Looking to escape AL West cellar, Astros place faith in streaky hitters
This week, SI.com is previewing all 30 MLB teams, counting down to the No. 1 team in the league. At No. 25: the Houston Astros.
2014 Record and Finish: 70–92, fourth place in AL West (25th overall)
2015 Projected Record and Finish: 72–90, fifth place in AL West (26th overall)
The Case For
This is a feast-or-famine offense. The Astros could hit 200 home runs with sluggers like Chris Carter (37 in 2014) at designated hitter, George Springer (20 in only 78 games) in rightfield and Evan Gattis (22) at first base and in the outfield. With second baseman Jose Altuve, the ’14 batting champ, getting on base ahead of them, the big boppers should have no trouble driving him in. The rotation should be adequate and the bullpen has a chance to be quite good, especially if Houston gives flame-throwing righthander Josh Fields a chance to close.
The Case Against
The other half of that feast-or-famine offense is the strikeouts. The Astros set the single-season record for Ks in 2013 with 1,535, and while this team is much less inept than that one, it could find itself swinging and missing a lot. Carter (2.97, first), outfielder Colby Rasmus (3.58, 13th) and catcher Jason Castro (3.80, 16th) are among the major league leaders over the past two years in strikeout frequency, as measured by plate appearances per whiff. (Gattis, with 4.40, would have been tied for 40th if he’d had enough plate appearances to qualify, and Springer, at 2.5 between the majors and minors, blows them all away.) It doesn’t matter how the pitchers do; if the hitters can’t make contact, it will be tough to win games.
X-Factor: The Starting Rotation
The biggest hole on this team is its lack of an ace. Lefty Dallas Keuchel will start on Opening Day, and he was a welcome surprise last year with his 2.93 ERA and league-leading five complete games, but his ceiling is as a No. 2 starter. Righthander Collin McHugh pitched well too, but he doesn’t have swing-and-miss stuff. If the Astros are in the mix at midseason and can pull off a trade for a big arm—or if 2013 No. 1 pick Mark Appel puts last season’s growing pains behind him and earns a call-up to the bigs—Houston could find itself with more than just its first winning season since '08.
Number to Know: .341
Altuve’s league-leading batting average was nearly 100 points better than the league mark (.251) last season. Often, such an outlier season—56 points above his career number to that point—can be mostly luck, but in Altuve’s case, there’s reason to expect his success to continue. During the 2013–14 off-season, Altuve dramatically improved his diet (once a fast food king, he’s now one of the most loyal followers of the Astros’ nutrition plan) and added a leg kick to his swing to improve his timing.
Most Overrated: Colby Rasmus
“He’s got tools, but he’s weird. ‘If I don’t play every day I’ll just retire’? [Rasmus reportedly asked for a trade in 2010 after becoming unhappy with his playing time in St. Louis.] He can hit some home runs, but he strikes out a lot. He’s got a long swing. I think they’re gonna move him around in the field.”
Most Underrated: Dallas Keuchel
“He puts the ball on the ground and he’s got a great changeup. Great arm speed, he commands it well. It has a lot of deception. It works off his fastball really well. He can punch you out with his changeup. He’s not a guy that has swing-and-miss stuff, but he throws strikes and he gets groundballs. If you ask anybody if they knew this guy won 12 games and had 200 innings pitched last year, they probably would say no. He’s really under the radar.”