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.

Jeff Samardzija thinks player options should be changed

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Giants pitcher Jeff Samardzija recently reached 10 years of service time, an achievement he celebrated with his teammates. Samardzija was thinking about the big picture, though, realizing that is going to take players longer and longer to reach 10 years of service time now that front offices have become so adroit with service time manipulation.

Per Kerry Crowley of The Mercury News, Samardzija said, “I think we need to make sure as a union that we reassess our work time when it comes to days of service and options. We need to make sure one option can’t be 10 call-ups and call-downs where you can just use this guy as a swing guy and he never accumulates any time.”

A player who still has minor league options (they start with three) can be yo-yoed between the minors and majors as many times as his team deems necessary while only using one option. In this sense, the player has no control over his fortunes. Teams hadn’t really taken full advantage of this imbalance of power until recently as front offices became increasingly savvy. This has worked in tandem with the annual song-and-dance from GMs every year in which they make up phony excuses to keep their top prospects stashed in the minors until they secure an additional year of contractual control.

Samardzija said, “It’s easy to say we need you to go down to Triple-A and work on your glove or work on hitting left-handers. ‘Well you don’t ever start me against left-handers so how can I improve my numbers there?’ I definitely think it’s happening on both sides, I’d say it’s just as prevalent with pitching and position players.”

This kind of service time manipulation may not seem like a big deal, but it snowballs over time. A player can be held down and/or optioned to the minor leagues just enough to prevent him from accruing a full service year (172 days). Players become eligible for free agency after six service years. A team that opens a season with a 24-year-old and never options him will see him leave for free agency after his age-29 season. If that player is instead promoted in mid-April, when the player’s maximum service time for the season is 171 days, the team will have contractual control over his age-29 season as well. That player won’t become a free agent until he’s 30 years old. As free agency has shown us in recent years, front offices have grown quite skeptical of free agents in their 30’s, so this tiny bit of service time manipulation could cost players millions of dollars down the road. The spirit of this is not that much different than employers cutting a full-time employee’s hours so they no longer qualify for employer-based health insurance.

Samardzija is right to express concern over service time manipulation. It is heartening to see an increasingly labor-conscious group of players as well, as the members of the union seemingly grew complacent over the years which allowed ownership to take decisive victories with recent collective bargaining agreements. The current CBA expires on December 1, 2021. We should be hearing plenty more about the players’ concerns within the two-plus years remaining.