Astros No Longer the Worst

The Houston Astros have not been very good the past three seasons. They haven’t cracked 60 wins, and have generally played an unwatchable brand of baseball while doing so.

This year should be different. Not only are some of their prospects about to graduate to the majors, but they have acquired some depth at the major league level. They won’t be the worst team in baseball, and might not even be one of the three worst.

Addition by subtraction
During the past two seasons, the major league roster experienced quite a bit of turnover as the team experimented with different players. Some of those experiments have worked out, and some did not or have not. The opportunities afforded to Brett Wallace, for example, have largely gone for naught. J.D. Martinez and Marwin Gonzalez also have failed to make the most of their opportunities. Brandon Barnes has a nice glove, but it’s hard to maintain a sub-.300 on-base percentage and be a valuable major league player.

Trimming the fat
These eight players, who were well below replacement-level in 2013, are now gone or will see a diminished role.

PLAYER 2013 WAR
Brandon Barnes 1.0
Brett Wallace 0.0
Trevor Crowe -0.1
Rick Ankiel -0.3
Marwin Gonzalez -0.4
Carlos Pena -0.4
Ronny Cedeno -0.7
J.D. Martinez -1.1
TOTAL -4.0

Of course, it wasn’t just kids who stepped into the batter’s box last season, but the veterans the team had also failed to produce much of value. Neither Carlos Pena nor Ronny Cedeno slugged better than .350. Rick Ankiel produced just a .231 OBP in his short stint (25 games) in Houston. And once-upon-a-time top-100 prospect Trevor Crowe couldn’t post a .300 OBP or slugging percentage.

These eight made more than one-third of the plate appearances by Astros position players last season, and combined for a woeful .227/.283/.357 line. That was good — or bad, actually — for a .640 OPS. The rest of the Astros weren’t exactly a bunch of All-Stars, but their collective .694 OPS was significantly better.

The good news for Houston fans is that those eight players are either ancient history, or should be phased out by the end of the season. The last man standing likely will be Wallace, but he eventually will be replaced by top prospect Jonathan Singleton. Keith Law ranked Singleton as the No. 78 prospect in all of baseball and No. 5 in Houston’s system, and he may have ranked even higher had he not missed nearly half of last season thanks to a suspension for marijuana use.

Another prospect who should be ready for a gig at some point this season is George Springer. Ranked 19th overall by Law, Springer is a center fielder who may not get to play center field right away thanks to Dexter Fowler’s arrival. However, there is no one blocking him in left or right field, so when he is ready for prime time, Fowler’s presence shouldn’t hold him back.

Fowler himself adds to the stable of league-average position players the team will suit up in 2014. With Jason Castro at catcher, Jose Altuve at second base, Chris Carter at designated hitter and Fowler in center field, Houston projects to have four league-average position players. In addition, Matt Dominguez does enough things well to be decent at third base.

Add Singleton and Springer to those five guys, and you have the potential for 2-WAR players at nearly every position. Contrast that with the first eight players, who combined for minus-4 WAR last season (see table), and see the significant improvement. The pitching will still be abysmal, at least for now, but Houston will at least be able to hold its own in the batter’s box.

The worst of the rest
That’s more than we can say for the Miami Marlins. It is no secret that Giancarlo Stanton is an exceptional hitter. Steamer only projects three hitters — Miguel Cabrera, Mike Trout and Joey Votto — to post a better wOBA than Stanton this coming season. However, the players around him can be classified as dreck. No other position player on the roster projects to be worth more than 2.0 WAR either by Steamer or ZiPS.

Retreads such as like Rafael Furcal, Ty Wigginton and Casey McGehee abound, and because the Marlins graduated several of their prospects last season, there aren’t a lot of reinforcements coming. Jake Marisnick should contribute this year, but his playing time will come at the expense of other young, somewhat talented players in Christian Yelich and Marcell Ozuna. In other words, when he graduates, it won’t have the same positive effect on their lineup like Singleton and Springer will have in Houston.

The pitching is similarly built. Jose Fernandez is projected to be a star, but the rest of the rotation is filled with guys who will be league average at best. But the lack of depth up and down the roster, and the lack of talent among the group of starters, make the Marlins the front-runner to be the worst team in baseball. And if something should once again happen to Stanton — who has played in only 74 percent of all possible games the past two years due to various injuries — Miami will really struggle to put runs on the board.

The Marlins won’t be the only ones who struggle to post crooked numbers. The Chicago White Sox, Minnesota Twins and Philadelphia Phillies all had trouble putting runs on the board a year ago, and likely will face the same challenges this year.

The White Sox and Phillies should be able to squeak out enough 3-2, 4-3 sorts of wins thanks to their starting rotations, but the same cannot be said for the Twins and Chicago Cubs. Even after all of the attention the Twins paid to their starting rotation earlier in the offseason, FanGraphs’ depth charts still peg them as one of the three worst rotations in baseball. The Astros’ pitching will likely be similarly poor, but they are not going to have the same difficulties hitting the ball.

In fact, according to FanGraphs’ depth charts, the Marlins, White Sox, Cubs and Phillies all project to produce fewer WAR than the Astros, with the Marlins at least 5 WAR behind every other club.

Last season, the Astros had a bunch of very poor hitters clogging their lineup. This season, they will be improved, as most of those players will be history, and players such as Fowler, Singleton and Springer will join the lineup. This is going to make it a lot easier for the Astros to stay in games, and the improved offense should help them avoid being baseball’s worst team.




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Paul Swydan is the managing editor of The Hardball Times, a writer and editor for FanGraphs and a writer for the Boston Globe. He has also written extensively for ESPN MLB Insider. Follow him on Twitter @Swydan.

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