Wait 'Til Next Year: Mismanagement overshadows Astros' improvements
While so much of our day-to-day attention in this space is devoted to the teams still battling for playoff spots, we feel as though it's only fitting to acknowledge the teams that have been mathematically eliminated from contention, giving them a brief sendoff that should suffice until Hot Stove season. Thus, the Wait 'Til Next Year series.
Current Record: 66-83 (.443, fourth in the AL West)
Mathematically eliminated: Sept. 13
What went right in 2014: Though they’ve clinched their sixth straight losing season, the Astros have already ensured that they’ll lose fewer than 100 games for the first time since 2010; at a minimum, they’ll wind up improving upon last year’s 51-111 record by at least 15 games, and a 20-game improvement isn’t out of the question. They compiled a 15-14 record in May and have gone 26-27 since the All-Star break, including 17-13 against teams above .500 and in the playoff hunt. In fact, their 24-20 record since August 27 is better than those of the contending Blue Jays, Yankees, Rays and A’s. However uneven the road has been, this counts as progress.
On the pitching side, the team developed two strong starters in 26-year-old lefty Dallas Keuchel and 27-year-old righty Collin McHugh. Keuchel, a 2009 draft pick, has pitched to a 3.00 ERA and 3.27 FIP in 192 innings thanks to low walk and homer rates. McHugh, plucked off the waiver wire from the Rockies last December, has delivered a 2.79 ERA with 9.1 strikeouts per nine in 142 innings. Both are at least a couple years away from arbitration, so they should be inexpensive for the next few years. The rest of the rotation — Scott Feldman, Brett Oberholtzer, Brad Peacock and the since-traded Jarred Cosart — has been competent enough that the team ranks sixth in quality-start rate (51 percent) and 10th in ERA (3.92, two points out of eighth).
On the position player side, Jose Altuve has notched 206 hits — four shy of the franchise record — while batting .339/.376/.450. He leads the league in batting average (which would be a first for the franchise) and steals (52). Rookie George Springer arrived in mid-April and showed off light-tower power, bashing 20 home runs with a .231/.336/.468 line, though he’s been sidelined since late July due to a right quad strain. Chris Carter has hit .238/.315/.517 while clubbing 36 homers, good for second in the league, and he’s cut down on his strikeout rate as well.
In the minors, 2012 number one overall pick Carlos Correa was tearing up the High-A California League as a 19-year-old before suffering a season-ending broken fibula in late June, and 2013 number one overall pick Mark Appel has pitched to a 3.69 ERA with 8.8 strikeouts per nine since being promoted to Double-A Corpus Christi, offsetting a miserable stint at High-A Lancaster that threatened to derail his entire season.
What went wrong in 2014: For all of their devotion to the process of rebuilding, the Astros’ organizational disarray revealed itself at several turns this year. Manager Bo Porter was fired on September 1 after less than two full seasons on the job due to some amount of difficulty in communicating with the players and general manager Jeff Luhnow. Disgruntlement among his players over the midseason arrival of Appel for a one-off bullpen session at Minute Maid Park certainly made it look as though his authority was lacking.
Particularly with Porter gone, it’s Luhnow who must take responsibility for the organization’s gaffes and ongoing problems. The forestalling of Springer’s debut after he wouldn’t agree to a club-friendly long-term deal drew considerable scrutiny as to how the Astros try to manipulate players’ service clocks in order to keep costs down. The hacking of their proprietary Ground Control database, revealing their internal trade discussions and other information, caused considerable embarrassment.
Most damning, the Astros’ draft turned into a huge debacle because Luhnow failed to sign overall number one pick Brady Aiken after lowballing him in negotiations over physical irregularities in his elbow. The team tried to use the savings relative to his draft slot to sign two lower picks, but it all fell apart, resulting in grievances from the MLB Players Association and from Jacob Nix, one of the two other picks affected by the Aiken mess.
In the lineup, rookie Jonathan Singleton has been terrible (.175/.293/.351) aside from hitting 13 homers in 86 games, and other core youngsters — catcher Jason Castro, shortstop Jonathan Villar, third baseman Matt Dominguez, left fielder Robbie Grossman — have all failed to progress, looking much more like placeholders than vital parts for the future. Dexter Fowler has hit for a career-best 121 OPS+, but terrible defense (-18 Defensive Runs Saved, -16 Ultimate Zone Rating) has undone much of the value of his offense, and he’s again struggled to stay healthy or produce outside his home park. Meanwhile, the pitcher for whom he was traded, Jordan Lyles, took a solid step forward with the Rockies this year.
Elsewhere, the bullpen has pitched to a league-worst 4.95 ERA, plus a 33 percent rate of allowing inherited runners to score, the league’s second-worst. Closer Chad Qualls and starter Feldman failed to entice any teams to trade for them in July or August.
Overall outlook: The Astros have made significant progress on their rebuilding effort, but even with this year’s steps forward, their mismanagement of the draft was a major setback, and their roster still has a whole lot of filler alongside a handful of keepers. With the firing of Porter, the team has reached a crossroads: Luhnow needs to find a manager who can communicate the front office’s vision to the players without generating a mutiny, while at the same time oversee a growing cast of youngsters whose skills are in need of finishing at the major-league level. That’s a tall order, and the next 20- or even 10-game improvement won’t be so easy to come by.