added 2/9/2014 by Bob Hulsey
I'm not sure this is what Jeff Luhnow planned but the winter before the 2014 season will be noted for trying to upgrade the pitching staff, not the batting order. The Astros swung and missed at some big free agent names but one wonders, given their shaky financial situation and continued legal jeopardy over television carriage income, whether they truly wanted to reel in some of the big names they pursued.
On the offensive side, outfielder Dexter Fowler and reserve first baseman Jesus Guzman are the only new faces. Luhnow will be counting on improvement from holdovers Chris Carter, Matt Dominguez, Jonathan Villar, Robbie Grossman and L.J. Hoes to boost the league's worst offense.
There's also the possible infusion of first baseman Jonathan Singleton and outfielder George Springer from the minors but let's not presume either will start out as stars. That first promotion to the majors can sometimes be a major stumbling block and it would be wrong to put a large amount of pressure on their young shoulders.
Help may also come from monster Mexican League star Japhet Amador or catcher Max Stassi but they would be long shots to make the team out of training camp.
While a lot of good veteran pitching is still available in free agency as camps prepare to open soon, the only sluggers still left on the market are OF Nelson Cruz, 1Bs Kendrys Morales and Casey Kotchman as well as DH Travis Hafner. Infielders Brandon Inge, Placido Polanco and Stephen Drew are also unsigned through Friday.
The Astros, however, will sport a total makeover from last year's pitching staff. Scott Feldman (age 31) and Jerome Williams (32) have been added to the rotation while Chad Qualls (35), Matt Albers (31) and Jesse Crain (32) will take over in the bullpen. Either Darin Downs (29) or Raul Valdes (36) is apt to win the lefthanded specialist role in relief.
This all leaves precious little room for the multitude of young arms that finished the year in Houston or Oklahoma City. Jarred Cosart and Brett Oberholtzer ought to be penciled in for two of the remaining rotation spots but there will likely be a free-for-all for the fifth spot among names like Dallas Kuechel, Brad Peacock, Alex White, Collin McHugh, Mark Appel, Paul Clemens, Lucas Harrell, Asher Wojciechowski and Anthony Bass. One wonders how they'll all get enough time to make an impression. A whopping 25 pitchers are on the 40-man roster.
Just as defense wins championships in the NFL, pitching wins championships in baseball so it is good that the Astros are focused on beefing up the mound corps but it seems as if there is far more quantity than there is quality, even with all the free agent additions. The best one could say about Feldman and Williams is that they are average.
The fans have been told to wait patiently for the kids to blossom and while there is still plenty of room for young batters to grow into the lineup, the pitchers are now going to have to fight through a lot of veteran mediocrity before claiming a spot in orange and blue. Rooters must continue waiting for those young stars they've been promised.
Whether that was the Luhnow plan all along or just the way the market shook out is anyone's guess but the revamped Astros are going to seem decisively older if not marginally better than last year. Climbing out of the 100-loss hole still looks like a 50-50 proposition.