Winter Report Card: Houston Astros
With little more than a month before pitchers and catchers report, we’re checking in on how each team has fared in conducting its offseason business while acknowledging that there’s still time for its prognosis to change. Teams will be presented in reverse order of finish from 2013.
2013 results: 51-111 (.315), 5th place in AL West (Hot Stove Preview)
Key departures: RHP Hector Ambriz*, CF Brandon Barnes, LHP Erik Bedard*, RHP Jordan Lyles (* = free agents, still unsigned)
Key arrivals: RHP Matt Albers, RHP Jesse Crain, RHP Scott Feldman, CF Dexter Fowler, OF/1B Jesus Guzman, RHP Chad Qualls
One of the Astros’ primary tasks this offseason was rebuilding their bullpen. They traded Jose Veras, Wesley Wright and Travis Blackley late in the 2013 season and opted not to re-sign free agent Hector Abmriz, who was coming off a season in which he posted a 5.70 ERA and 1.76 WHIP in 43 games. By total appearances, Veras, Wright, Blackely and Ambriz were four of Houston’s top five relievers in 2013.
The Astros will need a reliable and durable bullpen to support their young rotation in 2014, and they have done a solid job of restocking it. They signed veteran free agent righthanders Jesse Crain, Chad Qualls and Matt Albers for a total investment of $11.7 million, added lefties Darin Downs and Raul Valdes via waiver claims and got 26-year-old righty Anthony Bass, the youngest of the bunch, in a trade with the Padres. That’s not a terribly impressive group (not all of the last three are likely to make the Opening Day roster, and Crain, the best of the six, is coming off October biceps surgery), but neither was the outgoing quartet. At the very least, Houston showed initiative and understanding of its own needs. The same can be said regarding the three-year, $30 million contract the team gave to starter Scott Feldman to serve as an innings-eating anchor for that young rotation (and, in turn, the rebuilt bullpen).
The Astros also needed to upgrade their outfield, which hit .242/.294/.367 as a group in 2013. So they flipped 23-year-old righthanded starter Jordan Lyles and incumbent centerfielder Brandon Barnes to the Rockies for Dexter Fowler. Fowler is signed for $7.35 million in 2014 and will remain under the team’s control for another arbitration-eligible season after that. He has never blossomed into a true star but is a solid defender in center with speed that will produce double-digit steals and triples, a little pop and enough patience to produce a career on-base percentage nearly 100 points above his batting average. There are standard concerns about Fowler leaving offense-friendly Coors Field, but even if he only manages to hit to his previous road splits, he should be an easy upgrade on Barnes, who hit a brutal .240/.289/.346 as a rookie last year and was caught in half of his steal attempts. Lyles, 23, is young, but he has regressed in three major league seasons, posting a 5.59 ERA while striking out just 5.9 men per nine innings in 2013. He’ll be arbitration-eligible next winter.
Unfinished business: Lefthanded-hitting outfielder
Sure, Houston could use a lot of things, like star players, but those guys — like outfield prospect George Springer and pitcher Mark Appel — are on the way from the farm system. As for the roster the Astros have assembled this offseason, the most obvious missing piece is a lefthanded hitter who can spell their heavily righthanded outfield corps of Fowler, Springer, LJ Hoes, Guzman and sophomore Robbie Grossman, a switch-hitter who is better from the right side. Even first baseman Chris Carter, who should never be allowed to play the outfield again but made 43 starts there in 2013, is righthanded.
A lefty bat to break up that bunch and give manager Bo Porter the ability to gain the platoon advantage, particularly in the pasture not covered by Fowler and Springer, would be a low-cost improvement. Houston might be expecting sophomore Marc Krauss, a lefty and career .277/.375/.481 hitter in the minors, to fill that role, but Krauss is 26 and didn’t hit much as a rookie in 2013.
Preliminary Grade: B+
A team in the Astros’ position — deep at the bottom of a rebuild and waiting for a fertile farm system to bear fruit — could have done nothing this offseason. It also could have overcorrected and made a win-now move before the team was ready to win now. Houston did neither. It addressed its most obvious needs with small, low-cost moves (earning the B) and made one rather handsome trade in acquiring Fowler (the plus). That none of the relievers is particularly inspiring keeps them from an A.