Astros seek better days

Well, Astros fans, the season is finally over. Going into the season, I said, “Well, it can’t be worse than last year,” but somehow, it was.

The season got off to a bang with an opening night win against the Rangers. As a fan, I was excited, but as a journalist, I was skeptical. Everyone knows baseball is a game of averages. It is about who can lose the least, not who wins the most. Unlike football, losing is a major reality in baseball.

The biggest loser

For the Astros, losing became the norm this season. The team had spurts where it looked like things could turn around, but it was just not meant to be for our beloved Astros this season.

The team found a way to set a record for losses in a season and have its huge TV channel go bankrupt in the same week, but this season will go down as a remarkable one in the franchise’s history for more than just the record amount of losses.

There was a large tryout for the upper half of the Astros farm team. The upper management knew there was not enough talent within the organization to have a winning season. While this upset most fans, it was the correct decision. If you committed yourself long-term just to veterans, you have just reopened the Drayton McClain era. Not to mention that theory just doesn’t work — look at the Toronto Blue Jays for example. On paper, that team should have won at least 90 games. They had great pitching, an explosive lineup and a good looking bullpen. But as it often happens with teams built with money and not a strong foundation, the clubhouse can be a problem, injuries can be a problem and relying on a knuckleball pitcher to repeat a Cy Young year is a problem.

Getting back to the Astros, this season was a tryout for most of the AAA rosters. They needed to see who was a viable option. Every dynasty in the game’s history was built around home-grown talent. The Yankees made it back to the top with Derek Jeter, Jorge Posada, Mariano Rivera and Andy Pettite. The Cardinals are always in the playoffs because as players get older, they have young, major league-ready talent in their minor league system that can come in and perform.

Budding talent

The Astros are heading in that direction. With the proper offseason acquisitions, this team could begin to look more like the dominant force it once was.

Jared Cosart, in his short time in the major leagues, proved why the Astros fought hard to get him in return for Hunter Pence. Cosart, who graduated from Clear Creek High School, is a local talent with a plus arm and tremendous poise for a pitcher his age. At only 23 years old, he has shown experience when he was in tight situations this season. In 10 starts, Cosart was 1-1 with a 1.95 ERA. His fastball reached as high as 95 mph. Cosart is the type of front-end starter this team will need to build around going forward.

Jason Castro finally showed why the Astros drafted him in the first round. He had his best all-around season, hitting .276 with 35 doubles and 18 home runs. He also showed the athleticism behind the plate that hints to a future of gold glove defense. Castro is still relatively young at 26 years old, but he will continue to develop some power as time goes on. What is a good sign is the number of doubles he hit this season. Castro will never be Mike Piazza, bashing 40 homers in a season. He will not hit a lot of moon shots. What Castro does is drive the ball well on a line to the opposite field, forcing pitchers to come inside, where he can turn on a ball and hit it out. Castro will continue to develop as a power hitter and a receiver behind the plate.

Jose Altuve had an interesting season. He hit .283 with five home runs and 53 RBIs. But, for what we have become accustomed to, it was a down year for the second baseman. His on-base rate decreased 26 points from last year. Part of that was due to the lineup around him. Altuve is at his best when he is hidden in the lineup. The fact that he still hit above .280 in a season where there were never more than six major league-caliber hitters in the starting lineup in one night is somewhat remarkable. He found a way to hit enough balls to still make an impact. This is a good sign for the team going forward.

Strong farm system

The Astros were also able to see that they have a very potent minor league system. Every one of their minor league affiliates made the playoffs this season. The talent is continuing to brew in the minor league system.

After hitting .302 with 24 home runs in his first full season, George Springer hit .303 with 37 HRs while splitting time between AA Corpus Christi and AAA Oklahoma City this season. He is a fantastic center fielder who, by all indications, could be a Bryce Harper type of player. He is a fantastic base stealer, going 45/53 this season (85 percent), and will only be 24 years old when next season starts. Springer has a middle-of the-lineup presence that a team can build around.

This was the first full season of professional baseball for the 2012 No. 1 overall pick, Carlos Correa, who hit .320 this season with 9 home, 33 doubles and 86 runs in only 117 games. The Astros made the correct decision to keep him in A ball all season. He is just 19 years old. It was a bold decision to let him play the whole season in A ball as opposed to moving him up midway through the year. He is young and there is no need to rush his development. That is why drafting players straight out of high school is great. It gives the player more time to develop, and they don’t have to hear the clock ticking on their career as they are rushed through the minor league system. The goal for Correa is not to get him to Houston as fast as possible. The goal is to get him here and never have to send him back down. Correa is definitely the type of player who can take hold of the major league game and never let go, and letting him build relationships now with the players he will be playing with for the next six years will only make this process go smoothly.

Going into next year, I would call the Astros’ direction “competitive rebuilding.” They will be active in the free agent market, but more in a way of stop gaps and middle relievers.

The Astros had one of the worst bullpens I have ever seen. That has to change, and Jeff Luhnow knows it as well. He will be active in the free agent market when it comes to looking for relievers.

That being said, the Astros do appear to have, as of now, at least three of their five starting rotation slots (Cosart, Oberhloltzer, and Lyles) locked up for next season, along with a starting catcher, a solid second baseman, a rookie at shortstop who just needs a larger sample size, a solid defensive third baseman with some pop, and a wide open outfield. The arrival of George Springer to Kissimmee will help solve the wide open outfield problem. He will be the centerfielder and Hoes will be in left. Barnes is your fourth outfielder and you can sign a few free agents to compete for the job in right field. Carlos Beltran is available and could be an inexpensive solution for a couple of seasons — just until a better homegrown solution is available. Plus, Beltran is a major league veteran who gives credibility to the middle of your lineup.

The Astros are hoping the last two spots in the rotation can be filled by homegrown talent. Mark Appel could come to camp and compete for a spot in the rotation, but the Astros will want to season him with AAA-level hitting before bringing him to the bigs. That leaves the back end of the rotation to no-name free agents. A guy like Bronson Arroyo would be a perfect fit for the Astros if he was willing to come here. He is an innings eater, giving the bullpen a much needed rest. A manager can almost always count on Arroyo for at least six innings.

Possible free agent signings

The Astros need to find a designated hitter as well. Rotating in Brett Wallace and Chris Carter did not cut it this season. If Paul Konerko does not resign in Chicago, he would be a great veteran presence in your lineup that could take advantage of the Crawford Boxes in left field.

The Astros are about two more draft classes making it to the major leagues away from being a real contender in the American League, but that doesn’t mean they won’t improve next year. And if they operate along the formula of filling in veterans later in their career around the younger talent, it could be a fun team to watch.

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1 Comment

  • Man, Tim, I didn’t want to read an article with Astros in the title, but you guys have been putting out such great articles, I decided to read yours. I was, again, very impressed with the detailed information and presentation of the write-up. I was actually wondering what happened to Carlos Correa and didn’t even know of the possibility of Beltran being shopped. Extending cudos to you from this long time Coog.

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