added 10/13/2013 by Bob Hulsey
After a pair of 100-loss seasons, General Manager Jeff Luhnow spoke in the spring that Astros fans would be "surprised" by what they saw from the club in 2013. What they saw was worse - a 51-111 club that ended with a 15-game losing streak and questions both about the on-field product and the means by which to finance future player upgrades.
Houston started the year with half the payroll of the second-lowest club in the majors and ended with a payroll cut again by half. Luhnow's own token free agent veterans, signed to provide experience and be good role models for his young club, proved largely a failure.
DH/1B Carlos Pena, SP Philip Humber, OF Rick Ankiel and SS Ronny Cedeno could not deliver on even modest expectations. SP Erik Bedard was not much better but his record (4-12) is somewhat deceiving. There were stretches where he did pitch well only to be done in by a lack of offensive support or a shaky bullpen. Closer Jose Veras (19 saves) was the one true free agent success which allowed Luhnow to deal him to Detroit in July for prospects.
SP Bud Norris (6-9) was the other key trading piece. He was sent to Baltimore for OF L.J. Hoes, a minor league prospect and the rights to an expected draft choice in the supplemental round. Clearly, the Astros were still in the mode of swapping veterans for future pieces.
SP Lucas Harrell went from 11-11 in 2012 to 6-17 in 2013 as he fought with coaches about defensive positioning and appeared to mope at times. He would seem like a good choice to be sent to a club that likes reclamation projects.
What was left behind of the rotation was a very young and inexperienced group that mostly showed well if you look beyond the W-L records. Jordan Lyles (7-9, 5.59 ERA) and Dallas Keuchel (6-10, 5.15) blew hot and cold, displaying the inconsistencies of youth but showing enough to be penciled into next year's rotation. Mid-season additions Jarred Cosart (1-1, 1.95 in 10 starts) and Brett Oberholtzer (4-5, 2.76 in 13 games) were impressive and pitched better than their AAA numbers would have suggested.
Trade acquisition Brad Peacock (5-6, 5.18) was terrible in the spring but impressive (3.64 ERA, .216 OBA) in nine starts after he returned from the minors in August. Several other starting candidates were sprinkled into the bullpen or made spot starts, including Jose Cisnero (2-2, 4.12), Paul Clemens (4-7, 5.40) and David Martinez (1-0, 7.15 but 14-4 in the minors).
Luhnow suggests that a veteran free agent could be added to the rotation and he will also get back injured hurlers Alex White, John Ely and Rudy Owens from the disabled list. It could be argued that the 26-and-under group (31-45) outpitched those 27 and older (20-66) which is a positive note to build on. The Astros' rotation should improve simply by subtraction (Norris, Harrell, Humber, Bedard).
The bullpen situation is far more fractured and, once Veras was traded, the pen was nothing more than untested rookies, converted minor league starters and the veterans who were getting yanked from the rotation. The Astros led the majors in blown saves although a core group of Josh Fields (1-3, 4.97), Kevin Chapman (1-1, 1.77), Josh Zeid (0-1, 3.90) and Chia-Jen Lo (0-3, 4.19) should get more chances in 2014. Luhnow expects to sign one or two veteran free agents to stabilize that unit.
The offensive side was often more dismal than the pitching. They set a major league record for strikeouts (1529) despite having only 12 of them come from pitchers. They were at or near the bottom in most categories. However, batting coach John Mallee was retained for next year.
Among 2013 players, Luhnow has probably found just three regulars he hopes to contend with in future years but all three come with asterisks. Catcher Jason Castro had a breakout year (.276 BA, 18 HR, .835 OPS) and was the club's All-Star representative. The big question for him is how to stay healthy. He missed all of 2011 and parts of the last two years with knee ailments.
2B Jose Altuve (.283 BA, 35 SB) was signed to a multi-year contract extension in mid-season but his low OBP (.316) and few walks threaten his long-term viability since he's merely average at everything else for his position. At 5-5, he ought to be able to draw walks easily but he will need to develop more plate patience if he wants a longer career.
3B Matt Dominguez (.241 BA, 21 HR, .690 OPS) showed improvement as the year went along. His second-half numbers (.260 BA, .753 OPS) would suggest that he could still elevate his performance. Like Altuve, a low walk rate is what holds him back and, like Altuve, he's just 24 and probably has better years ahead as long as he works hard at it.
The rest of the lineup probably won't be around when the Astros become competitive or will have diminished roles. OF George Springer, 1B Jonathan Singleton and SS Carlos Correa are expected to be the future stars at their positions and the first two will probably appear in Houston next season.
SS Jonathan Villar (.243 BA, 18 steals in 58 games) is a wildly inconsistent player but he does draw walks and steal bases which makes him the likely leadoff man until Correa is ready. Coaches love his aggressiveness except it leads to glaring mistakes. If he can learn when to turn on and off the aggressiveness, he could still become a valuable piece to future seasons.
Chris Carter is probably best suited to be a designated hitter. The good news: Carter led the club in home runs (29), RBIs (82) and posted a .770 OPS. The bad news: Carter batted .223 with 212 strikeouts and is a defensive liability. He'll be 27 next year so he's largely a developed product - one I think should be shopped to power-hungry teams some time in the next two years. There's always someone willing to overpay for power hitters.
The aforementioned Hoes (.287 BA, .708 OPS in 46 games) has a chance to stick. He'll be 24 in March and has a solid approach at the plate. He lacks power so he will need to be a high-average, high-OBP hitter to be a regular on a contending club.
If Hoes doesn't work out, Robbie Grossman (.268 BA, .702 OBP in 63 games), another Luhnow acquisition, may take his place. Grossman draws more walks and has center field skills so he'll get more chances to stick as a fourth outfielder. He's also a switch-hitter which is useful due to the A.L.'s short benches.
Brandon Barnes (.240 BA, .635 OPS) and J.D. Martinez (.250 BA, .650 OPS) will probably have make-or-break seasons in 2014. There is still room for them in the Houston outfield if they can turn things up another notch or two but their windows of opportunity will close quickly.
1B Brett Wallace (.221 BA, .716 OPS), likewise, is running out of chances and will probably have one last opportunity before Singleton arrives to prove he can stick in the majors. He gives flashes he is ready to break out only to slump back again. He's 27, so now is the time to produce if he has it in him.
Carlos Corporan (.225 BA, 7 HR) always seems to produce better than his numbers imply. He'll have a nice career as a big league backup catcher when it is all over but he turns 30 in January and the Astros are currently like the Logan's Run of big league franchises. Even the players in their late 20s get twitchy about their futures.
Utility infielder Marwin Gonzalez (.221 BA, .571 OPS) seems like a bench player but could still be a useful part for a few years.
Once you get past Springer and Singleton, there aren't many top offensive prospects in the high minors. There's always the chance to find a diamond in the rough or a late bloomer but, otherwise, expect the Houston lineup to fill with free agents for the remaining non-pitching spots.
It's important to realize that the players with long-term success are the ones who continue to learn and make adjustments. The rookie season isn't always a good predictor of whether a player is going to be a solid big leaguer or not. However, the first impressions are that the 2014 Astros have the nucleus of an effective, young starting pitching staff but need a lot more work to put together a solid bullpen and a strong offensive lineup. Some of the long-term answers exist in the minors but some are going to need to be brought in from other systems before the franchise can return to competitiveness.