2015 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 2015 season. Next up: The Houston Astros.

The Big Question: Are the Astros ready to contend?

This is Year 5 of the Astros’ scorched-earth rebuilding plan that has seen them lose 106, 107, 111, and 92 games while overhauling the front office, firing a pair of managers, ditching veterans, and stockpiling young talent. Last year’s 70-92 record was the fourth-worst in baseball and might suggest it’ll be another long season in 2015, but the Astros made big strides in the second half and added plenty of veteran help via trades and signings this offseason.

Clearly general manager Jeff Luhnow believes the Astros are ready to take a big step forward.

Houston went 34-38 over the final 72 games of the season, including 20-20 for the final six weeks. And then they started adding pieces. They traded for slugger Evan Gattis, remodeled the bullpen by signing Pat Neshek and Luke Gregerson, picked up a starting shortstop by bringing Jed Lowrie back into the fold as a free agent, added Colby Rasmus to the outfield and Luis Valbuena to the infield, traded for a backup catcher in Hank Conger, and gave the rotation depth a boost with Dan Straily and Roberto Hernandez.

None of those are championship-making moves, certainly, but most of them were made with the short-term good of the team in mind and together they clearly signal a shift from full-on rebuilding mode to actually building something. Last season’s five best players–Jose Altuve, Dallas Keuchel, George Springer, Chris Carter, Collin McHugh–are all still around and all 28 years old or younger. And stockpiling young talent in the minors has already started to show some dividends, with another wave of high-end prospects on the way soon led by back-to-back No. 1 picks Carlos Correa and Mark Appel.

Houston will be better in 2016 than in 2015 and better still in 2017, but the Astros have a chance to be a .500 team this season if a few things break right for them.

What else is going on?

  • Houston’s bullpen ranked dead last in baseball last season with a 4.80 ERA. Luhnow tried to address that problem in a huge way by making serious runs as big-ticket free agent relievers David Robertson and Andrew Miller. Those attempts fell short, but the Neshek-Gregerson duo is a damn good consolation prize. They combined to throw 140 innings with a 1.99 ERA and 127/24 K/BB ratio last season and both right-handers have a career ERA under 3.00. Toss in Chad Qualls and Josh Fields from the right side and Tony Sipp and Joe Thatcher from the left side and the Astros’ bullpen may actually be a strength.
  • Dallas Keuchel came out of nowhere last season to rank as one of the league’s best left-handers, throwing 200 innings with a 2.93 ERA and winning a Gold Glove award. He was the easy pick to start Opening Day and his ability to avoid turning back into a pumpkin is one of the biggest keys to the Astros’ season. Keuchel is a ground-ball machine and gets a decent number of strikeouts, which is always a winning combo, but prior to 2014 he had a 5.20 ERA in the majors and a 4.74 ERA at Triple-A through age 25.
  • Springer immediately lived up to the hype in his (injury-shortened) debut, but fellow top prospect Jon Singleton struggled mightily by hitting .168 with 134 strikeouts in 95 games during his first taste of the big leagues. Singleton cracked Baseball America’s top-100 prospect list four times and seems all but certain to hit for big-time power eventually, but his lowly .241 batting average at Triple-A combined with tons of strikeouts mean he still has a lot to prove as an all-around hitter.
  • Lots of power and lots of strikeouts is basically the story of the Astros’ entire lineup, even more so than last year when they led the AL in strikeouts and ranked third in homers. And the amazing thing is that Altuve had the most plate appearances on the team with 707–a hundred more than anyone else–and struck out just 53 times. It may not always be pretty and will lead to some extended slumps, but for the most part strikeouts are just a type of out rather than something to be avoided at all costs and Luhnow sacrificing contact in the name of adding elite power at a time when it’s particularly tough to find is an intriguing strategy. They could top 200 homers for the first time since 2001 and just the third time in franchise history.

Prediction: Another step forward to 75-plus wins, another avoidance of last place, and enough progress to convince everyone they’ll contend for the playoffs in 2016.

Derek Jeter, Larry Walker elected to the Hall of Fame

Derek Jeter
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Longtime Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter and outfielder Larry Walker were elected into the Hall of Fame. Voting results from the Baseball Writers Association of America were unveiled just moments ago on MLB Network. Jeter (99.7%) and Walker (76.6%) were the only players on the 2020 ballot to earn at least the 75 percent support necessary for induction into Cooperstown. Jeter was in his first year on the ballot and Walker was in his 10th and final year.

Jeter, 45, was selected by the Yankees in the first round, sixth overall, in the 1992 draft and would spend the remainder of his professional career with the organization. Over parts of 20 big league seasons, Jeter hit .310/.377/.440 with 260 home runs, 1,311 RBI, 1,923 runs scored, and 358 stolen bases.

Jeter was a terrific player during the regular season, winning the 1996 American League Rookie of the Year Award, five Silver Slugger Awards, and earning 14 All-Star nominations. However, he did his best work in the postseason, helping the Yankees win five championships during his tenure. He even earned the 2000 World Series MVP Award. Overall, across 734 postseason at-bats, Jeter hit .308/.374/.465 with 20 homers, 61 RBI, 111 runs scored, and 18 stolen bases. While his postseason line is similar to his regular season line, it is worth considering that he faced tougher pitchers on average under more pressure in the postseason.

While defensive metrics weren’t kind to Jeter, he made some very memorable plays in the field. There was, of course, his flip to catcher Jorge Posada to tag out Jeremy Giambi at home plate in the 2001 ALDS, salvaging a throw that missed the cutoff man in the seventh inning of a game the Yankees only led 1-0.

There was also Jeter’s famous dive into the stands in the 12th inning of a July 1, 2004 game at home against the Red Sox. With the two clubs tied at three apiece, the Red Sox threatened with a runner on second base. Pinch-hitter Trot Nixon hit a weak fly ball down the left field line. Jeter ran full speed into the outfield, catching the ball that would have otherwise landed fair, his momentum taking him full-bore into the stands. After a few tense moments, Jeter famously popped his head up, face bloodied from making contact with a seat.

Jeter retired as the Yankees’ all-time leader in games played (2,747), hits (3,465), doubles (544), and stolen bases (358). He’s second in runs scored (1,923), third in total bases (4,921), fourth in walks (1,082), fifth in career WAR (72.4), eighth in batting average (.310), and fifth in RBI (1,311). Jeter is sixth on the all-time hits list behind Pete Rose, Ty Cobb, Hank Aaron, Stan Musial, and Tris Speaker.

Jeter, who was one vote shy of unanimous election, will be inducted into the Hall of Fame along with Ted Simmons and Marvin Miller on July 26. Simmons and Miller (posthumously, in Miller’s case) were elected by the Modern Baseball Era Committee last month.

Walker, 53, was not drafted. Rather, the Expos signed him to a minor league contract in 1985. He would go on to spend 17 seasons in the majors, the first six with the Expos, the next nine and a half with the Rockies, and the final season and a half with the Cardinals. He hit .313/.400/.565 with 383 home runs, 1,311 RBI, 1,355 runs scored, and 230 stolen bases.

That Walker spent a majority of his career with the Rockies was used by some against him, as Coors Field has famously inflated hitters’ numbers. Unsurprisingly, Walker had a 1.172 OPS at Coors Field. However, even his aggregate away split — an .865 OPS — was significantly above-average, even considering the offense-friendly era in which he played. Walker was also a tremendous defensive corner outfield, racking up 94 defensive runs saved above average according to Baseball Reference.

Other players receiving a majority of support from the BBWAA, but under the necessary 75 percent include Curt Schilling (70%), Roger Clemens (61%), Barry Bonds (60.7%), and Omar Vizquel (52.6%).

Players who received less than a majority of support but more than the five percent minimum to remain on the ballot are: Scott Rolen (35.3%), Billy Wagner (31.7%), Gary Sheffield (30.5%), Todd Helton (29.2%), Manny Ramírez (28.2%), Jeff Kent (27.5%), Andruw Jones (19.4%), Sammy Sosa (13.9%), Andy Pettitte (11.3%), and Bobby Abreu (5.5%).

Players who received less than five percent of the vote and thus will fall off the ballot are: Paul Konerko (2.5%), Jason Giambi (1.5%), Alfonso Soriano (1.5%), Eric Chávez (0.5%), Cliff Lee (0.5%), Adam Dunn (0.3%), Brad Penny (0.3%), Raúl Ibañez (0.3%), J.J. Putz (0.3%), Josh Beckett (0%), Heath Bell (0%), Chone Figgins (0%), Rafael Furcal (0%), Carlos Peña (0%), Brian Roberts (0%), and José Valverde (0%).