2014 - Season Recap
by Bob Hulsey
Owner Jim Crane said repeatedly that when the Astros appeared ready for the big league team to move forward, he would spend to improve the team. After two very lean years, some fans were having doubts. General Manager Jeff Luhnow was given the green light to add payroll, but only up to the lower tier of franchises. After all, there were so many players and prospects playing at or near league minimum, there was no point in going full Steinbrenner. Yet, it was clear to all that some big league veterans needed to be brought in.
At the Winter Meetings, Luhnow dealt pitcher Jordan Lyles and outfielder Brandon Barnes to Colorado for outfielder Dexter Fowler, a fleet center fielder with a sometimes questionable attitude. Next he signed pitcher Scott Feldman to a three-year, $30 million contract. This figure was astonishing since it wasn't that long ago the Astros' entire major league payroll was $13 million. Fowler, himself, was due over $7 million.
Next, Luhnow turned his attention to the bullpen where many a lead was lost the year before. Former Astro pitchers Chad Qualls and Matt Albers were signed as well as Jesse Crain to beef up relief. Unfortunately, Albers was injured early in the season and Crain stayed on the disabled list the entire year so Qualls was the only one who provided much return on investment.
Perhaps the best thing the Astros did was to replace Doug Brocail with Pitching Coach Brett Strom who had great success in San Diego and instilled new strategies for several pitchers which they combined with the defensive shifting that sabermetric teams were emphasizing to improve effectiveness. The best such example was righthander Collin McHugh who had bombed out in trials with the Mets and Rockies before being claimed by Houston. Strom changed his approach to great success.
As the season progressed, some agents and players complained that the Astros were manipulating the call-up of top prospects. Outfielder George Springer was heralded as a future star and he played well in Spring Training but he refused to sign a long-term contract and began the year in the minors. First Baseman Jon Singleton, on the other hand, signed a long-term deal that summer and was immediately promoted to Houston.
As fate would have it, the Astros themselves were being manipulated by Luhnow's former employers. The Astros built a massive database called "Ground Zero" which was found to have been hacked. Certain notes, reports and negotiations were leaked to the media anonymously. The FBI got involved and the trail soon led back to the St. Louis Cardinals who had been picking tidbits from Ground Zero since the year before. Eventually, the Cardinals' Scouting Director, Chris Correa, was fired, prosecuted and punished for breaking federal laws. Correa had an axe to grind with Luhnow over the way Luhnow had left St. Louis and posted the leaks in an effort to embarrass him.
Another embarrassment came with Houston's third straight first overall draft pick (a major league record). Given a choice of several strong-armed kids, the Astros selected high school lefthander Brady Aiken, a Californian with "Koufax-like stuff". Negotiations went swiftly and Aiken was flown to Houston to take a physical and sign a below-slot contract with the Astros who would then use the savings to lure two more draft choices into signing above their salary slot.
But the physical revealed a potential for a ligament tear in Aiken's elbow that would require surgery. The Astros reduced their offer by half. Aiken's agent not only balked but accused the Astros of negotiating in bad faith. The deal with the two other prospects, who were also represented by Aiken's agent, suddenly crashed with it. As the deadline to sign grew nearer, Luhnow kept increasing the offer but Aiken and his agent refused each try. Not only were all three left unsigned but one of the other prospects sued the Astros because, after all, a financial agreement had been reached and his elbow was fine. Aiken later enrolled in a sports academy where he did, indeed, suffer a ligament tear in his left elbow which required Tommy John surgery.
Springer was called up to the Astros in mid-April after the team got off to a bad start and, by June, was making the whole league sit up and take notice. His power, speed and hustle was what the fans had been waiting for. In July, he was on the cover of Sports Illustrated magazine - a cover that proclaimed the Astros as the 2017 Worlds Champions! Some saw this as even more hubris from a front office that still had not built a team that had climbed past the .500 mark.
It was not long after this died down that Manager Bo Porter's fuse finally snapped. Talk about a man who had been set up to fail, Porter was made to sit through a 111-loss season with a club that was major league in name only. 2014 was going better but they were still in the race for the worst record in the majors (saved only by an epic collapse from the Rangers that resembled an Irwin Allen movie) while the front office seemed to be pulling all the strings and taking all the bows. The feud came down to manager vs. general manager and we all know how that story ends. Minor league instructor Tom Lawless replaced the fired skipper to put an 11-13 smilie on the end of a 72-90 season, a 21-game improvement from the year before.
As the backdrop for all these off-field stories, the on-field product was showing signs of growth. McHugh (11-9, 2.73 ERA) had a masterful debut in Seattle and stayed in the rotation the rest of the year. Dallas Keuchel (12-9, 2.93) also started strong and became the ace of the staff. Feldman (8-12, 3.74) added veteran leadership and was pitted much of the year against the opponent's best starter. Jarred Cosart (9-7, 4.41) was solid but displeased management with his attitude and was traded to Miami in mid-season. Brett Oberholtzer (5-13, 4.39) and Brad Peacock (4-9, 4.72) each started 24 times but failed to produce to their expectations.
Qualls (1-5, 3.33) became the closer by default and posted 19 saves. Josh Fields (4-6, 4.45) also jumped into the save column as did waiver claims Tony Sipp (4-3, 3.38), Anthony Bass (1-1, 6.33) and former closer Jose Veras (4-0, 3.03). Darin Downs (2-1, 5.45) was also brought in from Detroit as a second bullpen lefty.
The Cosart deal included infielder Enrique Hernandez and minor leaguer Austin Wates and returned outfielder Jake Marisnick, third baseman Colin Moran and minor league pitcher Francis Martes. Moran, a former Top 10 draft pick, was the headliner at the time but the rest of the package has sparkled as well.
Marisnick (.272 batting average, 3 homers, 19 RBIs, 6 steals) joined the Astros right away and showed great defensive skills as well as occarional power. He was joined in the outfield by Springer (.231, 20, 51) and Fowler (.276, 8, 35) who both missed time to injuries. Robbie Grossman (.233, 6, 37), Alex Presley (.244, 6, 19), L.J. Hoes (.172, 3, 11) and Marc Krauss (.194, 6, 21) all saw outfield duties. Minor league slugger Domingo Santana had a six-game trial where he went 0-for-18 with 14 strikeouts to cement one of the worst career starts by a non-pitcher in baseball history.
Catcher Jason Castro (.222, 14, 56) fell off on offense as did third baseman Matt Dominguez (.215, 16, 57). Singleton's half-season trial at first (.168, 13, 44) lacked consistency. Utilityman Marwin Gonzalez (.277, 6, 23) outplayed regular shortstop Jonathan Villar (.209, 7, 27).
Until July 4th, Designated Hitter Chris Carter was having a terrible year (.182, 13, 30) but he took off like a bottle rocket (.268, 24, 58) in the second half. He ended the year second in the league in home runs (37) and strikeouts (182) while producing the league's top home run percentage (one per 13.7 at bats). He led the Astros in RBIs (88) for the second straight year.
However, the star of the Astros all year was Jose Altuve. The tiny second sacker had a modest April then never looked back. After batting .357 in May, he sizzled to .411 in June. With a .367 finishing kick in September, Altuve became the first Astro to win a league batting crown (.341). He added seven homers and 59 RBIs while spanking 225 hits to blast through Craig Biggio's franchise hit mark of 210. Altuve also led the AL with 56 steals and turned the most double plays of any AL second baseman.
As soon as the season ended, Luhnow named A.J. Hinch as his new manager. Hinch had experience both as a big league manager (89-123 in two partial seasons with Arizona) and general manager (with San Diego) who brought a calmer demeanor than the fiery Porter while embracing the sabermetric strategies of his boss - or he at least knew well enough not to contest them.
Hinch inherited a team with the pieces coming together. All he had to do was carry the momentum forward to 2017.
4th Place, AL West
To be added later.
Nov 1, 2013 - Claimed Darin Downs (P) from DET-A on waivers
Nov 4, 2013 - Waived Jimmy Paredes (IF/OF). Claimed by MIA-N
Nov 4, 2013 - Waived Jake Elmore (IF). Claimed by CHI-A
Dec 3, 2013 - Traded Brandon Barnes (OF) and Jordan Lyles (P) to COL-N for Dexter Fowler (OF) and PTBNL
Dec 6, 2013 - Signed Scott Feldman (P) as a free agent
Dec 7, 2013 - Signed Chad Qualls (P) as a free agent
Dec 11, 2013 - Acquired Anthony Bass (P) from SD-N for PTBNL
Dec 17, 2013 - Signed Matt Albers (P) as a free agent
Dec 18, 2013 - Claimed Colin McHugh (P) from COL-N on waivers
Dec 18, 2013 - Traded minor leaguer Ryan Jackson (IF) to SD-N for Jesus Guzman (IF/OF)
Jan 14, 2014 - Signed Gregorio Petit (IF) as a free agent
Feb 6, 2014 - Signed Jerome Williams (P) as a free agent
Mar 12, 2014 - Released Brett Wallace (IF)
Mar 22, 2014 - Released J.D. Martinez (OF)
Mar 27, 2014 - Claimed Alex Presley (OF) from MIN-A on waivers
April 28, 2014 - Traded Lucas Harrell (P) to AZ-N for PTBNL
May 2, 2014 - Signed Tony Sipp (P) as a free agent
May 17, 2014 - Signed Kyle Farnsworth (P) as a free agent
May 19, 2014 - Traded Raul Valdes (P) to TOR-A for PTBNL
Jun 20, 2014 - Signed Jose Veras (P) as a free agent
Jun 27, 2014 - Released Kyle Farnsworth (P)
Jul 8, 2014 - Released Jerome Williams (P)
Jul 31, 2014 - Traded Jarred Cosart (P), Enrique Hernandez (IF/OF), and minor leaguer Austin Wates (OF) to MIA-N for Jake Marisnick (OF) and minor leaguers Frances Martes (P) and Colin Moran (3B)
Aug 30, 2014 - Claimed Samuel Deduno (P) from MIN-A on waivers
Oct 9, 2014 - Waived Jorge De Leon (P). Claimed by OAK-A
Oct 10, 2014 - Released Jesus Guzman (IF/OF)
Oct 30, 2014 - Granted Free Agency to Jose Veras (P)
Oct 31, 2014 - Granted Free Agency to Matt Albers (P)