Okay, I suppose y'all deserve a better answer than that. Late last week, Crawfish Boxes reader and Twitter follower (plug: @CrawfishBoxes) Dennis Marino asked a serious question:
@CrawfishBoxes Are we going to suck this year? (Serious question, it might be "not as much as usual this time")— Dennis Marino (@dmarino86) December 13, 2014
Laces out, Dennis. Way to pull no punches.
So, will the Astros suck this season? I suppose it depends on one's philosophically ambiguous definition of "suck". Are the Astros going to suck in the sense of a black hole, absorbing light due to it's intense gravitational pull? It does not seem likely. Will they suck like the orifice between two vastly different pressures? Doubtful, unless the ventilation at Minute Maid Park malfunctions during a closed-roof fireworks show.
Urban Dictionary defines suck as, "Not Good. Bad." That's the definition we'll work with for the purpose of this article.
It's hard to envision a world in which the 2015 Astros infielders do not perform better than the 2014 Astros infielders. In the right corner and left corner sit two gentlemen whose abysmal 2014 performances cannot be explained away merely by the statement, "they are crappy players." First baseman Jon Singleton was coming off a stupidity-shortened 2013 season and entered the major leagues at the tender age of 22. He hit only .168/.285/.335 during his first 95 games in the major leagues. Come on. Singleton is not a .168 hitter. He finished his minor league career batting .279/.388/.466 he has excellent plate discipline, drew a walk almost 14% of the time, and boasts oodles of power. Considering his low .238 BABIP, there is literally a .000000000000003% chance that Singleton will not improve significantly in his sophomore campaign. Likewise, it's hard to imagine third-baseman Matt Dominguez not bouncing back to merely below-average at the plate and average on defense, which would represent a significant improvement.
Art by Ryan Dunsmore
The catching corps has improved by the addition of "Framin' Hank" Conger, which should yield benefits for the pitching staff that are difficult to explain to the casual fan. Despite much angst over the offense, it is notable that despite five seasons in the major leagues, Conger has only 251 games played, or about as many as a full-time player amidst his second season. There is room for offensive growth, and his career minor league line of .297/.359/.467 suggests it as likely. Backstop partner Jason Castro is entering the prime of his career, yet he is coming off his worst season. Fans can reasonably expect noticeable improvement from him as well.
At shortstop, new oldcomer Jed Lowrie addresses a major area of concern. Jonathan Villar has continued to display the same inability to adjust to advanced pitching that some worried about when he played in the high minors, and even more concerning, displayed a surprising lack of competency fielding the position. Fallback plan Marwin Gonzalez is certainly due some negative offensive regression after a BABIP-fueled 2014 campaign that was unsustainable due to his contact/speed profile. Instead of being the starter at short, Gonzalez slides back into the role he's perhaps best-suited for as a jack-of-all-trades utility man.
Jose Altuve is a pretty good baseball player.
The outfield so far is unchanged.
But that's okay. 2015 should be a full season for George Springer, who missed March (politics) and a large part of the 2nd-half (injury). After being a base stealing threat in the minor leagues, he rarely swiped a bag in the majors, a pattern which should correct itself next season, assuming healthy knees. Springer's 2014 season, projected out to 162 games, would have netted him 93 runs, 105 RBI, 42 home runs, and 10 stolen bases. Scarily, he did that with a sustainable (or even low, for him) BABIP, without swiping bags up to his ability, and with a batting average and on-base percentage lower than what he is probably capable of. Ladies and gentlemen, George Springer.
GIF by Timothy De Block
Dexter Fowler is a great,and terribly under-appreciated professional hitter. He ranks (along with Springer) as among the most disciplined hitters in baseball. One of these years, Fowler will remain healthy, and perhaps he will be recognized for what he is. Will he stay with the Astros all season? Perhaps.
The third outfield spot will be manned by Robbie Grossman, who showed marked improvements during the 2nd half last season (.262/.357/.349) and/or former Top-100 prospect Jake Marisnick. Both should perform better during 2015 than during 2014, and failing that, a long list of strong prospects wait in the wings (Domingo Santana, Preston Tucker, Andrew Aplin, PTBNL)
The Astros 4th starter in 2014, Brett Oberholtzer, posted a 3.56 FIP as a 24-year-old in what might as well have been his rookie season. Among true rookie starters who pitched 100+ innings last season, only five (including teammate Collin McHugh) managed to better that feat. Dallas Keuchel, Scott Feldman, and McHugh return to the rotation and promise to be as good as they were last season. TCB reader and sometimes-contributor Dr. Rick reports that national pitching guru Perry Husbands claims that McHugh, "...has only scratched the surface...and once he figures it out, he has the stuff that could be amazing." Fans have reason to be excited by a rotation that will only be bolstered with free agent additions or the arrival of 1st-overall draft pick Mark Appel, who took the Arizona Fall League by storm. The future is bright in the Astros' rotation. Oh, and Keuchel is a Rawlings Gold Glove-winning pitcher:
GIF by Timothy De Block
The bullpen has been improved as well--first by addition-by-subtraction with the "loss" of Jerome Williams, Anthony Bass, Josh Zeid, Paul Clemens, and Kyle Farnsworth. Those five, in their 130 innings pitched, posted a collective ERA well over 6.00. Secondly, the Astros this off-season have added established firepower to an already-strong core of pitchers who remain on the squad. Luke Gregerson (career ERA of 2.75) and 2014 All-Star Pat Neshek join waiver claim Will Harris and Chad Qualls, Tony Sipp, Josh Fields, and Kevin Chapman. The end result is a relief corps that takes the club's most glaring weakness and turns it into an obvious strength.
Will the Astros suck? No. Based on the offseason acquisitions, the return to health by a face-of-the-franchise budding superstar, and the reasonable expectation of improvement from Jonathan Singleton, even the most pessimistic fan should be able to see that the Astros, as currently constructed, have the talent and skill to field a winning ball club in 2015.