Published March 24, 2014
Philadelphia, PA – (SportsNetwork.com) - All die-hard Houston Astros supporters, please stand up and accept a genuine, heartfelt round of applause from the rest of us.
Because, quite frankly, anyone suffering through this for the last three years deserves it.
The Astros greeted their shift from National League to American League in milestone fashion in 2013, though establishing a record for most losses in a season - 111, breaking the record of 107 set in the final NL year - is hardly the sort of thing that gets a fan base riled up for a new schedule.
And, unless manager Bo Porter is dressing the 1998 Yankees in Houston uniforms this spring, more of the same frustration could be on the way before the ponderous rebuilding project pays dividends.
The Astros will once again go into April with an everyday lineup on the hardest of hardcore fans are familiar with - one that's stocked with an assortment of unproven youngsters and low-budget castoffs amid an AL West Division bursting at the seams with higher-profile talent in three cities.
The Houston farm system consistently grades out among the best in the majors, but it's been of little comfort thus far as the franchise has plummeted from a World Series appearance in 2005 to sub-.500 records in six of eight subsequent seasons and reached triple-digit losses in the last three.
The reality of the talent disparity on the field leaves Porter in a role of teaching the kids how to become big-leaguers in all elements of the job, a topic that made news in the spring when he chewed out the team for not being prepared for a lecture by front office special advisor Roger Clemens.
"We're fortunate to have some people like Roger Clemens and Craig Biggio and different people that will come in here over the course of the year and speak to our ball club," Porter said.
"Out of respect to your teammates, out of respect to the people that take time out of their day to come out there and try to do everything they can to help this organization, it's the right thing to do to make sure you're dressed and ready and attentive when that person shows up or when it's time for a team meeting."
The Astros, whose 2013 payroll was a league-low $24 million, dipped their toes into the free-agent market and came away with a veteran addition in the form of right-hander Scott Feldman, who was signed to a three-year, $30 million deal after winning 12 games with the Chicago Cubs and Baltimore Orioles in 2013 and will take the mound on Opening Day.
"Scott's body of work speaks for itself," Porter said. "He was a guy we targeted early on and we were happy to get something done. He satisfied all the needs that we had. He has great qualities as far as leadership skills. It was a huge deal for us to get done."
Elsewhere, center fielder Dexter Fowler came from Colorado in a December trade that sent Jordan Lyles and Brandon Barnes to the Rockies, and he'll make $7.35 million in his final season before becoming eligible for salary arbitration next year. Fowler has been penciled in at the top of the Houston lineup after hitting .270, stealing 83 bases and legging out 53 triples in six big-league seasons.
"I was in the NL West in Arizona for one year and had a chance to see Dexter up close and he can impact a game in a number of ways," Porter said. "It's a good addition to our lineup."
2013 FINISH (51-111) - Fifth Place (AL West)
KEY OFFSEASON ADDITIONS: Dexter Fowler (CF), Scott Feldman (RHP), Jesse Crain (RHP), Jerome Williams (RHP), Chad Qualls (RHP)
KEY OFFSEASON SUBTRACTIONS: Brett Wallace (1B), Jordan Lyles (RHP), Brandon Barnes (OF)
PROJECTED LINEUP: Dexter Fowler (CF), Jose Altuve (2B), Jason Castro (C), Chris Carter (DH), Matt Dominguez (3B), Marc Krauss (1B), Robbie Grossman (LF), L.J. Hoes (RF), Jonathan Villar (SS)
PROJECTED ROTATION: Scott Feldman (RHP), Jarred Cosart (RHP), Brett Oberholtzer (LHP), Jerome Williams (RHP), Brad Peacock (RHP)
PROJECTED CLOSER: Chad Qualls (RHP)
MANAGER: Bo Porter
WILL THE TOP OF THE LINEUP BE BETTER?
It should be. The addition of Fowler and his order-topping speed sets the table nicely for No. 2 hitter Jose Altuve, who's just 23 years old and has hit .290 and .283 in his first two major-league seasons to go with 68 stolen bases. That provides a numbers-boosting opportunity for catcher Jason Castro in the three hole after he drove in 56 runs in 120 games in 2013. Chris Carter's 29 homers and 82 runs batted in were best on the team last season and he, too, should have frequent chances to come up with RBI chances on the bases.
WHEN WILL GEORGE SPRINGER ARRIVE?
The Astros made the now 24-year-old the 11th overall pick in the 2011 draft and have been pleased with his progress through the minors while being especially patient about unveiling him at the big-league level. In fact, he's not yet made an appearance on a major-league field, which many see as an intentional move to delay the start of his free-agency clock. His numbers have fans growing restless, however, especially after he combined for 37 homers and 108 RBIs across 492 combined at-bats on the Double-A and Triple-A levels last year.
IS THE ROTATION UP TO SNUFF?
Whether a 31-year-old with a career sub-.500 record is worth a $30 million investment may be up for debate, but Scott Feldman does represent at least a measure of respectability in a rotation that has few other proven commodities. Youngster Jarred Cosart showed flashes of brilliance in a 10-start call-up last summer, but he's still a 23-year-old with one career victory. Brett Oberholtzer is slightly older at 24 and has three more wins, but he's still got just 10 career starts in the No. 3 slot. Veteran Jerome Williams (32) will battle youngsters Brad Peacock (26) and Dallas Keuchel (26) to see who occupies the final two spots. Williams has 42 wins and 117 big-league starts under his belt in eight seasons, while Peacock and Keuchel have a combined 16 wins in 54 starts.
X-FACTOR: THE BULLPEN
Given what's already been explained, the opportunities for wins for the Astros won't exactly come on a daily basis. Still, when thy do arrive, being able to secure the final nine, six or three outs would certainly be a shot in the arm for a young team. Houston tied for the big-league lead with 29 blown saves in 2013 and addressed that in the offseason with the signing of Chad Qualls to a two-year, $5.7 million deal that could jump to three years and $9.2 with a team option. He'll turn 36 during the season and hasn't been a closer since saving 24 and 12 games in 2009 and 2010, respectively, but he has managed to stay in the majors for 10 years and 663 games, which says something about his prowess. Also in the mix is Jesse Crain, who inked a one-year, $3.25 million deal but is coming off a shoulder problem and won't be ready for Opening Day. He was an All-Star after allowing just three earned runs in 36 2/3 innings for the Chicago White Sox last year, and if he recovers, his signing will be a low-budget coup.
If you're looking for a team to win 90 games and be in the mix for a wild card playoff berth come late summer, don't bother looking in Houston. Even with the aforementioned upgrades, the Astros are unlikely to escape the basement in the AL West or even approach the .500 mark. A move from 111 losses to something closer to, or below, 100 would be a welcome achievement, though, and a sign of recovery for a franchise with a hopeful future but a lousy present.