In March, the Astros played to a 12-15 Spring Training record with a 5.35 ERA and nearly-last 121 runs scored. Even the most ardent TCB reader homers predicted no better than a 72-win finish for the season. Industry prognosticators were predictably less charitable, considering the Astros' three consecutive finishes with 100 losses and coming off a franchise-worst 51-111 2013 season. Bleacher Report predicted 99 losses. Somebody called Baseball Professor predicted 60-102. Betfirm's Jack Jones gave Vegas odds of 63.5 wins, 59.5 wins, 57.5 wins, and 55 wins, then suggested betting the under on those totals. Houston's own Mattress Mac of Gallery Furniture gambled a zillion dollars' worth of furniture by setting the season line at 62 wins.
With the Astros' 8-3 loss to the New York Metropolitans on Sunday, the Astros have finished with a 70 win, 92-loss season. Such a record, tied for 4th-lowest in baseball, would be disappointing under ordinary circumstances. But the Astros' circumstances in 2014 were anything but ordinary. Nine years after appearing in the franchise's first World Series, the Astros are only just beginning to climb out of one of the most abysmal decades in Houston sports history - a decade which saw the sacrifice of the farm system in the interest of chasing an elusive championship, the sale of the club at its lowest point, an untenable TV deal that crippled revenue streams, and the intentional and unprecedented controlled-burning of the club in the purported interest of long-term success. With that as the backdrop, the Astros 19-win swing (2nd in baseball this season) can only be viewed as a rousing success by those who understand that there is more to running a baseball club than buying superstars on the open market.
Sunday's game somehow felt triumphant despite the loss.
In 1996, a 22-year-old outfielder named Bobby Abreu made his major league debut with the Houston Astros, only to be lost to the Tampa Bay Devil Rays with the sixth pick in the expansion draft the following year. Ten thousand and eighty-one plate appearances later, Abreu exited the game to a standing ovation this bright Sunday in New York, having recorded his 2,470th hit. A broad grin split his face as he hugged coaches and teammates on the way out, having played his final career game, and against the club that first gave him a chance as a sixteen-year-old un-drafted free agent. In Abreu, Astros' fans are reminded where the club came from - a club that historically has eschewed opportunities for young players (with a few notable exceptions) in favor of established or even over-the-hill veterans.
In stark contrast to that past, Sunday's Astros team featured nine players who were under the age of 25 at the season's equinox. Battery mates starting pitcher Nick Tropeano and catcher Max Stassi, both September call-ups after Triple-A seasons notable for opposite reasons, offered a glimpse of the home-grown future that is the foundation of the current regime's strategy. Tropeano pitched his least successful game to date, allowing four earned runs over five innings with three walks and only one strikeout, but has still shown enough during his four September starts to warrant strong consideration for a starting rotation spot on the 2015 Astros. Stassi, who struggled through his season in the Pacific Coast League to the point where he produced one of the ten-worst offensive performances in the league, knocked two hits, including a double and two RBI, finishing his September with a strong .350 batting average.
Another batter who figures prominently in the Astros' future plans, first baseman Jon Singleton, gathered one hit of his own, giving the struggling slugger something to hold onto as he faces an off season in which he will try to address the questions raised by his .167/.285/.333 batting line.
One of 2015's storylines will undoubtedly be the sinking or swimming of starter-turned-reliever Mike Foltynewicz. Foltynewicz looks like a better pitcher when topping out at 96 mph, as he did Sunday, than when wildly hurling fastballs into triple-digits. He showed four different pitches and did not walk any batters during his 2-1/3 innings pitched, an accomplishment noteworthy and laudable by those who have tracked his career. However, the hits that have plagued the young rookie, in conjunction with his far-lower-than-expected strikeout rate, make it difficult to project his role moving forward. Will he be able to crack the surprisingly-strong starting rotation that will boast at least seven other candidates? Will he be able to harness the high-90's fastball without sacrificing control and without allowing too many no-doubt taters such as the one served up french-fried to Mets' slugger Lucas Duda on Sunday? It's a subject that Astros fans will doubtless debate ad-nauseam during the offseason.
But on to something that will no longer be debated: In 2014, Astros second baseman Jose Altuve has won the first batting title in Astros' franchise history. After a controversy in which he was announced as benched for Sunday's game, only to see him re-inserted after the interwebs exploded in protest, Altuve erased any doubt that fellow Venezuelan Victor Martinez of the Tigers would catch him in the batting race. After grounding into a double play in the first inning led fans to fear that the 25-year-old contact machine would take his September slump all the way to the end of the season and lose the batting title in the process, he doubled in his next plate appearance and followed that up with another single for good measure, going 2-4 on the day. Coupled with Martinez' oh-fer, Astros fans had their AL batting champ decided and crowned before the end of the game.
Altuve's particular brand success this season, in case you haven't seen, has not been witnessed by baseball fans in almost a hundred years. In 1917, first-ever-Hall-of-Famer Ty Cobb gathered over 220 hits, 55 or more extra-base hits, and over 55 stolen bases in 153 games, a feat he had accomplished twice before. The next player in baseball history to accomplish that same collection of stats was Jose Altuve, who finished with 225 hits, 47 doubles, 3 triples, 7 home runs, and 56 stolen bases.
Altuve's batting title represents the Astros' promising present, and he and his young teammates, along with those former teammates still working through the minor leagues, represent the Astros' very bright future.
Here's to a very positive Astros' season, and looking forward to another leap forward in 2015!