The Houston Astros have lost 324 games over the last three seasons combined. That's an average of 108 losses per year, with the added bonus that the team went 56-106 in 2011 and then managed to get worse in each of the next two campaigns. This stretch of futility has made Houston the running joke of the baseball world. "So, Chris Carter, Jason Castro and Jarred Cosart walk into a bar. Ouch! And Jose Altuve walks under it. And Jimmy Paredes collides with it and drops the ball."
However, the Astros weren't this bad on accident. They tore down their roster as completely as any non-Marlins team has done in recent memory, and spent the last two seasons testing out as many promising young players as they could. Rumor has it that one lucky fan got to pitch in relief during a blowout loss last August because he claimed to have thrown a shutout once in little league (citation needed). This strategy didn't lead to wins, but it allowed them to identify a handful of players to build around as they construct their next good team. They also spent that time putting together arguably the best farm system in the sport.
Houston will not be a contender in 2014. We can make that statement with as much certainty as any prediction for the upcoming season. The team is still not good enough, and the AL West could be the strongest division in baseball. Another losing season is all but guaranteed, and last place is the most likely destination.
But these are not last year's 'Stros. They've weeded out many of the inept players, developed a few of their young guns and added several solid veterans to the mix. That last part is important; outside of a couple of reclamation projects last year (Erik Bedard and Carlos Pena), the club has mostly eschewed spending money and playing time on short-term players during its rebuild. This winter, Houston picked up an above-average starting pitcher (Scott Feldman), a reliable innings-eater (Jerome Williams), a strong up-the-middle player (center fielder Dexter Fowler) and several established bullpen arms (Chad Qualls, Matt Albers, Jesse Crain, Darin Downs).
While Houston's offseason additions don't jump off the screen, they should help stabilize the downward spiral of the team's recent performance. The experienced starters will bolster a rotation that posted a 4.72 ERA last year (28th in MLB) and failed to pitch deep into games (fourth-fewest innings pitched). The revamped bullpen is likely to improve on its MLB-worst 4.92 ERA while reducing its league-leading total of 29 blown saves. Fowler will boost the weak lineup and outfield defense. These acquisitions don't make the team a winner, but they will provide some support for the young players as they continue to develop.
Many of the Astros' holdovers could be in for improved performances as well. On the pitching side, Jarred Cosart and Brett Oberholtzer both opened eyes in a handful of late-season starts. While their shaky peripheral stats suggest that their low ERA's are unsustainable, Cosart's impressive stuff and Oberholtzer's minuscule walk rate give them good chances to at least hold their own over full seasons. Brad Peacock was dreadful in the first half, but he added a slider after his demotion to the minors. He came back and compiled a 3.64 ERA and a 2.70 strikeout-to-walk rate in nine second half starts while throwing the new pitch 10 percent of the time.
The lineup also gives cause for optimism. Chris Carter swatted 29 home runs last year, but he gave back almost all of his offensive value on defense. However, with Pena and Brett Wallace out of the equation, Carter's natural position of designated hitter is freed up and he can focus on the only thing he's particularly good at: hitting dingers. Left fielder Robbie Grossman also made strides as the season progressed -- he hit .198/.310/.243 with no home runs in the first half and .322/.351/.466 with four long balls in the second half. Third baseman Matt Dominguez posted a .640 OPS before the All-Star Break and a .753 mark afterward.
Not only is the current group improving, but there is more help on the way. Outfielder George Springer is one of the top prospects in baseball and should reach the majors this year. The 24-year-old split last season between Double-A and Triple-A and posted an overall line of .303/.411/.600, 37 home runs and 45 stolen bases at an 85 percent success rate. Even better, he actually improved upon his promotion to Oklahoma City, with an OPS 70 points higher and a decreased strikeout rate. Keep an eye on this page to see if he's been called up yet. First baseman Jonathan Singleton also reached Triple-A last year at the age of 21, and there isn't anything blocking the top-100 prospect from Houston if he proves he is ready this summer.
Of course, all of these rosy outlooks aren't meant to suggest that there is nowhere to go but up. Catcher Jason Castro will be hard-pressed to match last year's 4.5 bWAR, and a couple of veterans are sure to be traded at the deadline. Players can and will get hurt, and small-sample successes from last year could turn out to be flukes. But there are far more things which can improve than things which can decline.
Improving from 111 losses to 90 losses requires an extra 21 wins, so the question is how likely the Astros are to make that kind of jump. The entire pitching staff was worth 3.2 bWAR last year thanks in part to disastrous performances by Jordan Lyles, Lucas Harrell and Philip Humber (combined negative-4.4 bWAR). If Feldman, Cosart, Oberholtzer and Peacock can each average around two wins above replacement and guys like Williams and Dallas Keuchel can at least break even in the fifth spot, then the rotation could be worth 8.0 bWAR on its own. In the bullpen, Qualls, Albers, Crain and holdover Kevin Chapman combined for 5.6 bWAR in 2013, so it's not out of line to expect a positive value of three or four wins above replacement from the relievers. The pitching staff, which has improved through both addition and subtraction, could represent an eight-win jump.
The only position players to rack up at least one win last year were Castro (4.5), Dominguez (2.2), Brandon Barnes (1.7) and Altuve (1.0), and the entire group contributed only 5.4 bWAR overall. Conservative estimates for Castro (3), Fowler (2), Dominguez (2), Carter (1), Altuve (1) and Grossman (1), plus any stray production from the rest of the team, suggest that a five-win upgrade from the lineup isn't out of the question.
An extra 13 to 15 wins wouldn't get the Astros all the way to 90 losses, but it would get them close. The foundation has been laid to improve the major league roster, and all it would take to make up the rest of the ground would be a couple of breakout years from their stable of youngsters or the rapid ascension of a prospect like Springer or Singleton.
The Astros have been the butt of our jokes for a few years now, but that may not last much longer. They're not ready to contend, but they are past the part of the rebuilding cycle in which they are utterly embarrassing. You have to squint to see it, but there could be a 72-win team in Houston's camp right now. That may not sound like much to you, but to the Astros it's the best news they've heard in years.