Houston Astros Preview

The Houston Astros have been making what seems to be a concerted effort to win the honor of worst team in all of professional sports over the last few years. Does 2014 promise anything better? TheSportsNotebook takes a spring training look at “Disas-tros”, with nine pertinent points.

*The track record is ugly—111 losses last year under first-year manager Bo Porter, and 106 and 107 in their last two years in the National League in 2011 and 2012. That’s what makes Las Vegas expectations a little surprising—Houston’s Over/Under in the win futures is 63, which presumes 99 losses. Are you ready to wager that Houston is going to make a 12-game improvement as the bare minimum necessary to go Over?

*Jason Castro is the clear bright spot of the everyday lineup. He got the team’s obligatory spot on the All-Star team, and posted a stat line of .350 on-base percentage/.485 slugging percentage. The 26-year-old has progressively improved each year at the major league level.

*Help on the power front comes from Chris Carter, who is listed as the DH on the depth chart, but also plays first base and left field. Carter slugged .451 thanks to 29 home runs in his first year of getting regular at-bats after being a reserve in Oakland. What Carter needs is more consistency getting on base. A .320 OBP won’t cut it, especially when you are one of your team’s top three or four offensive players.

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*Two players that need to step it up are Jose Altuve at second base and Matt Dominguez at third base. Altuve’s batting averages have been .283 and .290 his first two years in the major leagues, but his OBPs are always low because of a lack of walks. Now is the time for the 23-year-old to improve his plate discipline. The 24-year-old Dominguez hit 21 home runs, but low slugging percentages and OBP suggest that those were about his only 21 productive at-bats all year. Altuve and Dominguez can balance out the lineup if they improve.

*Houston acquired centerfielder Dexter Fowler from Colorado, adding some legitimate major league talent to the roster. Fowler is a known commodity, having steadily posted OBP’s in the high .360s to the .380s range in his tenure in Denver. While the Coors Field effect helps that, Minute Maid Park in Houston is also friendly to hitters.

*Everything else is completely up in the air for Porter with his everyday lineup. First base is open, with highly touted Brett Wallace having been a disappointment. So are both corner outfield spots.

*Hope comes with a pair of good young pitchers, Jarred Cosart and Brett Oberholtzer. Each made ten starts last season and the ERAs were 1.95 and 2.76 respectively. How that translates over a 30-32 start campaign remains to be seen, but these two arms have to be the basis of any optimism in Houston.

*A slew of veterans, from the rotation to the bullpen will need to come through. Scott Feldman and Jerome Williams are going to be in the rotation, with Jesse Crain, Matt Albers and Chad Qualls in the pen. Williams has been mediocre, but the other three are known commodities and should at least be respectable.

*The biggest wild-card is Alex White. He was once the prize of the Cleveland Indians organization and traded to Colorado in the deal that brought the Indians Ubaldo Jiminez. Then arm troubles came and after Tommy John surgery last April, White hopes to get his career going in Houston. He’s only 25-years-old and there’s a big potential payoff if he he’s healthy.

If you want to argue for this team exceeding its win prop number of 63, I can see the basis for the belief, if the young pitchers come through. There’s always the possibility of bullpen improvement and that can give any bad team a quick fix for a year. It’s theoretically possible there could be five productive players in the everyday lineup. Add all that up and getting to the mid-60s in wins is feasible.

Even that minimum threshold seems too much for me though. The only sure thing on this team is Castro, and unless everything else falls right, Houston’s looking at another 100 losses. I think they’ll improve a bit, but still go Under.