The Houston Astros aren’t quite the worst team in baseball for once, at least based on win-loss record — they have the Miami Marlins to thank for that. Still, everyone knows the Astros are bad, but while the front office and organization continues to weather the storm amid constant criticism, how long will it be until they reach respectability?
When the Astros seriously committed to rebuilding in 2011, they got off to a great start by bringing former St. Louis Cardinals VP of Scouting and Player Development Jeff Luhnow on board. Luhnow was integral in expanding the Cardinals’ scouting operation in Latin America, and was also responsible for overseeing the numerous fruitful drafts that the Cardinals had over the past decade. When Luhnow joined the organization in December of 2011, the Astros had just begun replenishing one of the worst farm systems in baseball by trading away the only two offensive players from the 2011 club that held any trade value in Hunter Pence and Michael Bourn, but there was clearly plenty of work to be done.
It’s one thing to be a bad team with prospects waiting in the wings for September call-ups to energize the fan base and give them hope for the following season. But Oklahoma City, the Astros’ Triple-A club, finished the 2011 season in last place. Double-A Corpus Christi did the same. Lunhow quickly realized that he had no future superstars in the upper rungs of his new organization, and responded by sending many of the young players that he hoped would, at the very least, turn into major league regulars or bench players down to Triple-A to start the 2012 season.
The lower reaches of the Astros’ system was quickly re-stocked by Luhnow and his revamped front office through trades and what appears to have been a good amateur draft in 2012, followed by another solid draft in 2013. Shortstop Carlos Correa was the #1 overall pick by the Astros in 2012, and Luhnow followed that selection up by drafting a wealth of high-upside pitching in the early rounds, including prep star Lance McCullers in a steal at the 41st pick. Correa has been solid in the very early stages of his pro career, hitting .272/.345/.410 over 2012 at a couple of separate rookie-league stops and so far in 2013 at Low-A Quad Cities. Of course, he’s also just 18 years old.
As far as McCullers goes, he has a stellar 1.57 ERA and 1.18 WHIP in 51 2/3 innings at Low-A Quad Cities, mostly coming in starts. McCullers is ranked as the #50 prospect in all of baseball by Baseball America, and Correa is ranked #30. And while we’re talking about pitching, let’s not forget to mention the Astros’ brand new #1 overall pick in Stanford right-hander Mark Appel. After being drafted #7 overall by the Pittsburgh Pirates in 2012, Appel chose to return to school. He only raised his draft stock, and the Astros landed him in 2013. He should shoot the system quickly, and will certainly receive a spring training invitation in 2014 and start the season no lower than Triple-A. Of course, that’s assuming he doesn’t get to Houston this year, which is certainly a possibility.
On the pitching side, the Astros currently have a few middle-to-back-of the rotation starters at the major league level in Jordan Lyles, Lucas Harrell, and Bud Norris. In the minors, Jarrod Cosart and Brett Oberholtzer are next in line, although the jury is still out on whether either one will be able to have a legitimate, front-of-the-rotation impact at some point down the road. Cosart, who dropped out of BA’s prospect ranking this season, throws hard (93-96 mph) with a nice breaking ball, but struggles in the middle innings and due to his somewhat violent delivery, stamina issues, and apparent control problems could end up as a valuable back of the bullpen pitcher. Oberholtzer is another middle-of-the-rotation possibility who has mostly struggled since coming over from the Atlanta Braves‘ organization in 2012. Like Cosart, Oberholtzer has struggled with his control at the higher levels of the minors.
The outlook for the Houston Astros is distinctly different when looking at position players versus the future pitching staff of the team. The Astros could very well have a respectable offensive attack within the next couple of years, with a lineup including top prospects George Springer and Jonathan Singleton by 2015. Brett Wallace still might turn into a decent #5 or 6 hitter in the batting order, despite again being sent back to Triple-A once already this season. Altuve is already an on-base machine at the top of the lineup and should only continue to improve. Paredes is still too promising as a hitter to simply be a utility player, but he isn’t a good enough defender to play enough positions well or a good enough hitter to play a corner position full-time. If he proves to be able to handle the outfield on a daily basis, he should be a solid player as well.
2010 first round pick Delino DeShields (2B/OF) finally started to show flashes as a hitter in 2012 reached High-A Lancaster as a 20-year old. So far in 2013, DeShields is playing much better at Lancaster, hitting .280/.369/.402 and re-entering the Baseball America top prospects at #99. Baseball America’s #27 prospect, 1B/OF Jonathan Singleton, now 21 years old, recently returned from his 50-game suspension and is back at Double-A Corpus Christi, hoping for a late-season promotion to Triple-A. George Springer, the #37 prospect, is a toolsy 22-year old outfielder hitting a sizzling .305/.409/.623 at Double-A and should be earning a promotion at any time.
Pitching, of course, is a different story. Of the group consisting of Lyles, Harrell, Oberholtzer, Clemens, and Dallas Keuchel, only Cosart likely has the ability to be more than a solid #3 starter, and he has his share of question marks as detailed above. The rest are all #4-5 starters at best in the majors. The bullpen should be okay, with a couple of pitchers from the above group making the transition into high-leverage bullpen roles.
The offense should steadily improve over the next year or two, but the pitching staff will certainly be taking its lumps. If Luhnow makes a couple more successful trades or eventual free agent signings to acquire one or two front-of-the-rotation arms, the Astros should be competitive again by the start of the 2015 season. An offensive core of Altuve-Correa-Singleton-Springer-Wallace is certainly something to build around, but it must be supported by a solid pitching staff in order to make any noise in the American League. Unfortunately, it appears as though the requisite arms simply do not exist at this point in time in the Astros’ organization outside of Mark Appel and potentially someone like a Cosart or Oberholtzer, and it will be up to Luhnow to surround his promising offensive prospects with a pitching staff that will help lead them into the future.