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Houston Astros’ Rebuild is Nearing Completion

The Houston Astros once claimed they were building for a 2017 World Series run. Our Nathan Aderhold checks in on their progress

When the Astros acquired Dexter Fowler from the Rockies in December 2013, many believed it marked the beginning of Phase Two in the organization’s gargantuan rebuilding plan. For nearly two years leading up to that trade, every deal Houston made was carried out with one thing in mind: the future. General Manager Jeff Luhnow had done nothing but trade MLB talent for prospects, leading to consecutive 100-loss seasons in his first two years at the helm. By bringing Fowler into the fold before the 2014 season, the club seemed to be announcing that that future was closing in, fast.

While that sentiment continues to hold a little more than a year later, the part about Fowler having a place in that impending future obviously wasn’t to be. With the center fielder only a year away from free agency, and with no rumors of a contract extension floating around, we probably should have known his time in Houston was short. (I’m not sure the team has let a quality non-reliever reach free agency this decade.) Still, it’s a bit of a shock to see the guy who seemingly signaled an organizational shift get dealt just a year after arriving.

Fowler’s surprise departure got me wondering about who we can expect to be around when the club goes after the destined 2017 World Series title, and who is simply playing the part of stopgap. There’s still plenty that can change between now and then, but with the abundance of pre-arbitration players on board I feel fairly confident that we can at least give a rough estimate of where the roster is headed. I admit this post has the potential to look disastrous in retrospect, but that’s part of the fun. If nothing else, we’ll have something to laugh about in a few years time (or sooner).

MLB: SEP 20 Mariners at Astros

Will the Astros’ recent moves lead to wins in Houston?

 Catcher

2015: Jason Castro and Hank Conger (or Carlos Corporan or Max Stassi or Evan Gattis)

2017: Max Stassi and Hank Conger

I have zero confidence in this prediction. Not a good start. This one trusts not only that Max Stassi will rediscover the potent swing that’s eluded him since his September 2013 concussion, but also that Houston won’t trade Hank Conger when he’s a year from free agency. I know the Astros love pitch framing, but do they really love it more than they love trading players away before they hit the open market? I’m not convinced.

Oh yeah, and there’s also a good chance the 2015 prediction here is wrong. Even if Evan Gattis transitions into a full-time role in left field, I can’t imagine a scenario where the Astros go into the season with four catchers on their active roster. The Rangers have been tied to Carlos Corporan in recent days, but nothing appears imminent. Jason Castro would likely command the biggest return, but he’s also coming off a terrible season, so he’s sort of a moderately expensive sell-low guy right now. Hank Conger is probably safe, for now, but beyond that it’s anyone’s guess.

First Base

2015: Jon Singleton

2017: Jon Singleton

MLB: AUG 03 Blue Jays at Astros

The Astros might end up kicking themselves for guaranteeing Singleton $10 million before he ever stepped on an MLB diamond, but it seems unlikely that they’d cut the cord completely after just two full seasons. In the best-case scenario, Singleton remembers how to hit right-handed pitching (.559 OPS in 2014) and reaches his 30+ homer ceiling just in time for the Astros to make their World Series run. In the worst-case scenario, he becomes the first lefty slugger in history to hit southpaws significantly better than righties and is placed in a unique platoon with another left-handed first baseman. I’ll put my money on the middle ground.

Second Base

2015: Jose Altuve

2017: Jose Altuve

Duh.

 Shortstop

2015: Jed Lowrie

2017: Carlos Correa

Probably the easiest prediction other than the keystone. Everyone knows that Jed Lowrie is merely keeping shortstop warm until über-prospect Carlos Correa takes over. Correa was slowed by injuries last year, but barring disaster, he should be well on his way in Houston by 2017.

Lowrie can barely manage defensively at short now, so I can’t imagine things will get better as he moves further into his 30s. His bat is strong enough that he could stay on as a utility infielder – he is under contract through 2017, after all – but it might depend on what the much-cheaper Marwin Gonzalez is doing at that point.

Third Base

2015: Luis Valbuena

2017: Colin Moran or [Random Acquisition]

As Adam Rygg noted in his trade breakdown Monday morning, Valbuena will no doubt step into the starting spot at the hot corner in 2015, relegating Matt Dominguez and his 65 OPS+ to either a bench role or off the roster completely. Valbuena isn’t a long-term fix at third – his ceiling is limited and his team control runs out after 2016 – but he’s light years better than anyone else in or around Houston and costs half of what Dexter Fowler will in 2015.

What happens after Valbuena leaves all depends on the progress of Colin Moran. With Rio Ruiz shipped off to Atlanta, Moran is the organization’s best internal bet to take over at the hot corner in 2017. Like Appel, Moran has had trouble accruing the numbers necessary to match the expectations that come with being a top-10 pick in the draft. He hasn’t exactly been bad – as a 21-year-old in 2014, he batted .296/.344/.397 between High-A and Double-A – he just hasn’t produced like a prototypical corner infielder yet. Scouts don’t seem to be sold on his potential to develop over-the-fence power or his ability to stick at third long-term, but they are keen on his knack for squaring up the ball. Whether his hit tool alone can carry him to the hot corner in Houston ultimately depends on how the front office feels about the roster. If the team’s shortstop (Correa) is producing like a top-tier third baseman offensively, maybe they won’t care as much that their 6’4″ third baseman has the same slash line as Erick Aybar. If they do care, there’s always the trade market.

Outfield

2015: Evan Gattis, George Springer, Orbit

2017: Evan Gattis, George Springer, Teoscar Hernandez/Brett Phillips

MLB: JUN 20 Astros at Rays

Left Field: Considering the cost, acquiring Evan Gattis doesn’t really make much sense for the Astros unless he’s part of the team’s long-term solution. Lucky for Houston, Gattis will be in his penultimate year of arbitration when 2017 rolls around. Maybe by then he’ll have the hang of playing in front of the Crawford Boxes. Or maybe not. Those dingers, though!

Center Field: George Springer is the man of the hour, moving back to his natural position in the wake of Dexter Fowler’s departure. The youngster has the potential to be Houston’s (slightly older) answer to Mike Trout, it’s just a matter of whether he can get that swing under control. Mashing 20 home runs in 314 plate appearances as a rookie is a special accomplishment. Doing so while also striking out 114 times hurts the brain to think about. Whether he cuts down on the Ks or not, he’ll be a key part of Houston’s operation going forward.

Right Field: A bit of a conundrum for 2015 with Springer likely transitioning to center. His move means some amalgam of Robbie Grossman, Jake Marisnick, Alex Presley, L.J. Hoes, and Domingo Santana will share time in right. In a perfect world, Santana demolishes the ball in Spring Training and wins the job out of camp, but something tells me his penchant for striking out nearly a third of the time will prevent that from happening. This could be the position that gets filled by trading from the catching surplus this winter.

By the time 2017 rolls around, one or more of Houston’s top outfield prospects should be ready to lock things down in right. Teoscar Hernandez has my vote, but Brett Phillips or [Random Acquisition] could also surprise.

Designated Hitter

2015: Chris Carter

2017: Chris Carter

No one is going to mistake Carter for being the next David Ortiz or Edgar Martinez, but if he can continue to hit a dinger once every 14 ABs or so, he will continue to be one of the better designated hitters in the league. DHs need to hit the ball with authority on a regular basis to come in above replacement level, and he’s one of the few who actually accomplishes it.

MLB: SEP 20 Mariners at Astros

It feels as though Chris Carter has been around forever, but somehow he’s still four seasons shy of free agency. I guess that’s what happens when Billy Beane plays you in a strict two-games-a-month platoon for three seasons. Carter is a Super Two player now, so he won’t stay cheap much longer, but with power at such a premium and this post running so long it seems prudent for the Astros to hang onto him at least until 2018, his final year of team control.

Rotation

2015: Dallas Keuchel, Collin McHugh, Scott Feldman, Brett Oberholtzer, Dan Straily

2017: Collin McHugh, Mark Appel, [Random Free Agent], Dallas Keuchel, Vince Velasquez

This prediction is putting a whole lot of faith in Dallas Keuchel and Collin McHugh (and their polar opposite zone profiles) not being one-season wonders. Based on peripherals alone, I have a lot more trust in McHugh remaining atop the rotation than Keuchel; as much as I love to watch a pitcher succeed by pitching to contact, I think it’s a rather volatile skill set to rely on. I think the lefty will easily pitch well enough to remain a key cog in the rotation, just maybe not in the top spot.

There’s been some speculation that the Astros might be a mystery team for James Shields this winter, but I think they’re better off not diving into that pool until exactly the right moment – i.e. not 2015. A costly, big-name starting pitcher would seem to work much better as a final piece of a puzzle rather than one of those random middle ones that’s depicting a leaf and is the same color as everything else around it and doesn’t fit well. You know the ones. If 2017 really is the Year of Destiny in Houston, then that’s when they should add the free agent starter. Plus, Scott Feldman is gone after 2016, so they’ll need someone anyway. Hence [Random Free Agent] in the No. 3 spot.

For the final two 2017 spots, I went with the top two arms in the system right now: Appel and Vince Velasquez. Appel has had a tough go of things at times in the minors, but I can’t see how he doesn’t crack the rotation by some time next year. And if Velasquez can keep mowing hitters down, he might beat the former No. 1 pick to the punch.

As for new acquisition Dan Straily, his sheen has dulled considerably since his surprising 2013 rookie campaign with the A’s – a 6.75 ERA over 52 innings will do that – but at least he has some history of success at the big-league level. He will probably be pushed out of the rotation when Mark Appel, Asher Wojciechowski and friends make their way to Minute Maid Park, but he should be a serviceable back-end starter until that time comes. Same goes for Brett Oberholtzer.

Bullpen/Bench

Yeah, no way. I can barely figure out who’s doing what in these roles this season.

 

*****

The Astros obviously still have some roster building to do between now and 2017, but a significant chunk of the eventual contending club seems to already be in place. Of the 15 roster spots we covered, eight are fielded by players who one can reasonably expect to still be around in three years, and another four are primed for guys who are only a year or two from contributing to the big-league club. Assuming all goes according to plan, that leaves three spots – catcher, third base, and a rotation spot – up for grabs on the Team of Destiny. All you 2016-2017 free agents out there, plan accordingly.





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