Overview (Present Rank: 12th | Future Rank: 4th)
Craig Biggio, Jeff Bagwell, Lance Berkman, and company had a great run of success from 1997-2005 reaching six postseasons over the nine-year span. The Houston Astros are hoping Jose Altuve, Carlos Correa, George Springer, and the rest of the gang can not only replicate that kind of success, but do what they couldn’t: win the first world championship in franchise history. That’s exactly what owner Jim Crane had in mind when he brought in Jeff Luhnow to be the team’s General Manager back in 2011. After building a strong track record in St. Louis, Houston hired Luhnow to “tank” (lose on purpose) in order to construct a championship-caliber team down the road. After five long years of losing, Houston’s rebuilding phase is complete, and the Astros are ready to go for it all.
*Detailed analysis conducted April 2, 2016; rankings and charts updated throughout the season.
After coming up through the ranks as one of Houston’s top prospects, Jason Castro had a brief stint of living up to his potential in 2013 when he batted .276/.350/.485 en route to his only All-Star appearance. However, since then he’s owned a paltry .650 OPS validating the statement that he’s become a bust. His work on the defensive end has always kept him in the lineup, and 2015 was his best year behind the plate according to Fangraphs with a +10.6 rating defensively. The former 10th overall pick has one year left until he hits free agency. Being on a contract year could motivate Castro to hit like he did in 2013, but if he doesn’t produce, he’ll be forced to sign a cheap one-year deal somewhere.
Nobody else in Houston’s organization is expected to become a starting caliber backstop. Max Stassi looked the part, but two disappointing Triple-A seasons have seen his value deteriorate. Jamie Ritchie has a chance at cracking the big league roster in a few years, but only as a backup. Last year’s eighth round pick Garrett Stubbs could fill the backup spot later down the road, but the Astros will need to see more out of the 22 year-old before making that distinction.
Future Outlook: A Texas-sized hole is presenting itself
As things currently stand, the Houston Astros have the worst catching situation for the years ahead. With a weak farm system and Castro’s limited team control, Houston has nobody they can put behind the plate after this season. GM Jeff Luhnow will have to decide whether to re-sign Castro, or acquire a Major League catcher elsewhere. While many questions surround the catching position, one thing is for sure: There’s nobody in the organization other than Castro that can handle the position on a regular basis anytime soon. Evan Gattis can play there on a limited basis, but any team relying on him to be the primary catcher is asking for serious defensive insufficiencies behind the plate.
One of the primary ways Luhnow acquired all of this young talent was by trading away his established players at the Major League level. Knowing Houston wouldn’t be competitive for years, the controversial GM traded away All-Star Hunter Pence to Philadelphia for a package of prospects centered around Jon Singleton. 19 years old at the time of the trade, Singleton looked to be the next big thing at first base. After struggling with contact issues and high strikeout rates, Singleton doesn’t even look like a Major League caliber player anymore. While Singleton is proving to be a bust, Houston fortunately has other options they can turn to.
It would be ideal for Houston to turn to their No. 1 prospect A.J. Reed in 2016, but it’s likely the 22 year-old won’t be fully ready until 2017. After leading the minors in multiple offensive categories (HR’s, RBI’s, Runs, Total Bases, SLG%, and OPS), Reed is on the fast track to become Houston’s future first baseman. Many minor league evaluators view Reed as the best first base prospect in the game. If he keeps hitting in Triple-A like he did in High-A/Double-A, Reed could make an impact for the ‘Stros throughout the second half of the season. Sooner or later, Reed will make Astros fans forget all about Jon Singleton.
In the meantime, Tyler White is ready to get his first taste of big league action. Since being drafted in the 33rd round back in 2013, White has hit his way into the upper echelon of Houston’s prospect rankings. White isn’t much of a runner, and is an awful fielder making a permanent move to DH likely. Evan Gattis is currently penciled in as the starter there, but once Reed is called up, White could make that shift over to DH assuming he keeps hitting. With improved contact skills, bat path, and lower body strength, White should be able to do exactly that.
Future Outlook: Some prospects pan out, some don’t
The Houston Astros are very well aware of the fact that some prospects work out and some don’t. Carlos Correa and George Springer are examples of ones that have panned out, but Jon Singleton is one player that has not. Singleton is still only 24 years old, so he could theoretically have time to turn things around. However, Houston has their faith in a different first base prospect now. A.J. Reed has emerged as the Astros’ No. 1 prospect (according to Baseball America). Reed and fellow prospect Tyler White will both get some reps at the Major League level this year. Houston is hoping one of them can be the solution to their long-term first base problems.
The Astros have the best second base situation in the league, and it’s all because of one player. His name is Jose Altuve. After netting an All-Star appearance, a top-15 MVP finish, and a Silver Slugger in each of the last two seasons, Altuve has taken Cano’s spot as the best second baseman in the MLB. He even won a Gold Glove award last year, showcasing his value as a two-way player. Altuve fell shy of his league-leading 225 hits from 2014, but his 200 hits still led the league. The Venezuelan native is still only 25 years old making the Astros believe the best is still yet to come. If Houston reaches the playoffs again in 2016 behind Altuve’s bat, he could become a legitimate MVP candidate.
Like the 5’6” Altuve, the Astros have another undersized second baseman in their organization. This short second baseman has the ability to play the infield and the outfield. While Tony Kemp does possess a plus hit tool, he isn’t nearly as good as Altuve in that category. Other than great contact skills, Kemp has solid speed, and a versatile glove. He’ll never hit for power, but Kemp can provide Houston will a good all-around utility player they can plug in at multiple positions. After concluding the year in Triple-A, he’ll likely make his Major League debut sometime in 2016.
Future Outlook: Jose Altuve.
Thanks to Jeff Luhnow’s brilliant decision to extend Jose Altuve’s contract at such a young age, the Astros have one of the best bargains in baseball. Despite being drastically underpaid, Altuve hasn’t let the low paycheck affect his play. If anything, it’s motivated him to play even better. He’s one of the safest bets in the league to hit above .300 and provides excellent defense at second base as well. It’s inevitable at this point that Houston will exercises both team options on his contract for 2018 and 2019 at $6MM and $6.5MM respectively. They’ll have to commit a lot more than that to keep him in H-Town once he hits free agency after his 29 year-old season.
Just like at second base, the Astros have the best shortstop situation for now, and in the future. Similar to Jose Altuve at second, Carlos Correa is the sole reason Houston has earned that distinction. Heading into the 2015 season as the nation’s No. 1 prospect, Correa made an instant impact winning Rookie of the Year honors amongst a loaded 2015 rookie class. Correa is one of the rare talents that could be a five-tool player. He can hit for average, hit for power, field well, throw well, and run fast. The Astros are hoping Rookie of the Year is just the beginning of accolades Correa collects throughout his Major League career. As he keeps improving his approach at the plate, Correa could become a perennial MVP candidate in the heart of Houston’s lineup that is consistently contending for World Series titles.
Even if Houston didn’t have Correa in their system, the Astros would still be featured pretty highly regarding future shortstop rankings. That’s because despite Correa’s presence, Luhnow selected the best player available in SS Alex Bregman at second overall in 2015’s MLB Draft. As an LSU graduate, Bregman could be ready for the big leagues sooner than most 2015 draft picks. Some evaluators even believe he could make an impact in the majors by the end of next season. His final position is still up in the air thanks to Correa and Altuve’s presence on the Major League roster. He could move over to third, but that would block fellow prospect Colin Moran from getting regular playing time. It’s more likely that Bregman will bring his excellent contact abilities, and all-around solid skillset to the outfield in Minute Maid Park, or will be used as a trade asset for pitching reinforcements.
Houston has a couple of young international prospects including Jonathan Arauz and Miguelangel Sierra. Both are very young, and have a lot of developing to do to hone their craft. However, until they show they can handle professional pitching, the Astros won’t be relying on them.
Future Outlook: Sorry Bregman, Carlos Correa is here to stay
Most No. 2 overall picks out of college that are a year away from making an impact in the bigs typically have a clear path to the Majors. Most No. 2 overall picks don’t have a former No. 1 overall pick ahead of them at the position they play. Unfortunately for Alex Bregman, Carlos Correa is Houston’s’ starting shortstop and will be for a long, long time. Bregman will be forced to move over to third base, outfield, or he’ll find himself wearing a uniform that doesn’t say “Astros” on the front.
Luis Valbuena has flown under the radar thus far in his Major League career, but he finished 39th in home runs last year with 25 bombs. Among the 38 hitters who had more homers, only five players did it in less plate appearances than Valbuena (493). Valbuena really struggled against southpaws last year making a platoon a likely possibility. That’s where Marwin Gonzalez comes in.
Gonzalez is a switch hitter, but performed much better against lefties (.843 OPS) than righties (.701 OPS). The Astros love his ability to play first base or third especially with all of the questions surrounding first base in 2016. Unlike Valbuena, who’ll be a free agent at year’s end, Gonzalez still has three years of team control left. While Altuve and Correa have the middle infield covered, if they need rest or suffer an injury, Gonzalez could step in there as well.
While Valbuena and Gonzalez are good enough for 2016, the Astros are hoping for more production at third base down the line. Luckily for Houston, they have just the guy that could provide that. Taken with the sixth overall pick in 2013, the Miami Marlins drafted Colin Moran out of UNC. A year later, the Astros saw enough in the 23 year-old to trade away their own top prospect Jarred Cosart in order to get their guy. Moran returned the favor by delivering an outstanding .306/.381/.459 batting line in Double-A last year. While his fielding could use some work, his bat will be enough to carry him to the big leagues. Considering he’s starting the year in Triple-A, that could be sooner than later.
J.D. Davis serves as insurance in case Moran doesn’t live up to the hype. He’ll never reach the ceiling Moran is capable of offensively, but Davis can become a quality backup in the majors.
Future Outlook: Colin Moran could make an impact as soon as this year
Nothing is given to a player at the Major League level no matter what kind of investment a team has made in that specific player. At the end of the day, the manager has to play his best nine guys regardless of how much a team is paying a specific player, or how that player was drafted. With that in mind, Moran can’t expect anything to be given to him once he reaches the majors, he’ll have to earn it. If he keeps hitting like he has in the minor leagues, he’ll earn the starting third base job in no time. It’s no coincidence that incumbent starter Luis Valbuena will be a free agent after 2016. As Valbuena’s pending free agency leaves the door wide open at third base, Moran will be knocking on it at some point in 2016.
The Houston Astros will have all three of their outfielders back from the end of last season. Despite only being in the league for two seasons, George Springer leads the trio in 2016. Carlos Gomez could end up having the better 2016 season, but he struggled down the stretch after he arrived in H-Town. Springer is your prototypical top draft pick turned top prospect, turned top outfielder in the Major Leagues. He’s got all the tools in the world, and was only three homers shy of being a 40-40 threat in the minors a couple years ago. At only 26 years old, the sky’s the limit for the future All-Star.
As previously mentioned, Gomez struggled during his brief stint in Houston last year. Before posting a disappointing .670 OPS in Texas, he wasn’t doing much better in Milwaukee. Considering he hit at least .284/.338/.477 or better in each of the previous two seasons, Houston was expecting much more from the 30 year-old when they gave up top prospects Domingo Santana, Brett Phillips, and Josh Hader for a year and a half of his services. With free agency looming, the two-time All-Star will look to get back on track in 2016 and try to lead Houston back to the postseason.
The third returning outfielder hit more home runs last year than either Springer or Gomez in any single season. Colby Rasmus’ 25 bombs in 2015 tied Ryan Braun for 16th most among outfielders. Rasmus also struck out more times last year than either Gomez or Springer have in any single season as well. His 154 SO’s also tied Dexter Fowler for the 8th most among 2015 outfielders. Rasmus is also playing under a contract year as his $15.8MM salary is set to expire after the season.
With Gomez and Rasmus on their way out at season’s end, Houston will prioritize internal reinforcements for 2017 and beyond. Coming over with Colin Moran in the Jarred Cosart trade, the Astros might be thinking Jake Marisnick can fill one of the holes. The 25 year-old was listen on Baseball America’s top-100 prospect list for three straight years starting in 2012. He hasn’t yet been able to translate his tools to Major League success, but Astros executives still believe he has the potential to be an everyday outfielder. While he hasn’t been able to contribute much at the plate, his defense still gets glowing reviews. If Marisnick can put it all together at in the batter’s box, he could fill the hole in center field once Gomez departs. If not, he’ll be a reliable fourth outfielder that can play all three outfield positions.
Andrew Aplin and Preston Tucker are two options that could fight for spots in Spring Training next year. However, both players have limited ceilings and would fit better in a fourth outfielder role coming off the bench. Danry Vasquez has a similar ceiling, but he won’t be ready for the Major Leagues until at least 2018.
The Astros have three players taken in the first round in the past two years that could become starting caliber outfielders. Because of their inability to resign Brady Aiken with their first overall pick in 2014, they acquired the rights to the second overall pick in 2015 which translated into shortstop Alex Bregman. The actual first round pick they were given because of their lackluster 2014 record was fifth overall which they used to take outfielder Kyle Tucker out of high school in Florida. Tucker has the highest ceiling of all outfielders in Houston’s farm system, but he’s the the furthest from reaching it. Just an average fielder and runner, Tucker’s future outlook depends solely on the development of his bat. He could be a .300+ hitter someday, but he’ll need to improve his plate discipline to get there.
The other two outfielders with starting potential are Daz Cameron and Derek Fisher. Cameron (37th overall; 2015) has the best all-around toolset among Houston outfield prospects while Fisher (37th overall; 2014) is the closest to the big leagues. While Cameron struggled in his professional debut, he’s athletic enough to still project as a Major League regular thanks to his quick swing, plus speed, and solid range in the outfield. Fisher has already flashed 20-20 potential, but his lack of raw power, arm strength, and overall fielding abilities limit his future outlook.
Future Outlook: Springer in RF, Tucker/Cameron/Fisher fighting for LF & CF
While there are many questions surrounding Houston’s outfield situation, one thing is certain: George Springer is the Astros’ right fielder of the future. In the meantime, Carlos Gomez and Colby Rasmus occupy the other two outfield spots. Both of them are eligible for free agency after the season forcing Houston to search for alternative options. In house, Tony Kemp, Jake Marisnick, and Preston Tucker represent the only viable options. Look for GM Jeff Luhnow to go outside the organization to fill the holes in left field and center field. Of course, he’ll try to avoid signing any player long term as the trio of Kyle Tucker, Daz Cameron, and Derek Fisher will be ready to take those positions over in 2018 or 2019. They should take notes from their rival in Arlington by signing a player like Ian Desmond to a one-year deal so that player can regain value while the team can also get the production it needs in left field.
By sending Mike Foltynewicz and a couple of minor leaguers to Atlanta before last season, the Astros were hoping to acquire their DH for the future. After one year in Houston, the jury is still out on if Evan Gattis is the long term solution at the position. He did lead the team with 27 home runs, but his .246 average and .285 OBP show he still has plenty of room for improvement at the plate. Despite weighing a hefty 270 lbs and recording 0 stolen bases, he racked up 11 triples in 2015. He became the first player in over 50 years to hit more than 10 triples without stealing a single base, so there’s that. Gattis is entering his fourth year in the show, and this could be the biggest year in determining his long-term outlook.
Future Outlook: Is Evan Gattis the answer?
The first thing the Astros front office has to figure out is whether Evan Gattis is the long-term answer to their designated hitter problem. If he improves his on-base percentage, there’s no reason to think he can’t be. However, if he still struggles to surpass the .300 mark again, Jeff Luhnow and company should be looking at other alternatives.
Fortunately, they have two young first baseman capable of filling the hole. A.J. Reed and Tyler White both can hit well enough to warrant a spot in the everyday batting order. However, they both can’t play first base, so the ideal scenario is plugging one of them (like the better fielding Reed) at first base and placing the other at the DH spot. So even if Gattis does improve his OBP, he could be traded to another team if White and Reed keep hitting at the pace they have over the past few seasons.
Leading the pack for the ‘Stros once again will be the 2015 American League Cy Young Award winner, Dallas Keuchel. 2015 was the peak of Keuchel’s meteoric rise from being a seventh round afterthought to the best pitcher in the game. He led American League starters in multiple categories including wins, shutouts, innings pitched, ERA+, and WHIP. Now 28 years old, Keuchel is just entering his prime. While he did benefit from some BABIP luck in 2015, Keuchel should be among the best pitchers in the game for the rest of the time he’s under contract in Houston. After shattering the first-year arbitration record with a $7.25MM salary, he’ll go through arbitration three more times before reaching free agency after the 2018 season as a 30 year-old looking to top David Price’s record $217MM deal.
Future Outlook: Keuchel leads the pack, but he’s the only southpaw
As far as starting pitcher’s go, Dallas Keuchel has emerged as one of the best. Unfortunately for Houston, he’s the only southpaw they have in their entire organization that is going to start any games for them anytime soon. Anyone around the game knows a quality left-handed pitcher is much more rare than a righty. GM Jeff Luhnow really needs to make finding another lefty to slot behind Keuchel more of a priority going forward. After Keuchel reaches free agency in 2019, the Astros could have a glaring hole at this position.
Carlos Gomez wasn’t the only player Houston acquired from Milwaukee last July, as they were adamant on Mike Fiers’ inclusion in the deal. Unlike Gomez, Fiers still has four more years of team control left. At 30 years old, Fiers’ true value comes from his ability to strike batters out. He has struck out at least a batter per inning in each of his last two seasons including 10 K’s while he threw a no-hitter against the Los Angeles Dodgers on August 21st, 2015. Fiers will fit in nicely in the back end of the rotation.
Needing one more pitcher to fill a rotation spot, GM Jeff Luhnow made a low-risk, high-reward move in signing Doug Fister to a 1yr/$7MM deal. Fister is just a year removed from placing eighth in Cy Young award votes in 2014 when he posted a superb 2.41 ERA during his first season in D.C. After a rough 2015 campaign, Fister is hoping a one-year stint in Houston can help him regain his value. Considering he’s 32 years old, there’s plenty of value left in Fister’s right arm. He’ll be one of the more intriguing bounceback candidates heading into 2016.
Knowing the five pitchers that start the season in the rotation are never able to handle the entire season, Luhnow kept Scott Feldman for depth purposes. While Feldman is a serviceable starter, being able to place him in the long relief role gives Houston increased flexibility. After his $8MM salary expires at the end of the season, he’ll be eligible for free agency where he’ll look to catch on somewhere as a full-time starter.
Behind Feldman, Brad Peacock, Mike Feliz, or Chris Devenski could all start games in 2016. However, all three pitchers profile better in the bullpen where their inconsistent offspeed pitches won’t be as much of a problem. Brady Rodgers would also be a viable spot starter candidate once he reaches the bigs sometime this season.
Down on the farm, the best pitching prospect the Astros have is undoubtedly Francis Martes. Martes has received praise from all prospect evaluators being placed as high as No. 20 on Baseball America’s top-100 list. Martes took a big leap last year going from Single-A ball to High-A, and eventually concluding the year in Double-A. His mid-90’s fastball and devastating curveball could elevate him to a No. 2 spot in the major league rotation some day. Starting the year in Double-A, he could make an impact for Houston as soon as next year.
The other two highly praised righties in Houston’s minor league system are David Paulino and Joe Musgrove. Standing at an imposing 6’7”, David Paulino is surely the player with more potential as his intimidation factor only increases when he blows batters away with his mid-90’s fastball that can touch 98 MPH on occasion. He controls his fastball well, but struggles with commanding his curveball and changeup. Musgrove doesn’t have the stuff that Paulino possesses, but he has harnessed the command of his offspeed pitches much better than Paulino, and is guaranteed to stick as a starter. The development of Paulino’s changeup will be the difference in him ending up as a frontline starter or closing games down the road.
Future Outlook: As balanced as can be
Excluding Dallas Keuchel who anchors the staff from the left side, the righties in Houston’s rotation have a great balance between them. McHugh and McCullers will be frontline starters under control for the next four seasons, while Fister and Feldman are lower tier starters on the cusp of free agency. Mike Fiers will stick around in the back end of the rotation, but will be joined by the trio of Francis Martes, David Paulino, and Joe Musgrove soon enough. Those three could end up anywhere from No. 2 starters to No. 4 in the rotation. Houston’s righties aren’t among the best, but they aren’t among the worst either. They’re as balanced as it can get.
Despite owning the sixth lowest ERA among MLB bullpens in 2015, GM Jeff Luhnow realized the increasing importance of a strong relieving corps. He bolstered one of the team’s strengths by acquiring Philadelphia’s closer Ken Giles. It took quite a package of prospects to pry the 25 year-old from Philly, but the Astros now have an elite trio in the back of the bullpen. Giles is coming off of back-to-back sub-1.80 ERA performances to start his Major League career. Now he’ll finally pitch for a contending team where he, Gregerson, and Harris could form one of the most lethal tandems in the league that close games.
Speaking of Luke Gregerson and Will Harris, the dynamic duo was just fine by themselves last year. The tandem combined for a 2.45 ERA, 0.924 WHIP, and 33 saves. Now the two 30+ year old righties won’t have to close games in tight situations. Even if Giles gets hurt or struggles in his debut season in H-Town, manager A.J. Hinch has the luxury of two other stout options to go to in high leverage situations.
Of course, Gregerson and Harris aren’t the only successful relievers returning to Houston in 2016. Tony Sipp and Pat Neshek will be returning after a strong 2015 campaigns with Sipp being the team’s top lefty out of the pen. While Neshek struggled down the stretch and is approaching his 36th birthday, Houston is hoping he still has two more good seasons left in him before he hits free agency. After signing his 3yr/$18MM contract over the offseason, Sipp won’t be eligible for free agency until after the 2018 season.
The only other relief pitcher with a Major League track record is Josh Fields. Fields has been great at limiting batters from getting on base, but his problem has been what happens once they do get on base as showcased by his incredibly low 64.5% strand rate. Once batters get on base, Fields performs much worse at a time when he needs to be at his best. He’ll look to keep a spot in the Astros’ bullpen by improving that weakness, but it could become difficult once Houston’s younger arms get called up.
The ‘Stros are looking forward to four young relievers in particular. Riley Ferrell, Jandel Gustave, Brendan McCurry, and Reymin Guduan have set themselves apart. Ferrell and Guduan can both hit the upper-90’s while Gustave reportedly touched 102 MPH with his fastball on occasion. Guduan is the only southpaw A.J. Hinch can turn to in the future if Sipp was worn out from being used in previous days. McCurry might not be armed with an explosive fastball or intimidating height (5’10”), but his excellent command as him as the likeliest to make an impact at the big league level.
Future Outlook: Ken Giles puts this bullpen amongst the best of ‘em
Heading into the season, the Houston Astros were probably looking at a top-10 bullpen thanks to the trio of Luke Gregerson, Will Harris, and Tony Sipp. If Pat Neshek can prove his disastrous second half was a fluke, that would give Houston another weapon in the bullpen. Adding a proven arm like Ken Giles to anchor the bullpen for the next five seasons instantly elevates Houston’s bullpen into the top-5. Young arms like Riley Ferrell, Jandel Gustave, Brendan McCurry, and Reymin Guduan could help that ranking go even higher once they reach the bigs. If Luhnow adds another reliable arm once Gregerson and Neshek depart in free agency, it would make them that much more dangerous in high leverage situations.
OVERALL OUTLOOK: Bound for Glory
After a lengthy rebuild, Houston now has young, productive players across the board. Reaching the playoffs last season expedited their rebuilding process, and made it clear they’re all-in entering 2016. Even with the youthful roster, the pitching staff still has a few holes, and the lineup could use improvements as well. The Astros got a taste of October baseball in 2015, but they’ll have to add another piece or two to get acquainted with November baseball in 2016. Similar to when the they traded for Carlos Beltran in 2004 or Carlos Gomez last season to elevate the team to the next level, GM Jeff Luhnow could follow a similar approach heading into this year’s trade deadline. Houston is right there, but if they can add another offensive threat (or two), they'll be bound for glory.