As expected, the move to the American League wasn’t kind to the Houston Astros. The 111 losses were the most in franchise history, making it the third consecutive season that the Astros hit a new record for futility. For the second straight season, the Astros went through 25 position players and 26 pitchers. Houston was the youngest team in the American League by over one full year of age and it showed. The Astros had the league’s lowest OBP, most strikeouts by more than 100, and managed to win just 51 games.
It doesn’t seem like it would get any easier for the Astros this season, as the Mariners and Angels look improved and the Astros are still behind the curve because of the transition from the National League to the American League. The leagues are a lot different than they seem. National League teams tend to have more depth because of the need to bat for the pitcher and have positional replacements. As a result, there seem to be more below average players taking up roster spots. Of course, there’s also the obvious point of the pitcher hitting, so a team like the Astros would have had no previous need for a designated hitter. It showed, as the Astros’ DHs posted a .214/.308/.408/.716 slash line. League average was .256/.338/.428/.766.
The 2013 Astros were in a really difficult spot. Not only did they lack the necessary talent to compete in the National League, but the move to the American League made them a lock for the worst team in the league. They gave up 60 more runs than any other AL pitching staff, outscored only the White Sox, and were 43-99 against league competition. The Astros had losing records against every American League team except for the White Sox and Angels. Oakland and Texas combined for a 32-6 record against the hapless Astros.
Bovada.lv opened up their win totals on Wednesday, posting a 62.5 with the over juiced at -125. BetOnline.ag opened last week and has a 62.5 (u-105) currently posted. LVH Superbook in Las Vegas opened at 63.5, while William Hill (59.5) and Atlantis Sportsbook in Reno, NV (57.5) were less optimistic.
Key additions: Dexter Fowler, Scott Feldman, Peter Moylan, Matt Albers, Chad Qualls, Jesse Crain, Jerome Williams, Anthony Bass, Cesar Izturis
Key losses: Brandon Barnes, Jordan Lyles, Erik Bedard
Some of the “key” additions may not be names of consequence, but when you lose 111 games, everybody becomes a key addition because they have a great chance at being better than what you had. Fangraphs and Baseball-Reference both set the mark of a replacement-level team at 48-114. That means that the Astros, essentially, were three wins above a team of scrubs. As a result, adding Major Leagues with a track record can’t really be a wrong strategy.
As you can see, pitching was the area of need that the Astros felt was the most pressing. Scott Feldman and Jerome Williams will add Major League caliber starters to a rotation that posted the third-worst ERA and fourth-worst FIP in all of baseball last season. Astros starters also led the league in walks per nine innings, which is where Feldman and Williams will help.
As bad as the starting rotation was, the bullpen somehow managed to be worse. Astros relievers posted a 4.92 ERA and a 5.09 FIP. They gave up the most home runs in baseball, 21 more than any other team. In the situation that they’re in, the Astros certainly didn’t want to commit big money to any bullpen arms, so guys like Moylan and Crain come with injury baggage. Moylan has only made 35 appearances over the last three seasons, after 172 appearances in 2010-11 with the Braves. Crain only made 38 appearances last season with a shoulder injury. Albers and Qualls are experienced guys who have over 1,000 combined Major League appearances.
Dexter Fowler is unquestionably the biggest name on the additions list. He was acquired from the Rockies for Brandon Barnes and Jordan Lyles. Fowler is one of the game’s most athletic players, but staying on the field has been a serious problem for him. He showed some extra base hit ability in Colorado and the Astros have nothing but time to let him develop and see what happens.
Why bet the over?
Simply by virtue of being one year older, the Astros should show some signs of progress. Years of being awful have given the Astros the chance to stock their minor league system with some of the game’s most talented prospects and a lot of those guys are going to make an appearance in 2014. Players like Carlos Correa, the top shortstop on most prospect lists, Mark Appel, a very low-risk pitcher with a high ceiling, and George Springer, a 6’4” 200-pound outfielder with power potential, highlight the system and could shoot some much-needed life into the fan base and the team. Since the Astros will likely spend most of 2014 in the cellar, they could be a very fun team to watch in August and September as these guys come up. They could give an over bet life, especially if the team can bob and weave through the first few months.
The shining diamond in the rough for the Astros last season was catcher Jason Castro. With little help around him, Castro was spectacular offensively, especially for a catcher. He posted a .276/.350/.485 slash with a .361 wOBA. Among catchers with 450 or more plate appearances, Castro ranked fourth in wOBA, fourth in fWAR, second in slugging percentage, and fifth in walk rate. Like most of his pitching staff, Castro was still learning the hitters, especially with the move to the American League. He’s a bona fide star at the catcher position and a great asset for the Astros to build around.
First baseman/outfielder Jesus Guzman will leave the suffocating environment of Petco Park for the more hitter-friendly conditions of Minute Maid Park. Guzman performed well offensively in the minors with an .853 OPS, so there is hitting talent there. He’ll get a chance to play a lot with the Astros, in an environment conducive to the power he showed in the minor leagues. He’ll turn 30 in June, so there aren’t many more chances to prove himself, but a fresh start in a more favorable ballpark can only help. Astros first basemen posted a -0.2 fWAR last season, so this should be an upgrade.
Joining Guzman in the mix for plate appearances at first base, in the outfield, and at DH is Chris Carter. Carter hit 29 home runs for the Astros last season, but the trade-off was that he struck out 212 times in just 585 plate appearances. Carter has been a below average defender throughout his Major League career, so the Astros may opt to keep him out of the field. Between Carter and Guzman, there’s some power potential here for the Astros that should help the offense.
Matt Dominguez may be a player to watch for the Astros this season at third base. Dominguez flashed plus defensive potential and a little bit of power last season with 21 home runs. There’s reason for optimism, as Dominguez’s BABIP was very low at .254. League average is between .290-.310, so a repeat of his .241 average seems unlikely. His plate discipline numbers could improve in his second full season in the Majors, though they were hardly consistent on his path to the bigs. Either way, Dominguez shows signs of improvement and it’s clear that any improvement will help the Astros.
The Astros rotation hopes fall on two young starters as Jarred Cosart and Brett Oberholtzer will have the opportunity to prove themselves this season. Cosart made 10 starts for the Astros last season and only factored in two decisions with a 1-1 record and a 1.95 ERA. If you need any more proof that ERA can be a misleading stat, note that Cosart walked more batters in his 60 innings than he struck out and his BABIP was just .246. His left on base percentage was over 85 percent, which is unsustainable to begin with, especially for a guy may not have an above average strikeout rate in the Majors. His FIP was 4.35. But, Cosart flashes a lot of potential with great stuff, including a fastball that sits at 95 mph, and a big curveball with a lot of movement. Command is the issue for Cosart, but over 54 percent of balls in play were on the ground. If Cosart can even marginally improve his command, 95 mph and offspeed stuff with big movement can give him a decent margin for error if he’s remotely close to the plate.
Oberholtzer was so good, relatively speaking, in his 10 starts and 13 appearances that he led the Astros in fWAR at 1.3. He’s a standard-issue southpaw that mixes three pitches, induces weak fly ball contact, and doesn’t walk batters. His minor league strikeout numbers didn’t translate to the Majors, but his control did, and that should give the Astros hope. Fly balls pitchers are dangerous in Minute Maid Park, with very short dimensions down the line and a big gap in right center, but other depth additions in the rotation plus extended looks for Oberholtzer and Cosart are favorable developments.
Scott Feldman will be the de facto ace of the Astros staff. He’s a serviceable pitcher, generally posting FIPs at or slightly above league average, so, in that regard, he’s an upgrade to the pitching staff. He posts reasonable strikeout-to-walk rates and gets ground balls at an above average rate. Considering how desperately the Astros needed pitching help, he will be an asset.
Jerome Williams will likely get a rotation spot with Lucas Harrell and Dallas Keuchel fighting for the last one. Harrell turned in a pretty decent 2012 campaign, but his control fell apart last season and his minor league track record indicates that it’s a problem he can expect to keep having. Keuchel will probably be in the rotation, if for no other reason than he was decent last season. Keuchel’s 5.15 ERA last season was enhanced by a .340 BABIP and 20 home runs allowed in 153.2 innings. His 4.25 FIP is a little bit below league average, but not so much that he should be written off. He gets a lot of ground balls, which hurt him last season because of the Astros infield defense, but he could be a serviceable part of the rotation.
Nobody in the Astros bullpen would be considered dominant, but an influx of veteran arms should improve the league’s worst bullpen in 2013. Between Qualls, Albers, Crain, and Moylan, if he’s healthy, the Astros will have competent middle relief, something they sorely lacked last season. There are some guys that miss bats and it’s hard to see this bullpen being as terrible as it was last season.
Why bet the under?
The Astros are stuck in a division that looks much stronger top to bottom than it did a year ago. The Mariners added Robinson Cano and have some young talent coming up in the rotation. The Angels were extremely bad in spite of an inflated payroll and most people, oddsmakers included, expect them to improve. The Athletics look stronger or at least about the same and the Rangers have some pitching concerns, but they can still hit. With 76 games against these four teams, or almost 47 percent of the season, it’s difficult to see where the Astros will accumulate wins.
With the exception of Castro, no other Astros player had an fWAR above 1.8, pitchers included. The 1.8 fWAR was property of Bud Norris, who is no longer with the team. Neither is Erik Bedard, who was third at 1.4. The Astros remain a young team that has a lot of offensive challenges. They strike out a ton and don’t walk. They have decent power, but stringing hits together to score runs is like pulling teeth. Unless the collection of Guzman and Carter can put together decent production, the Astros project to be below average at first base, second base, shortstop, left field, and right field.
The absolute best-case scenario for the starting rotation is to be somewhere around average, so in the 4.10 range in ERA and FIP. Considering how far away from that they were last season, even full seasons of Cosart, Oberholtzer, and Feldman may not be enough to help. Unless Cosart starts pitching in the zone, the Astros project to have five below average strikeout pitchers in the five-man rotation. Even with the Astros poor offense, Minute Maid Park ranked ninth in run scoring and sixth in home runs in ESPN’s Park Factor metrics. A large reason for that is because of their pitchers’ performance at home with a 4.99 ERA and a 4.72 FIP.
The bullpen has no dominant force, so even in the event that the Astros have a lead late, it’s far from a guaranteed victory. The Astros won 63.2 percent of games that they led going into the seventh inning, leading the league in blown saves. The Astros converted just 52 percent of their save opportunities. Just because there are more experienced arms doesn’t necessarily mean that those numbers will improve, especially without a guy that has a closer-type profile at the back-end of the bullpen.
The Astros do have young talent in the minors, but the biggest impact player, Carlos Correa, played in Single-A last season. He’ll likely start the season in Double-A and may make the jump, but it probably won’t be until September, if at all. With the exception of the Mets to end the season, the Astros draw a very tough schedule playing all four division opponents and the Cleveland Indians, who should be fighting for a playoff spot. When the prospects do come up, they won’t have it easy.
Pick: Under 62.5 (-105) (BetOnline)
Simple bet: Will the Astros lose 100 games? This team is unquestionably better than the 2013 version, in part because it’s difficult to be worse than losing 111 games, but because the young players are a year older and more experienced. But, this team is still operating with deficiencies all over the field and the overall improvement of their division will not do them any favors.
The under could get dicey if the Astros plan for 2014 and let Mark Appel, George Springer, and maybe even Carlos Correa learn on the job earlier than expected. Immediate success is no guarantee, but from a talent and potential perspective, those guys are upgrades and have much higher ceilings for 2014 performance.
Ultimately, the rotation has a lot of question marks and there are too many lineup holes. If guys like Dominguez, Castro, Fowler, Cosart, and Oberholtzer all take another step forward, the Astros could be in line for a much bigger improvement in 2015, but there are still too many concerns for 2014 to expect this teams to be 12 games better.
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Adam Burke is a freelance writer and amateur handicapper with a knack for finding value through matchup analysis and a deep understanding of the sports betting market. His main area of expertise is baseball, with a background in sabermetrics and advanced statistics. He is the host of The Gridiron Gambling Report and our college football and college basketball BangTheBook.com podcasts on the BlogTalkRadio Network.