If this were any other sport the Astros performance last year would have yielded an immediate #1 pick with the potential to step in immediately. As baseball maintains a unique position with regards to the development process there’s little indication that any one player will cause Houston to be markedly better in 2014. That said last year was a bit of a lame duck season as the Astros finished out their NL Career and no transition into the AL. Once upon a time Minute Maid park was renowned for the amount of runs scored – with the DH now in play it could become a favored destination for AL teams.
Contrary to widely held belief the Astros do still play in the major leagues and will field a roster of players who technically are major league players. That said this is a 4-A team again, but one that may be a few wins better than 2013. Jason Castro will anchor the infield behind the plate and has quietly evolved into one of the better hitting catchers. 1B will likely go to Christ Carter/Marc Krause with the other rotating to DH. Feel free to include Brett Wallace in that rotation. Bottom line all 3 are similar players with some, but not a ton of pop who tend to strike out way too much. Jose Altuve is going to be a fixture for some time – he projects to hit about .290-.300 with limited power and great speed. Altuve’s play means he likely is around long after the Astros rebuild is completed. Jonathan Villar is too young to get a total read on but a solid defensive SS but will be a liablity when batting. Matt Dominguez completes the infield. Dominguez will be a threat for 25-30 HRs and is slightly less likely to strikeout than the other side of the corner. Dexter Fowler gives the outfield a new look and gives the batting order a significant upgrade in speed. Combined with Altuve the Astros should be expected to move runners more than the average team. Robbie Grossman and LJ Hoes will see significant time as 24 year olds in 2014 but neither projects as the type of power bat that Houston lacks. Overall the lineup for the Astros is one built for speed, but with so many strikeout prone batters that speed may end up wasted too often to really show thru.
Scott Feldman’s arrival is a nice addition following his effective run with the Cubs. He’ll be the ace of the staff but the reality is on most teams he’d be a #3. Jarred Cosart is promising as a future #1 but control eludes him at times and that wildness will cost the Astros. Brett Oberholtzer will likely be the #3 and had a nice ERA in 10 starts last year. He’s got decent strike out pitches and is another in a line of potential Astros starting pitchers who could evolve. The backend is tough to project as there are kids in the minors who could show up but if the current projections of Jerome Williams and Brad Peacock make it thru the season it will be a surprise. Dallas Keuchel may break in but with all of their experienced arms we’re talking 4-6 ERA guys. This is not a good or even solid pitching staff. It’s a work in progress. The bullpen will be anchored by Chad Qualls but the key for him will be to get save opportunities. The Astros are not a team that expects to be in save situations too often so getting him work will be a challenge.
The key for the Astros in 2014 is to grow. Georg Springer should enter the lineup at some point if his development path continues. He’s got a chance to start the season with the club and is likely a long term player for the Astros. He’s got speed and good power and if he can improve his plate discipline a bit he’s got future all star potential. Mark Appel projects as a good starting pitcher and should progress thru the minors in 2014. The bottom line for Houston though is to take it slow, work thru GM Jeff Luhnow’s rebuild process and grow as a team. 2014 is going to be ugly at times and its difficult to see this team winning more than 75 games at most. A more likely record would be around 70-92 and likely a last place finish in their new division. (Michael Bedard)
Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim
A disappointing 78 win season last year in Anaheim has expectations tempered in the big A. A healthy Albert Pujols will be key to their lineup and infield. David Freese mans the hot corner after coming over in a trade from St. Louis. Howie Kendrick and Erick Aybar form a highlight reel double play combination up the middle. The outfield is led by the best young player in baseball, Mike Trout. Not only is Trout an on base machine but he also plays a tremendous center field. Josh Hamilton is hoping for bounce back year in left and youngster Kole Calhoun will get the bulk of the time in right. Chris Iannetta has a decent bat and calls a decent game behind the plate. The Angels have a solid rotation with Jered Weaver and C.J. Wilson at the top and newcomers Hector Santiago and Tyler Skaggs in the back end. Ernesto Frieri returns as the closer with free agent Joe Smith and Fernando Salas, who came over with David Freese from St. Louis as the key set up men. Now that there is a healthy lineup and upgraded rotation it is a make or break season for the Angels. If they get off to a rough start, Mike Scioscia could be in major trouble. (Scott Boutcher)
The Oakland A’s have made tremendous strides the last two years, taking home the Al West crown and winning 96 games along the way. However, the ultimate goal was not reached, and each season ended early in the ALDS. However, Billy Beane has kept his team intact, but will this be the year the A’s take the next step and challenge for a World Series title? Only time will tell in a very close race in the AL West. The A’s have a scary combination of a well-rounded offense and tough, young pitching rotation; and with the additions of Jim Johnson and Eric Flaherty, they could have a shut down bullpen.. Their biggest weakness could be that they do not have that superstar in the lineup or a true number one starter in the rotation. This has not hurt them the last couple of years in winning in the regular season, but so they have enough to get over the hump and be a true contender for a Championship. (Kevin Langner)
One of the biggest storylines in the offseason was the Mega signing of Robinson Cano for a whopping 240 million. For the Mariners, this was the much needed bat they have been trying to find in recent years. The Mariners finely opened up their wallets for the benefit of the team. The rest of the lineup, however, has plenty of potential, but Cano will cannot do it alone. Corey Hart, Justin Smoak, and Kyle Seager will have to compliment Cano in order for the mariners to connect on all cylinders. Also, the addition of Fernando Rodney will bolster the bullpen, but the starting rotation will be the biggest question mark the Seattle Mariners will endure. It will be an uphill climb all season with the likes of the A’s, Rangers and Angels in a competitive AL West. The right steps have been taken, but the mariners are most likely in for another long season. (Kevin Langner)
The Texas Rangers will be an interesting team to follow in 2014. They’ll look to return to the postseason for the first time since 2012 as they battle the defending AL West Champion Oakland Athletics as well as the perenial under achieving Los Angeles Angels for American League West supremecy. The Rangers went out in the offseason and added offense. They brought former Indians/Reds outfielder and on-base machine Shin-Soo Choo into the fold with 7 year / $130 million contract. They also shocked the baseball world with the blockbuster acquisition of Prince Fielder while dealing long time second basement Ian Kinsler to Detroit. Choo and Fielder will compliment an offsensive minded team that includes Adrian Beltre, Alex Rios, Elvis Andrus and the talented Jurickson Profar. The injury bug hasn’t been kind to Texas as spring training winds down. The middle of the diamond has been snake bit as Elvis Andrus has been slowed by elbow pain and Profar suffered a torn muscle in his right shoulder and will likely be out until June. While the Rangers offense looks strong despite the injury concerns, the ptching staff could be their downfall. Yu Darvish whom is the only sure thing on the staff was scratched from his opening day start. The remainder of the starting rotation looks like they may have trouble staying consistant and the bullpen is a bit of an unkown. If the Texas Rangers are going to return to postseason play they are going to need a healthy Yu Darvish, several starters to step up in a big way as well as Joakim Soria finding his form of three years ago in Kansas City. (Mike Orzechowski)