The Big Picture:
Crane & Luhnow expected this team to play .500 ball. There was a clear message that they needed to improve on last year’s 70-92 record, and while they were aiming for .500, most preseason projections had them around 77 wins, and either last or next to last in the division. (The AL West was expected to be very competitive.) The offense is big on homers, and even bigger on strikeouts. The bullpen was atrocious the last several years, and that was where the free agent dollars were mostly spent. The starting rotation involves two guys that they’re praying weren’t flukes last year, an overpaid veteran, and a bunch of question marks.
So far, the offense is even better than projected, because (a) the power is there, (b) they’re drawing a ton of walks, and (c) they lead the league in steals, too. The bullpen has been awesome – they are 18-1 when they have a lead at any point in the game. The rotation is holding together, with those two at the top showing they were no fluke.
The Starting Lineup:
2B – Jose Altuve: Signed out of Venezuela as an amateur. Never considered much of a prospect because of his size. All he did was lead the league in batting average last year, set the team record for hits, and win the Silver Slugger for 2b. He’s started off this year hitting about .350 and showing a little more home run power (3 already).
3B – Luis Valbuena: Acquired via trade from the Cubs this offseason. Average defensively, projected to be about a .260/20 HR guy. So far only hitting .200, but tied for the team lead with 6 HR.
RF – George Springer: Former first-round pick by the Astros. 30 HR/30 SB potential. Also has the potential to strike out 150 times. Will never hit for big average, but draws walks well has hits the ball hard. Excellent in RF – he could probably play CF for many teams. So far only hitting .200, but with enough walks to have his OBP around .320.
DH – Evan Gattis: Acquired via trade from the Braves this offseason. Late bloomer – 28(?) years old but only in his third season. Former catcher turned outfielder, but DH is really his best position – he’s terrible anywhere in the field. If he stays healthy (which he never did with the Braves), could easily top 30 HR, and maybe reach 40. Currently tied for the team lead with 6 HR. Had a terrible start (like 0-22 with 12 K) but has gotten hot since then.
1B – Chris Carter: Complete feast-or-famine guy. Had a two-month stretch last year where he was the best hitter in the league. Around that, has been a human windmill at the plate. Also a potential 30-HR guy, but if he plays the full season, he could potentially strike out 200 times. Has looked lost at the plate this year, only hitting .150.
LF – Colby Rasmus: Signed as a free agent from Toronto on a 1 year deal after a down season last year. Originally a first-round pick by Luhnow with the Cardinals. Has been a CF his whole career until this year, clearly an above-average LF. Moves to CF if Marisnick sits. Another high-HR, high-K guy in the lineup.
SS – Marwin Gonzalez: Only a placeholder until (a) Jed Lowrie comes off the DL in July, or (b) Carlos Correa gets called up. Decent utility guy, but not who you want starting.
C – Jason Castro: Former Astros first-round pick. Big for a catcher. Hit really well in 2013, not at all in 2014; made big improvements defensively in 2014, now grades out as above-average in pitch framing and throwing out runners. Needs to start hitting if he is to remain the catcher of the future.
CF – Jake Marisnick: Biggest surprise of the season so far. Acquired from the Marlins last year, former first-round pick (notice a trend here?) Gold Glove-caliber CF. Expected to be a .250/10 HR type hitter with good speed. Currently hitting almost .400 with 4 HR, and tied for the AL lead (with Altuve and Springer) with 10 SB. If he can even hit .300, he’s locked in for the foreseeable future as our CF.
This is modern AL baseball – there’s barely anyone on the bench.
C – Hank Conger: Acquired from the Angels via trade in the offseason (in what was Luhnow’s most head-scratching move so far). Rated as the best pitch framer in all of baseball. Barely hit his weight in LA, has done better at the plate so far with a little pop. Switch-hitter, so if Castro struggles, could push to be the starter.
Infield – Jonathan Villar: Acquired in the
Berkman trade with the Yankees Oswalt trade with the Phillies. Originally a SS, had to become a utility player to have a future with the team. Capable of highlight-reel plays, but fails to make the routine plays. Good pinch-runner.
Outfield – Robbie Grossman: Acquired in the Wandy Rodriguez trade from the Pirates. Capable of playing all three outfield spots. Has shown flashes of offense, especially in the second half of seasons, but never put it all together.
1. Dallas Keuchel, LHP – never a hyped prospect, had a 4.50+ ERA his first season and a half. Made a breakthrough last year and posted a 2.82 ERA to become the staff ace. Has followed that up by winning the AL Pitcher of the Month for April with a 0.80 ERA. EXTREME ground ball pitcher – might give up only 1-2 fly ball outs per start. Put a good defense behind him and you’re in great shape.
2. Colin McHugh, RHP – claimed off waivers from the Mets last year, the front office saw something they didn’t. Astros started working with him to use his curve more often and change eye level with lots of high fastballs, and it has paid off big. Now a high-strikeout guy and could easily put up a 3.00 ERA, which is right about where he is so far this year.
3. Scott Feldman, RHP – signed as a free agent last year to give veteran presence to the rotation. That’s about all he gives. Just an innings-eater, won’t go below 4.00 ERA. Has an interesting contract in that it was front-loaded; will only make $5M next year after making $15M last year.
4. Roberto Hernandez, RHP – signed as a minor-league free agent this year, won the 5th spot in the rotation in spring training, then solidified his spot with (a) injuries to others and (b) effective work so far – has put up around a 3.80 ERA.
5. TBD, currently Samuel Deduno – Deduno is supposed to be the long reliever in the pen, but was pressed into starting duty after injuries and ineffectiveness from others.
Closer – Luke Gregerson, RHP: Signed as a free agent from San Diego, had never been a closer before. Pretty typical closer stuff – high velocity, good breaking ball, no third pitch. Very effective so far.
Setup – Pat Neshek, RHP: Signed as a free agent from St. Louis. EXTREME sidearm motion, almost submarine – makes it very hard for right-handed hitters to pick up the ball. Only allowed something like .160 average to RH last year. Had a rough first couple appearances but has settled in well.
Setup – Chad Qualls, RHP: Signed as a free agent last year, in his last year of his contract. Closed effectively last year, but lost the job to Gregerson. Strict fastball-slider guy.
Specialist – Tony Sipp, LHP: Claimed off waivers from San Diego, can’t figure why they let him go. Hinch will trust him to go a full inning, not just face lefties.
Specialist – Joe Thatcher, LHP: Minor-league free agent signing, also a former Padre (was with Gregerson and Qualls in SD). Typically used only against lefties.
Josh Fields, RHP: Rule 5 pick from Boston last year, 99 MPH stuff. Got knocked around a ton in the first half of last season then really settled in, and even got moved to closer when Qualls was hurt. Having him at the back of the pen shows how much the pen has improved.
Will Harris, RHP: Claimed off waivers from Arizona in the offseason, also can’t figure out why they let him go. Has pitched 12 straight scoreless innings to start the season. Was originally supposed to go to the minors after Fields came back from injury but has been so good they can’t send him down.
Kevin Chapman, LHP: Just called up from the minors to soak up any long-relief innings until they get the 5th starter straightened out. Won’t be here long.
On the DL:
SS – Jed Lowrie: Signed as a free agent this year, was off to a great start but then tore a ligament in his thumb. Surgery has him out until July. Subpar SS and could move to 3B before his contract is up.
SP – Brett Oberholtzer: Acquired in the Michael Bourn trade from Atlanta. Originally slated to be the #4 starter but developed blister problems in spring training. Still inexperienced and there is no guarantee he can hold down the spot.
SP – Brad Peacock: Out indefinitely with a strained lat. Was in line to be the #5 starter until he got hurt.
SS – Carlos Correa: #1 overall pick in the 2012 draft, now the #1 overall prospect in all of baseball. Picture somewhere between Cal Ripken and A-Rod (without the roids). Still only 20 years old, and leads AA in average, OBP, and slugging, with 11 steals thrown in for good measure. Above average fielder. Has gone from “should be here some time in 2016” to “should be here by June” so far this year.
SP – Mark Appel: #1 overall pick in the 2013 draft, but hasn’t developed nearly as well as Correa did. Absolutely bombed in high-A last year, but had a good fall and has been OK in AA this year. Will still be a good #2 or #3 starter, but probably a pick they wish they had back.
1b – Jon Singleton: Was given the chance to win the 1b job last season and absolutely dropped it. Went 0 for his last 39 or 40 AB in September, had his confidence completely shot. Went back to AAA to start this year and is hitting great. Signed to a 6-year/$10M contract so will be given every chance to win back the 1b job.
This article has been edited to properly reflect that Villar was acquired from the Phillies, not the Yankees.