Monday, April 3, 2017

Astros County Roundtable Season Preview

Here at, we occasionally all get together in our oversized boardroom to offer our opinions of all things Astros...

Welcome, team.  Let me know your thoughts heading into a promising-looking season.

Let's start by critiquing the Astros' offseason...

MM:  I think the Astros largely did what the needed to do.  They had a plan - go out and get two lefty hitters (McCann and Reddick) and solidify the DH position somewhat.  As you may have heard, they didn't trade for pitching, preferring to get an under-the-radar guy who may be a late bloomer.  I think it was a solid offseason, and they kept their core intact, which is what matters.

Joel:  Lots of activity at the outset, and then all was quiet on the western front the rest of the way. The Astros absolutely need another starter, and another left-handed relief option, but their lineup is so deep, so versatile, and so well-balanced, that they could conceivably lose Correa AND Altuve for a stretch of time and be okay (I'll knock on four different kinds of wood right now). I'd give the offseason a solid B+. 

MM:  That said, I don't think anyone saw the offseason collapse like it did.  EE saw his value dive, anyone could have had Joey Bats for 2-years-for-40MM, and Mark Trumbo looked like he could have been unemployed for the 2017 season.  Angel Pagan is still unsigned.  So who knows what would have happened if the 'stros had waited.  They clearly had a list, and they got it done, but perhaps they would have been better waiting.

(Not Hank): I'm of two minds about the offseason. I love what they did with the offense, and I think they they are set up to have a monstrous season with the bats. I also expected them to add a pitcher. Maybe not an ace, but someone you can plop down in the three spot and count on for 180 plus inning. Musgrove is solid, but has never pitched more than 150 innings in a season, Martes cannot really be counted on this season, I don't think. McCullers' health is a question mark. McHugh is starting the season on the DL. Morton is an enigma, wrapped in a mystery, smothered in secret sauce. I would love to have one more pitcher without these questions. My hope is the bats will be enough to carry the questions long enough to get some answers.

AC: I agree with Not Hank. I think they upgraded at a fair price, and refused to upgrade beyond what their projections reflected. This is the reason why Chris Archer or Jose Quintana won't be starting for the Astros this week.

Let's turn our attention to the future: what is going to be good this year??

Batguy:  I think there are two major strengths for this squad.  First is the offense.  For the first time in a long time (maybe since 2004) the Astros have actual, major league hitters all the way down the lineup.  Not only that, but they have a very solid bench as well.  The other strength will be the bullpen.  Even though there is a huge question mark where a lefty specialist should be, the Astros boast several well above average choices to finish out games this year.

AC:  While I think everyone understands that Reddick is an upgrade over Rasmus, McCann/Gattis is an upgrade over Castro/Gattis, Gurriel is an upgrade over 2016 Reed/White, I'll go with the Bullpen.  I think the Bullpen is going to be extremely solid, front-to-back.  I'm concerned about the adjustment that hitters will make to Devenski, because it always seems to happen the year after the breakout year, and Sipp is a human question mark now, but it's very easy to not throw Sipp.  Just let him hang out in the bullpen all year and pay him not to pitch.  But Devenski-Feliz-Harris-Gregerson-Giles is going to be filthy, because I think Giles will be closer to what the Astros thought they were getting last year.

MM:  I am most interested in the corners - both infield and outfield.  I wonder if Bregman will take a while to get going, given he spent his Spring winning gold while warming the Team USA bench.  But otherwise, we will have the infield corners populated by Gurriel, with a host of prospects waiting in the wings (mostly White, Reed, Moran and Davis).  The outfield corners will be initially populated by some combination of free-agent signee Josh Reddick, Carlos the Jackal, Nori Aoki, Handsome Jake and George Springer, with another bunch of very interesting cats proximal to the big-league club (Preston Tucker, Derek Fisher, Teoscar Hernandez and Ramon Laureano to name a few).  For once, there is interest and depth on the corner positions - Astros fans will be used to offensive black holes populating corner positions for most of the last decade, with more offensive black holes waiting to replace them.

Joel:  A lot of things will go well for the Astros, but I'd pay particular attention to the team's strikeout rate.  In particular, the effect the new guys will have on said rate. Last season, the Astros gambled on the notion that their feast-or-famine lineup in 2015 could overcome the famine again with minimal tinkering.  They were wrong.  If we add up the strikeouts by departed regulars Jason Castro (123 Ks in 329 ABs), Colby Rasmus (121 Ks in 369 ABs), Carlos Gomez (100 Ks in 295 ABs), and Jake Marisnick (83 Ks in 287 ABs), you total 427 strikeouts in 1,280 at-bats, or, one strikeout every three at-bats.

Now, replace those four (with Marisnick in a more defensive sub/pinch runner sort of role) with Nori Aoki (45 Ks in 417 ABs), Carlos Beltran (101 Ks in 552 ABs), Josh Reddick (56 Ks in 398 ABs), and Brian McCann (99 Ks in 429 ABs), what you end up with is 301 strikeouts in 1,796 at-bats, or, one strikeout every SIX at-bats. 

Essentially, the Astros have added contact ability, which will lead to more men on base, more chances for opposition error, and, nearly inevitably, more runs.  It's not something people are focusing a lot on right now, but the Astros pose a legitimate threat to lead the AL in runs scored, and it may not be close. 

(Not Hank): Like everyone else said, the offense. Here are the projected wOBA (from FanGraphs Depth Charts) for the 10 best hitters the Astros have. As a reminder, a .320 wOBA is average.



Notice I said ten. That's a full lineup, plus 1, of average or above hitters. Some will miss low, others will miss high. But based on these projections, FanGraphs thinks the Astros will have the best offense in baseball. It's pretty exciting.

What are your worries regarding this year??

  My biggest worry is the rotation. While I think it's more likely that they'll be improved from last season, I recognize that there is a good bit of uncertainty in that prediction. When your top four starters all have the specter of injury hanging over them it's easy to envision the rotation disintegrating along with our playoff hopes.

AC:  Yeah, the rotation. I've talked myself into accepting that Keuchel's 2016 was an aberration based on overcorrecting because of his shoulder. I've also talked myself into McCullers making 30 starts, but those could very easily be wrong. While the Astros do have some depth (Peacock, Fiers, and I think we could see Martes sooner than later if one of those top two guys struggle for an extended period), there are more question marks there than anywhere else on the team.

Joel:  Like everyone, the rotation bugs me, but pitching always tends to sort itself out.  The Astros are not devoid of talent, or even in-house options.  If they stay pat and hold onto what they have, someone will jump out and bite the rest of the league.  Francis Martes, Chris Devenski, Michael Feliz, or someone else.  My big concern is the Astros giving up too much for a quick fix.  The Gomez/Fiers trade and the Scott Kazmir deal, both in the 2015 season, backfired.  Have Luhnow and company learned a lesson there?  This is the challenge with a front office that has to transition from rebuilding to re-tooling.  It's not like fire sales, where you dangle the prize for a contending team and they begrudgingly surrender three of their top 10 prospects.  The role is reversed and while we can laud the current regime for their organization-building talents, can they perform the kind of maintenance and upkeep that improves the team short-term without sacrificing the long-term.  Right now, that's what separates a guy like Luhnow from a guy like Theo Epstein. 

MM:  My main worry is also probably the team strength.  The Astros seem to have some depth (or at least equivalent depth) on the corners, but I think they are relatively exposed up the middle.  Which happens when you have a projected 15-or-so WAR concentrated into four positions there.  Altuve has two real talents - everything he does on the baseball field, and health.  Any change to the latter, and that could spell disaster for the Astros' campaign.  Springer has had many health concerns historically.  An injury to Brian McCann also means a significant drop off at catcher and policing the league for sass-mouth, and forces Evan Gattis into a role which I am waaaay less comfortable with.  Correa is probably real good, but he needs to remain healthy, and guys hanging around the second-base bag can have sudden, unforeseen, catastropic things happen to them.  An injury to the middle infield is a little more palatable if Bregman is playing well.  An injury to anywhere else up the middle may be a real problem that could cost the Astros their campaign.

(Not Hank): See my first response. The rotation might be fine. It could even be good. I just wish there were fewer questions.

What prospects are y'all keeping your eye on??

MM:  Garrett Stubbs is the prospect I am most interested in.  We all saw him taking a catch on the outfield grass near the third base bag to end the exhibition game against the Cubbies.  He is a catcher who apparently calls a smart game, and he ended the season in Corpus last year, where he slashed .325/.401/.517 in 137 PA's.  2017 is going to be critical in his development - at 24, his time is close, but he has a year or two to sort it out.  Brian McCann also has two full seasons to run on his contract -  so Stubbs may be seeing significant time with the Astros toward the second half of the season.

Batguy:  I agree on Stubbs. I think he's really forced his way into our attention and it will be interesting to see if he continues to impress. I'm also going to be watching Daz Cameron. After his struggles his first two professional seasons he needs to start putting his tools to use.

AC:  Time will tell, but I think the Astros made the right call in holding onto Francis Martes this off-season. He can be a productive member of the active roster by July if everything goes right. I'm also interested in this Carlos Correa kid at short. I will be keeping my eye on Kyle Tucker and Derek Fisher. One of those guys could be The Guy in the outfield next season, allowing the Astros to move on from the pipe dream that is Jake Marisnick. I want to see where Framber Valdez opens 2017 and if he can recreate his past 12 months, forcing his way into the bullpen if Sipp struggles.

Joel:  Derek Fisher.  If Fish can find some consistency at the dish in the early-going at Fresno, he will be the first name Luhnow and Hinch look to after the spring he just had.  I do love how Garrett Stubbs made one, insane defensive play, and now everyone is looking at him as the heir apparent to Astros legend, Brian McCann. 

I kid because I care.  Stubbs is another intriguing guy because, unlike Castro, or even Max Stassi, he can actually make contact, take a walk, and just generally be something less than helpless with a stick in his hand.  He seems a little small to hold up for an entire season, but he has room to fill out. 

MM:  Guys - too much agreement here.  So I am throwing another name out here, and one to rival the Constable's out-of-left-field pick.  Micheal Freeman.  One of the only genuine lefty relievers in the Astros' upper minors of note.  He is a big unit, listed at 6-8, 235.  He is 25, so his time is now-ish.  He spent last year getting lit up in Corpus, but the big league club has a huge vacuum, and if he is as good as he was in Quad Cities and Lancaster (36.1IP, 20H, 4ER, 33K, 14BB) then he could really push his case.  Sadly, everything since mid-2015 has been suck (58.1IP, 7.10ERA, 30K, 37BB).  But... reliever ups and downs and all of that, and the Astros have a large-sized need there at the moment.

(Not Hank): I want to see something from Daz Cameron this year. They basically stole him in the draft, but the tools have not translated yet. Showed some progress in A- but was awful in A ball before his injury. He just turned 20, and has time to figure it out is still a long way away, but this year will be important for his development. I also think Derek Fisher takes a step forward and pushes for the opening day LFer next season. I don't see much room in the outfield for him.

Name one Bold Prediction for Personnel (makeup of the 25 man) that will happen prior to the ASB.

 Charlie Morton leads the rotation in ERA.

AC:  Like Fister did last year? My bold prediction is that Francis Martes will have made one start for the Astros prior to the All-Star Break.

MM:  Tony Sipp will no longer be an Astro by the end of June.  Released.  Anyone in the Astros organisation who can throw strikes with the left hand and has some kind of decent breaking pitch will get a look.

Joel:  Both Charlie Morton (due to injury) and Collin McHugh will no longer be in the rotation, and will be replaced by Joe Musgrove (who McHugh supplants in late April) and Francis Martes. 

I'll name two because this is a free country.  The Astros WILL acquire a starter WITHOUT surrendering Martes, but will definitely surrender Kyle Tucker. 

MM:  I also live in a free country.  And, while Joel is pounding on McHugh, I don't think he finishes the year as an active Astro, either.  Probably injured.  I am concerned about his ability to get the job done while pumping gas in the high 80's.

(Not Hank): You want BOLD, I'll give you bold. Marisnick hits well enough to force himself into the lineup more often than we are expecting, pushing Beltran to a near every day DH position. Gattis is pushed to a backup catcher position, for which he is ill suited. Something will have to be done about this, and I don't know what.

Sum up the Astros in 2017 in 10 or fewer words...

Joel:  Ben Reiter was right. Probably. 

There will be runs. Oh yes, there will be runs.

AC:  Don't Go Breaking My Heart.

MM:  This "team" is a fake team.  Bad!

(Not Hank): We're going to fall for it again, aren't we?