Monday, November 4, 2013

Team Postmortem: Houston Astros

Record: 51-111, -238 Run Differential

Summary: One of the biggest stories of last off-season, whether it got the most print or not, was the move of the Houston Astros to the American League. Teams change leagues rarely, so it was certainly interesting to see how the Astros fared in the transition. Unsurprisingly, not very well, posting their third consecutive 100+ loss season. They finished with a whopping -238 run differential, the worst such number since the 2010 Pirates. (To give you a sense of how uncommon this is, before that you had to go all the way back to the 2004 Arizona Diamondbacks.) So what went wrong?

We'll start with the pitching. Here are some of the Astros' team pitching stats and where they rank in the MLB: K/9 - 6.78 (28th), BB/9 - 3.89 (30th), HR/9 - 1.19 (28th), FIP - 4.67 (30th), xFIP - 4.48 (30th), fWAR - 1.6 (30th), RA - 848 (30th). That's pretty ugly. By fWAR, their most valuable starter was Bud Norris at 1.8, who was also no longer with the team by the trade deadline, having been shipped to the Baltimore Orioles. After that you have the shell of Erik Bedard and a slew of "Who?" players, none of whom look like long term solutions. The bullpen was even worse. How bad? FIP - 5.09, xFIP - 4.62, fWAR - -5.4. No, that that is not a typo. That is a negative 5.4 Wins Above Replacement. For comparison, the infamously bad 2009 Nationals bullpen was a mere -2.7 fWAR.  The Astros had exactly one reliever with a postive fWAR, Jose Veras, who was also traded (to the Detroit Tigers) at the deadline. Everyone else was either at 0 or negative values.

The offense didn't fair much better. Some stats: OBP .299 (29th), SLG .375 (27th), wRC+ 86 (27th), fWAR 2.3 (29th). However, they did fair well with the longball, hitting 148 home runs, good for 20th in MLB, albeit with the caveat that Minute Maid Park is one of the more homer-happy parks in baseball. On the negative side, Jose Altuve--who went into the season as the Astros most promising postion player and Offical Guy Shorter Than Dustin Pedroia--took a step back in all categories. His OBP dropped from 340 to 316, his SLG from 299 to 262 and his wRC+ from 103 to 85. On the plus side, Jason Castro is one of the best catchers in baseball offensively. His wRC+ of 130 and 4.3 fWAR both rank 4th in baseball behind only Yadier Molina, Joe Mauer, and Buster Posey. While Castro didn't improve his BB% this year (though it's still excellent: his BB% of 10.2 is 5th among MLB catchers), he did see a massive spike in his power. His SLG jumped up from 401 in 2012 to 485 in 2013. He hit 18 homers, as opposed to 6 (in only 200 fewer PAs), and 63 doubles (29). The rest of the team was pretty much dreck.

It's easy to look at these numbers and conclude that the Astros are a disgrace to baseball. It's easy to look at their revenue streams and their minuscule payroll (just over $21M for the entire team) and conclude, like many did after a certain Forbes article fanned the flames, that current owner Jim Crane is just out for the money and is ripping off the fanbase, Loria-style. That would be a mistake. The Astros have a plan in place. This is a massive rebuilding effort that is starting with building through the farm system. It's important to realize where the Astros were when Crane and GM Jeff Lunhow came to the team.  Lunhow was hired December 8, 2011. The Astros had just lost 106 games with a terrible--and relatively expensive at $70M--team on the field.  Going into that season, Baseball America had pegged the Astros farm system as the 26th in baseball. They had no present and no future. Since then Lunhow has committed to a new strategy: Invest heavily in the draft, hold on to prospects, and trade any major league players of value that won't be around when the team is good again. Build up a young, potent core and THEN spend money. Now, their team on the field is still awful, but their farm system has potential.  Going into the 2013 season (before an excellent draft that included stars like Mark Appel, and a handful of deadline trades), Baseball America ranked their farm systems at the 9th in baseball. In a post-MiLB season assessment, Bleacher Report ranked it as the 2nd best system in baseball. There is, finally, a light at the end of the tunnel.

This is not to say that the Astros are going to be contenders soon. Many of their top prospects are still a while away from being ready for the majors--spending 2013 in Rookie or A ball. There is, as always, a lot of risk involved with relying on prospects. Will enough of them reach their potential? Will the team recognize when it is time the open the banks and make that move to bring in players to surround that core? Will the team spend that money on the right players? Contention, if it happens, is still several years away, but for the first time in a long time, there is hope. They may lose 100 games again next year, but they are heading in the right direction.

Team MVP: Jason Castro, 4.3 fWAR

Team LVP: J.D. Martinez, -1.1 fWAR

Down On The Farm: I'll shy away from 2013 1st Overall Pick Mark Appel as he hasn't actually had the opportunity to pitch much in pro ball yet, but he'll obviously be a player to keep an eye on. Instead I'll focus on two other players, who may have a big impact on the Astros' future.

George Springer is a 24-year-old center-fielder, with potential plus defense in center. He split time between AA and AAA this year, and succeeded in both--particularly dominating AAA. In his 62 games in that level he hit  311/424/625 with 18 homers, a wRC+ of 175. He improved his BB% to career high of 15.4% and finally started to cut down on his strikeouts to boot. On top of that, he was a threat on the basepaths, stealing 45 bases in 53 attempts between AA and AAA in 2013.  I'd expect him to see the Majors in 2014.

2nd Base Prospect, Delino DeShields, Jr., 19, repeated High-A this season after struggling in 2012. He responded positively posting a wRC+ of 133 after a mere 90 in 2012. His BB% held pretty much steady at 10.7% (11.4% in 2012), but he cut his K% from 20.2 to 17.0. Power doesn't seem to be in his future, but he clearly has decent on-base skills--and speed.  He stole 51 bases in 69 attempts. I'd imagine he'll start 2014 in AA, which will be a significant test.

If APOD was GM: Personally, if I was the Astros GM, I would mostly stay the course. Don't spend any significant money in Free Agency. Keep trying to develop young players, try to draft well, and look to trade any veterans with value at the deadline. The Astros are still quite a few years away from contention, so the focus needs to be on rebuilding that farm until the pieces are in place to start spending money again to put a contender on the field. I would look long and hard at the Free Agent Market for any significant Buy Lows, particularly among starting pitchers, who could be had for cheap one-year deals. If they can bounceback and have a good year, I would flip them at the deadline to a contender in exchange for more prospects. If they don't, well, they were Buy Lows for a reason and someone had to pitch.

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