First Steps Or False Hopes?

added 03/30/2014 by Bob Hulsey

After three straight years of 100-loss seasons, each worse than the previous one, the Houston Astros will try to reverse course in 2014 and begin toward what they hope will someday be a Worlds Championship and sustained excellence.

It is only the third year of Jim Crane/Jeff Luhnow leadership and only the second year of American League play but it has seemed like a walk through the desert for remaining Houston fans. Are those palm trees we see on the horizon or just our eyes and our hopes playing tricks on us just to keep our feet churning forward through the endless sands?

For many of us, it is still another year without tv access, another year enduring Steve Sparks on the radio, another year of Jonathan Villar butt-kissing opponents while making outs. Another year where the few games of interest will have the tickets marked up thanks to dynamic pricing. Another year of vacant seating sections.

Are these the Astros we have been waiting for?

Certainly, there have been steps made to improve the parent club - something we didn't see the past two years when it seemed minor league titles and first overall draft picks meant more to the front office than not totally embarrassing themselves on big league diamonds.

Veterans were brought in (yay!) and free agents were signed (yay!) but will it be enough to avoid another 100-loss nightmare this summer? Sadly, I have my doubts.

This is still the cheapest payroll in the majors. It's still one with few consistent or viable hitters in the lineup and one where their new "ace", signed to a $30-million contract, has a career ERA of 4.62.

The offense seemingly depended on the coming-of-age of minor league stars George Springer and Jonathan Singleton but neither blew the doors off in Florida and both seemed to show that the pressure of management's high expectations had affected them.

Of all those minor league pitching arms that made big league debuts in 2013, few are sticking with the big club to open the 2014 season. Jarred Cosart and Brett Oberholzer are the bright hopes in the rotation. Kevin Chapman will be the lefty bullpen specialist.

The hope for the future can't be invested in 30-somethings like Scott Feldman, Chad Qualls, Matt Albers and Jerome Williams. These are just placeholders until the kids mature but which of them will break through this year and will they find their paths blocked when it seems they may be ready? Once again, Oklahoma City might have a more exciting team to watch than Houston will.

Dexter Fowler seems to be the only everyday upgrade to the Astros' offense and there are still questions whether he can produce at sea level the way he did at Coors Field. Platoon guys Jesus Guzman and Alex Presley are the other new faces in the lineup. Both come with limited upside.

Want to see why this assemblage will not be competitive? Turn the dial back to 2011 when this mess began and we had a veteran rotation (Wandy Rodriguez, J.A. Happ, Bud Norris) and a veteran bullpen (Brett Myers, Wilton Lopez, Brandon Lyon) with a sprinkling of hopeful youth (Jordan Lyles, J.D. Martinez, Brett Wallace, Jose Altuve). Remember how that turned out? Give this roster a serious look and ask yourself if this 25-man is better than that 25-man was.

Then you have to consider the Astros were then in the NL Central and are now in the AL West where there is some serious spending going on. To compete, the Astros will need some supermen to rise through the minors or come through the free agency doors. As of yet, that hasn't happened. Additions like Feldman and Fowler won't cut it.

Maybe those are palm trees on the horizon (Carlos Correa, Mike Foltynewicz, Lance McCullers, Mark Appel) or maybe that is just future dust we just don't know yet is dust.

The blazing sun and blistering heat of fan expectation is starting to become relentless on a front office that is running out of water and excuses.

Fix the tv deal. We don't care how. Just fix it.

Fix the on-field product. We don't care how much you spend. Just fix it. There's been plenty of time to make much more progress on both issues than has been accomplished so far. Blaming the previous regime is not going to fly anymore.

We fans will endure another year of Steve Sparks and a hundred losses if you'll just make darned sure those palm trees out there are real and not mirages. The longer the wait, the more unbearable becomes the heat.