Wait 'Til Next Year: Houston Astros
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: 46-93 (.331, 5th in the AL West)
Mathematically eliminated: Aug. 28
What went right in 2013: Not much. Catcher Jason Castro stayed healthy and turned in a strong, All-Star season at the age of 26, hitting .282/.357/.495 (134 OPS+) with 18 home runs thus far. The only catchers in the majors with higher bWAR totals this season than Castro's 4.6 have been Joe Mauer (5.1), Buster Posey (5.0) and Yadier Molina (4.7). Pitching prospects Jarred Cosart and Brett Oberholtzer, both 23, made their major league debuts and have enjoyed some modest success since taking permanent spots in the rotation in July. Prospect Jonathan Villar, 22, made his big league debut in late July and has thus far acquitted himself well as the team's starting shortstop.
Houston landed Stanford pitching prospect Mark Appel with the top pick in the draft and signed him. Shortstop Carlos Correa, the No. 1 overall choice in the 2012 draft, had an impressive full-season debut at the age of 18, and the major league team's struggles should give them a third-straight number-one pick in next year's draft. Centerfield prospect George Springer had a monster season split between Double-A and Triple-A, hitting .303/.411/.600 with 37 home runs, 45 stolen bases and 108 RBIs.
The Astros were also one of the few teams to accomplish their goals at the trading deadline, cashing in closer Jose Veras, starter Bud Norris and fragile outfielder Justin Maxwell for prospects Danry Vasquez, L.J. Hoes (both outfielders), Josh Hader and Kyle Smith (both pitchers). None of those four were among Baseball America's top 100 prospects prior to the season, but all improve the organizational strength in exchange for fungible veterans.
What went wrong in 2013: A lot. Rick Ankiel made the team as a non-roster invitee, then struck out in more than half of his plate appearances before being released in early May. Carlos Peña, signed to be a veteran power source in the lineup and possible trade bait, hit just eight home runs before being released at the deadline. Chris Carter's power and patience were almost completely undermined by his low batting average (.220) and brutal play in the field. First-base prospect Jonathan Singleton started the year serving a suspension for recreational drug use and has hit just six home runs in 73 games in Triple-A. Alex White had Tommy John surgery in April and missed the entire season. Phil Humber opened the season in the rotation and went 0-8 with a 9.59 ERA before being sent to the minors in mid-May. Due in part to being one of the worst-fielding teams in the majors (leading the majors in errors and embarrassing fielding GIFs), the Astros allowed more runs than any other team in baseball this year, by a lot, including 11 in one inning against the Rangers. The 'Stros are on pace for 108 losses, the most in the majors since the Diamondbacks lost 111 in 2004.
The biggest thing to go wrong for Houston in 2013, though, was Jose Altuve's bat. Relative to his breakout 2012 campaign, the 23-year-old second baseman struck out more, walked less and hit for a lower average and less power, leaving only his still-excellent basestealing to keep him from being a replacement-level player. The Astros view Altuve as a core player, as evidenced by the four-year, $12.5 million extension with two club options they signed him to in July, but they'll need him to bounce back in 2014 for that to be the case.
Overall outlook: Assuming Altuve does regain his prior form, the Astros have a young up-the-middle core in Castro, Altuve, Villar and Springer, the last of whom should make his major league debut later this month. Cosart and Oberholtzer provide a similar anchor for the rotation, and the organization continues to inject talent into the farm system. The organization was very explicitly starting over this season and there's ample reason to expect it to improve from this point beyond the fact that it would be hard for it to get worse. Exactly how long it will take the Astros to return to contention, or just how good they might be when they get there, remains to be seen, but despite their performance at the major league level this season, the organization as a whole is very clearly headed in the right direction.