Houston Astros vs. Cleveland Indians, April 6 & April 8-9, 2015
To quote the prophet Rafiki, "It is time". The boys of summer are back in Houston, life returns to Minute Maid Park, and the tide of blue and orange washes back in. Hope springs anew, and the hometown team can take on the world. In seasons past, honestly that hope was a bit delusional but the roster has slowly grown. At this point, the Astros starting lineup is filled to the brim with major league level talent; no more are their castoffs or retreads sprinkled. The talent is deep enough to push two 2014 starters, Matt Dominguez and Jon Singleton, to Triple A. The Astros could be a sleeping Giant or a failed science experiment by season's end.
The Indians come in 2015 with the same level of hope as the Astros if not more. Cleveland was a few breaks away from filling the spot that the Royals took in the playoffs. The Indians finished four games behind Kansas City and the Wild Card spot. The Indians have two frontline players in 2014 Cy Young award winner Corey Kluber and outfielder Michael Brantley would probably had the quietest third place finish in MVP voting history. Quiet seems to be the Indians style under Terry Francona. Many will forget about Cleveland and look up at the standing for the White Sox and Tigers leading the AL Central but see the Indians.
Key Additions and Departures
The Astros departures list is short and that is be design. Houston is looking to keep their players under cost-effective control. The main departure was Dexter Fowler, who was the defacto leader coming into 2014. The elder statesman on the diamond at the age of 29. Fowler was a valuable bat that was ideal to put at the top of the lineup - taking pitches, walking, and stealing bases. Dexter was limited in the outfield and was heading into his final contract season in 2015, thus he was dealt. Matt Albers, the feel good story of the former Astros and Houston-native coming home ended quickly with shoulder injury that keep him out for the majority of 2014 season. Houston declined the option for Albers for 2015 and he is now a member of the White Sox.
The Fowler trade was part of a busy offseason for the Astros, the Astros former outfielder returned to major league players from the Cubs - infielder Luis Valbuena and right-hand pitcher Dan Straily. Valbuena had a breakout season with the Cubs in 2014 (.249, 16 HR, 61 RBIs) and will be slotted in at the 3-hole for the Astros on Opening Day. Straily will likely be the first pitcher up from Frenso as he is molded by the Astros pitching coaches that helped Collin McHugh have breakout season in 2014. The Astros signed two solid starters in Jed Lowrie and Colby Rasmus in the field. They also added two veteran arms in the bullpen, Luke Gregerson and Pat Neshek, to stabilize a bullpen that had the worst ERA in baseball last season. The biggest move this offseason was the Astros' trade for Evan Gattis. Houston sent pitchers Mike Foltynewicz, Andrew Thurman and third baseman Rio Ruiz. Gattis added another powerful bat to pair with Chris Carter.
Indians didn't have any key departures to speak but they did add two important pieces - Brandon Moss and Gavin Floyd. Moss maybe the biggest steal from the Athletics wheeling and dealing this offseason. While Floyd is the ideal fifth starter veteran presence on the team.
As with any Opening Day, both teams a trotting out their big guns in game one - 2014 Cy Young award winner vs. the 2014 Gold Glove award winner. Yes, a Gold Glove won't ever compare to a Cy Young, but the award speaks to Dallas Keuchel's success with the ground ball.
Game 1: LHP Dallas Keuchel (12-9, 2.93 ERA, 1.18 in 2014) vs. RHP Corey Kluber (18-9, 2.44 ERA, 1.09 WHIP in 2014)
Game 2: RHP Scott Feldman (8-12, 3.74 ERA, 1.30 WHIP in 2014) vs. RHP Carlos Carrasco (8-7, 2.55 ERA, 0.99 WHIP)
Game 3: RHP Asher Wojciechowski (4-4, 4.74 ERA, 1.45 WHIP in 2014 with Triple A Oklahoma City) vs. RHP Trevor Bauer (5-8, 4.18 ERA, 1.38 WHIP in 2014)
Keuchel lead the league in ground ball rate, 63.5%, six points higher than the next pitchers on the list. The lefty's two-fastball keeps batters pounding the ball into the ground. Scott Feldman, the 2014 Opening Day starter will get the ball on the Wednesday for the Astros. Feldman had a pretty rough spring with an ERA close to seven, but the he has had similiar the previous two spring without problems. He is a know commodity, Feldman will pitch to contant and go at least five innings - that's all the Astros ask of him. Asher Wojciechowski is the one surprise in the rotation his spring. Wojciechowski could have earned a spot with Brad Peacock and Brett Oberholtzer went down with injuries - he posted a 1-0 record with a 1.29 ERA and 1.05 in 21 innings this spring.
What more can be said about Corey Kluber? 2013 was his breakout season and 2014 was break down the door season. Kluber's electric fastball, slider combination resulted in fourth place finish in strikeout-to-walk rate of 10.27 per nine innings. It maybe Carlos Carrasco turns to step on the national stage for the Indians. The right-hander averaged a 96-mph fastball last season, and sports a changeup that will bring a batter to his knees. The Diamondbacks basically gave up Trevor Bauer, was it his attitude or his warmup program? Who knows? But Arizona's loss is Cleveland's game. Bauer worked out his kinks in 2014 and looks primed to blast off in 2015.
The Astros bullpen is a three-headed monster that only recently had a closer named. Gone are the young projects, in are the veterns A.J. Hinch used with the Padres. Luke Gregerson, Pat Neshek, and Chad Qualls will ease the mind of Astros that are accustom to losing the farm late in games. The lefty situation is set as well with the return of Tony Sipp and the addition of Joe Thatcher another former Padre.
The Indians closer Cody Allen, looks like a dark horse to lead the league in saves this season after collecting 24 save out of 28 chances last season.
The Astros lineup has two main storylines, home runs and strikeouts. George Springer, Chris Carter, Evan Gattis, and Jason Castro all topped at least 100 strikes and few crossed over the 150 mark. The Astros lead the American league in 2014 in strikeouts, and that probably wont change in 2015. The lineup has improved, Luis Valbuena had batting average 30 points higher and walked almost triple the number of times than Matt Dominguez. Colby Rasmus should find new life south of the boarder off the Astroturf and in less-demanding position of left field. Evan Gattis' power will be on display with the short porch in left.
Carlos Santana has found a home at first base that will help steady his play. The Indians are set in left and center field with Brantley and former Astro Michel Bourne. If Bourne can stay healthy, the tribe will have two 20+ base stealers at the top of their lineup. Yan Gomes won the Silver Slugger award in 2014, and doesn't look to slow down in 2015. The Indians lineup is solid top to bottom and adding Brandon Moss bring the power they need. Moss had 25 home runs last season in part time duty.
The Astros take two of three in the opening series. The Astros have two-straight Opening Day with 2015 being arguably their hardest of the three.