Spring Training is my favorite time of year. After a long cold winter, baseball is back! I find myself scouring through endless blog posts and articles and tweets where players say "I'm in the best shape of my career" , or "I'm working on a new pitch", and then try to remember if these same guys said this last year too. The wins, losses, and stats don't matter, but it is still exciting to watch or listen to a game, because BASEBALL. A big part of that excitement stems from all the new faces in camp, especially the ones that will have a big impact on the upcoming season.
As anyone who is a fan of the Astros knows, the 2014 version of the team had more holes than...uhh...you know, that thing...that has all the holes in it. (The bullpen. The left side of the infield. Left field. The bullpen!) Jeff Luhnow and friends set out this year to plug these holes. They hit the free agent and trade markets with fistfuls of cash and prospects, and brought back bonafide major league players to solidify the team. Here I have put together an introduction to some of those key additions. Ladies and gentlemen...your shiny new Houston Astros!
Luke Gregerson (RP)-Signed as Free Agent
Gregerson, a six -year veteran, was signed as a Free Agent after spending 2014 as a member of the Oakland A's bullpen, where he gave up only 17 earned runs over 72 1/3 innings. He also had an excellent BB/9 of 1.87, which is much better than the Houston pen's BB/9 of 3.46. Obviously this is an immediate upgrade. He also induces quite a few ground balls, which in Minute Maid Park should help cut down on those soul-crushing late inning homers. Gregerson is expected to contend for the closers role with Chad Qualls.
Pat Neshek (RP)-Signed as Free Agent
Neshek, a member of the Cardinals in 2014, is that guy with one of the more unique deliveries in baseball. If you have seen it you know what I am talking about. After a couple of down years, he had quite a comeback last season. He struck out 68 batters in 67 1/3 innings, utilizing a sinker, slider, change up and that funky sidearm style. Like Gregerson, he doesn't walk many batters, and doesn't give up the long ball, two things that have hurt the Astros when trying to close out games in the recent past.
Evan Gattis (C)-Acquired via trade with Braves
The term "Super Utility Player" has been used quite a bit recently to describe those players who can be plugged into multiple positions in the infield or outfield. They are handy players to have on a roster. Although it has been rumored since he was acquired that Gattis will play LF, 3B, 1B, Catcher and DH, "Super Utility" would not describe him. "El Oso Blanco" has a particular set of skills (ok...skill). He crushes the baseball. You want that bat, so you find a place for him. It might be in a different place every day, but look for that power to be in the lineup most games. He has been known to have some knee problems, and the team hopes that moving him out from behind the plate full time will help his legs stay fresh.
Luis Valbuena (3B)-Acquired via trade with Cubs
This has been an addition that many fans were waiting to see this spring. Third base was bad last year. That is as nice as I can put it. The Astros hope to remedy that with Valbuena. After seasons of going back and forth between the farm and the big league club, he had a breakout year with the Cubs in 2014. He plays above average defense, has good power (16 home runs last season), gets on base (.341 OBP) , and he walked almost 12% of the time. After getting so little production from that position recently, fans should be happy with what Valbuena will provide going forward.
Jed Lowrie(SS)-Signed as a Free Agent
In 2012, the last time Lowrie was in Houston, he only played in 97 games. He did hit well in those games, and that made him valuable enough for Oakland to give up Chris Carter and Brad Peacock in a trade. Now he is back, and the shortstop position looks like it has stability it hasn't had in a while. Statistically he is average defensively. At the plate, he gets on base. In a lineup that will be very K friendly, that will help. He may only be at short until Carlos Correa is ready to come to the big club, but until then the team should have solid production from that position. Offensively, the combination of Lowrie and Valbuena should turn the left side of the infield from a liability to an asset.
Colby Rasmus (OF)-Signed as Free Agent
Drafted in the first round by the Cardinals in 2005, Rasmus has been reunited with his old friend Jeff Luhnow. He has had an up-and-down career, but could be a big piece of the Astros 2015 season if he can bounce back. He is only one season removed from an .840 OPS and 22 home runs. As an above average defender, Rasmus should be an asset in the field. He hopes to avoid the injuries he suffered in Toronto, which he has blamed on the artificial turf. If the natural grass surface here can help him stay on the right side of the DL, then this one-year deal is a low-risk move.
Dan Straily-Acquired via trade with Cubs
Coming into camp, the first four slots in the rotation were pretty much unanimous. The fifth starter has been up in the air, especially since Brad Peacock had surgery this off season. Straily is one of the favorites to fill that slot when the season starts. Over his minor league career, he was a big strikeout pitcher, but that success has not translated to the majors...yet. The hopes are that Straily will be able to make that jump this year.
Hank Conger (C)-Acquired via trade with Angels
Did y'all think I forgot about Framerin' Hank? After the improved record in 2014, Astros fans were nervously watching to see what the team was going to do in the offseason to get even better. Nothing exhibits this pent-up energy better than The Crawfish Boxes turning into The Conger Boxes after the trade was announced. Conger is a former first round pick of the Angels, and a quick look at his offensive numbers doesn't show why the team was interested in trading for him. Conger is excellent at pitch framing, and by using that skill, he is able to get more called strikes than the average catcher. It may not be as sexy as a home run, a stolen base, or even a drag bunt. It is something that could prevent a few runs here and there, which means an improved chance to win some of those close games. Conger is expected to share time with Castro (and probably also Gattis) behind the plate this year.
The thing that everyone has at this time of the season is hope, and I hope all these guys perform to the level we want them to. If so, we may be watching the playoff team that Jim Crane is shooting for by September. Of the newcomers, who do you think will have the biggest impact? Who might not live up to expectations? Who do you think might have a big impact on the season, that maybe I didn't mention? So many questions! Luckily (or not) we still have a few weeks to talk about it here before Opening Day.