Offense: Fowler comes to Houston from Colorado in an effort to bolster a lineup that was near the bottom of the league in runs scored last season. While the Astros’ new leadoff man has struggled away from Coors Field, Fowler has the potential to help the team offensively if he can adapt to his new home in Houston. Catcher Jason Castro, who will look to improve on his All-Star season of ’13, and second baseman Jose Altuve are about the only other highlights of the Astros offense, at least until top prospects George Springer and perhaps even Jonathan Singleton, make their likely debuts at some point during 2014.
Rotation: Feldman, who comes to Houston on a three-year, $30 million contract, is the Astros new Opening Day starter, and is expected to be the veteran leader of an otherwise young staff. With Feldman, the Astros are hoping he can help take pressure off the bullpen by coming close to his 181 2/3 innings pitched last season. Jarred Cosart is slotted in the No. 2 spot in the rotation for what will be his first full season in the majors after debuting in July last year posting a 1-1 record with a 1.95 ERA in 10 starts. Much like the offense, some of Houston’s top pitching prospects should make their major-league debuts at some point this season, including last year’s No. 1 overall pick, Mark Appel and right-hander Mike Foltynewicz.
Bullpen: Houston’s bullpen understandably received an overhaul in the offseason after being the worst in the league last season with an overall 4.92 ERA and .270 batting average against. Two free agents, and former Astros, Albers and Qualls were signed to compete for the closer spot, with the latter likely getting the nod for the time being. Crain, another offseason free-agent signing, could become a valuable asset in the late innings, or as the closer role if one of the previously-mention relievers struggle, assuming Crain is able to fully recover from his October bicep surgery. While the ‘pen isn’t going to be the most dominating in the league this season, it should be a huge upgrade from last year’s train wreck.
Player to watch: Springer. He will start the season in the minors, but after his impressive ’13 season split between Double-A and Triple-A where the outfielder hit .303/.411/.600 with 37 home runs, 108 RBI and 45 stolen bases, it’s only a matter of time before he makes his major-league debut. Springer’s likely call-up will be considered a turning point for the organization that has spent the past several years in a deep rebuild. The front office hopes Springer will be the first of the crop of several top prospects that will be the future of the Astros.
Why they will in: The Astros are still projected to finish last in the AL West, but that doesn’t mean Houston won’t see improvement this season. An improved bullpen, paired with a rotation that has the ability to pitch deep into games, will be key for the Astros to improve on their 51 wins from last season.
Why they will lose: For the most part, the Astros are a young team of mostly unproven talent, especially if some of the top prospects make their way to the majors this season. If those prospects show they aren’t quite ready for the majors and struggle on the field, it will cost Houston some wins.
Rob Neyer’s outlook: Around the middle of last September, the Astros were … well, they were awful, but they weren’t epically awful. Sure, they had the worst record in the majors and were a mortal lock to lose more than 100 games, but it looked like they weren’t going to be as awful as the pundits thought. That is, until the Astros became the first team in American League history to lose their last 15 games of the season. That left them with 111, easily the most in franchise history. Not to mention their third straight 100-loss season … the only three 100-loss seasons, by the way, in franchise history. Is a fourth coming in 2014? Probably not. Not with Fowler added to the lineup, Feldman added to the rotation, and top prospects Springer and Singleton expected to join the big club during the season. On the other hand, they’ve got a fighting chance at the worst record in the majors, and a fourth straight No. 1 overall pick in the 2015 draft. Ah, rebuilding.