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Rock Bottom: A Houston Astros Preview

A look ahead at the worst team in the American League

You're a Good Man(ager), Charlie Brown.
You're a Good Man(ager), Charlie Brown.
Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

Offense: Jose Altuve - 2B, Dexter Fowler - CF, Jason Castro - C, Matt Dominguez - 3B, Marc Krauss - 1B, George Springer - RF, Chris Carter - DH, Alex Presley - LF, Jonathan Villar - SS

Diminuitive second baseman Jose Altuve is the shortest player in Major League Baseball. If you are ever having trouble explaining the height of something in feet to someone, you can use this handy calculator to convert to Altuves. He is a better hitter than you'd think just by looking at him due to good contact skills that allow him to consistently hit for a high average. He's good for 30-some steals per season and isn't very strong defensively.

The Astros acquired Dexter Fowler from the Rockies in a trade that looked very one-sided in favor of Houston until Jordan Lyles mysteriously stopped allowing so many hits and home runs (in Colorado, of all places). Fowler has a career .298/.395/.485 batting line at Coors Field, so it's really not that big of a shock that his numbers are down this year. As of this writing, he's a career .239/.334/.353 hitter on the road and is hitting .241/.336/.353 on the 2014 season. When he's not delivering eerily predictable offense, Fowler is contributing to the Astros' league-worst defense (by UZR).

Jason Castro is that Astros catcher that someone picked up off the waiver wire in your fantasy league last year. He has good power, but contact has been a problem as Castro's strikeout rate is over 30 percent. After making his mark last season, pitchers seem to be going around him with more offspeed pitches and balls out of the zone. This plan of attack seems to be working well. There's still a sizable spread between Castro's batting average and on-base percentage, but it's in large part attributable to a league-leading number of HBPs.

Matt Dominguez has been close to a league average hitter this season. Appropriately, the Astros have recently promoted him to the cleanup slot from the depths of the lineup. The Astros do not win a lot of games. Dominguez has good power, as he finished second on the Astros last season with 21 home runs. He's had better success slugging righties than lefties over the course of his young career and is regarded as a good defensive third baseman.

Marc Krauss is the lefty half of the Astros' first-base platoon. His overall numbers look pretty poor, but he's been hitting a little better of late. It's more likely than not that Krauss winds up with the Quad-A slugger label as he's 26, slow, can't play defense very well, and hasn't hit at this level. He platoons with Angel Guzman, who, like many Astros, has good power and an awful strikeout rate.

George Springer is the one player in the Astros lineup that generates lots of excitement. Springer is a true five-tool player that hit 37 home runs and stole 45 bases in the minor leagues last season. He hasn't hit the ground running just yet, because (you guessed it) he's been striking out far too often. Whiffs were the only real red flag surrounding Springer's 2013 campaign in the minors, so Astros fans will be intently watching to see if he can make enough contact against pitching at this level to be a star.

Oh my goodness, I've beaten the good power / too many strikeouts description to death already and we're not even through Chris Carter yet. The former White Sox farmhand struck out in 36.2 percent of his plate appearances last season and was punched out 212 times. He's always going to be a threat to hit the ball a long way, but his swing is far too porous and his glove is far too useless for him to have much real value. Carter is 27 years old with a long track record of swinging and missing in the minors, so it's safe to say he is what he is at this point.

Alex Presley looked like he was going to be the Twins' bridge to Byron Buxton until management decided they'd rather watch Aaron Hicks strike out some more instead. The Astros wound up claiming him after he was placed on waivers. Presley is a classic tweener that doesn't have the bat for a corner or the range for center, but is generally useful to have around as an extra outfielder. Presley platoons with the right-handed L.J. Hoes in left field, who looked like a league average hitter last season, but has done everything he possibly can to shatter that illusion (in a bad way) in limited time this year.

For the time being, Jonathan Villar is keeping the shortstop position warm for top prospect Carlos Correa's arrival down the road. Villar has the tools to be a good defensive shortstop, but shows questionable judgment and is prone to mistakes, as shown by last year's .937 fielding percentage. With the bat, Villar can work a walk, but he doesn't otherwise provide much value offensively. Oh, and he strikes out a lot.

Pitching: Starting Rotation: Scott Feldman - RHP, Collin McHugh - RHP, Jarred Cosart - RHP, Dallas Keuchel - LHP, Brad Peacock - RHP; Closer - Chad Qualls - RHP

Scott Feldman is a league average innings muncher that doesn't throw very hard or strike out many hitters, but compensates by getting lots of ground balls and allowing a below-average rate of line drives. Feldman throws a high-80s cutter and sinker mixed in with a changeup and a frequently-used curveball. The right-hander is off to a great start to the year due to an unsustainably low BABIP, but his knack for inducing weak contact should continue to provide the Astros' pitching staff with a refreshing dose of competence even after the luck runs out.

Collin McHugh looked like an awful pitcher by pretty much any measure before this year.  He came into 2014 with a career 8.94 ERA, 5.86 FIP, 1.796 WHIP, and 2.1 HR/9.  Something looks like it may have clicked for him, though, as he's got a strong ERA this season with the peripherals to back it up.  Through his first four starts, he's struck out over a batter per inning, exhibited good control, and has kept the ball in the park.  This is a small sample, but hitters are swinging and missing at McHugh's pitches like never before.  His velocity is up across the board and he's getting more horizontal movement on his breaking pitches.  There's some reason to believe that the 27-year old has simply taken the next step, but it's too early to be sure.  Want more Collin McHugh? Check out his personal blog: A Day Older, A Day Wiser.

Jarred Cosart throws a very hard and very good cut fastball, but he's generally wild and doesn't have a good secondary offering.  One thing that Cosart does very well is get ground balls at a very high rate; even Houston's mostly indifferent infield defense doesn't sap the value in that.  However, it's tough to survive in the majors walking as many hitters are Cosart does without a healthy accompanying dose of strikeouts. Anyone who only looks at his 1.95 ERA through 10 starts from 2013 is being fooled.

Like McHugh, Dallas Keuchel looked like a pitcher that wasn't worth all that much before this season but is showing the Astros a little something more in 2014.  Keuchel was already very good at inducing ground balls, but this season, a staggering 65 percent of opposing batted balls are grounders.  Although this is pretty certain to regress, if you throw in his slight uptick in strikeouts and noticeable improvement in control, there's an argument to be made that Keuchel could stick as a back-end starter.  He's left handed and throws in the high 80's.  That sentence alone is enough to make White Sox fans shudder.

With the Astros' record as poor as it is, there has to be pretty bad pitching someplace in this rotation and Brad Peacock is just the man to provide it.  He hasn't been able to find the strike zone much this season and opponents have been plenty able to cash in on all the free passes.  In late April, Peacock replaced the ineffective Lucas Harrell in the rotation and has allowed six home runs in five starts.  He throws a fastball, slider, curve, and changeup, none of which are particularly interesting.

Chad Qualls hasn't been the only guy getting the call for saves on the Astros but he seems like a reasonable bet to be the guy going forward.  Qualls has bounced all over the league since his last effective season in Arizona ended in 2009; he's played on 8 teams since the beginning of 2010.  He's had trouble missing bats since his heyday but the strikeouts have been back with a vengeance in this season's limited sample.  White Sox fans best remember Qualls for giving up Paul Konerko's epic grand slam in the World Series.

Outlook & Prediction: The Astros stink.  Predicted record and finish: 62-100, 5th place, AL West