Within the last decade, the Houston Astros have been to a World Series, but 2005 seems more like 80 years ago than eight. From 1996 to 2008, the Astros enjoyed 11 winning seasons, including four division titles, two NLCS appearances, and the franchise’s only World Series appearance. However, a lack of attention to the minor leagues and excessive spending paired with some poor trades have left this once proud franchise in the worst state its ever seen in its 51 year history. But now, after five consecutive losing seasons and with a new league, a new owner, and a determined GM, the Astros have completed the tear-down and have started the process of building this team back into the winner it was over the vast part of the past two decades.
On the grand scale of baseball, the moves the Astros made last week may seem insignificant, but to Astros fans, they show that a new era of baseball in Houston has begun. Since Jeff Luhnow took control two years ago, we’ve heard promises that the organization was going to focus on developing the minor leagues and compliment the home-grown players with veteran acquisitions when the time was right. On Tuesday, Luhnow came through on that promise when he traded for Dexter Fowler.
Fowler isn’t a guy who makes you say, "Wow," but he is a legitimate big league player on a team that, aside from Jose Altuve and Jason Castro, has doesn’t have any. He doesn’t excel in any one category, but he does have good speed, decent power, capable defense and an ability to get on base that has been lacking from the Astros’ lineup for quite some time.
Perhaps a more surprising move was the signing of starting pitcher Scott Feldman to a 3-year, $30 million deal. Feldman spent the majority of his career with the Rangers in a swing role between the rotation and the bullpen, but asserted himself as a starter in 2013 for the Cubs and Orioles. Again, this is a move that won’t knock your socks off, but it is a building block that can propel the Astros into the future. While he may serve as the ace of the Astros’ rotation in 2014, the 3-year contract allows Feldman to stick around until young pitchers like Appel, Foltynewicz and McCullers have solidified their spots in Houston’s rotation. At which time, a guy like Feldman will be an extremely satisfying option in the back end of the rotation. In the meantime, Feldman adds consistency to the rotation and a veteran presence that will be great for the development of Houston’s young arms.
The final move of the week was made when the Astros reunited with a familiar face in Chad Qualls. The right-handed reliever signed a two-year, $6 million deal with the Astros, who he pitched for from 2004-07. While it’s preferred to develop starters rather than have to pay for them, this move proves that the Astros have a desire to address their biggest need this offseason. In 2013, the Astros bullpen allowed a league-leading 29 blown saves. So the first step in getting better as a team is learning how to win games. Having a guy like Qualls who you can turn to with the lead and have confidence that he will preserve it is invaluable for this Astros team.
These and any corresponding moves the Astros make over the winter will not make them a winning team in 2014. In all likelihood, they won’t even be competitive. But what it does show is that the front office is willing to do what it takes to get better. A few key acquisitions here and there combined with the development of Houston’s young prospects and who knows, the Astros may just make it back to the top sooner than you think.