Monday, April 6, 2015

The Offseason In Review

’Twas the night before Opening Day, and all was quiet… aside from in the Front Office of the Padres, who continued to corner the market for overpaid veteran outfielders.  However, for the vast majority of teams, the Major League rosters are all set - and teams and fan-bases are full of anticipation and high hopes for the next six months.

The Astros have had an interesting last 8 months.  Jeff Luhnow - after a “challenge”-of-sorts to his leadership in late 2014 - has continued to run the Astros by sticking to the long-term plan.  They have stayed out of the deep-end of the free agent pool, made some interesting trades (sometimes against industry consensus), and continued to trade away young starting pitchers, all while signing second-tier free-agents to modest short-term contracts.  There has been considerable focus on the outstanding weak areas of 2014, with the bullpen, shortstop, left field and third base all getting players that at least add to the depth to these areas or positions, if not result in a significant improvement.  

Down on the farm, a couple of things have become clearer, too.  The Astros clearly think Colin Moran is the third baseman of the future because they traded Rio Ruiz (and others) for Evan Gattis.  Moran may get a look later in 2015, but the next crop of corner-infielders (including Davis and Reed) are probably at least two years away after that.  

They also doubled down on their less-advanced talent in the starting pitching ranks - trading away Mike Foltynewicz (and his triple-digit arm) and Nick Tropeano - and seemingly putting their faith in Mark Appel, Vincent Velasquez and Michael Feliz.  All of these guys may also sniff the majors in 2015, with the next crop of interesting arms again a little further away.  There remains enough in the system - at AA and below - to intrigue most prospect mavens.  And if there isn’t, a bumper crop of free-agent starting pitchers for the 2015 offseason is in the offing, with the Astros set to make a splash if they wish to.  And don't forget the two top-five draft picks they have in June.

Overall, I think this represents an offseason where they stayed true to their young talent, and avoided albatross contracts. Another solid-but-modest step forward overall.  And for those of you with Padres-envy, I encourage you to recall that when Crane and Luhnow took over, the Astros had pretty much the worst team in baseball, and amongst the worst farm systems in baseball, and that was never going to change in one solitary offseason.  The Astros - I think - stuck to their longer-term plan, which they think bodes best for longer-term success.

Some things will change…

Lets quickly take a look at the things that changed.

Firstly, the Astros should not be bottom-feeders at three separate positions this year.  Well, if they are, those three positions shouldn’t be LF, 3B and 1B.  Left Field seems to have inherited a platoon consisting of some mix of Colby Rasmus, Mike-Bob Grossman and Evan Gattis.  Third Base will be occupied by the underrated Luis Valbuena - underrated because until recently, he wasn’t all that good!  First Base seems to be in the possession of Chris Carter - and hopefully, a late inning defensive replacement or two.  Those three positions should carry reasonable production with them - not bottom-third production, like they did last year.

There may, of course, be struggles elsewhere on the diamond.  If Marisnick scuffles in CF, then Rasmus can slide into an everyday role.  If Lowrie cannot play at short - either because he is injured or bad - then either Villar or MarGo can step up and claim the position.  Altuve may not be as good as last year, but there are exactly no signs that he will struggle this year.  Springer seemed solid in a half-season in RF, and again, Rasmus or Grossman could get a look there if he cannot play for some reason.  The Astros, while papering over the cracks from last year, also seem to have gained enough in roster flexibility to cover a lost player or two at other positions as well.  Something they didn’t have last year.

Secondly, the 2014 ‘pen should at least have more depth - if not result in a better overall performance.  The thing about evaluating bullpens is that looking at the entire product is not necessarily that useful.  The Astros had three or four decent relievers last year, and they weren’t that bad at closing out games where the starter went a solid 7 or 8 innings.  Chad Qualls was great against 13 of the other American League teams, Josh Fields was excellent in 4 of the months of the 2014 season, and Tony Sipp was fairly solid the entire year after getting kidnapped from the Padres system.  However, a bunch of guys were awful, including Raul "Exxon" Valdes, pr0FF3ss0r_F4rnsw0rth, Mike Foltynewicz, Jerome Williams, Kevin Chapman, Josh Zeid, Jorge De Leon, Anthony Bass, Paul Clemens and Jose Cisnero.  

What the Astros didn’t have is a solid, predictable ‘pen with an elite reliever.  They still don’t have an elite reliever - although they tried this offseason - but they should at least have a ‘pen with more depth, and more upside.  If Fields can put avoid getting lit up for weeks at a time, if Tony Sipp and Pat Neshek can avoid the regression-monster, if Chad Qualls can continue to defy father-age on his second stint with the Astros, and if Luke Gregerson can put a halt to his ninth inning woes, then the Astros - for once - have a solid ‘pen that runs five or six deep.  That that doesn’t count the other interesting guys like Will Harris and Joe Thatcher, who are well poised to contribute.  The bullpen may take a while to settle down, but I am pretty sure it should be better than last year.

Thirdly, the 2014 edition of the Astros was offensively much better against left-handed pitchers (.267/.334/.413) than right-handed pitchers (.233/.301/.372).  Much of that was probably due to poor performances from some lefties (especially Jon Singleton and Jason Castro) which left most of their hot hitters mashing from the right side (think George Springer, Chris Carter and Jose Altuve).  Breaking camp in 2015, the Astros remain right-leaning (especially with the addition of Evan Gattis), but they added some interesting lefty bats.  Lefty Luis Valbuena replaces the right-handed Matt Dominguez, switch-hitting Jed Lowrie adds pop from the left side over whomever was playing shortstop in 2014 (mostly switch-hitters Marwin Gonzalez and Jonathan Villar), while some combination of Colby Rasmus (who bats left) and Jake Marisnick (right) essentially replaces the switch-hitting Dexter Fowler in CF.  Add in a decent bounce-back from Jason Castro, and an offensive contribution from Jon Singleton at some point, and opposing right-handed starters may not get to slice through the Astros lineup like they have done in recent years.

Lastly, the Astros had actual position battles involving actual Major League players this spring.  Jon Singleton had to pack his bags for AAA after solid springs from Robbie Grossman and Jonathan Villar meant that they forced their way onto the team.  Jake Marisnick seemed to put together better at-bats, and showed a bit of pop with his re-tooled swing.  Matt Dominguez was sent down after a solid performance from Luis Valbuena.  Asher Wojciechowski forced his way on to the team after a forgettable 2014.  Article XX(B) free agents Roberto Hernandez and Joe Thatcher forced some clearing of roster space, which resulted in DFA’s for Alex Presley and Alex White.  Solid backup Gregorio Petit got traded to the Yankees, where he is expected to play vastly superior defence to Derek Jeter - a move likely made possible by Villar's interesting spring.  So all of this is fun and exciting for Astros fans, and a spring training full of speculation certainly makes for more interesting analysis.

I think there are lots of positive stories out of the last 8 months for the Astros.  However, there remain some concerning weak-points for this team.  Or, to put it another way…

Some things won’t change…

Firstly, the lack of solid defenders remains concerning for the Astros.  They are arguably below-average defensively at every infield position, and in LF when Gattis is playing there.  Extensive infield shifts may cover for some of these defensive problems, but the lack of solid defenders on the infield is a concern for a mostly-groundball-centric pitching staff.

And watching whatever lead-glove at 1B isn’t going to be much fun.  When Jon Singleton is the better defender out of two players, you know that there must be a problem with the other guy.  I really, really like Chris Carter, but he has not proven that he can play the field on a daily basis.  Plus, there is no clear defensive replacement on the roster, either.  I am guessing that either Jed Lowrie or Luis Valbuena will slide over to first in the later innings when the Astros have a lead, and either MarGo or Villar (more likely the former) will slot into whatever position they have vacated.  But this could get ugly.  I watch a lot of Astros baseball, and I hate them giving away outs with low throws, missed scoops, and dropped catches, with the latter two occurring frequently at the first base position over the last few years.  Gah!  Not fun!

Secondly, the Astros seem to have made concerted efforts to corner the market on strikeouts.  They will probably strike out a fair bit this year - hopefully not as much as 2013 and 2014, but nearly certainly more than league average.  Again, the signing of Lowrie and Valbuena and improvements from Castro, Grossman and a raft of others may help, but the free agent signings of Rasmus and Gattis will probably do a lot to balance those improvements.  

That said, as a viewer, I don’t hate watching strikeouts like I hate watching poor defence, so I don’t mind too much from the entertainment.  There will undoubtedly be a couple of games this year where the strikeouts are simply embarrassing, however, but as Astros fans, we are used to feeling a little embarrassed at times.  

Thirdly, the Astros have doubled-down on their current crop of starting pitchers by trading away any AAA depth that would be available to step up and assist.  Brad Peacock will likely get another year to continue his development and try to lower his walk rate, which is a decision that I support overall because he has genuine talent.  But the drop off after the starting five (Keuchel, McHugh, Feldman, Wojo and Hernandez) and two injured starters (Obie and Peacock) is steep, with no one really primed to step up.  Swingmen like Jake Buchanan and Sam Deduno are probably the next best options, with Dan Straily stepping in if he can re-discover his mojo.  However, the recent trades of Cosart, Foltynewicz and Tropeano have created a SP AAA void that isn’t readily filled as things stand, hence the interest in guys like Darin Downs.  If one or two of the starters goes down with a serious injury, then this season could be lost in a hurry.

Next - and a quick point - the Astros are going to hit their share of home runs, and probably a lot of deep fly balls.  It is going to be really fun to watch at times, especially against opposition starters that have a bad day.  The flip-side of strikeouts, I guess.  I am glad that this isn't going to change.

Lastly, I mentioned the bullpen in the “things that change” section, but I thought it would be advisable to hedge my bets a little.  The ‘pen still lacks an elite reliever - not through lack of trying, however, because they went after the top two relievers until it was clear that they were signing elsewhere.  Craig Kimbrel is the best receiver to change teams this offseason, but this came at the added cost of Melvin Upton’s contract, and that won't be pretty.  The Astros system seems a little light on shutdown relievers at the upper levels, so the crew of Neshek, Fields, Gregerson, Qualls, Sipp, Thatcher and others are going to have to get it done.  There will probably be some ugly losses, but I am hoping that Hinch plays the hot-hand a little, and spreads the saves around if Gregerson struggles.

Fearless Prediction

I am not really one for fearless predictions, but the 2015 season is poised to be very, very interesting.  The Astros are projected by most systems to gain a further 7-or-so wins, and sit around the high-70’s in wins.  They are a relatively young team, and young teams probably have wider-than-normal error-bars in terms of projections, so the possibility of a big movement either way is higher than for most teams.

If I squint just right, I see the Astros as challenging for a playoff spot.  But I doubt that occurs.  There are too many areas in which they could struggle, and too many potential weaknesses for them to cover up.  They don’t have a plethora of established veterans, and their young guys are still working out how to make it happen at the major-league level.  A couple of key injuries could devastate this team.  They could get craters in performance from some guys who have looked to start putting it all together.

But if they get the balance right, if their developing players take a step forward, if their starters perform better than expected (like they did last year), and Carter, Gattis and Springer carry the offence for weeks at a time (like they did last year), then this will be a fun year to watch.

I can't wait to comment on some actual baseball.  Lets hope that the Astros continue their great run against opening day starters and Cy Young winners when Kluber and the Indians visit tomorrow.