Playing Pepper 2015: Houston Astros

It’s one of the annual traditions here at C70 At The Bat, our trip around the majors in blog form.  Since 2009, I’ve been asking bloggers from other teams about what’s going to happen with their squad in the coming season.  It’s always fun to see what the opposition is thinking and how optimistic some of their most devoted and intelligent fans are.  This year, the Pepper series is brought to you by Out of the Park Baseball 16, coming soon for PC.  Preorder this outstanding baseball simulation today!

Houston Astros
70-92, fourth in the AL West

It looks like baseball fans are going to have to find another team to laugh at.  While Houston wasn’t in contention by any means last year, they not only improved their win total but finished ahead of their cross-state rivals in the standings.  If this isn’t a team on the rise, I don’t know what is.

The major reason that the Astros are starting their return to relevance is a revitalized farm system.  We saw what Jeff Luhnow did in St. Louis and he’s doing the same in Houston.  Which means it’s remarkably appropriate that for today’s Pepper we have Jayne from What The Heck, Bobby?  Jayne’s an Astros minor league guru and just published her first book, a handbook overview of all the players in the system.  If you are a prospect fan, no matter what the team, this is well worth picking up.  You’ll also find Jayne on Twitter @JayneWTHB.

C70: What are your thoughts on the team’s offseason? Did they do what they needed to do?

WTH: I’m not sure how much of an impact some of the moves will make. The team picked up C Hank Conger at backup mostly for his framing abilities, but they are losing offense by replacing Carlos Corporan with Conger. I didn’t really see the point of picking up RHP Dan Straily since the team has numerous mid to late rotation pitchers in the mix, and I don’t see Straily as a substantial upgrade over any of them. 3B Luis Valbuena doesn’t appear to be that much of an upgrade over 3B Matt Dominguez. I’m also not wild about the signing of OF Colby Rasmus, a streaky hitter with a high strikeout rate (33% in 2014) for a team that already strikes out too much.

The biggest potential impact will likely come from slugger Evan Gattis who will be moved from catcher to mostly LF and DH. As long as Gattis stays healthy, he should provide a solid anchor to the lineup. Two of the earliest signings of the offseason came as Luhnow inked bullpen pitchers RHP Luke Gregerson and RHP Pat Neshek, two welcome additions for a bullpen that has had its struggles over the past few seasons. SS Jed Lowrie should provide a little stability and a veteran presence at the position, but I don’t like the discussion of moving him to third base when SS Carlos Correa is ready to make his debut because I’d like, you know, an actual third baseman to play third base.

C70: Three years into the Jeff Luhnow tenure, what are your thoughts on what he’s done?

WTH: I think that Luhnow did a magnificent job in accelerating the process of improving the depth of the Astros farm system through trades and overall good drafts, particularly the 2012 draft. Former GM Ed Wade and Scouting Director Bobby Heck started the rebuild process in 2008, but were somewhat hampered by former Astros owner Drayton McLane’s tendency to adhere strictly to the former draft slotting process and the rebuild was moving at a glacial pace. Luhnow was able to capitalize on the new draft bonus pools that went into effect in 2012 and new owner Jim Crane’s willingness to invest in the minor league system. That, along with numerous trades and a renewed international focus, helped propel the Astros farm system from a bottom ten system to a top ten system fairly quickly.

With that said, Luhnow’s tendency to play things so closely to the vest did not endear him to the local media and, deservedly or not, he started getting bad press for many of his actions, culminating with the firing of Bo Porter and the inability to come to terms with 2014 first overall pick Brady Aiken. His manipulation of the bonus pools which was lauded in 2012 was largely condemned in 2014 since the failure to sign Aiken resulted in the Astros voiding their verbal agreement with fifth round pick Jacob Nix. The reasoning was understandable since signing Nix to their over-slot agreement without the under-slot signing of Aiken would have resulted in the loss of top draft picks in the 2015 draft. But the optics of appearing to renege on a deal with a high-schooler did not play well with anyone. The Astros subsequently made a monetary settlement of an undisclosed amount with Nix after the player’s union filed a grievance on his behalf.

Personally, I have long questioned some of Luhnow’s signings even as I understood the reasoning behind them. He was limited by design during the farm system rebuild in the amount that he could spend in free agency so he picked up a lot of players early on that I suppose were worth a gamble, but for whom the gamble didn’t exactly pay off: Armando Galarraga, Carlos Pena, Rick Ankiel, Fernando Martinez, Philip Humber, etc. But he wasn’t signing these types of players to long term contracts and he cut his losses quickly so no harm, no foul.

Now that the system has more depth, I fully expected to see some trades that I wouldn’t like, such as the trade sending RHP Nick Tropeano and C Carlos Perez to the Angels for C Hank Conger. I hate the trade and think it was a bad one, but I can intellectualize that the Astros have quite a number of pitchers who can adequately fill mid to late rotation spots (as will likely be the case with Tropeano ultimately) and nice minor league catching depth as well. I just happen to think that Tropeano will adapt to a major league starting role more quickly than some of the others and I think he has the chance to have a very long career. (Plus C Carlos Corporan’s bat makes me feel better than Hank Conger’s). But again, I can intellectualize the reason behind it all.

But one other move in particular (and one rumored move that didn’t happen) have really raised red flags with me. The system has not been exactly awash in good third base prospects over the last few years and I think it was borderline GM malpractice to trade away top 10 system prospect 3B Rio Ruiz and roll the dice that Colin Moran is going to be the Astros 3B of the future. Moran can hit for average, but he lacks the power that is normally expected at third base plus some observers question Moran’s drive. I think it likely that Moran will get to the majors, but his ability to stick at third base is not exactly a given. I think Ruiz can stick at that position and has a much higher ceiling than Moran. I hated to see him go. But even worse was the rumor that the Astros were considering including RHP Vince Velasquez in that trade. The system isn’t exactly overflowing with potential number one or number two starting candidates, but Velasquez (another top 10 system prospect) is the best of the bunch as far as the overall package and proximity to being major league ready. Letting him go would have been GM malpractice.

Wow, this question turned into a therapy session all of a sudden. Let’s just say that Luhnow has done a good job overall, but that I’ve seen some chinks in his armor and move on to the next question.

C70: Will anything this season top Craig Biggio going into the Hall of Fame in July?

WTH: Good, an easy question! Nothing short of winning the World Series will make this Astros fan happier than Biggio’s entry into the HOF. I’ve had a standing reservation at a B&B in the Village of Cooperstown for the last couple of years so I’m good to go!

C70: What player do you expect to make the greatest strides this year?

WTH: Another easy one! I fully expect 1B Jon Singleton to show why he’s been considered a top prospect for the last several years. 2014 was a tough season for him, but by all accounts, he has his head on straight and he knows what he needs to do in order to succeed. He is an extremely talented ballplayer and his talent should start to rise to the top.

C70: What’s your projection of the team’s record and where will they finish in the division?

WTH: Honestly, I was so busy over the offseason writing a handbook on the Astros farm system that I really didn’t pay much attention to the moves that other teams in the American League West made over the winter so I am blindly guessing that Houston will finish fourth in the division, but will challenge for third and that the final record will be 80-82.

C70: What do you like best about being an Astros fan?

WTH: The other fans. Astros fans are passionate and funny and (mostly) respectful. Collectively, they have a long memory and the history of the team is alive and well. As Astros fans, we have a collective chip on our shoulders. The self-deprecating gallows humor of the last few seasons has kept us going. But do not doubt that when the team becomes a perennial playoff contender (something that will likely start in 2016), we are fully prepared to become the most obnoxious fans in all of baseball. I can’t wait.

I really appreciate Jayne taking the time to answer these questions, especially as she was just coming off finishing the handbook.  We’ll be seeing many of those players in Houston very soon!

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