added 4/5/2015 by Bob Hulsey
On another site, the subject of a marketing theme for the 2015 Astros came up. One suggested, "This year, maybe someone will notice." Another came up with something a bit more marketable - "More sock. Less suck."
That, indeed, could be what this season could be remembered for. Every season this decade, the Astros have been somewhere between awful and historically awful. The grand plan was to rebuild from the ground floor up. After playing bad enough to have the top overall pick in the draft an historic three consecutive years, the Astros are finally starting to put some light at the end of their long nightmare.
In 2014, they finally stopped losing over 100 games. They still lost 92. This year, they hope a better bullpen and more sluggers will get them at least to the .500 mark and possibly into playoff contention now that there are five teams in each league that make it to the playoffs. By simple math, any team in the top half of their league is likely going to be in playoff contention.
But can the Astros do it this year? I don't think they will. The best-laid plans of any season usually don't go as expected. Often injuries change the course of a campaign and there's not enough depth yet to overcome an injury bug to, say, the starting rotation or the corner infield spots.
General Manager Jeff Luhnow has tried to mask a lack of depth by building a roster of versatile parts. Almost everyone but Jose Altuve can be plugged in at more than one position, offering new manager A.J. Hinch with seemingly endless lineup possibilities.
So let's look at what this club has to offer us for this year while we wait for the top prospects in the organization to make their way up through the minors:
Note: Players will be listed with parentheses that tell you age, how acquired, the year they began play with the organization and which GM brought them here).
Dallas Keuchel (27,D7-09,Wade) has become the staff ace and, judging from his spring performance, he's as good as ever. He's been durable too, keeping free of any lasting injuries.
Scott Feldman (32,FA-14,Luhnow) was the big free agent catch last year and provided steady if unspectacular results. He can be dominant at times but his upside is mostly as a .500 pitcher, nothing more.
Collin McHugh (28,WV-14,Luhnow) was the other surprise starter from last season and he, too, had a good spring but it remains to be seen if he can put two good seasons together or if the league will catch up to him. He might be the best candidate for regression this season although I'd love to be proven wrong.
Brett Oberholtzer (25,TR-10,Wade) is still young and has potential to have a breakthrough campaign but his start to the season will be delayed as he recovers from a strained lateral muscle. He ought to be pitching again by May 1st.
Roberto Hernandez (34,FA-15,Luhnow) is a late addition who pitched well enough as a non-roster invitee to win the job as the fifth starter. Will he be the next Erik Bedard or something more?
Asher Wojciechowski (26,TR-12,Luhnow) is Oberholtzer's stand-in while he recovers. "Wojo" won the job with a solid spring after two seasons in AAA.
Brad Peacock (27,TR-13,Luhnow) is on the disabled list and recovering from hip surgery. His numbers don't portend anything but a back-of-the-rotation guy whose window of opportunity may soon be closing.
Luke Gregerson (31,FA-15,Luhnow) gets his first real chance to be a closer. A top set-up man with Oakland, the Astros hope he can do in the ninth inning what he's done so well in the eighth. But beware - his numbers in save situations is not pretty. If he doesn't work out closing, he should still be a valuable set-up man.
Chad Qualls (36,FA-14,Luhnow) became the closer last season and was quite effective except against Oakland. Still, Qualls has had peaks and valleys in his career. One plus is a past relationship with Hinch while in Arizona. The two of them trust each other.
Pat Neshek (34,FA-15,Luhnow) is the other half of the off-season bullpen upgrade. The former St. Louis Cardinal is also a solid set-up man with a less-than-scintillating record as a closer. Between these three, someone will emerge as the ninth-inning stopper.
Tony Sipp (31,WV-14,Luhnow) was a pleasant surprise after being claimed off waivers last year. He was highly effective against lefties. Can he repeat that performance?
Joe Thatcher (33,FA-15,Luhnow) is a lefty specialist. Between A.J. Hinch and Pitching Coach Brett Strom, expect some former Padres to show up in Houston. Thatcher has spent most of his career as a Padre and Diamondback.
Will Harris (30,WV-15,Luhnow) is a righty swingman and, yes, a former Padre.
Samuel Deduno (31,WV-14,Luhnow) is another swingman who was claimed last season from the Twins. Notice how nobody in the Opening Day bullpen is under 30.
Josh Fields (29,R5-13,Luhnow) begins the season on the disabled list but the hard-throwing former Rule V pick will be part of the bullpen equation at some point in the year.
Jason Castro (28,D1-08,Wade) seems to alternate good years and bad years. If that's true, 2015 should be an up year. He's one of the players Luhnow hasn't been able to sign to a long-term deal so he could be a mid-season trade candidate when they believe Max Stassi is ready to take over.
Hank Conger (27,TR-15,Luhnow) is a switch-hitting catcher who frames pitches better than most. Not sure how that offsets a weak bat but the decision scientists seem to believe it does.
Jose Altuve (25,FA-07,Wade) is the second-longest Astro in terms of tenure and still one of the youngest. It's not likely he'll hit .341 again, but this player is making a career out of doing what people claim he can't do. Have we seen his ceiling yet?
Jed Lowrie (31,FA-15,Luhnow) is the placeholder at shortstop until Carlos Correa is ready but the switch-hitter has skills at other positions and will make a good trade piece if another home on the infield cannot be found.
Luis Valbuena (29,TR-15,Luhnow) discovered himself as a power hitter in Chicago. Can he duplicate that in Houston? His spring stats say 'yes'. If so, he may be the best upgrade of anyone Luhnow added this winter.
Marwin Gonzalez (26,TR-12,Luhnow) is expected to be a utility player for Hinch but he did well in extensive playing time last year for the Astros. Can he still produce with limited playing time?
Jonathan Villar (24,TR-10,Wade) is the last remaining piece from the Roy Oswalt trade to Philadelphia. He's had a great spring to breathe life back into a floundering career. He'll be expected to be a utility player this time instead of the regular shortstop.
George Springer (25,D1-11,Wade) is probably the big wildcard for this season. He's capable of 20 steals, 40 homers and 100 RBIs or he's capable of getting injured again and missing significant time. A breakthrough season gives the Astros hope of serious playoff contention.
Colby Rasmus (28,FA-15,Luhnow) is a former Cardinals star and Luhnow draftee that has had an up-and-down career. The ballclub is hoping to get an up season from him and perhaps deal him if the Astros are not contenders in July.
Jake Marisnick (24,TR-14,Luhnow) is the "other half" of the Jarred Cosart trade that brought top prospect Colin Moran. He has electric defensive skills and may also hit well enough to become an everyday starter.
Robbie Grossman (25,TR-12,Luhnow) hit very well this spring and forced the Astros to keep him and send off veteran outfielder Alex Presley. Barring injury, Marisnick and Grossman may find themselves splitting time in the outfield.
Chris Carter (28,TR-13,Luhnow) is the defending DH who was second in the American Leagues in home runs. He'll start the season at first base but doesn't play any position well. Carter won't hit for a high average and he'll strike out a ton but when his bat gets hot, he makes home runs look so easy. Note that Carter and Peacock were acquired from Oakland for Lowrie, who is now back with the Astros.
Evan Gattis (28,TR-15,Luhnow) will start the year as the DH although he can also play first base, left field and catcher - none of them well. What he can do well is hit homers which makes him similar to Carter only Gattis will hit for a higher average and spend more time disabled. The Astros hope limiting his time at catcher will make him last longer.
Jon Singleton (23,TR-11,Wade) was supposed to start the season as the everyday first baseman but his hitting woes continued this spring so he will be getting his stroke back in Fresno instead. When he returns, the Astros will need to figure out how to juggle the lineup with Carter and Gattis or perhaps trade one of them.
The big prospect load seems to be in AA Corpus Christi where Correa, Moran, pitchers Mark Appel and Josh Hader will begin the season. The Astros will also have two of the top five draft choices this June so there's still more to come in the talent pipeline. Astros fans began to see the full spectrum in Kissimmee this spring but they won't see the group Sports Illustrated forecasted as the 2017 World Champions until this next wave of minor league talent gets comfy at the big league level.