"If" is a powerful word before each season. What does it mean for players on Houston's roster right now?
On the podcast (which dropped earlier today), Sean and I came off very negative about the chances of this current 2103 Astros roster to compete in anything. Maybe foosball? I don't know how good Brandon Barnes is at foosball.
The point is that this roster is fairly barren and full of players who are more than replacement level but less than impact/All-Star caliber. The pitching staff has the potential to be as brutal as any we've seen since 2000. That's the realistic outlook for this squad, based on past performance.
However, there are so many surprises inherent in baseball. Guys come out of nowhere, like Lucas Harrell did and have great seasons. Heading into spring training, every team has hope that they can compete and be decent. That's true of the Astros just as it's true of the Detroit Tigers or San Francisco Giants.
The problem with Houston is that to become a sports movie cliche, this team will have to answer a lot of ifs about current players. Guys who have flaws need to fix them in order to become more than they were last year. There needs to be improvement in a lot of areas.
Just for fun, let's run through this roster and pick one of those ifs for a player and see how that changes their outlook. It's unrealistic to expect all of these to happen, but how many could happen? Feel free to hash that out in the comments as well as adding any players I may not have mentioned.
If Jed Lowrie stays healthy, he'll play 150 games and be one of the best shortstops in the American League. His healthy is the most important variable, because we saw what he could do when healthy. A .270 batting average and 30 home runs are on the table with a solid glove at short. That's a very good outcome and gives Houston both a great trading chip and a force in the middle of the order.
Chance of it happening: Pretty good. None of Lowrie's injuries are really chronic, meaning he shouldn't have any relapses. All he needs is a little good luck.
If Justin Maxwell can make contact against right-handers, he'll be a viable starting center fielder. Maxwell had a pronounced platoon split last season, striking out more than 35 percent of the time against rightys. If he can improve on that, cut down on his strikeouts and keep up his power potential, his defense and baserunning will make him a good addition in the lineup.
Chance of it happening: Not much. J-Maxx has never shown a propensity for making much contact in his career. He could take a leap forward in making contact, but it's more likely that he struggles again and hits around .225 in a full-time role.
If Matt Dominguez can hit for average, he'll win a Gold Glove at third base. That's how good Dominguez's defense is. All he needs to do is hit enough to stay on the field. It'll be harder to win in the American League, going up against Mike Moustakas, Adrian Beltre and Brett Lawrie. But, Dominguez is a great defender and just needs a bat that can keep him on the field.
Chance of it happening: See Maxwell, Justin. A leopard can't change his spots and guys who couldn't make contact in the minors don't suddenly gain that ability against MLBers.
If Jason Castro can get better defensively, he'll be an above average catcher. He's already got the bat to be a decent lineup addition for his position, but he needs to get better defensively, especially at blocking balls in the dirt. He improves defensively, and he's a solid starter.
Chance of it happening: Pretty good. If you assume that Castro struggled badly with this more from his knee than any inherent problem with balls in the dirt, then more time to heal should mean he gets better. But, there was some evidence from his rookie season that the same problem existed.
If Jose Altuve can post an average defensive season, he'll be that 4 fWAR player that deserves an All-Star nod. He's close, and as much as I'd like seeing him improve his walk rate a bit or see his power spike, offense wasn't his biggest problem last year.
Chance of it happening: Very good. There's a fair amount of defensive volatility anyways in the metrics Altuve could improve his reads, maybe, but a year's experience should help smooth out some of those edges.
If Carlos Pena can hit over .200, he should be a decent designated hitter for the Astros. Pena's problem in recent seasons has been contact. Sound familiar? The Astros have a few guys like this who may play regularly, which means they may get no-hit at some point again. With his
Chance of it happening: Fair to middling. Pena has made good contact in the past, but he's older now. There's as much a chance of him doing what Hideki Matsui did last year as him hitting .230 with 30 home runs.
If Brett Wallace can...nope, can't do it. Too much to improve to pick one. Guess I'm not a Brett Wallace Guy.
If J.D. Martinez can put his swing back together, he could give Houston the high average hitter they don't have anywhere on this roster. J.D. of the Martinii had a lot go wrong after a great start last season, but his swing definitely changed from the early parts of the season. If he recovers from that injury and fixes his swing, Martinez could be a dynamic player once again.
Chance of it happening: Depends on how much his hamate bone affected his swing. There's as much of a chance that he'll hit like he did in the minors as of him never getting more than 200 plate appearances again in the majors. I think he'll bounce back, but I'm unrealistically optimistic about J.D.
If Fernando Martinez can hit like he did in September, he will be the Astros best player next year. Seriously, look at his line for that month. That's a borderline MVP season, with a .300/.400/.580 line and 30+ home runs. Except the pages of baseball history are full of players with one good month and mediocre seasons.
Chance of it happening: Not great, but doable. Even if he hit like he did in the second half (.262/.330/.515), Fernando of the Martinii would be a blessing in this lineup. He also has more of a minor league track record to support him sustaining that type of production.
If Lucas Harrell can duplicate his 2012 season, then he'll prove he's not a fluke on a bad team. This is a big If, but we just don't know whether Harrell can stay as good as he was without increasing his strikeout rate and changing a bunch of other stuff.
Chance of it happening: Worse and worse. Don't be huge money on Harrell repeating or improving his performance from last season, but don't bet against it either. Pitchers are volatile like that, especially when you add in the move to the AL.
If Bud Norris can improve his luck, he'll return to his 2011 production and everything will be peachy keen. Norris' peripheral stats were just as good as the year before, but the results were much worse. His walk rate remained lower than at the start of his career. In short, he's like Lowrie in that he just needs a little good luck.
Chance of it happening: Pretty good. Norris will likely see a hit to his numbers with the move to the AL, but as a strikeout pitcher, he should continue to perform like a solid middle rotation guy.
If Jordan Lyles can miss some bats, he'll finally post an ERA under 5.00. As much as we'd like to see Lyles up his strikeout total or pitch more innings, if he could cut down on his hits per nine innings by one or two hits, he'd see a big improvement in his numbers.
Chance of it happening: Who knows? Lyles showed signs of improvement last year, and he's young, which means he should be getting better. Maybe a better defense will lead to less hits?