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What are the Astros aiming for exactly?

Feb 3, 2014, 4:00 PM EDT

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Having finished with baseball’s worst record three straight years, the Astros have mastered the art of being bad. And it’s worked out for them; thanks to their early draft picks and some veteran-for-prospects trades, they now boast one of the game’s very best farm systems.

That left the Astros with a decision to make entering 2014. Was it time to start going in the other direction and try to put a competitive team on the field? Or was it worth going for one more No. 1 overall draft pick?

It seems like they’ve chosen the former. Kind of. Sort of. Maybe.

The Astros made their biggest signing in years when they added starting pitcher Scott Feldman on a three-year, $30 million contract. They also traded one of their youngest pitchers in Jordan Lyles for a legitimate starting center fielder in Dexter Fowler. Plus, they signed three veterans for their bullpen in Chad Qualls, Matt Albers and the rehabbing Jesse Crain.

Those all seemed like solid moves with the idea of regaining respectability. It’s certainly not the kind of transition needed to contend in the tough AL West, but it should be sufficient to avoid a fourth straight 100-loss season in 2014.

Their latest move Monday, the signing of Jerome Williams, makes it even more evident that just not losing 100 games is the goal. Williams has no upside; his function is solely to soak up innings. He’s made 40 starts and 29 relief appearances for the Angels the last two seasons, posting a 4.57 ERA. That he can alternate between middle relief and the rotation gives him value, but really, that value comes in the form of not having to throw some 22-year-old minor league prospect to the wolves instead. Basically, he takes away that worst-case scenario of having to continue starting the youngster with the 5.50 ERA.

The Astros of the past could have used a guy like that. But the 2014 Astros? After already adding four veteran pitchers? Honestly, if they think they need a guy like Williams, then doesn’t that mean they’ve failed?

The Astros have 24 pitchers on their 40-man roster. 21 of those guys are 25 or older. Two of the three that aren’t, 23-year-old Jarred Cosart and 24-year-old Brett Oberholtzer, are expected to be a part of their rotation anyway. What does it say about all of these 25, 26 and 27-year-old pitchers the Astros are carrying that the team still thinks it needs Williams around?

The early word is that Williams will be in the rotation. The pitcher he’s most likely to bump is left-hander Dallas Keuchel, a 26-year-old who struck out 7.2 batters and walked 3.0 per nine innings in 22 starts and nine relief appearances last season. That K/BB ratio, combined with a very strong groundball rate (56%), would seem to give him some upside. Certainly more than Williams has. If not Keuchel, maybe it will instead be Brad Peacock, who averaged 8.3 K/9 IP in his 14 starts and four relief appearances last season.

Perhaps the early word is wrong. Maybe Williams will be employed in the swing role that Lucas Harrell figured to fill. If so, there’s little harm in that. But that the Astros believed they needed Williams to patch a hole now speaks to the lack of faith they have in all of those options in hand.

63-99, here we come!

  1. natstowngreg - Feb 3, 2014 at 4:07 PM

    Maybe it really is as simple as that. Let’s not lose 100 games again. Understandable, though it doesn’t make signing Williams a good move.

  2. proudlycanadian - Feb 3, 2014 at 4:09 PM

    Hello Matthew. How about a Free Agent signing update?

    • Matthew Pouliot - Feb 3, 2014 at 4:28 PM

      Not a bad idea. Maybe I’ll repost it tonight. It is mostly up to date, except for Williams and Rich Hill to the Red Sox.

      Free Agent Tracker

      • proudlycanadian - Feb 3, 2014 at 4:37 PM

        Thanks. There are still some interesting players who are unsigned.

  3. ghstmnnfrst - Feb 3, 2014 at 4:23 PM

    What a lackluster analysis of the situation.

    Lazy trolling at best. Empty post-count building at worst.

    • Matthew Pouliot - Feb 3, 2014 at 4:29 PM

      What a lame comment on the article.

      No actual criticism of the content. No contribution other than to slam the writer.

      • Joe - Feb 3, 2014 at 4:56 PM

        I think the sentiment of the criticism is legit. You cite a string of moves for the Astros, including several this off-season, as a sign that they are moving in the right direction. Then you dash it all because of one signing.

        From what I read, it’s a one year contract with incentives, meaning the guaranteed money is probably low. Also, you’re hearing (without citation) that the Astros plan to put him in the rotation – but that doesn’t mean they actually will have him in the rotation at the beginning of April, much less the beginning of July.

        What I see is the Astros signing a guy on the cheap who provides insurance in case someone gets hurt or is ineffective. A guy who they can plug into the rotation and not really worry about, rather than rush a guy who isn’t quite ready. If they don’t end up needing to use Williams, it’s not going to cost them anything to cut him loose.

        It’s extremely low risk even if it’s low reward, and it’s not like they did this thinking it’s going to take them to the playoffs.

      • Matthew Pouliot - Feb 3, 2014 at 5:26 PM

        Now, see, that’s a legitimate criticism :)

        I don’t think I’m dashing it all because of the one signing. But I really don’t like the signing. Why are Harrell, Collin McHugh, David Martinez and Paul Clemens on the 40-man if you don’t think they can’t give you what Williams can? None of the guys they’re potentially blocking need more seasoning in Triple-A. And what message are you sending to all of these guys working their butts off to get to the majors if you’re signing 32-year-old stopgaps to block them?

      • sabatimus - Feb 3, 2014 at 5:03 PM

        Joe, you’re putting words in the OP’s mouth. Pouliot’s assessment of the comment is correct. ghstmnnfrst can’t or won’t give any reasons and instead just throws crap out there.

      • ghstmnnfrst - Feb 3, 2014 at 5:25 PM

        It was a lame response. I’ll give you that.

        I should have pointed out that signing Williams won’t move the needle in terms of win expectancy but would provide an important depth to a team sorely lacking in viable MLB arms. You mentioned Keuchel, Peacock, and Harrell as players possibly displaced by Williams without directly comparing their numbers from last season, or mentioning that Williams’ 2013 ERA, FIP, and xFIP outperformed Peacock’s and Harrell’s. In fact, Harrell’s 5.42 FIP is worst out of Astro’s pitchers that threw 80 IP. Williams’ 4.57, 4.60, 4.24 (ERA, FIP, xFIP) would have placed him right around Erik Bedard’s production last year, and at least marginally better than the pitcher you stated that they lost in Lyles.

        Just a single point of contention, and the main reason (outside of the questionable Where are they going? analysis/prognostication) I replied with the comment I posted. I read it and was disappointed with the analysis. In a slow baseball news week I expected a little more depth to the comparison, or at least a stronger reasoning behind the questions strongly implied by the headline, like “Does Luhnow know what he’s doing?”

      • tfbuckfutter - Feb 3, 2014 at 10:22 PM

        TL:DDR

      • spudchukar - Feb 4, 2014 at 11:33 AM

        Luhnow comes with a pretty spectacular resume’. Whether he can duplicate his success in St. Louis is of course arguable, but my guess is he is quite aware of “what he is doing”, and most likely moving the Astros in the right direction, while he tries to put the best product on the field, while he rebuilds.

    • tfbuckfutter - Feb 3, 2014 at 4:52 PM

      Yeah. It’s definitely trolling.

      I can see sitting there and going “You know who would be fun to rile up? Those Astros fans.”

  4. Old Gator - Feb 3, 2014 at 4:27 PM

    It looks to me like the Astros are going about this with some solid long-term thinking behind their plans. The problem is, how long can you go on planning while your fan base thins out? Once you do become respectable, it’s not like the fans are automatically going to fill the stadium again. I know the economics of the game have been altered by the huge gouts of television revenue now available so I couldn’t say, having no privy access to the team budget, at what point putting tushies in the seats becomes critical to keeping the franchise healthy. Or to put it another way, at what point does the team start trading some meaningful free agent signings against the expectation of offsetting the cost against better attendance?

    I admire this team for the way they’ve gone about rebuilding themselves. These guys aren’t like Kansas City or even Baltimore; the ackcherley seem to know what they’re doing. But you know how fans are – impatient buggers.

    Unless, like Feesh fans, they’ve pretty much given up altogether and now hate the ownership so much, on so many levels, that as long as the same crooks are in place, they probably won’t come back even if the team seriously contends.

  5. sabatimus - Feb 3, 2014 at 4:34 PM

    I think the Astros are basically trying to aim for the sides and yet somehow keep hitting the center of the toilet.

    • Old Gator - Feb 3, 2014 at 6:18 PM

      Heh heh – great comment. It reminds me of how I used to try to amuse myself at summer camp on rainy days.

    • sabatimus - Feb 3, 2014 at 6:31 PM

      You see, it’s the simple things in life…

  6. churchoftheperpetuallyoutraged - Feb 3, 2014 at 4:45 PM

    While I wouldn’t say they are trying to split the middle, but maybe move slightly in from both sides? Meaning, let’s lose 88 games instead of 100, but also build to next year? They have a few players like Feldman and Fowler they might able to trade mid season for more prospects?

    They’ll most likely draft Rodon this year, and could have an insane pitching staff by opening day ’16.

  7. kingscourt25 - Feb 3, 2014 at 4:47 PM

    The Astros future is definitely bright. They have the top farm system in baseball + Carlos Rondon (possibility the best college pitcher since David Price) coming in this summer. It’s probably best to have patience like the Astros are exhibiting during a rebuilding phase like this.

    • dylanthom2013 - Feb 3, 2014 at 7:47 PM

      I agree. You can see the beginnings of a perennial contender in the Astros’ awesome and deep prospect base. My Rangers blew for the longest time, then thanks to some shrewd trades and a built-up farm system they’ve been competitive for about 5 years in a row now and counting. Give the Astros another year or two then watch them start to take off making the AL West one of the most competitive and deepest divisions over the next few years.

  8. magnusmagnolius - Feb 3, 2014 at 4:56 PM

    Why not make these moves? Fowler cost nothing to acquire, the relievers will absorb innings and offer good trade pieces at the deadline, Feldman will absorb innings and act as a decent number four/five when they are respectable again, and Williams is useful in that he will absorb starts for a while until a prospect is ready, at which point he can shift to the pen as an insurance policy for the inevitable short outings by the young guys. The Astros likely won’t be very good, but there is no reason not to make these improvements.

  9. stex52 - Feb 3, 2014 at 5:12 PM

    I’m surprised that you are surprised, Matt. The Astros farm system may be up, but you are still only talking about eight of the 100 top prospects. Two are likely to hit this year, and they are an outfielder and a first baseman. The real pitching depth will not be up until 2015 or 2016. Maybe Appel shows up this year, maybe not.

    Like you point out, Cosart and Oberholzer are about it for this year. And yes, OG, the natives are getting restless. Luhnow admitted they were much worse with the all-rookie lineup he fielded last year. I don’t think he figures he can keep pushing the horizon out two years every year.

    I see an attempt to field a product that at least isn’t so bad that the fans rebel altogether. I think that is the least that should be done.

    I expect about the last year of Feldman’s contract the real youth surge will be in place. They are not ready yet.

    • Matthew Pouliot - Feb 3, 2014 at 5:40 PM

      While I think you’re right about the real talent not being ready, the depth is already there. That’s my problem with the move. I’d much rather see Keuchel, Peacock, Bass and Wojciechowski getting starts than Williams.

      Not counting the iffy Crain, they now have the six pitching staff locks in Feldman, Cosart, Oberholtzer, Williams, Albers and Qualls. That leaves just six spots for those 18 pitchers on the 40-man that are at least 25 years old. If Crain is healthy, it’s down to five. And a couple of those will likely be filled by uninteresting guys like Valdes, Harrell and Downs.

      • umrguy42 - Feb 4, 2014 at 12:13 PM

        I also wonder if there’s an element of being able to improve just enough to be a little more attractive to decent FA acquisitions – “look, we’re getting better, see the last few years, and look at the new guys coming up to the club who you’d play with, isn’t this a great situation?”

  10. jkaflagg - Feb 3, 2014 at 5:54 PM

    From the Williams perspective: this guy has been out there the entire off season, and while several teams kicked the tires, apparently nobody offered the contract he wanted, and it’s unlikely the Red Sox or Dodgers would come calling now. Have not heard the terms of the deal yet, but it’s likely far less than what it was at the start of free agency. And while sometimes guys are signed during spring training, Williams obviously didn’t want to wait it out, which was probably the right choice; last year he was terrible in spring training, and the only reason he even made the Angel roster was that their pitching was tissue-paper thin.

    The Astros perspective likely includes a good value contract; a guy who can fill in starting or relieving and make sure the young pitchers earn their way onto the team rather than the “next man up” dance of the last few years; and finally, a guy who may bring back something good at the trade deadline if he pitches well. The last point probably factors into the Williams perspective as well; no contender signed him as an free agent, but come July a contender with pitching depth problems could find him attractive, as with Jose Veras and Detroit last season

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