MLB Team Report - Houston Astros - INSIDE PITCH


Improving Astros boast solid core, new manager

HOUSTON -- Somewhat lost amid the hoopla of the rightful celebration for second baseman Jose Altuve winning the first batting title in club history was the fact that the Astros improved by 19 victories from 2013.

For an organization in the throes of a protracted rebuild, finishing 70-92 stands as an achievement on the heels of three consecutive 100-loss seasons. Plenty have lambasted the Astros for stripping down their major league roster and painstakingly rebuilding through the draft and via trades, but even the most pessimistic would admit that the Astros appear to be heading in the right direction as a franchise. For all of their front office missteps this summer, the results speak for themselves.

"At the beginning of the year, I was asked about what we were trying to achieve win-loss-wise, and I said we're looking for a ... step in the right direction," Astros general manager Jeff Luhnow told MLB.com. "I didn't know what that meant in terms of wins and losses, but I thought we would know. And I do feel we know.

"We've made a substantial improvement. More important, we feel we've got a foundation in place to build on to get the team to the next level, and the next level really is a .500 team or better. I think we're in position with a good offseason to get there."

What the Astros unearthed was a core that should serve as the foundation for their offense moving forward. Altuve (.341/.377/.453), rookie outfielder George Springer (.231/.336/.468), center fielder Dexter Fowler (.276/.375/.399) and designated hitter Chris Carter (.227/.308/.491) each finished above the league average in adjusted OPS and, barring unexpected offseason contract snafus regarding Carter and Fowler, appear primed for repeat performances in 2015.

However, the Astros received just 78 games from Springer and 116 from Fowler, and with the rest of their offense lagging, they finished below the league average in weighted runs created. Where they made the biggest gains came with their starting pitching, with left-hander Dallas Keuchel (12-9, 2.93 ERA) emerging unexpectedly as a staff ace, right-hander Collin McHugh (11-9, 2.73) producing beyond expectations off the scrap heap, and right-hander Scott Feldman (8-12, 3.74 ERA) producing exactly what the Astros desired after his offseason signing.

"It all starts with the starting pitching, and we made some giant strides," Luhnow said.

While they have ample right-handed pitching depth in the minors, the Astros could stand to fill out their rotation with another dependable veteran arm. Considering the non-waiver trade deadline acquisition of Jake Marisnick, the Astros appear set in the outfield and might be poised to wait on the development of top prospect Carlos Correa at shortstop and Colin Moran, who joined the organization in the same trade that netted Marisnick, at third base. Catcher Jason Castro took a step back offensively, but he seems entrenched as the backstop for the immediate future.

One thing is for certain now that the offseason has arrived: The Astros named former Diamondbacks manager and former Padres vice president of scouting A.J. Hinch as manager. Hinch replaces Tom Lawless, who went 11-13 as the interim manager after the firing of Bo Porter.

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MLB Team Report - Houston Astros - NOTES, QUOTES


RECORD: 70-92, fourth place in American League West

TEAM MVP: Jose Altuve became just the fourth right-handed hitter since integration to record 225 hits in a season, joining Paul Molitor (225 in 1996), Joe Torre (230 in 1971), Tommy Davis (230 in 1962) and Kirby Puckett (234 in 1988) on that distinguished list. He won the first batting title in club history, batting .341 with seven home runs and 59 RBIs and approached the club record for stolen bases, finishing with 56. His adjusted OPS of 134 was 45 points higher than that of last season. "It means a lot," Altuve said. "This is something I've been working for. To win a batting title, the first one in franchise history, is pretty exciting for me."

BIGGEST DISAPPOINTMENT: Catcher Jason Castro was an All-Star in 2013, posted a .276/.350/.485 line with a 129 wRC+ and was a four-win player for the Astros. This season, he suffered a drop across the board: a .222/.286/.366 line with an 84 wRC+ and 1.3 WAR. The Astros don't have a catcher ready to supplant Castro just yet, but at 27 years old, Castro should be hitting his prime and not suffering unexpected regression.

TOP PROSPECT: Shortstop Carlos Correa was tearing up Class A Lancaster to the tune of a .325/.416/.510 line through 62 games before suffering a broken leg sliding into third base on June 21. Correa was in line for a promotion to Double-A Corpus Christi and, depending upon his performance with the Hooks, might have earned a longer look during spring training. Instead, he missed the remainder of the season and an opportunity to perform in the Arizona Fall League. Correa remains ascendant, but his progress has been stalled.

PLAYER NOTES:

--1B Jesus Guzman, who was outrighted to Triple-A Fresno on Oct. 9, refused the assignment and became a free agent two days later. Guzman, 30, hit .188/.272/.248 with two homers and nine RBIs in 69 games for Houston this year. He previously played in the majors for San Francisco and San Diego.