just because they’re losing doesn’t mean they aren’t getting better. In 2014, success won’t be about wins, it will be about progress.