Can the Houston Astros Contend for a Playoff Berth in 2015?
Houston Astros 2015
Stars emerging on a roster full of youth
The hype this offseason surrounding teams that have finished at the bottom of the standings recently, has centered on the Chicago Cubs. However it is the Houston Astros who may be in position to have significant success in the coming season. The Astros were able to move out of last place last season despite having one of the worst opening day rosters they have had in recent franchise history. Two of their top prospects made midseason debuts, and others of the players on their opening day roster emerged throughout the 2014 season. Right fielder George Springer had plenty of success hitting homeruns at the big league level after his May promotion. Dallas Keuchel emerged at age 26 to pitch 200 strong innings in just 29 starts for the Astros throughout the 2014 season. Collin McHugh also emerged as a second dependable starter in the Astros rotation with 25 starts in 25 appearances for the team. Jon Singleton made his MLB debut and was able to put extra base power on display, but like so many others in the Astros lineup he suffered from a high strikeout rate. Chris Carter's efforts allowed him to finish second in the American League in homeruns, after playing all over the field for the Astros in 2014. With a collection of talent that has shown impressive skills, a closer examination of the Astros roster will help to determine if this team can compete in 2015.
The Star Power of Jose Altuve should help Houston in 2015
Who will carry the team in 2015?
Altuve is coming off a season where he lead the American League in batting average to go along with the great defense he provided at second base. Altuve is the most well rounded player on the roster for this young Astros team, and he may be their biggest star until George Springer overtakes him for that role. Standing at just five feet, six inches tall, Altuve is one of the smallest players in Major League Baseball. This did not prevent him from hitting 47 doubles and 57 total extra base hits last season, as the Astros young star was able to post a slugging percentage of .453 despite hitting only seven homeruns. After playing in nearly every game last season, Altuve was not a contributing factor to the team's strikeout woes with only 53 strikeouts in 660 at bats. As Jose Altuve moves closer to his prime years, he could become even more of a contributor offensively with his homerun totals, on a team that hopes to contend in 2015.
As a 24 year old rookie in 2014, Springer put together a solid performance that indicated he may be a future star for this team. Springer contributed 114 strikeouts to the team's MLB leading total in 2014, but he was able to produce 20 homeruns in 295 at bats. With a strong walk rate, Springer was able to post a .336 on base percentage despite batting only .231 in his rookie campaign. As a strong defender in the outfield with a good throwing arm, Springer appears to be a fixture in right field for years to come for Houston. The Astros will lean on Springer to provide power from the middle of the order in 2015, but his batting average and strikeout rate from 2014 indicate that the Astros need to find a way to make contact more often if they hope to have a good offensive team in 2015.
With Jon Singleton's struggles as a rookie in 2014, Chris Carter will open the 2015 season as the team's starting first basemen. Carter could also be in the lineup as a designated hitter or corner outfielder, but first base is probably his best option defensively. As a 27 year old in 2014, Carter put together the best performance on his career as the big right handed hitter produced 37 homeruns. A high strikeout rate kept his batting average down though, at .227 with 182 strikeouts in 572 at bats. Carter's strikeout rate and batting average improved some from his 2013 season, but as a veteran going into his prime years, he will be asked to lead the way in putting a more contact friendly approach in place for the team. After producing a .799 OPS for the team last year, Carter will be leaned on as the Astros cleanup hitter and primary run producer to start the 2015 season.
Coming off a season where he was able to pitch 200 innings in less than 30 starts, Dallas Keuchel now takes over the role of staff ace for the Houston Astros. As a big left hander who does not throw a blazing fastball, Keuchel relies on the diversity of his repertoire along with his command to consistently get batters out. Keuchel's size should allow him to manage a large workload, but he may need to strike out more batters in order to maintain the success he established last season. As the team's likely opening day starter, Keuchel should get the opportunity to throw 200 or more innings while leading the team in wins.
McHugh's success last season was very surprising given the tough start his MLB career had gotten off to. The good news for the Astros is that whatever McHugh found seems to be very sustainable after he was able to strike out more than a batter per inning in 2014. Going 11-9 with a 2.73 ERA in 25 starts was a huge step forward for Collin McHugh in his third MLB season. At age 28, McHugh could be in line to take on the largest workload of his short career after pitching over 154 innings last season. If McHugh is able to produce another season with a very strong strikeout rate along with limiting the walk totals, he could establish himself at the top of the Houston rotation with Dallas Keuchel in 2015.
After putting up back to back strong offensive seasons with Atlanta each of the past two years, the Houston Astros decided to target Evan Gattis on the trade market this offseason. Gattis will serve as the team's primary designated hitter, while also getting playing time in the outfield, at catcher and at first base. Gattis will take one of the remaining run producing roles in the Astros lineup where he will look to bring a strong approach that helps their power hitters to make more contact. Gattis himself has some work to do in order to get his strikeout rates where he would want them ideally, but he is a veteran hitter with power who can lead by example as the young Astros team makes the effort to put the ball in play more often.
How do the role players stack up?
Scott Feldman slots nicely into the third spot in the Astros rotation, while four other starters will battle for the final two spots. Veterans Dan Straily and Roberto Hernandez may end up winning the final two rotation spots, but they will face plenty of competition for those jobs from youngsters Brett Oberholtzer and Brad Peacock. Peacock has reported to camp after losing a significant amount of weight in the offseason, and the young Astros pitchers are ready to compete after gaining valuable experience the past two seasons. After bringing in Pat Neshek and Chad Qualls each of the past two offseasons, the bullpen roles are well defined at the back end for the Astros. Houston could feature an average to above average relief pitching staff this season with Luke Gregerson now in the closer's role for the team. Tony Sipp is prepared to match up with all the strong left handed hitters the Astros will face in the later innings this coming season, and Samuel Deduno is going to have the long relief role after pitching with the Twins as a starter the past few seasons.
On offense, the Astros have a strong group of role players as well. Catcher Jason Castro leads this group after coming off a down season. Before 2014, it appeared that Jason Castro was emerging as a complementary star to Altuve in Houston, but with plenty of power hitters now with the team, Castro becomes more of a role player. As a player who is very adept at drawing walks, left fielder Robbie Grossman will complement Jose Altuve at the top of the Houston batting lineup this season. Luis Valbuena and Matt Dominguez will share the third base position for the team, with each of them providing power as options for the seventh spot in the Astros batting order. Jed Lowrie rejoins the team as their starting shortstop this season, while free agent signing Colby Rasmus takes over in centerfield for Houston. Both of these hitters should provide an impact with their ability to hit for some power from the left side of the plate. They will be asked to round out a Houston lineup that could feature as many as nine hitters who reach a double digit homerun total for the 2015 season.
Does Houston have enough to earn a playoff berth?
As is the case with any other young team, the variety of outcomes for this team is all over the charts. The players that this team will lean on in 2015 all took a significant step forward at the MLB level last season in order for the Houston Astros even to be considered in this argument. If Dallas Keuchel is able to continue pitching like a top of the rotation starter, and if Collin McHugh is able to prove that he can handle a large workload at the top of the Houston rotation, the Astros will have a great chance to compete. Houston's young hitters will have to take that next step by putting the ball in play more often in order for the team to remain competitive throughout 2015. Being able to turn to an elite pitching prospect like Mark Appel as a midseason call up, is a huge luxury for Houston, and may be just what they need to sustain playoff contention if they are able to get off to a strong start to the 2015 season. Beyond the offensive role players mentioned above, Houston has Jon Singleton waiting to contribute as a power hitter in whatever role his manager gives him, along with top prospect Jake Marisnick looking to carve out a role for himself as a contributor in Houston's outfield mix.
With plenty of depth to turn to in case of injury, the Houston Astros may be able to compete for a playoff spot in what looks like a down year for most of the American League in 2015. Right now the Orioles, Red Sox, Blue Jays, Indians, Tigers, Mariners and Angels are all in position to compete at a higher level than the Houston Astros in 2015. Houston, Oakland and Kansas City can compete with the rest of the pack in the American League this season. All three of those teams are capable of stepping up and earning a playoff berth if one of the American League teams that had a strong offseason, happens to falter in the playoff race. With only five teams able to earn playoff berths, right now it does not look promising for the Houston Astros. They have the young impact talent to surprise some teams however, and the Royals proved last year that it can be done.