The 2014 Bizarro-Astros: Another defense of Houston’s rebuild

Brett Davis-US PRESSWIRE

Guest contributor extraordinaire Edward S. Garza looks at what the Astros might have been.

At some point, most progressive Astros fans encounter a certain journalist or online commenter. Call this type of critic a Doubter, someone who strongly opposes Houston's rebuilding plan or, worse, does not understand it. The journalist may point to the team's small payroll in 2013. He or she might even accuse the Astros of damaging MLB's integrity by refusing to purchase free agents who would be ineffective by 2015 or 2016, when the franchise should be ready to contend.

As for the online commenter, he or she might have balked at Houston's slew of trades in 2012 and 2013, in which nearly every veteran was swapped for prospects. After such trades, the Doubter may have hastened to various threads and declared, "Awful move. [Insert veteran] was our best [insert position]! He had a [insert ERA or win-loss record for pitchers; insert batting average or RBI total for position players]. How does the front office expect this team to win?" The Doubters rarely offer a solution to their critiques--other than signing or extending veterans with little regard to performance projections, salaries, or draft pick compensation. As a fellow ‘Stros fan, I like the commenters' passion, but that's it.

But what if the Doubters got their wish? What if, over the past two years, the Astros' roster were maintained by some dogmatic, Ruben Amaro-esque general manager, a Bizarro-Jeff Luhnow? This GM would commit himself to maintaining a veteran-laden--he would say "experienced"--squad with younger players strewn throughout. Consequently, he would refuse to trade older, expensive talent for prospects, dooming the team to competence, not dominance.

How would Bizarro-Luhnow shape the organization? Would he open a championship window in Houston? No. Nevertheless, it's instructive to explore the benefits and limits of this alternate universe, if only to properly appreciate Houston's project. Therefore, I present to you the 2014 Bizarro-Astros.

The Bizarro-25-Man Roster

Lineup(s)

Let's start with a breakdown of the starters by position. I'll stick only with players who were already in the organization at the beginning of 2012, toward the start of Jeff Luhnow's--or, rather, Bizarro-Luhnow's--tenure. That's right: let's pretend that Jeff Luhnow made zero veteran-for-prospect(s) trades in 2012 and 2013, letting players complete their contracts and even keeping certain minor-leaguers from clearing waivers. (Hypothesizing specific trades or signings would open another wormhole entirely, so let's not go there.) Each player's projected WAR for 2014 comes from FanGraphs's Steamer:

Position Name Age on 04/01/14 2013 OPS 2013 wRC+ 2013 WAR 2014 WAR
C Jason Castro 26 .835 130 4.3 3.8
1B Jonathan Singleton 22 .687† 86† n/a 0.3
2B José Altuve 23 .678 85 1.3 2.7
3B Chris Johnson 29 .816 127 2.8 2.1
SS Jonathan Villar 22 .640 80 -0.2 0.9
LF Brandon Barnes 27 .635 76 1.0 1.4
CF Justin Maxwell 30 .764 111 1.1 0.5
RF George Springer 24 .842† 137† n/a 1.0
DH Jed Lowrie 29 .791 121 3.6 2.8

These WAR numbers involve some imperfect samples, but they give an idea of the more tenured players' production: solid, though not great. Springer, Singleton, and Villar would ultimately decide the value of this lineup, both offensively and defensively. Springer and Singleton should contribute nicely in the field, but Houston would have to hope that Villar's gaffes don't carry over to 2014, especially since he plays a premium position. Besides those three, the team should know what it's getting. Castro is an offensive catcher, Johnson an offensive third baseman, and Altuve an offensive second baseman. The only major defensive change would be swapping Springer and Maxwell.

As for offense, the starters might form a batting card like this:

1. Jonathan Villar

2. Jed Lowrie

3. Jason Castro

4. Chris Johnson

5. Justin Maxwell

6. George Springer

7. Jonathan Singleton

8. José Altuve

9. Brandon Barnes

Not terrible. This lineup features speedsters, line drive hitters, and some power. It could even improve if Springer or Singleton usurps Maxwell's number five spot. What this lineup doesn't feature, however, is great walking skills. Lowrie, Castro, and even both of the rookies may post nice OBPs, but the others would likely depend on hits to reach base, leaving themselves vulnerable to the BABIP gods. Further, there's not much room for slumps, whether from injuries or slow starts by the rookies. Either event would quickly derail Houston's offense. (Lastly, if you're wondering how Springer and Singleton would even hold spots on the Opening Day roster, Bizarro-Luhnow wouldn't care about the Super Two cutoff, and better internal options would not exist.)

Bench

Position Name Age on 04/01/14 2013 OPS 2013 wRC+ 2013 WAR 2014 WAR
C Carlos Corporan 30 .648 79 0.4 0.2
OF Justin Ruggiano 31 .694 92 0.9 0.1
INF Ryan Jackson 25 .698† 89† -0.3 0.7
INF Brandon Laird 26 .646† 75† -0.2 0.1
OF Eric Thames 27 .671‡ 109‡ n/a 0.0

There are two takeaways here. First, Ryan Jackson provides a good insurance policy for Villar, as well as a fine sub for the late innings. He would definitely merit some starts against lefties. (Ignore his 2013 WAR; it's the result of seven major-league plate appearances.) Similarly, Thames could platoon with Ruggiano, offering some power along the way. All in all, though, this bench reminds us that the team would need consistent at-bats from its starters to make the playoffs.

Starting Rotation

Name Age on 04/01/14 IP in 2013 K/9 in 2013 xFIP in 2013 2013 WAR 2014 WAR
Bud Norris 29 176.2 7.49 4.22 2.7 1.9
J.A. Happ 31 92.2 7.48 4.82 1.2 1.5
Jordan Lyles 23 141.2 5.91 4.41 0.4 1.4
Jarred Cosart 23 60.0 4.95 4.68 0.4 0.8
Brett Oberholtzer 24 71.2 5.65 4.27 1.3 0.6

This rotation can succeed, but, as with the lineup, almost everything has to click. Cosart and Oberholtzer must prove that their 2013 ERAs were not mirages, while Lyles must finally arrive as a viable major-league starter. Even if these three excel, management would have to monitor their fatigue, since none has pitched more than 150 major-league innings in a season. Also, it's never good when your number-one starter allows lefties to slash .309/.381/.509, as Norris did in 2013.

If it all breaks right, the Bizarro-‘Stros could feature a rotation similar to Oakland's in 2012, one stabilized by rookies who post average to above average innings. But chances are that at least one arm will have a down stretch or miss time with an injury, terrible news for a team on the fringe of contention. Still, the rotation would have depth with Dallas Keuchel in the bullpen and Paul Clemens and Lucas Harrell sitting on the 40-man squad. They're not quite aces in the hole, but depth is depth.

Bullpen

Speaking of the ‘pen, it could look like this:

Name Age on 04/01/14 IP in 2013 K/9 in 2013 xFIP in 2013 2013 WAR 2014 WAR
David Carpenter 28 65.2 10.14 3.11 0.9 0.2
Dallas Keuchel 26 153.2 7.20 3.58 1.0 1.4
Wilton López 30 75.1 5.73 3.69 0.7 0.3
José Veras* 33 62.2 8.62 3.95 0.7 0.1
Wesley Wright 29 53.2 9.22 3.32 0.0 0.1
Josh Zeid 27 27.2 7.81 3.81 0.0 0.0

Sweet mercy--no negative WARs! This bullpen, perhaps the Bizarro-Astros' strength, is projected to give the team two wins above replacement. It's easy to imagine López, Carpenter, and Veras working the seventh through ninth innings. However, as the 2013 Royals confirmed, good relievers can do only so much for a flawed team. With a possibly shaky rotation and a slump-prone offense, there may not be many leads to protect.

Potential Season

So how good could the Bizarro-Astros be in 2014? The roster is not expensive (yet), so the front office could sign, say, an impact outfielder, someone worth around three wins. One can also see Houston trading some of its prospects for an effective, controllable pitcher, or signing one. If so, the team could certainly win 80 games.

The real question, though, is whether the Bizarro-‘Stros could win at least 90 games, secure a Wild Card (I don't see this team outpacing both the A's and Rangers), and make a deep run in the playoffs. One can envision the first two scenarios, albeit with some rose-colored glasses. Bud Norris and J.A. Happ could have career years, combining for about 400 serviceable innings. The youngsters could each produce as major-league regulars. In addition, the team's bullpen could work some voodoo in one-run games, evoking the 2012 Orioles.

But the dream would die in the postseason, if the Bizarro-‘Stros make it. To begin with, Norris and Happ would likely start two of the first four games of a playoff series. Neither has shutdown stuff, while their competition--think of the Tigers or Rays--would. Second, the batting lineup teems with strikeout-prone hitters. Villar, Castro, Johnson, Maxwell, and Ruggiano each posted a below average K% in 2013, and then there's Springer's 24.4% K-rate from AAA. Over 162 games, a team can strike out a lot and still succeed (e.g., the 2012 A's), but history suggests that teams excel in the playoffs when they make contact. While there are exceptions to this idea (the 2013 Red Sox), there are far more confirmations (the 2012 Giants).

Sustainability

Most likely, the Bizarro-Astros could not sustain their fringy success. The organization would have a nice core of position players, but it would need major-league-ready pitchers with high upside. A one-two punch of Norris and Happ just won't cut it, and the youngsters might still be realizing their talent. Michael Foltynewicz would be the farm system's best candidate for a front-line starter, but his secondary offerings would have to improve. Nick Tropeano and Jake Buchanan would follow on the list, though each is projected as a mid-rotation piece, at best.

Since the organization would lack developed arms with high potential, it would need to pursue veterans while Vincent Velasquez and Michael Feliz work through the minors (it's hard to say whether Bizarro-Luhnow could have engineered the drafting of Lance McCullers). But as any Hot Stove enthusiast knows, free agency today is an extreme sellers' market. Suddenly a mid-rotation arm such as Ricky Nolasco can command $49 million while entering his age-31 season. To acquire a better pitcher, the Bizarro-Astros would have to swallow an expensive, player-friendly contract or deal key prospects--even Velasquez or Feliz. The best scenario would be trading for two years of David Price, a move that could debilitate a good but shallow farm system. The alternative would be a rotation built more for the regular season than the postseason (read: the 2012 Orioles and A's). Either way, one sees that the Bizarro-Astros' window of opportunity would offer less comfort than, for example, that of the St. Louis Cardinals, whom the actual Astros are emulating.

Houston's lineup would have question marks as well. How many millions would Castro, Johnson, Lowrie, and Maxwell earn through arbitration? If the Bizarro-Astros ponied up for each of them, how much payroll flexibility would they have? Whom of the 30-year-olds should the front office extend, and for what price? Domingo Santana would eventually help the cause, but the lineup would still need a hitter through free agency or a trade. The same dilemma follows: overpay an aging player or sacrifice prospects. Moreover, Houston should not simply bank on Altuve, Springer, Singleton, and Villar each progressing on a neat curve. An organization should not rely on several young batters simultaneously reaching their potential. (Ask the Seattle Mariners about that.) In short, the team would struggle to achieve that perfect mix of youngsters hitting their primes and 30-somethings producing at acceptable levels.

Conclusion

The 2014 Bizarro-‘Stros could be summarized like this: nice offense, serviceable rotation, nice bullpen, but missing some hard-to-find pieces. The very assets that would push the team toward contention--its experienced hitters and pitchers--would be the ones keeping it from larger, if delayed, success. Veterans such as Lowrie, Johnson, Norris, Happ, Maxwell, Ruggiano, López, and Wright can propel a team only so many times. What should a general manager do: double-down on an 80-win team driven by 30-somethings, or trade those veterans at the height of their value for young talent, talent that could sustain several years of winning? I believe the real Jeff Luhnow has already answered that question.

I'll conclude with this list. It features 35 players who would not be (or had been) with the Astros because of Bizarro-Luhnow's aversion to trades. At least several of them should contribute to Houston's next playoff team**:

Name Note
Mark Appel The team would've played too well to draft him in 2013.
Bobby Borchering
Colton Cain (assuming that the front office let Wandy Rodriguez play out his contract)
Chris Carter
Kevin Chapman
Kevin Comer
Chris Devenski (assuming that the front office also let Brett Myers play out his contract)
Matt Dominguez (assuming that the front office let Carlos Lee play out his contract as well)
John Ely (since the Astros would've never acquired Rob Rasmussen in the Carlos Lee trade
Josh Fields (since Houston wouldn't have had the first pick of the 2012 Rule V Draft)
Dexter Fowler
Theron Geith (since the Astros would've never acquired Ben Francisco from Toronto)
Alex Gillingham
Robbie Grossman See Colton Cain.
Josh Hader
Matt Heidenreich See Chris Devenski.
L.J. Hoes
Marc Krauss
Joe Musgrove
Rudy Owens See Colton Cain.
David Paulino
Brad Peacock
Carlos Perez
Rob Rasmussen See Matt Dominguez
David Rollins
Kyle Smith
Max Stassi
Danry Vasquez
Blair Walters See Chris Devenski.
Alex White
Asher Wojciechowski
A player to be named later (via the Dexter Fowler trade)
The #1 pick of the 2013 Rule V Draft The 2013 season would've gone too well.
A supplemental pick in the 2014 First-Year Player Draft (via the Bud Norris trade)
The #1 pick in the 2014 First-Year Player Draft As noted above, the 2013 season would've gone too well.

---

†This stat comes from the player's games in the minors.

‡Thames played for two AAA affiliates in 2013--those of the Seattle Mariners and Baltimore Orioles, respectively--so this stat is the average of his totals from each team.

*Veras's inclusion here assumes that Houston would exercise his $3.25 million option for 2014, a reasonable decision given his performance in 2013.

**It's almost impossible to know whether Carlos Correa would be on this list, since Houston would have still had a shot at him in 2012.

(All stats are courtesy of fangraphs.com and are current as of the end of the 2013 regular season.)

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