Complete Houston Astros 2014 Season Preview

Will KornCorrespondent IIMarch 27, 2014

Complete Houston Astros 2014 Season Preview

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    Pat Sullivan/Associated Press

    "Patience" is the key word for the Houston Astros and their fanbase right now. 

    In a world where instant gratification rules the day, going through rebuilding phases is an oft-dreaded process. Nobody, and I mean nobody, wants the word "patience" to be the first word that comes to mind when thinking about their favorite team.

    But it's all part of what almost every club goes through at some point. For the last three seasons, the Astros have lost 106 or more games, which is a record-setting feat—if you want to call it that.

    But Houston is now into Year 4 of its rebuilding project, and things are certainly looking up. Astros fans: I can almost guarantee that your team will not lose 100 games this season. 

    "Yeah, yeah, yeah" is probably how you're responding right now. "That's it?? We'll just avoid another 100-loss campaign?" 

    What if I told you I expect the Astros to be a bit better than that? Would you believe me? 

    I say to you, Houston fans: Continue to have patience with this lengthy and taxing reconstruction effort. For once, have some confidence in your team—it will finish this season better than you might think.

    Here is your complete 2014 Astros season preview. We'll cover everything—a spring training recap, an updated injury report heading into the season, lineup, rotation and bullpen previews, and final projections for the club this season. 

    Enjoy!

     

    *All stats courtesy of MLB.com, ESPN.com and MiLB.com

Spring Training Recap

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    Carlos Osorio/Associated Press

    It's been a mixed spring for the Astros. As with almost every team, there were far more disappointments than surprises. But some of these guys aren't worth worrying about just yet. Remember, these exhibitions are just tuneups. 

    Here are some of the standouts and busts from Astros camp.

     

    Standouts 

    Marc Krauss, LF

    He's had an outstanding spring. In 39 at-bats, the Ohio University product is hitting .308 with two homers and four RBI. He's getting on base, and for this Astros team, that's what matters far more than trotting out a bevy of sluggers each night. Krauss needs to cut down on his swings and misses, however. When you're fighting for regular playing time, you don't want to be carrying a 33.3 percent strikeout rate.

     

    Robbie Grossman, LF

    Grossman won't have any trouble making Houston's Opening Day roster. But it sure is nice when a guy is always playing like he has something to prove. Grossman has handled the bat excellently this spring, hitting .362 in 47 trips to the plate. He also needs to slash his strikeout rate a bit and develop some power as well. He won't be leading off this season with Dexter Fowler in the fold, but his on-base skills give him the potential to do so in the future. 

     

    Carlos Corporan, C

    Corporan should safely be the team's backup catcher. He has some nice pop and is a switch-hitter, so he definitely has a place on this club. The most impressive number for him this spring? Six walks in just 29 at-bats. If he can keep anywhere near that blistering pace, manager Bo Porter will have to consider giving him some more time behind the dish this season. 

     

    Josh Fields, RHP

    Houston's young flamethrower has impressed in limited action. He's only thrown seven innings, but he's allowed just six hits and one run while sporting a .222 opponents' batting average. Location and over-reliance on his fastball have always been his two major sticking points. But if he can harness his secondary stuff a bit more, he can be very effective in the back end of Houston's pen.

     

    Struggling 

    Chris Carter, DH/1B

    The strikeout parade continues ad nauseam for Carter. He's a master of the art. But he will bring the big lumber and give you around 25 homers if you stick with him long enough. This spring, he's got a paltry line of .196/.204/.314 with 15 strikeouts in 51 plate appearances. At the same time, he's only got one homer and just five runs driven in. That's roughly the proportion you can expect from him this season. But he's not going anywhere because of his prodigious power. 

     

    Matt Dominguez, 3B

    Uh-oh. Another everyday player who's on this list. Dominguez, in my opinion, could be one of Houston's better all-around hitters. He only has one RBI in 40 at-bats and is hitting just .175. He will be relied upon as a middle- to late-middle-of-the-order run producer. He simply has to hit far better than that. Dominguez is capable, though. I wouldn't be too worried about this guy—he showed some impressive flashes of potential last season, and that should carry over into 2014.

     

    Scott Feldman, RHP

    Oh boy. Three years and $30 million for this production: 16.2 innings pitched and a 5.40 ERA? Opponents hitting .292 off him? I'm in the camp that believes Feldman was a nice signing for Houston overall. A $10 million average annual value was likely a few dollars too much. But no worries: He'll pitch well enough for this offense—which will have to play scrappy—to stay in the game.

    Feldman has an above average sinker-cutter combo, accompanied by a big, looping curve that can really give hitters fits. He has the stuff. Consistency and inning-eating are the focal points for him going forward.

    At this stage of the rebuilding project, Houston doesn't need lights-out pitching. The staff just needs to be good enough to keep the offense in striking distance. The lights-out pitching will arrive in a few years with the likes of Mark Appel...and possibly Carlos Rodon?

Injury Updates

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    Carlos Osorio/Associated Press

    On the injury front, the Astros have had far better fortune than many clubs—including, say, their division rivals, the Texas Rangers—this spring. There have been just a handful of injuries, and only one of the following guys, reliever Jesse Crain, is on the club's 25-man roster, according to David Coleman of The Crawfish Boxes.

    Here's the updated report:

     

    Jesse Crain, LHP 

    An American League All-Star for the Chicago White Sox in 2013, Crain was shut down midseason last year after a major shoulder surgery. He signed with Houston in the offseason on a one-year, $4.5 million deal and is currently recovering from biceps tendinitis. He is scheduled to throw his first bullpen session on Thursday, per a tweet from Brian McTaggart, Astros beat writer for MLB.com. It seems likely that he will start the year on the disabled list.

     

    Carlos Correa, SS 

    The Astros' top prospect was hit by a pitch on his left hand from the Washington Nationals' Tyler Clippard last week in a spring training game, per Craig Goldstein of SB Nation. X-rays were negative. According to Coleman, Correa will not be on the Opening Day roster, so this probably isn't a pressing concern.

     

    Peter Moylan, RHP 

    Moylan was diagnosed with an ulnar collateral ligament tear in his right elbow last week, per McTaggart. Moylan was a non-roster invitee to the Astros' camp and was fighting for a spot in the bullpen. With the gravity of this injury, it's far less likely he earns that spot. 

     

    Asher Wojciechowski, RHP 

    Wojciechowski was diagnosed with a strained right-lat muscle on Feb. 1 after pitching a bullpen session and has just never fully recovered from it. Per Jose de Jesus Ortiz of the Houston Chronicle, Wojciechowski will also likely begin the season on the DL. 

Lineup and Bench Preview

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    David Manning-USA TODAY Sports

    The projected 2014 lineup, according to SB Nation's David Coleman, with 2013 stats (team leaders in bold), is as follows:

     

    Starting Lineup

    • CF Dexter Fowler (COL)     .263/.369/.407   12 HR  42 RBI  19 SB   65 BB 
    • LF Robbie Grossman         .268/.332/.370      4 HR   21 RBI   6 SB  7 CS 
    • C Jason Castro                 .276/.350/.485    18 HR   56 RBI  35 2B
    • 2B Jose Altuve                  .283/.316/.363     5 HR   52 RBI  35 SB   32 BB
    • DH Chris Carter                .223/.320/.451   29 HR   82 RBI  212 SO  70 BB
    • 1B Jesus Guzman (SD)      .226/.297/.378     9 HR   35 RBI  
    • 3B Matt Dominguez          .241/.286/.403     21 HR  77 RBI  25 2B
    • RF L.J. Hoes (BAL/HOU)      .282/.332/.365       1 HR  10 RBI
    • SS Jonathan Villar            .243/.321/.319       1 HR   8 RBI   18 SB 

     

    Analysis

    Coleman writes that manager Bo Porter has indeed decided to move Grossman up from the six-hole to the No. 2 spot. On the same note, Altuve has been moved from the two-hole to cleanup. Moving Grossman up behind Fowler is a smart switch. You always want your high on-base percentage guys at the top of the order. 

    Altuve hitting cleanup is deceptively logical.

    When you think about it, you don't really want Carter hitting cleanup because he strikes out at an absurd rate. You also want Jason Castro—maybe the best all-around hitter in the lineup—in the three-hole, which is the usual designated place for a club's best hitter.

    So why not move Carter down to the fifth spot, which will give him more RBI opportunities? Porter seems to be throwing a curveball here, but I can very easily see this working out.

    I really love the addition of Fowler into this lineup. He fits the mold of a leadoff hitter and gives Houston a presence at the top of the lineup. He is especially important because of the lack of another leadoff type on the roster. Altuve is the closest thing in-house, but he is better suited to the two-hole or cleanup.

    As listed here, this is Houston's best possible lineup. There is certainly room for rearrangement. Altuve could hit lower in the order if he starts to struggle. Castro could hit in the three-hole or cleanup. Carter could hit fourth through sixth, as could Dominguez. 

    The lineup has a nicely balanced mix of speed and power, with Fowler and Altuve at the top, and Villar at the bottom turning it back over. I'd count on Castro, Carter and Dominguez to total around 75 to 85 homers this season, and the averages should all improve at least a bit.

    Remember, this is a very young squad—nobody in this lineup is older than 29, and six guys are 26 or younger. Again, "patience" is the key word for this group.

    I also like the versatility Bo Porter has on his lineup card. Carter can play first or DH and has some experience in the outfield. Grossman and Hoes can probably handle any outfield spot. If Porter wants additional pop in the lineup, he could DH Castro, play Carter at first and slot in Carlos Corporan behind the plate. Marc Krauss is also an option in the outfield. 

    Will the Astros have trouble scoring runs again this season?

    Yes. But they will be better. With another full season playing in the American League, even facing some exceptional pitching across the league, several guys in this lineup should take a step forward this year.

    Houston plated 610 runs in 2013, good for second-to-last in the AL. But to put that into perspective, the Tampa Bay Rays, one of only two clubs to win 90 or more games in the last four seasons, scored just 90 more runs than Houston.

    Tampa Bay was very close to an elite team in 2013. 

    Progress. It's all about the big picture.

    The major key for this offense is to cut down on the swings and whiffs. Carter was among the league's leaders in strikeouts last season with 212 in 506 at-bats and still hit 29 bombs. If he can take that 41.8 strikeout percentage down to just 33-36 percent and raise his average between 10 to 15 points, he can really be a force in the middle of the order.

     

    Bench 

    • LF/RF Marc Krauss               .209/.267/.366     4 HR    13 RBI   
    • C Carlos Corporan              .225/.287/.361    7 HR    20 RBI
    • SS Marwin Gonzalez            .221/.252/.319    4 HR    14 RBI
    • OF Alex Presley (MIN/PIT)    .276/.313/.373     3 HR    15 RBI

     

    Analysis

    Houston's bench is serviceable. Krauss and Corporan bring some extra power to the table. Gonzales is capable of playing short or second, but Altuve and Villar are just kids and won't need many days off. So Gonzales could conceivably become the main pinch hitter, since he bats on both sides of the plate.

    Coleman reports that Houston just picked up outfielder Alex Presley off waivers from the Minnesota Twins. Presley can handle all three outfield spots, and Coleman seems to believe he will be added to the 25-man roster because of his versatility. He is a scrappy hitter who has shown some speed on the basepaths in the past. 

Rotation Preview

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    Rob Foldy-USA TODAY Sports

    The 2014 Astros rotation has been set, according to McTaggart

    Here it is, accompanied by the pitchers' 2013 numbers (team leaders in bold): 

     

    Scott Feldman (RHP, CHC/BAL)

    12-12   3.86 ERA   181.2 IP  132 SO    56 BB     1.18 WHIP   .234 Opp Avg   

     

    Jarred Cosart (RHP)                 

    1-1    1.95 ERA     60.0 IP     33 SO    35 BB     1.35 WHIP   .220 Opp Avg

     

    Brett Oberholtzer  (LHP)        

    4-5    2.76 ERA    71.2 IP    45 SO    13 BB     1.10 WHIP   .237 Opp Avg

     

    Lucas Harrell (RHP)                    
    6-17   5.86 ERA    153.2 IP    89 SO    88 BB     1.70 WHIP   .289 Opp Avg

     

    Dallas Keuchel (LHP)          
    6-10    5.15 ERA   153.2 IP   123 SO    52 BB    1.54 WHIP   .297 Opp Avg

     

    Analysis

    Per McTaggart, Feldman will be the Opening Day starter at home against the New York Yankees. He'll be followed by Cosart and Oberholtzer. Harrell and Keuchel will take the first two starts against the Los Angeles Angels on April 4 and 5, respectively.

    I like the top three in this rotation. But I'm very confused as to why general manager Jeff Luhnow and Porter decided to give Harrell the No. 4 spot. Harrell once had promise, finishing the 2012 season as the Astros' best pitcher—far and away.

    Perhaps the front office just decided to give him another shot after a dismal 2013. Personally I would feel a bit more comfortable with Jerome Williams in the No. 4 spot and Brad Peacock in the fifth spot.

    Feldman should have double-digit wins in 2014. He is not an ace and probably not even a top-of-the-rotation-type pitcher. But his lethal sinker-cutter combo makes him tough to hit and allows him to control both sides of the plate. He is also pretty well-controlled and will keep the Astros offense in the game most of the time. 

    Keep an eye on Oberholtzer as a possible breakout candidate in this rotation. I love what I saw from him last season—he allowed less than a hit per inning and displayed pin-point control, only walking 13 batters in 71.2 innings. That's even more remarkable when you consider Oberholtzer is far from a strikeout pitcher—yet his strikeout-to-walk ratio was 3.46.

    In order for this staff to be successful, it needs to stay within itself.

    Fans should not expect consistent lights-out pitching—these guys simply are not capable of that. The goal for each pitcher should be to hand the ball to the incoming reliever, having given the team a chance to win the game. This rotation is definitely capable of winning several games, but it'll need to be a complete team effort in trying to survive in what might be baseball's toughest division.

Bullpen Preview

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    Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images

    Based on Houston's current 25-man roster, it appears the Astros will be taking seven relievers into the season. As mentioned before, Jesse Crain will start the season on the DL, recovering from biceps tendinitis in his left arm. He will be the eighth reliever when he's ready to go. 

    Here's the bullpen preview for 2014, with 2013 numbers:

     

    Chad Qualls (RHP, MIA)  

    5-2     2.61 ERA    62.0 IP     0 SV     15 HLD    49 SO     19 BB

     

    Matt Albers (RHP, CLE)    

    3-1     3.14 ERA    63.0 IP     0 SV      1 HLD    35 SO     23 BB

     

    Josh Fields, RHP               

    1-3     4.97 ERA    38.0 IP     5 SV      6 HLD    40 SO     18 BB

     

    Brad Peacock, RHP       

    5-6      5.18 ERA   83.1 IP     0 SV      2 HLD   77 SO    37 BB

     

    Jerome Williams (RHP, LAA)

    9-10     4.57 ERA   169.1 IP   0 SV       0 HLD   107 SO   55 BB

     

    Kevin Chapman, LHP   

    1-1     1.77 ERA    20.1 IP     1 SV        4 HLD    15 SO    13 BB    

     

    Anthony Bass (RHP, SD)  

    0-0     5.36 ERA    42.0 IP     0 SV        0 HLD    31 SO    20 BB

     

    Jesse Crain (RHP CWS)  

    2-3     2.44 ERA    36.2 IP     0 SV       19 HLD    46 SO   11 BB

     

    Analysis

    The pen might be the most important component of this 2014 club. The rotation should be fairly consistent between Feldman, Oberholtzer and Cosart, but things might start to get really shaky with Harrell and Keuchel on the back end. Cosart is teeming with talent, but he's also prone to wild outings, so you're only talking about two consistently reliable starters in Feldman and Oberholtzer. 

    The bullpen then, is constructed to combat a few short outings in a row. It is set up with several long-reliever types—Williams, Albers and Peacock are all capable of pitching multiple innings of relief. Any of those three can also pitch effectively in the late innings.

    This should be a relatively well-rested group during the season. Everyone has a role and everyone will be used. The versatility in this bullpen is very nice. 

    I would expect Qualls to take over the closer spot, since he has the most save experience by far. But don't overlook Fields. He had a great spring and has the attacking mentality of a successful closer. His mid-90s fastball and above-average curveball form a tricky one-two punch. I wouldn't be surprised if Fields earns at least a few saves this season.

    Two things concern me about this group.

    First, Chapman is the only lefty, and he's susceptible to control issues, even if he has A+ heat. The AL West boasts a scary collection of lefty power hitters who destroy right-handed pitching, such as Prince Fielder, Robinson Cano, Josh Hamilton, Josh Reddick, Brandon Moss, Shin-Soo Choo and so on. The club should focus on adding at least a second lefty to the pen, or it could really struggle having to face power lefty hitters on the wrong side of the mound.

    Second, there is an overall lack of plus velocity in this pen. Chapman and Fields can really bring it, but outside of those two, 90 to 92 mph is the name of the game here. These guys have good stuff, however, and if they can locate their spots, that almost always trumps pure gas.

    It is definitely a bonus to have a healthy supply of power arms in any pen. The Astros don't quite have that right now and will have to make do. 

Prospects to Watch

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    If there is one thing that puts the Astros in the conversation as the league's most exciting club, it's the hoard of eye-popping prospects they boast down on the farm. Years of suffering have finally become fruitful. 

    Let's take a look at some of the guys who should be turning heads at Minute Maid Park by the end of this season and far beyond. The players' 2013 minor league stats are included.

     

    OF George Springer (CC/OKC) .303/.411/.600, 37 HR, 108 RBI, 45 SB, 27 2B, 4 3B 

    Springer, 24, might just be the next 30-30 player in the majors. He's a true five-tool player with elite offensive ability and an eye at the plate well beyond his years. He struggled in spring training, putting up a slash line of just .161/.333/.194 with zero homers and just one RBI. But take a second look at that OBP. The kid got on base at a near league-average rate, despite hitting .161. That is impressive—you know the hitting is going to come around, and if Springer can reach base at that rate without it...wow.

    Get excited Astros fans. This guy might just be the closest thing to the second coming.

     

    1B Jonathan Singleton (QC/CC/OKC) .230/.351/.401, 11 HR, 44 RBI, 17 2B 

    Singleton, 22, is progressing much more slowly than Springer. Still, he is one of the organization's premier power-hitting prospects. Singleton has a big 6'2", 255-pound frame and natural power to all fields. His greatest flaw is his strikeout rate. In 245 at-bats with Triple-A Oklahoma City, he was fanned 89 times, good for a whopping 36.3 percent. He needs to make more consistent contact before being called up to Houston. 

     

    SS Carlos Correa (QC) .320/.405/.467, 9 HR, 86 RBI, 33 2B, 10 SB 

    The Ponce, Puerto Rico, native has yet to turn 20 years old. But last season in Single-A Quad Cities was absolutely spectacular for the Astros' top prospect. In addition to those sparkling offensive numbers, he plays slick defense at short and is a truly complete player. It may be a couple more years before you see him in Houston, but he definitely has the potential to move through the system quicker than that. 

Breakout Candidates

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    David Manning-USA TODAY Sports

    The Astros have a few guys to keep a close eye on this season. These players could make a significant leap in production that will set the club up for contention in two to three years.

     

    CF Dexter Fowler

    Acquiring Fowler was easily the best move the Astros made in the offseason. For the last few years he had been charged with kick-starting a Colorado Rockies offense that was never short in the run department. It might have been a bit too much for Fowler to handle, as he never really broke out in the way I thought he would in Colorado.

    Now he's one of the bigger fishes in a smaller Houston pond. There is no pressure in this situation, as he is cemented in as the club's leadoff man. He has all the right tools—speed, on-base and contact ability as well as a bit of thump in his bat.

    I expect him to have a fine season in 2014.

     

    LHP Brett Oberholtzer

    Oberholtzer was excellent in his rookie campaign last season and pitched effectively against several quality teams. He has the perfect combination of solid stuff and laser control. He won't make mistakes and put himself in holes by walking hitters. As is the case with many crafty southpaws, Oberholtzer also won't miss many bats but rather will play to his strength of movement by forcing hitters to put balls in play.

    He'll enter 2014 as the rotation's No. 3 starter. You could very easily argue that he could have been the No. 2 starter. All of that in just one season. Look out. 

     

    RHP Josh Fields

    An impressive spring training has earned him a spot on this list. He has the velocity and the stuff. At this point, Fields just needs opportunity and consistency. I think he'll start off the season as the eighth-inning setup guy, with Qualls closing. But as I said before, don't be surprised if Porter decides to promote Fields to the closer role. I think he's better suited for it right now anyway.

Top Keys to Success

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    Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

    Success will come piece by piece for this franchise over the next few seasons. Here are couple things the team can do to this season to continue its upward trend.

     

    1. Take everything in stride 

    Continue to play with inspired hearts and patience. Another fifth-place finish is almost certainly coming again this season. Over the last couple of years, this club, despite swimming in misery, has done an admirable job of grinding out as many at-bats and games as possible. The Astros have done well to shake their label as a "gimme" win and series and have been respectably competitive.

    For example, the Los Angeles Angels went just 9-10 against Houston in 2013. Remember that four-game sweep in L.A. in June last year? Ah, but that is just a taste of how competitive this squad can be. 

    If Houston can keep up the never-say-die attitude, it will accelerate its rebuilding process by developing a tight chemistry in the clubhouse. Play every game all the way to the end, together, as a complete team. This was a large part of the equation in the Texas Rangers' turnaround in 2010.

    Stay positive.

     

    2. The leaders must lead through all struggles and successes 

    For this club, the leaders are Fowler, Altuve, Castro and Feldman, all of whom are under the guidance of a patient and aware Bo Porter, who has done a great job as skipper so far. There are pockets of talent on this team, and they must shine by example. Everyone needs to pull in the same direction, knowing that in two to three years this could be a winning club. 

     

    3. The front office needs to practice moderation  

    If there is a reasonable opportunity to improve his club, Jeff Luhnow should absolutely do so. But he, just like Porter and the players as well as the increasingly restless fanbase, needs to remain patient. Don't spend heavily on medium to big names. All the talent is on the way. Play with house money right now, making minimal and smart additions to the club, if anything. 

     

    4. As much as within reason, let Nolan Ryan do his thing 

    There is another reason why the Rangers became so successful. Let the great baseball minds have some room to operate, and the results will be evident.

Preview of Opening Series Against New York Yankees

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    Thomas Campbell-USA TODAY Sports

    The Astros will welcome the Bronx Bombers into Houston to kick off the 2014 regular season. Here are the matchups and my predictions for each game:

     

    Tuesday, April 1, 6:10 p.m. CT

    CC Sabathia vs. Scott Feldman 

    Here we go, folks. It's the best of the big, bad Yankees up against the hurler who is easily the Astros' best pitcher. This will be a competitive game from the opening pitch, as there is always a little extra in the tank for every team playing the Yankees. Feldman and Sabathia should keep this a low-scoring affair, and it will come down to the bullpens. 

    That's where the Yankees are a bit better. The Yanks take Opening Day.

    Yankees 4, Astros 3

     

    Wednesday, April 2, 7:10 p.m. CT

    Hiroki Kuroda vs. Jarred Cosart 

    This is another tough draw for Houston. Kuroda has been on top of his game over the last couple of years, and when he's on, he's one of baseball's toughest hurlers to square up. Cosart has an electric arm, but I don't see him holding down New York's reloaded offense for more than four or so innings.

    The Bombers will put their fireworks on display in this one. Houston will struggle against Kuroda's devastating sinker-splitter duo.

    Yankees 9, Astros 2 

     

    Thursday, April 3, 7:10 p.m. CT

    Ivan Nova vs. Brett Oberholtzer 

    This is a much more favorable matchup for Houston. Oberholtzer is crafty, and I think he will start off his season with a bang. His sinker and changeup will keep Yankee batters off the middle of the plate and off balance. He'll give up a few hits but will limit damage admirably.

    Meanwhile, Nova has been a roll of the dice his whole career. Houston salvages one here.

    Astros 6, Yankees 3

2014 Astros Outlook

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    Scott Halleran/Getty Images

    It will be another tough season for the Astros, but the important thing every Houston fan needs to realize is that this team is getting better. That will be obvious when you watch it play in 2014. The Astros will be in a lot of close games but won't win many because they are by and large lacking league-average talent.

    Slowly but surely, Houstonians. 

     

    Final prediction: 66-96, fifth in the AL West

    The Astros will avoid the 100-loss mark with some room to spare, ending a three-year nightmare in that sense. If enough clicks between the lineup, rotation and bullpen, the Astros have an outside shot of winning 70 games. 

    Better than you were expecting, right?

    Keep motoring on Houston. Your time is coming.