As the 2014 pennant race starts to kick into gear, several teams have established themselves as contenders. These teams have shown the resiliency and experience to compete in their respective divisions, and look to be in the thick of things for the rest of the season.
On the other hand, other teams have fallen off, and instead are looking to 2015 and beyond for their chance to compete. In particular, I thought of four teams who won’t make noise in this year’s pennant race, but who have talented young players and strong enough farm systems to turn things around in the near future. None of these four teams have been to the playoffs in quite some time, but if a number of prospects work out, they have the chance to be perennial contenders very soon. I plan to take a look at each of these teams in detail as a four-part series. The first team I’ll be discussing is the Houston Astros.
The Astros last appeared in the playoffs in 2005, and have lost 100 games or more in each of the last three seasons. Although they presently sport a 40-56 record, good enough for fourth place in the AL West, many believe it is only a matter of time before their high draft picks are ready to carry the team.
This will have to start with the players the Astros have already called up. 24 year old rookie right fielder George Springer, who was picked 11th in the 2011 draft, has already hit 19 home runs and driven in 50 runs. He is only batting .233 and has struck out 112 times so far, but his power numbers cannot be ignored. The Astros will need him to develop a more selective eye, but hope that with more experience he will make more contact and raise his average while decreasing strikeouts.
The Astros have a more proven entity in second baseman Jose Altuve. Like Springer, he is just 24, but was recently selected to his second All-Star team in just four years. In 2014, he leads the AL with 130 hits and 41 stolen bases, and is second with a .335 batting average. His ability to make contact, hit for average, and steal bases makes him invaluable to an Astros team that has struggled to produce consistent stars.
In addition to Springer and Altuve, who have already made huge contributions at the major league level, Houston has other players they consider to be important for the team’s future. Rookie first baseman Jon Singleton has struggled through his first season, hitting only .188, but has shown his powerful bat with 6 home runs in only 136 at-bats. Second year pitcher Jarred Cosart has also shown signs of becoming a solid starter, with a 4.17 ERA in 105 and 2/3 innings pitched. Meanwhile, third year starter Dallas Keuchel has pitched to a pleasantly surprising 3.20 ERA, and had the opportunity to make the All-Star team via the Final Vote contest, though he lost to Chris Sale.
Improving through the draft
One of the benefits of finishing with the worst record in baseball for three years in a row is having three straight first overall draft picks. In 2012, The Astros used this pick on shortstop Carlos Correa, who hit .320 in his first professional season. In 2014, he was tearing it up with a .325 average, 6 home runs, 57 RBIs, and 20 stolen bases in Single-A+ until it was discovered he would miss the rest of the year with a fractured tibula. Despite this setback, he is considered a top prospect with all the tools to succeed at a higher level.
Mark Appel, the first pick in the 2013 draft, has not found as much immediate success in the minor leagues. After pitching to a 3.79 ERA last year, he has struggled out of the gate in 2014, and his ERA ballooned to 9.57 in Single A+. Still, he has plenty of time to turn things around and become the can’t-miss starter the Astros expect him to be.
Finally, Houston used this year’s first selection in the draft to choose pitcher Brady Aiken right out of high school. Since then, it has been reported that Aiken has a problem with his elbow ligament. However, Aiken has not even turned 18 yet. He has years to work his way through whatever arm problems he has, and the Astros will not rush him to the major leagues until he is ready. In fact, each of these draft selections has issues to work through. Thus only after they prove they are durable enough to have full, successful seasons, will they be ready to join the big league club in Houston.
Overall the Houston Astros look to be a strong team several years down the road. The most important thing for them is to wait. In a recent Sports Illustrated cover story, Ben Reiter talked about how the Astros have gone from having one of the worst farm systems in baseball to one of the best. The results are already apparent, as seen with the likes of George Springer, Jose Altuve and Dallas Keuchel. Now the Astros have to give their young prospects time to mature in their approaches and gain experience. Then the team will have a realistic chance of being a serious contender in the American League.
Joe Setyon, sports editor of The Collegian at Grove City College, contributes to Three for Ten Sports as a baseball writer.