2014 Preview: Houston Astros

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Between now and Opening Day, HardballTalk will take a look at each of baseball’s 30 teams, asking the key questions, the not-so-key questions, and generally breaking down their chances for the 2014 season. Next up: The Houston Astros.

The Big Question: One hundred losses again, right?

Depends on how long the Astros keep their prospects on the farm.

While every fan likes to think of their team’s prospects as the answers to all of the team’s problems, they usually aren’t. The guys in the bigs are better and they’re there for a reason. That isn’t quite so cut-and-dried with the Astros. Yes, adding Dexter Fowler and Scott Feldman improve this club, as does revamping the worst bullpen in all of baseball. But it really is the case that the team’s top prospects could not only provide hope for the future, but cold make the team better than it would otherwise be without them.

This is partially a function of the major leaguers beyond Fowler, Feldman, Jose Altuve and Jason Castro not being any great shakes, but it’s also because there is some quality about to come of age for the Astros. George Springer, Jonathan Singleton and Mark Appel could all see time in the bigs this year, and all of them could improve this team. Brett Wallace could possibly help out. Behind those guys are Delino DeShields, Max Stassi and others. If the guys in the majors aren’t cutting it and some of these guys are given time to play, it could be a lot of fun. If instead the Astros are more concerned with service time than 2014 wins — a defensible position for a team like this to take, I should add — then, yeah, they could lose 100 games for the fourth straight year. This is the very essence of rebuilding, and with Houston the rebuild was bigger and more extreme than most.

No matter the case, the Astros are still going to lose a lot of games, so a fixation on 100 losses is probably a bad idea. Especially given that, no matter how bad the product is on the field this year, there is hope for the future.

What else is going on?

The Astros lost their last 15 games of the 2013 season. Granted people come and people go and they’re not technically the same team, but if they lost their first six of 2014 — which can totally happen — they’ll tie that 21-game losing streak from the 1988 Orioles, which is the longest such streak since the turn of the 20th century. Eleven losses and they break the 1889 Louisville Colonels all-time record. Good times!

The Astros’ 1-2 in the rotation might be decent. Feldman we know about: he pitched 180+ quality innings for the Cubs and Orioles and if he can do that again it’ll help everyone. Jarred Cosart is interesting too, but not necessarily “solid.” He had a 1.95 ERA in ten starts last season, but he also walked 35 guys and only struck out 33 in 60 innings, so don’t count on that ERA holding up, even if he could be good.

Fowler is the big offseason acquisition, but it’s probably worth noting that, for his career, he has hit .298/.395/.485 in Coors Field, .241/.333/.361 everyplace else. Minute Maid Park is part of the Greater Everyplace Else metro area.

A 100-loss team doesn’t really have a huge use for a closer, but the Astros have a couple of guys who could close. Chad Qualls, who they signed for the job and who will hold it out of camp and, possibly, Jesse Crain, assuming he’s healthy. One thing a 100-loss team can do with a closer? Flip him at the deadline to a contender when relief pitchers tend to bring their highest prices. I’d be shocked if Houston doesn’t do this with one or both of these cats.

Prediction: No surprises here: Fifth place, AL West.

And That Happened: Thursday’s Scores and Highlights

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Here are the scores. Here are the highlights:

Indians 9, Twins 3; Twins 4, Indians 2: Yan Gomes and Jason Kipnis each had three hits and a homer in the first game, helping the Indians win their sixth straight. That streak ended in the second game, however, as Aaron Slegers, making his big league debut, allowed only two runs while pitching into the seventh and Max Kepler hit a go-ahead homer that inning. Eduardo Escobar knocked in two on a 3-for-5 evening.

Diamondbacks 4, Astros 0: Patrick Corbin fell one out short of a shutout, allowing only four hits in eight and two-thirds, and Archie Bradley retired the final batter to make it a team effort. Jake Lamb homered. Daniel Delscalso hit an inside-the-park homer. Lamb called that weirdness and raised by striking out on a wild pitch that allowed David Peralta to scores from third.

Reds 13, Cubs 10: The Reds scored nine runs in the second inning. Normally that’d be enough to ensure a win, but this one was wild, with the Cubs coming back to tie it in the fifth. The Reds kept scoring, however, winning it going away. Lots of crooked numbers in this box score, with Reds outfielder Phillip Ervin driving in four, including the two-run homer which broke the 9-9 ties, and Jose Peraza and Joey Votto each driving in three for Cincinnati. The Cubs hit six homers: Ian Happ had two and Kris Bryant, Alex Avila, Javier Baez and Kyle Schwarber each hitting one. Jon Lester gave up nine runs — seven earned — and left before he could finish two innings. Scott Feldman allowed six in less than four.

Braves 10, Rockies 4Ender Inciarte hit two of Atlanta’s four homers as the Braves bounced back from Wednesday’s rout. Freddie Freeman and Tyler Flowers also homered as Colorado and Atlanta split their four-game set. A scare for the Rockies: Nolan Arenado had a ball smack his hand as he tried to field it at third, forcing him out of the game. X-rays came back negative, however, which is positive.

Blue Jays 5, Rays 3: It was tied 3-3 in the eighth, thanks in part to two solo homers from Josh Donaldson, when Justin Smoak hit a two-run homer. Donaldson is on fire, having hit 11 home runs over his past 19 games, including four times in this series. He’s batting .400 (20 for 50) with 21 RBI in the month of August. There are nine teams in the AL realistically competing for two Wild Card spots, with the Blue Jays — previously written off for dead — among them, three games out of the second spot. September is gonna be nuts.

Cardinals 11, Pirates 7: Dexter Fowler drove in three, two of which coming on a triple, as the Cardinals come back after being down 5-0. Game highlight, though, was Josh Harrison dancing.

Yankees 7, Mets 5Gary Sanchez homered and drove in five runs as the Yankees sweep the Mets in the Subway Series. Which is misnamed, as I figure that few if any of the players involved actually take the subway to the games anymore, what with the subway being an absolute disaster these days.

Rangers 9, White Sox 8: Nomar Mazara homered in drove in five too, hitting a tie-breaking three-run homer in the fifth. The Rangers have won four straight and seven of eight, climbing back to .500. Mazara has 25 RBI in his past 19 games and is on a pace for 111.

Nationals 2, Padres 1: The Nats only had four hits in the game, but one of them was a Ryan Zimmerman homer to break a 1-1 tie in the eighth. Edwin Jackson — who, at this point, we must refer to as “Edwin Jackson of all people” every time he’s mentioned — allowed one run over seven, scattering eight hits.

Giants 5, Phillies 4Jeff Samardzija was solid, winning for the fourth time in his last five starts and Jarrett Parker hit a two-run double in the fifth that led to Denard Span and Hunter Pence scoring within seconds of each other after Pence almost caught up with Span on the base paths:

Don’t look back, somethin’ might be gainin’ on ya.

Kris Bryant on Joey Votto: “He’s the best player ever … He’s a future Hall of Famer, that’s for sure.”

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The Cubs wrapped up a four-game series against the Reds at Wrigley Field on Thursday afternoon, suffering a 13-10 loss to split the set. They’ll match up again against the Reds next week for a three-game series in Cincinnati. That’s good news for Cubs third baseman Kris Bryant, because that means he’ll get to see Reds first baseman Joey Votto some more.

As CSN Chicago’s Patrick Mooney reports, Bryant has grown quite fond of Votto. Bryant has already won a World Series ring, a Rookie of the Year Award, and an MVP Award, but he still looks up to Votto. According to Bryant, Votto is “the best player ever.” He added, ““He’s my favorite player. I love watching him. I love talking to him, just picking his brain. He gets a lot of (heat) about his walks and working at-bats and some people want him to swing at more pitches. But, gosh, I mean, he does an unbelievable job. You know that he’s going to give you a great at-bat every time he goes up there. It’s definitely a guy that I look up to and I can learn from.”

Bryant said that Votto is “a future Hall of Famer, that’s for sure.”

Bryant also explained how his approach changed by watching Votto. He said that in his rookie season, he was “swinging at everything.” Votto, however, is “aggressive, but he’s not going to swing at a pitch until he wants it.”

Indeed, in Bryant’s rookie season, he struck out in nearly 31 percent of his 650 plate appearances. This season, he has struck out in only 19 percent of his PA. His walk rate has also increased by more than 2.5 percent since his rookie campaign. Compared to last year, Bryant is down in HR and RBI, but his average is the same, his on-base percentage is markedly better, and his slugging percentage is only down by a minute amount.