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American League Two-a-Days: Houston Astros

LiveBall Sports previews the American League this week.

Team Synopsis: Houston Astros

2013 record: 51-111
2013 runs scored: 610
2013 runs against: 848
2013 pythag. record: 57-105

The Astros outscored the White Sox last season and were in the ballpark with the Mariners, but no team was in the ballpark of 848 runs against in either league.  That’s a sign of the run environment that we’re in right now that the Astros were more than two standard deviations below the mean in terms of run prevention.  Remember six 6 years ago when the Detroit Tigers offense was supposed to score 1,000 runs?

Who is having a good spring?

OF Marc Krauss might be turning into something here.  His 17 total bases lead every spring training hitter, and he plays in Florida for spring training.  Most of the offensive leaders are playing in the Cactus league, because the run environment there is so extreme.  RHP Jerome Williams, picked up from the Angels in the offseason, has 6 strikeouts in 4 2/3 innings to lead the staff.

Reasons to be optimistic about the 2014 Astros

They pick first in the 2014 first-year player draft.  Even despite this fact, when you hear pundits talking about who Houston is going to take with the first pick, they’re likely talking about the Texans.  2013 – not the best sports year in Texas.

The Astros lost their last 15 games in 2013.  That’s the longest active streak for a Houston professional team, besting the Texans who lost their final 14 games in 2013.

Reasons to be realistic about the 2014 Astros

For a lot of reasons, this roster is getting over-projected.  They are still the weakest roster in the AL, and only the White Sox have more downside potential on the field than the Astros.  There has been a clear upgrade in veteran talent from last season, but the difference is that in 2013, the only qualifications the veterans had to be a member of the Astros was to 1) know and understand you’d have a limited role on an awful team, and 2) have some trade value, potentially.  Or be Rick Ankiel, I guess.

Scott Feldman, Jerome Williams, and Dexter Fowler are useful veteran pieces, but Erik Bedard and Jose Veras were not exactly chopped liver.  The Astros have so much ground to make up just to get to the 60 win plateau.  They’re capable of getting there, in fact, 70 is about the ceiling for this team, but they can’t get there without a reasonable amount of development from young talent.  And that’s where 2013 was truly a lost year for the Astros, is that the under-25 brigade at the MLB level combined for about 2-WAR on the players side.  Combined.  That’s whole team.  And charitably, might I add, because if you include the 25-year olds in that analysis, the Astros fall below replacement level in 2013.

Jimmy Paredes and Brandon Laird will help the Omaha Storm Chasers defend the AAA-Pacific Coast League Title in 2014.  Which means they’ll be playing for a better team than the 2013 Astros.

The Projections

The Fangraphs projected team WAR for the 2014 Astros is 21.6, last in the American League.  Their 14.5 Batters WAR projection is 13th in the AL. Their 7.1 Pitchers WAR projection is last in the AL.  Cool Standings projects the 2014 Astros to win 67 games, a 16 win improvement over last season.  Jason Castro is the Astro with the best 2014 projection with an average WAR projection of 3.2.  Scott Feldman is the pitcher with the best average projection at 2.0 WAR.

The Astros vs the rest of the AL West

The AL West is a below average division, and the weakest of the AL divisions in 2014.  This despite having four above average teams and an “improved” Astros team.  This is the case because no teams in the AL West are a lock to win 90 games.  According to Cool Standings, the division winner is projected to win 86 games.  It’s a true four team race in 2014.  The Astros will not participate.

LiveBall Sports Projection for the 2014 Houston Astros

Given how bad the pitching is, particularly in the bullpen, every game the Astros win is going to feel like an aberration.  There’s absolutely a chance here that Houston could give up more than 848 runs this year.  The rotation was actually better on paper heading into last season, before Phil Humber was the worst player in baseball the first half of the season.  The bullpen was definitely better on paper before they traded everyone in it (by design).  Even the defense was probably better on paper at this time last year, although they’ve improved in center field with the Fowler acquisition.

The offense is an area where you can see progress with this organization.  I touched on Marc Krauss’ torrid spring, but when you put Fowler and a full season of L.J. Hoes back there (acquired from Baltimore in the Bud Norris deal) with Krauss, return Castro, Matt Dominguez, Chris Carter, and Jose Altuve, the Astros offense is…well, I don’t know if good is the right term.  But it looks like a major league starting nine.  And that’s probably enough to break through the 100 loss barrier.  64-98 is the prediction.  And that will be the worst in baseball.

Because if the Astros become the first team to lose 100 games four consecutive years, it may be time to evaluate the operation in greater context.  Or even worse: watch the Texans.

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