2014 Season Preview: Houston Astros
This week, SI.com is previewing all 30 MLB teams, counting down to the No. 1 team in the league. At No. 30: The Houston Astros. You can find previews for the teams here.
2013 Record and Finish: 51-111, fifth place in AL West (30th overall)
2014 Predicted Record: 57-105, fifth place in AL West
The Case For
Allow a rival general manager to present it. "I think the Astros are going to be competitive before people think they will," he said. "I don't think they'll be in the race, but I think they'll be more respectable, and that they're a year ahead of where people think they are. I think they're going to be a pretty exciting team to watch in the second half, when they have a bunch of their kids up there." Indeed, this should be the year during which we'll see the first wave of the premium prospects they've been collecting, including outfielder George Springer, who had 37 homers and 45 steals in the minors last year; first baseman Jonathan Singleton; and possibly pitcher Mark Appel, the first overall pick last June.
The Case Against
The future might be coming faster than you think, but it's not here yet. The Astros, as currently constituted, can't hit (their .674 team OPS was the AL's worst) and definitely can't pitch (ditto their 4.79 ERA). The free-agent signing of Scott Feldman to a three-year, $30 million deal – he instantly became the team's highest paid player – will help, but Feldman is more of a middle-of-the rotation innings eater. That might prove his role by the end of his contract, but for now, he's the Opening Day starter. "I don't think they'll lose 110 games again," said one scout who has watched them extensively this spring, "but I do think they'll lose 100."
X-Factor: Dexter Fowler
Two years ago, Fowler was a .300 hitter who ranked 21st in the majors in OPS (.863). That his numbers dipped last year (to .263 and .776) was one reason why the Astros' acquisition of him in December—in a trade that sent Brandon Barnes and Jordan Lyles to the Rockies—was one of the offseason's most overlooked transactions. But Fowler dealt with a host of injuries in 2013 (most significantly to his right fingers and wrist in June and July, and to his left knee in August and September) which might help to explain his struggles. He is a solid centerfielder and leadoff hitter – good defensively, with power and speed – and even in a down year, his 2013 on-base percentage of .369 would have led the Astros. At the least, he could emerge as excellent trade bait as the Astros' rebuilding project reaches its later stages.
Number To Know: 9-10
The AL West's best teams very much enjoyed the Astros' move to the division last season. The first place A's went 15-4 against them, and the second-place Rangers an astounding 17-2. The division's other supposed contender, the Angels, somehow had a record of 9-10 against the majors' worst team in a decade, in part because of a demoralizing four-game sweep in Anaheim at the beginning of June. The Angels learned that games against the so-called Lastros are something other than easy wins; they are must wins.
Most overrated: Matt Dominguez
"This guy was a first rounder in 2007, and some people thought that last year, in which he hit 21 home runs and drove in 77, meant that he had turned a corner. I didn't. He does play good defense at third base, but he can't run a lick – he's one of the slowest players in baseball. And I don't think he really has that thump. His swing gets a little long, and I think he's going to see a lot more breaking balls this year, which he'll have trouble with. When your team is bad enough to lose 15 games in a row, all opposing pitchers have to do is throw you strike after strike, so you can sit on a fastball. He'll be pitched to different now."
Most underrated: Jose Altuve
"He's a small guy who plays bigger than his physical stature. He is their best player, but I don't think the country knows how good he is. The scouts do. I know the numbers weren't fantastic last year, but when you're on a team that loses 111 games and they're moving players in and out and left and right on you, I'm sure he felt a lot of pressure, like they were counting on him doing more than he was capable of doing and he knew it. I think you should see his OBP and stuff go up. He's never going to be a power guy because he's so daggone little, but he'll get on base, score runs and play good defense."
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