Since early November, baseball fans around the country have been eagerly awaiting the day that the most wonderful game on the earth returns. Well, the wait is almost over.
For the Astros, the pitchers and catchers had their first workout last Friday, and the position players began this week. Coming into spring training last year, the mood was much more reserved. The team was expected to be improved, but not by much. The possibility that Carlos Correa would see some big league time was intriguing, but he was coming off a broken leg that caused him to miss a lot of the 2014 season at High A Lancaster. It was thought that he might be a September call-up and nothing more.
Fast forward a year, and all of that is changed. The Astros are coming off of their first playoff berth in a decade. They have the reigning AL Cy Young Award winner (Dallas Keuchel) and AL Rookie of the Year (Correa). The excitement level around this team is considerably higher. And the best part of all of that is that the extremely young nucleus of players on the Astros’ roster is a year more experienced and have the chance to be even better than they were in a breakout 2015 campaign.
LHP Scott Kazmir – Traded for prior to the trade deadline last summer, Kazmir helped solidify the starting rotation that led the Astros into the playoffs for the first time in 10 years. In 13 starts as an Astro, he went 2-6 with 54 strikeouts, 24 walks and an ERA of 4.17 in 73.1 innings. Kazmir signed with the LA Dodgers this past offseason.
1B/DH Chris Carter – Carter entered 2015 coming off of a career season in 2014, and everyone in the organization was excited about him possibly taking another step forward in 2015. Unfortunately, that never panned out, and he was released following 2015.
SS Jed Lowrie – The Astros brought Lowrie back in 2015 to be the every day shortstop once again, and give the young roster a veteran presence. Unfortunately, Lowrie was injured early in the season, and missed a good portion of the year. Of course, this led to the eventual promotion of Correa, who took over the every day duties at short. Lowrie was traded back to Oakland in the offseason.
RHP Ken Giles – The acquisition of Giles was the biggest move of the offseason for the Astros. GM Jeff Luhnow was hellbent on adding a power arm to the back end of the bullpen, and they got everything they asked for in Giles. With a fastball that reaches upwards of 100 mph, Giles figures to be the team’s closer in 2016.
RHP Doug Fister – With the departure of Kazmir, Luhnow was also in the market for a veteran starting pitcher. Fister struggled in 2015 as a member of the Washington Nationals, with a record of 5-7, an ERA of 4.19 and a WHIP of 1.398. The hope here is that Fister even partially returns to his 2014 form that saw him finish eighth in NL Cy Young voting.
The Astros return most of the roster from last season, which includes Keuchel, Correa, SP Collin McHugh and many others. In the interest of time, I’ll focus on just a few players that should have a large impact on the 2016 model of the Astros.
2B Jose Altuve – The former AL Batting Champion, newly-minted Gold Glover and perennial All-Star was recently tabbed as the top second baseman in the bigs by MLB Network. If you’ve watched even one Astros game in the last four years, you know how much Altuve means to this team.
OF George Springer – Springer again battled injuries for a solid portion of the year in 2015 (looking at you, Yordano Ventura), but when he was out there, he showed every one of his five tools. Springer showed improvement in 2015, as he was able to cut down his strikeouts (he had five fewer Ks in 2015 than he did in 2014 despite playing 24 more games), raise his batting average (up to .276 from .231) and increase his on base percentage (up to .367 from .336).
OF Colby Rasmus – This past November, Rasmus became the first player to accept a qualifying offer in the four-year history of the compensation system. As many will remember, his torrid postseason caught the attention of the baseball world, helped lead the Astros past the Yankees in the AL Wildcard and forever endeared himself in the heart of Astros fans everywhere. Here’s a Spring Training #ColbyJack for your viewing pleasure:
1B/DH AJ Reed – Last season as Chris Carter and Jon Singleton continued to provide absolutely no production out of the first base position, fans everywhere clamored for Reed to get a shot. Reed led the minor leagues in home runs with 34, and is listed as the Astros’ No. 4 overall prospect. Not many expect Reed to make the big league roster out of Spring Training, but he has an excellent chance to do so with a strong showing.
LHP Wandy Rodriguez – The 37 year old lefty makes his return to the Astros on a minor league contract. Originally traded to the Pittsburgh Pirates in 2012, Rodriguez posted a 4.90 ERA in 15 starts last year for the Texas Rangers. Minor league deals like this don’t always work out, but Rodriguez will have a decent shot at making the club and possibly even the starting rotation throughout the spring.
The Astros will kick off their Spring Training schedule on Mar. 4 against the St Louis Cardinals at 1:05 pm EST. A lot of things can happen between now and Opening Day, and the Astros might have a bit of a different look come April. Here’s looking forward to a productive spring in Kissimmee!
Photo courtesy of @EvanDrellich of the Houston Chronicle.