General - The good news is the Astros did not finish with the worst record in baseball for the first time in three years. The franchise also appears to be adding pieces to enhance a winning ball club, rather than rebuilding. It may still take a couple years for Houston fans to see a playoff team, but a winning season could occur this year. The bad news is the Astros attempt at building new pieces was put through a loop when they could not sign first pick Brady Aiken. That inability to sign Aiken at below slot costs prevented them from signing other picks as well. They should recover from those missteps with extra picks in the 2015 draft and a bucket full of cash to sign those prospects.
Key Additions - They made a trade with the Angels to acquire a back up catcher in Hank Conger, who is stated to be one of the top pitch framers in the game. This is a type of acquisition a baseball analytics group would make. They also signed free agent Jed Lowrie to improve themselves at shortstop after having a circus full of inadequate performers there last year. Additional free agent signings Pat Neshek and Luke Gregerson will help the bullpen better than last year’s signing of injured Jesse Crain. Evan Gattis was acquired from the Braves for three prospects. He could play left field, first base or catcher. They traded away centerfielder Dexter Fowler to get Luis Valbuena and Dan Straily. They also signed free agent Colby Rasmus to help their outfield situation.
Catcher - Jason Castro is currently the catcher but with Hank Conger on board Jason has been mentioned in trade talks. Jason is the much better hitter at this point but the Astros analytic group likes the defense Conger brings to the game. Carlos Corporan is a capable backup if Castro gets traded. Jason had a down offensive year last year hitting just .222 with only 14 homeruns after hitting .276 with 18 homeruns the previous year. Evan Gattis can play here but his defense is subpar.
First Base - The options they currently have are not noted for their defense or it appears their ability to hit for average. Chris Carter slugged 37 homeruns but brought with that 182 whiffs and a .227 average. They would like Jonathan Singleton to take over the position but he made 11 errors in just 91 games and hit just .168 with 13 homeruns. The Astros signed Singleton to a multi year contract so he will be given other opportunities. Both are probably best suited for the DH position. It is unclear what Evan Gattis can do at first base. Like Chris Carter he is a hit first offensive player which could lead the Astros to trade Carter.
Second Base - Jose Altuve is their franchise player. Last year the little giant hit .341 with 56 stolen bases. He hit .414 versus lefthanded pitching. With the acquisition of Lowrie it frees up Marwin Gonzalez to fill the utility role and he will play the handful of games Altuve does not.
Third Base - Matt Dominguez has always been noted for his defense. His offense is a little short and the Astros would like to see him improve on his .216 average of last year. He did bash 16 homeruns but slugged just .330. Luis Valbuena was acquired to compete with him for the position. He is not the defensive player that Matt is and also bashed 16 homeruns, but he hit for a higher average. Valbuena also played 12 games at second so he can move around. It will be surprising if they keep both because Marwin Gonzalez can also play here. Marwin hit .270 with a .400 slugging average, though the more he plays the more his offensive weaknesses get exposed.
Shortstop - Jed Lowrie will play here and try to stay healthy. Last year he was injured and had a down offensive year when compared to 2013. If he gets injured for an extended period of time Jonathan Villar may be called upon to be given a second chance to show he can play the position. Villar only hit .209 last year losing his job to Marwin Gonzalez towards the end of the season. Marwin could see a lot of time here in his utility player role. By mid-season Astro fans could see the callup of Carlos Correa, but that would eat into his service time and the Astros may wait until September to call him up.
Left Field - Evan Gattis is the best offensive player for this position but his defense is poor. His best place is probably DH but the Astros roster is filled with players at this position. Rob Grossman failed to heed the call last year hitting only .233. He brings only speed and defense to the game. L.J. Hoes is more a line drive hitting fourth outfielder. Last year he hit only .172 but he has the potential to hit for higher average. As a line drive hitter he lacks the ability to hit for power. Expect Jake Marisnick to take over the position if he shows any kind of offense during spring training. His defense is centerfield caliber but Colby Rasmus has that position, even though myworld thinks Marisnick is the better defensive player. If Jake can not make it as a starter he will play in AAA.
Center Field - The Astros would like to trade Dexter Fowler (they did) but he and their best prospect George Springer seem to get along so well. The signing of Colby Rasmus gives them a centerfielder who struggles against lefthanders (.195). Last year he struggled against everyone with a 29/124 walk to whiff ratio and a .287 OBA. Jake Marisnick is every bit as good defensively as Rasmus and will be given an opportunity to play here against lefthanders if Rasmus continues with his struggles. Rob Grossman is the typical fourth outfielder type whose defense allows him to play all three outfield positions if he does not win the left field job. George Springer has the ability to also play here.
Right Field - George Springer may have won the rookie of the year award if his season had not ended early. He hit 20 homeruns but only played in 78 games. The strikeouts come in bunches (114) resulting in a low batting average (.231). Marisnick, Hoes and Grossman can all play this position. Alex Presley is another player who could fill a fourth outfielder role.
Designated Hitter - Chris Carter will see the majority of time here. Evan Gattis is another option. They are both good hit poor glove type of players. With so much in common the Astros could trade one of them before the season starts.
Starting Pitchers - They lack an ace. Scott Feldman takes over that responsibility based on his years of experience, not because of his dominating stuff. Dallas Keuchel is a lefthanded version of Feldman. His numbers (12-9, 2.93) are a credit to his ability to locate his pitches. Collin McHugh seemed to come out of nowhere with his .208 opposition average and 157 whiffs in 155 innings looking to meet the definition of ace stuff, but his fastball sits in the low 90s and he relies on his curveball for strikeouts. It will be interesting if he can repeat that success in 2015 or become another Lucas Harrell who will be pitching in Korea in 2015 after coming out of nowhere to star in 2012 and then flop in 2013. Spring training will determine the fourth and fifth starters. The horses in the race are Brad Peacock, Brett Oberholtzer, Mike Foltynewicz (included in the Gattis trade now a Brave), Jake Buchanan, Dan Strailey (acquired from the Cubs) and Sam Deduno. The losers of that two team race will slot in the bullpen. Straily had 27 solid starts for the Athletics in 2013, putting together an ERA of 3.96 but last year was a disaster.
Closer - When Jessie Crain failed to return to health last year the Astros turned to Chad Qualls as their closer. Based on his performance last year (19 saves) he will enter the 2015 season as the closer. Josh Fields and Luke Gregerson are other possibilities, though they will begin the season as setup pitchers.
Other Relievers - Most will come from those pitchers who do not make the fourth and fifth spots in the starting rotation and Neshek, Fields and Gregerson. Will Harris was picked up off waivers from the Diamondbacks and could fill a sixth/seventh inning role. Kevin Chapman and Tony Sipp fill the lefthanded reliever roles, though Sipp (.138) had the better opposition average than Chapman (.261) against lefthanders.
2015 Rookies - No more stockpiling the top prospects in the minor leagues. Domingo Santana had 17 major league at bats last year and struck out in 14 of them. He would be a nice power source in left field if he can improve his contact rate. Josh Hader shined in High A but could be in the rotation by mid season. Nolan Fontana knows how to draw base on balls and he could fill a utility role if Marwin Gonzalez gets injured for an extended period of time. Preston Tucker does not flatter scouts with tools but he did hit 24 homeruns between AA and AAA. Hitting is his forte. Leo Heras is a Mexican League stand out who shows plus plus speed. Watch for a mid-season callup from him. Finally, if Carlos Correa gets promoted it will probably not be until September.
2015 Finish - They still do not have the depth to compete for a playoff spot, though they keep adding pieces. The Astros show enough improvement that they could escape the basement if the Athletics continue to trade away their valuable pieces. Astro fans can feel a sense of accomplishment if the team finishes at .500 or better.