Coming off three straight 100-loss seasons, the Houston Astros are confident they’ll be better this year. They aren’t putting a number on that. But after setting a franchise record with a whopping 111 defeats, they have a simple target.
"It’s our goal to be the most improved team in major league baseball (and) I believe ... we have the group together and we can actually accomplish that,’’ second-year manager Bo Porter said.
There are several reasons why the Astros are certain they can improve. They brought in several established players this offseason to pair with the many young players who got their first significant playing time last season. They also could get some reinforcements soon from top prospects who are inching closer to being major league ready.
General manager Jeff Luhnow’s rebuilding plan has already boosted Houston’s minor league system from the worst in baseball to one of the best. He expects that work to start paying dividends this season in the majors.
"We have a young team. We’re still going to make some mistakes,’’ he said. ‘’Our young players have improved but still need some development. We brought in some veterans to help stabilize the team this year. We’re going to see a big improvement as a result of those two dynamics.’’
The Astros added Dexter Fowler in a trade that sent last year’s starting center fielder, rookie Brandon Barnes, to Colorado. Fowler is an improvement over Barnes on defense, and he gives Houston a true leadoff hitter for the first time since Michael Bourn was traded in 2011. He excelled in spring training after hitting .263 with 42 RBIs and 19 stolen bases last year, and his speed should play well in Houston’s deep center field.
They made several upgrades in an attempt to improve their relief corps after it blew 29 save chances a year ago. The biggest signing was Jesse Crain, who was an All-Star last season and had an 0.74 ERA in 37 appearances for the White Sox. But he will likely start the season on the disabled list after biceps surgery. They also added Matt Albers, who went 3-1 with a 3.14 ERA with Indians last season, and Chad Qualls, who posted a 2.61 ERA with the Marlins.
The Astros made their first sizable financial investment in years by signing right-hander Scott Feldman to a three-year, $30 million contract to lead the rotation. Feldman went 12-12 with a 3.86 ERA in 30 starts combined for the Cubs and Orioles last season and will be Houston’s fifth different opening day starter in five years.