The Houston Astros made their debut in the AL last season and did probably as well as could have been expected. The competition of both the AL West and the American League as a whole made the transition very difficult. On the bright side, the team has invested a lot in its player development and has one of the best young farm systems in all of MLB. Under new manager Bo Porter, the team finished 51-111 with the worst record in all of MLB. In what I feel was a stark contrast to last off season, I actually think the Astros did a good job. They traded for Dexter Fowler, getting themselves a regular CF and also added 1B Jesus Guzman and RHP Alex White through trades. They signed Scott Feldman and Jerome Williams as free agents, two pitchers who should be able to eat innings and give the team better matchups against other teams starters. I agree that neither will ever be a number one, but having them at the top is better than what they have had over the past two seasons. They also added veteran relievers Jesse Crain and Chad Qualls to the mix, hopefully blending in with the younger arms they have.
While the outlook does not look too good for this season, there is a lot to look forward to. Shortstop prospect and former number one overall draft pick Carlos Correa should make his MLB debut this season as well as Jonathan Singleton, George Springer and Delino DeShields, Jr. Jared Cosart is their first high end pitching prospect to make his debut in this regime. He is likely to be joined by Mark Appel and Lance McCullers, Jr soon. It will be difficult to expect any of these players to star right away, but for Cosart and Appel it would not be a surprise.
As far as this season goes, the Astros are returning their two best offensive players, All Stars Jason Castro (.276, 18, 56) and Jose Altuve (.283, 5, 52). They are joined by Chris Carter (.223, 28, 82, 212 Ks) and Matt Dominguez (.241, 21, 77). Soon to be 23 year old SS Jonathan Villar (May 9) will be the starting SS opening day. He hit .243 in 58 games last season and will step aside as soon as Correa is ready. Fowler is coming off a down season in Colorado (.263, 12, 42) where he played in just 119 games due to injury. Guzman (.226, 9, 35 in 126 games in 2013) has faded over the past two seasons since having a solid 2011. LJ Hoes (.287, 1, 10 in 46 games) and Robbie Grossman (.268, 4, 21 in 63 games) are likely to start in the outfield until Springer and maybe DeShields (if they move him from 2B) are ready for the big leagues. It is a matter of time before Singleton and Correa take over for Guzman and Villar, repectively. My lineup would look like this: Altuve 2B, Hoes RF, Fowler CF, Castro C, Carter DH, Dominguez 3B, Guzman 1B, Grossman LF, Villar SS. Marwin Gonzalez and JD Martinez will probably anchor the bench with a possibility that Marc Krauss gets a look. Ultimately, the prospects will move some of the projected regulars to the bench.
I do like the moves to bring in both Feldman (12-12, 3.86 in 30 starts for Cubs and Orioles) and Williams (9-10, 4.57 in 37 games, 25 starts for Angels). Cosart (1-1, 1.95 in 10 starts last season) and Brad Peacock (5-6, 5.18 in 18 games, 14 starts) are likely to start the season in the rotation. The final spot and top insurance policies will be from the group of Brett Oberholtzer (4-5, 2.76 in 13 games, 10 starts), Lucas Harrell (6-17, 5.86 in 36 games, 22 starts), Dallas Keuchel (6-10, 5.15, 31, 22), Paul Clemens (4-7, 5.40, 35, 5) and Collin McHugh (0-4, 10.04, 7, 5). Don't let some of the numbers deceive you, Keuchel and Harrell should show improvement this season and McHugh has not gotten a full chance to start in the big leagues yet. Ultimately, Appel and Mike Foltynewicz could get their feet wet this season. Feldman, Williams and Peacock should be able to eat a lot of innings this season. Cosart and Harrell will fill out the rotation, in my opinion, to start the season.
The Astros bullpen is a disaster. Last year, they got some help from Jose Veras before he was traded to the Tigers. Wesley Wright (0-4, 3.92 in 54 games in 2013 with Astros) was traded to the Rockies for Alex White, who could be an important piece in the bullpen for them. The fact that Josh Fields (1-3, 4.97 in 41 games) and Chia-Jen Lo (0-3, 4.19 in 19 games) are the favorites to be the team's closer does not bode well for them. Crain, if he is healthy, can be a godsend for the one time Colt 45s (2-3, 0.74 in 38 games with White Sox last season). Despite a very good 2013 for the Marlins, Chad Qualls (5-2, 2.61 in 66 games) has been very up and down season to season. White (2-9. 5.91 in 23 games, 20 starts for Rockies last season) was a top prospect for Indians and Rockies and could be a sleeper to establish himself as a reliever. Darrin Downs and Raul Valdez will battle for the left handed specialist role. Two others to watch are former Padres RHP Anthony Bass and former Red Sox and Indians RP Matt Albers. My bullpen would consist of Fields, Lo, Bass, Crain, Qualls, Albers and Downs. They all need to be at their best for this to be a good BP this year.
I think the Astros can improve this year, but not much based on record. They were 51-111 last season; I see them at 58-104, last place in the AL West. Vegas had them at 62.5, so I am taking the under. The 7 game improvement does not seem like much, but they play in one of the toughest divisions in all of MLB. The importance is in the development and to get some of the younger top players into the majors. I think 2015 could see a significant improvement if the seeds start to get planted.