October 5, 2016

2016 Houston Astros: It Was a Rough One

Coming off the franchise's first postseason since the 2005 World Series, the Astros looked like an up-and-coming team in 2016.  Over such a long season, there were a number of things that conspired to eliminate them from the playoffs (on an off day, no less).

I'd like to start with the team's performance in April...but there were a couple of moves that occurred prior to the season that had a significant impact.  Most notable of these were re-signing Colby Rasmus, trading Jonathan Villar, non-tendering Chris Carter....

Oh, who am I kidding?  We all know what the most impactful move of the offseason was; it was the trade that "landed" the team Ken Giles.  Or as I like to call it, the worst trade since Jason Jennings came to Houston.

I'm not entirely sure what happened with Rasmus.  In April, he looked like a surefire MVP candidate.  The only problem was, that was the only month in which he actually hit worth a damn.  His season was cut short by a DL stint and then...well, he missed a good part of September for some reason that we are as yet not privy to know.  The signing looks like a waste of money but there are some clear extenuating circumstances that would have to be explained away in order to truly evaluate it.  So we'll leave that aside.

Much like J.D. Martinez, Villar and Carter left the Astros and flourished elsewhere.  Truly, it is frustrating to see.  And much like with Rasmus' situation, there isn't a whole hell of a lot to go on; some guys who perform poorly here go elsewhere and suddenly look like world-beaters.

Back to Giles, though.  To put it mildly, the trade was stupid.  What I find hilarious about the perception surrounding the team is that the brain trust is considered to be "smart".  Certainly among the smarter groups in MLB, despite the relative lack of production.  And yet, the Giles trade is another one that Astros GM Jeff Luhnow very clearly lost.  He gave up way too much for a guy who didn't fill a position of need.  There were holes in the lineup in the outfield, first base, and DH.  Those holes got filled, technically speaking, but not by guys who hit above average.  Instead the team got a guy who wasn't even the closer for the first month of the season because he couldn't stop giving up home runs. And then when he did become the closer, he still had a tendency to pitch poorly and give up long balls.  Now, the perception of Giles pitching poorly is wholly reliant on the "eye test", as it were.  The guy put some ugly outings out there even while being successful.  That is to say, he got saves while not pitching his best at all times.

Still, I doubt that trade will ever be favorably received.

In part because of Giles, in part because of general malaise, the team stumbled to a 7-17 start in the month of April.  That start essentially doomed the team, despite the fact that they were in playoff contention (mathematically, at best) until September 30th.

Another major problem was the team's performance against their in-state "rival", the Rangers.  It's not much of a rivalry given how both teams have looked in 2015 and 2016.  The Astros were 4-15 against the Rangers and really seemed lucky to get those four wins.  Had they gone at worst 9-10 against the Rangers, things would look a hell of a lot different.  Sadly, it was not to be.  The Rangers have the Astros' number at present and I saw nothing to make me think that the situation will change in 2017.

Carlos Gomez started the season with the Astros and ended up with the Rangers after his release.  Unsurprisingly, like the players I mentioned above who played better with other teams, Gomez had a nice little sample size of AB's with the Rangers wherein he hit better than he did in either 2015 or 2016 with the Astros.  I'm not sure how that happened, as I did not see many of his AB's with the Rangers.  Suffice it to say that he performed a lot better, to the tune of having an OPS over 300 points higher with the Rangers this season.  It's not a tiny difference by any means; he was much better with the Rangers and I suspect that something happened in the interim between his last game with the Astros and his first game with the Rangers.  What that is, I can't say for certain.

The rest of the story is mostly under-performance by key figures in the lineup and rotation.  Even the supposed positive of giving Gomez his release turned negative, as offensive liability (what an understatement) Jake Marisnick started practically every remaining game in center field.  Since I have nothing positive to say about him, I'll leave it at that.

What went right in 2016 for the Astros?  Well, not a whole lot.

Jose Altuve is the team's best player.  He may have been overshadowed somewhat last season with Keuchel and Correa collecting hardware (AL Cy Young and AL RoY, respectively), but this season proved that Altuve is the only hitter in the lineup that can be counted on to produce consistently.  And that includes the last month and a half when he was "slumping".

Alex Bregman was the only prospect to come up and hit above average.  His skills at shortstop translated beautifully to playing third base also.

Chris Devenski, in a just world, would be a full-time starter in 2017.  His numbers were phenomenal across the board, despite being kept out of the rotation in favor of ...Mike Fiers?  I can't say that Devenski was "more valuable" than Altuve, but he was damn near as valuable.

As far as 2017 goes...there are still holes to be filled in the outfield, first base, and DH.  I imagine that Gurriel will be playing somewhere every day.  Gattis will probably cede the DH position to another player most days if he takes over as everyday catcher.  And Bregman should sow up third base with no problem. That leaves left field and center field (and DH, but that seems like it'll be by committee).  My pick for left or center would be Teoscar Hernandez.  The only problem he's got is accuracy with his arm.  If he can shore up his throwing, while hitting slightly better (he was only slightly below average as opposed to every other newbie not named Bregman, who were all stunningly below average), he should be an asset.

My main problem in 2017 is that Marisnick will likely be handed center field because he plays "great" defense.  I have my doubts about that, but defensive stats as kept currently don't really give me enough to debunk Marisnick's supposed "value" in the outfield.  The eye test tells me that he's probably better than average, but in order to make up for his utterly anemic bat tool, he'd have to be Ken Griffey Jr. out in center.  Obviously, he's not that good.  So to me it's a mistake to give Marisnick center field unless he makes noticeable strides with the bat.  I don't see it happening, but I would be totally unsurprised if Marisnick is the starting center fielder in 2017.

As for how the team will do in 2017, that's anyone's guess.  They were supposed to build on the success of 2015 and contend for the AL West.  That didn't happen and they were five wins short of the 89 needed to win a Wild Card as well.  If it shakes out that 89 wins gets a Wild Card next year as well, I think the Astros will probably be left out in the cold again, barring significant improvement from their current non-Altuve players or a huge impact signing in free agency.

That's that for 2016.  Enjoy the playoffs.