Winter Report Card: Houston Astros
With little more than five weeks left before pitchers and catchers report, we're checking in on how each team has fared in conducting its offseason business while acknowledging that there's still time for its prognosis to change. Teams will be presented in reverse order of finish from 2014.
2014 Results: 70-92 (.432), fourth place in AL West (Hot Stove Preview)
Coming into the offseason, the Astros' priority was upgrading a bullpen that had ranked last in the majors with a 4.80 ERA in 2014. They've done well there, investing wisely in elite setup men Luke Gregerson (three years, $18.5 million) and Pat Neshek (two years, $12.5 million plus a club option for 2017) rather than breaking the bank for an established closer like David Robertson. The Astros did pursue Robertson, but the White Sox wound up guaranteeing him more in the first three years of his four-year contract than Houston guaranteed Gregerson and Neshek combined. Harris, claimed off waivers from the Diamondbacks in November, is a solid addition as well, having posted a 2.91 Fielding Independent Pitching mark over the last two seasons with good peripherals.
Meanwhile, the Astros have expunged every reliever with 20 or more innings pitched and an ERA of 5.00 or above in 2014 from their roster, outrighting Darin Downs and Paul Clemens to Triple A and cutting ties with Anthony Bass and Josh Zeid (not to mention Jerome Williams, who was released in July). Those five pitchers combined to post a 6.05 ERA in 154 2/3 innings in 2014. Passing those innings (at least in quantity) to Gregerson, Neshek and Harris should be a major improvement for Houston.
Outside of the bullpen, however, this has been a quiet offseason for the Astros. Their only significant trade saw them send 24-year-olds Nick Tropeano, a righthander who made four starts for the major league club in 2014, and Carlos Perez, a catcher on the verge of his major league debut, to the Angels for Hank Conger. That swap is hard to figure. Conger is a former first-round pick and top-100 prospect, but he's also a career .224/.294/.353 hitter in the major leagues who will be 27 later this month and arbitration eligible for the first time this offseason.
Conger did put up a solid season at the plate in 2013 (.249/.310/.403 in 255 plate appearances) but he was unable to repeat that production in 2014. In fact, his .221/.293/.325 line was inferior to the ones produced by fellow catchers Jason Castro (.222/.286/.366) and Carlos Corporan (.235/.302/.376). Given that all three current Astros catchers are excellent pitch-framers, it's difficult to see the addition of Conger as much of an upgrade, let alone one worth six team-controlled years each of Perez and Tropeano, however limited their upsides may be.
Jed Lowrie, who played 97 games with Houston in 2012, rejoins the team on a three-year, $23 million contract with a $6 million club option for 2018. He adds needed major league depth on the left side of the infield, but early indications are that the team and new manager A.J. Hinch are going to use him incorrectly. Lowrie, who will turn 31 in April, has devolved into a lousy defensive shortstop, while Marwin Gonzalez, who won't be 26 until March, proved competent on both sides of the ball in extended exposure at the position last season. Meanwhile, the Astros' incumbent third baseman, Matt Dominguez, hit a brutal .215/.256/.330 in 2014, making him a win and a half below replacement level. Lowrie said during his free agency that he would play any position in the infield, and he has appeared at third base 83 times in his major league career, but Houston appears more likely to move the defensively superior Gonzalez to the hot corner, undermining the value of both players.
There's one more thing worth noting regarding the players listed above: Delino DeShields Jr., the eighth pick in the 2010 draft and a recent top-100 prospect, was left off the Astros' 40-man roster and taken by the Rangers in the Rule 5 draft. DeShields made the long-anticipated move from second base to centerfield in 2014, but also shed 81 points of batting average in his first season in Double A. Still, he's just 22 and an elite base stealer with strong on-base skills and enough power to post double digits in either triples or home runs in each of the last three seasons. Having to stay on Texas' active roster for a full season after a poor one in Double A won't help his development, but it's still troubling that Houston would lose him to a division and intra-state rival for nothing, particularly given that the 'Stros are so dependent on young, team-controlled talent.
Unfinished Business: Rotation depth
As a rebuilding club not yet ready to make the big push into contention, the Astros can be forgiven for having a relatively quiet offseason. That said, they could have added another starting pitcher to a rotation that is wide open after the top three of Dallas Keuchel, Collin McHugh and Scott Feldman, with the first two of those needing to follow up breakout seasons to confirm their places in that order.
Preliminary Grade: C
Houston did a nice job improving its bullpen, but there's not a lot to like about any of its other moves, which significantly undermines that solid work in the ‘pen. The result is a neutral grade for a fairly neutral offseason. The Astros should be better in 2015 because of the continued maturation of their talented young players and their improved relief corps, but that expected gain in the wins column is not guaranteed, and the team has done nothing this offseason to brighten its long-term outlook.