After six years of fire sales, rebuilding, reconstruction, missed opportunities, PR debacles and plenty of head scratching moves and decisions, is it possible the Houston Astros have turned the corner?
Could the signing of two proven bullpen arms make that much of a difference? Will other signings and trades now follow that will bolster a batting order that has been missing significant, consistent punch since Michael Bourn and Hunter Pence left?
And, will a starting rotation that solidified itself last year continue to anchor a staff that seems ready to take its place in the upper third of the league in 2015?
Questions still abound, but the signings of Pat Neshek and Luke Gregerson seem to point to stopping the sieve-like, merry-go-round production of one of the best throw-gas-on-the-fire bullpens in the league the past few years. Then again, haven’t we been here before? Weren’t the signings of Chad Qualls and Matt Albers — and to a lesser extent Jesse Crain — met with the same optimism a year ago?
Yes, of course. And, they will still have to play all 162 games to determine if the optimism is well-placed or ill-fated. But here’s what we now seem to know:
Jim Crane is committed to The Luhnow Plan.
- Obviously, somewhere back in the dark days of the Luhnow-Bo Porter personality conflicts, Crane reinforced his support for Luhnow with a contract extension. Apparently, Porter didn’t receive said vote of confidence. Meaning that Crane approved of the direction Luhnow was taking the club. Despite some naysayers, many in baseball obviously believe The Luhnow Plan is sound, but Crane and Crane alone has the only voice that matters in that discussion. Will Luhnow be on the hot seat in 2015? Previously, I may have said “possibly”. At this point, Crane seems to be in for the long haul, barring, of course, another 100-loss season.
Yes, friends, the $ are probably there.
- Some have doubted the dollar commitment from the Astros, yet they’ve done what they said they would do all along the way. Crane and Luhnow have indicated payroll will climb by about $20 million next season and they obviously have been working in that direction. We may never know how many deals like Andrew Miller Luhnow didn’t win. Perhaps more than any off-season since 2006 when Houston signed Carlos Lee and Woody Williams, the Astros appear to be players in the free agent and trade markets. You could argue they were players last year, but the sense is they were very limited and didn’t have the revenue wherewithal to shoot for the stars.
Another upgrade away from 85 or 88?
- Luhnow has clearly been seeking to upgrade a number of areas, specifically the bullpen and left side of the infield. Adding a player like Jed Lowrie or even another stop-gap solution to go along with a solid rotation could catapult the Astros into realms they haven’t enjoyed since 2008. In fact, tack on the possible upgrades mentioned around the league and factor in at least one or two success stories from the prospect realm (e.g. Jon Singleton, Michael Foltynewicz, Domingo Santana, Colin Moran) and it could get real interesting real fast. The Astros have finished above .500 only twice since the 2005 World Series season.
Back end looking good.
- Keeping in mind everyone liked the “back end” a year ago, this year, it appears that new manager A.J. Hinch will have significant options late in the game. If Qualls, Neshek and Gregerson remain healthy (ahem!), Houston likely won’t be mired at the bottom — or top, depending how you look at it — of the blown saves list. Add in a successful situational lefty (Tony Sipp?) and the success rate could be high.
Biggest questions remaining?
- Frankly, the biggest questions or even “acquisitions” may not be who plays third or short next season. The biggest answers to an 85-win season could be how Luhnow handles Dexter Fowler, Jason Castro/catching and how much rope he allows Singleton. Losing Fowler without a significant replacement could set the plan back months. The Astros could do worse — much worse — than Fowler/Springer/Marisnick (or your name the third guy) outfield. Signing Fowler to an extension could send as strong a message as bringing in a middle-of-the-road replacement.
Do the Astros really have a reputation?
- Granted, with the new-fangled tandem rotations, selling off of veteran talent and an all-new staff from top to bottom, much has been made of Luhnow’s pitfalls and blunders. Most diehard fans would obviously pick apart every move and, without being able to see the big picture blueprint, each individual move may have blunder written all over it. That said, since the minor league program has received kudos from every angle and some recent remarks actually point to a level of respect from baseball people, Luhnow and the Astros may have turned that corner as well. While he may have attempted to overpay for Miller, the Neshek and Gregerson deals seem to be about what was expected. Any perceived overpayments this winter could also go to the competitive nature of the limited number of free agents or trade possibilities.
Questions for you…
- With the Wednesday signings, the rotation just got richer. Meaning that Folty and others perhaps mentioned as bullpen possibilities are now free to battle for the back-end of the rotation. Good news! In fact, looking back, where would Jarred Cosart and Nick Tropeano have pitched next season? If the season started today, what would the rotation look like?
- What is the different in this year’s signings of Neshek and Gregerson and last year’s Crain, Albers, Qualls signings?
- Has your level of confidence in Luhnow risen today?
- At this point, if the Astros didn’t add another bat to the lineup and started with Jonathan Villar and Matt Dominguez on the left side of the infield, are you content?
- Luhnow is likely just getting started and more roster moves are likely. Prediction please: How many more free agents? How many trades between now and January 1?