added 5/15/2014 by Bob Hulsey
The Rockets did their typical first-round playoff exit and the Texans finally completed their draft (memo to NFL: move it back to April), so the Astros are, by default, back on center stage for Houston sports fans unless you are into soccer, women's hoops, the Skeeters or other minor attractions.
By now, especially those lurking here, everyone knows that the Astros are a terrible major league team. Bad enough to have claimed the worst record for three straight years. Judging from their current won-loss record (14-27 through Thursday - all stats provided by Baseball_Reference.com), it's the same story this year and they could take the dubious title (and first overall pick) for a record fourth straight time.
The television situation is still as unsettled as before. If you subscribe to Comcast cable, you probably get CSN-Houston and can watch as much of the Astros as you can stomach. If you don't or can't get Comcast, you probably see the Astros only when they are playing the Rangers.
There's a Catch-22 at work. The Astros can't make major strides to improve the team without a big upgrade in talent. But they can't make a big upgrade in talent without the cash and carriage of a solid regional tv deal. Every month the Astros flail at the bottom of the standings, the more fans tune out and projected revenues evaporate, thus making it even harder to sell a regional tv package.
If you believe the Astros' attendance numbers (and sometimes I don't), Tuesday night's home game was their worst yet: 14,028. This was against the Rangers who were alleged to be our bitter rivals and one of the chief reasons we were supposed to love switching to the American League against our will. Yikes.
Ironically, this came in a two-game stretch that offered a glimmer of hope for starved Astros fans. Houston won both nights, first by a dominant shutout and then by a thrilling late-inning comeback.
The Astros have rode hot streaks even during the down years so there's no need to overreact but the signs are there for this team to turn a corner if this group is up to the task.
First, the good news:
The starting rotation may be able to hit their stride. Scott Feldman (2-1, 2.63 ERA). Collin McHugh (2-1, 2.81), Dallas Keuchel (4-2, 3.06) and Jarred Cosart (2-3, 4.30) look like a somewhat shaky but capable four starters with Cosart owning the greatest upside. If they can stay healthy and sharp for awhile, they give the Astros a meaningful chance to win on most nights. The other three starters the Astros have tried this year own a combined record of 0-13. That's half the team's losses right there.
The hitters were downright putrid in April except for Jose Altuve and the underutilized Marwin Gonzalez. The bats have warmed up like the weather in May. The team batting average was down below .200 for awhile but most of the sub-Mendoza club have climbed out of it. Their current .229 team average (still the worst in the league) looks much better than where they had been. Only Seattle (.232) is as bad with Cleveland the next worst at a distant .247.
The Astros are fourth in the league in home runs despite no player yet hitting more than five (Jose Abreu, the Cuban first baseman who the Astros pursued in the offseason, has 15 of his own). They are last, however, in run production (at 3.54 r/gm, the only AL team under 4) and 13th in team OPS (.681).
George Springer, after a rocky start, has settled in and is starting to contribute. He still strikes out way too often (36.8%) but his other numbers are trending upwards and he seems to be learning how to use Minute Maid Park's dimensions to his advantage. He's definitely still a work in progress but he could heat up as the summer goes on. Now that he's finally here, I don't expect Springer to be sent down again.
Now, the bad news.
The bullpen, expected to be a huge upgrade, has not panned out. Matt Albers and Jesse Crain have spent much of their time on the mend instead of on the mound and each has gone through additional setbacks during rehab. Josh Fields (0-3, 12.00, two saves) imploded a few weeks ago and the first two lefty specialists the Astros tried had double-digit ERAs. Chad Qualls (1-1, 3.55, two saves) and Anthony Bass (1-0, 4.50, two saves) have held the fort but Bass is heading to the disabled list.
Tony Sipp, signed away from San Diego this month, has been a godsend but, like McHugh, you worry that the clock could strike midnight at any time.
There are two big holes in the lineup at first base and left field. First has been occupied by Jesus Guzman (.211 BA, .588 OPS) and Chris Carter (.189, .671) while Jonathan Singleton (.293, 1.030 at AAA Oklahoma City) steadies himself professionally in the minors while hoping to be called up.
The outfield has seen Robbie Grossman (.125, .549), L.J. Hoes (.214, .625) and Alex Presley (.214, .582) playing alongside Springer and Dexter Fowler. On the farm, young Domingo Santana (.289, .826 at AAA) awaits his chance.
The Designated Hitter role will need to be fixed after the other two are. For now, Carter and Jason Castro have been mixing time there.
The rest of the positions seem to be in adequate hands for now with an OPS+ (how a player's OPS matches others at his position) at 82 or above. Given how poorly many of them started, this should likely improve as the season wears on.
Still, it will just take a few injuries and some regression of key players to make this fragile ship crash and burn. It was a 100-loss team to start with and, unless they catch fire and stay healthy, the league's youngest and cheapest team looks to continue that way for another year.
Their current won-loss trajectory (55-107) should keep them at the bottom for at least one more year. If you can handle a lot of bitter with the sweet and have CSN-Houston somehow available, you can spend the next few months enduring the Astros and watching some young talent develop. If not, the Texans will start their training camp in roughly two months.