2015 Houston Astros: Tomorrow, tomorrow, tomorrow

Harry Craft

Harry Craft was the first manager of the Houston Colt 45s, lasting only three seasons. It was Craft’s second full-time managing job, and he didn’t have much to work with in his first either, a two-and-a-half year stint with the Kansas City Athletics in the late 1950s. As a player, Craft was an outfielder for the Cincinnati Reds, most noted for his defense for four years before World War II. Craft was a part of some interesting baseball moments: the Reds won back-to-back pennants in 1939-40, Craft hit for a cycle in June 1940; and Craft caught a fly ball (hit by Leo Durocher) for the last out of Johnny Vander Meer’s second of back-to- back no-hitters in 1938 (Craft had three hits in the game; Vander Meer walked eight and fanned seven, which would have him pulled by the seventh inning with modern-day pitch counts). Craft was also Mickey Mantle’s first professional manager in his rookie minor-league season in Independence, Mo. Craft’s best season as a hitter was his first in 1938, when he had career-highs of a .270 average, 15 homers, 83 RBIs, 28 doubles, nine triples and a .723 OPS. Craft joined the Navy during the war; after it he played for parts of three seasons in the minors but only made it back to the majors as a manager. Career numbers: .253 average, 44 home runs, 533 hits, .674 OPS, 85 OPS+, 1-for-12 in two World Series, 3.9 WAR, 360-485 as a manager. Craft died in 1995 at the age of 80.

Carlos Correa was the No. 1 pick in the 2012 draft and we’re about to get a close-up view of why. Injuries held Correa to just 62 games last year, but opposing pitchers weren’t as successful: he hit .325 with 36 walks, 28 extra-base hits, a .926 OPS and 20 steals at age 19 in the high-A California League. The broken leg might have delayed his ascent, but not for long. Correa might be the best of a generation of offensive shortstops to rival the last one’s Derek Jeter, Alex Rordiguez, Nomar Garciaparra and Miguel Tejada. There’s also the Cubs’ Addison Russell (career minor-league .892 OPS), the Dodgers’ Corey Seager (.897), the Phillies’ J.P. Crawford (.788), the Twins’ Nick Gordon (No. 5 pick of the 2014 draft), the just-traded-to-the A’s Franklin Barreto (.848), the just-traded-to-the-Rays Daniel Robertson (.807), the soon-to-be-traded-to-the Nats Trea Turner (.369/.447.529 in a half season of Low A in 2014) and even the Indians’ Francisco Lindor to play the part of defense-first Omar Vizquel. All are shortstops, but most of them hit with the power of a corner infielder not named James Loney. And Correa may be the best of them. Six of the 60 first-round picks (that’s a lot of compensation) have already debuted in the majors, and a few more may beat Correa there. It’s possible none of them will be better, either. (Bonus trivia: who are the six players from the first round of the 2012 draft to have played in the majors. Answer below.)

Trivia: Craig Biggio was elected to the Hall of Fame in January. When Biggio and the Class of 2015 are inducted next July, there will be nine Astros in the Hall of Fame. Who will be the eight other Hall of Famers who wore the Astros (or Colt 45s) uniforms? (Hint: Four are pitchers) Answer below.

What he said: Astros manager A.J. Hinch: “We have the makings of an interesting offense, but we’ve got to piece it all together.” What he meant: “Somebody besides Jose Altuve needs to get on base or we’re going to hit a lot of solo home runs.”

Outlook: The Astros improved by 19 games last year, the second-biggest increase in baseball (the Angels picked up 20 games), and the first time in four seasons the Astros won more than they had the previous year.

Of course, the Astros could improve by 19 games again this year and still finish third in the AL West. That tells you where they were coming from: their 51 wins in 2013 were a franchise low and the third of three straight 50-plus win seasons, the only ones in franchise history. Even as the Colt 45s, they never won as few as their nickname implied — 64 wins in their first season and 1975 were their previous lows in non-strike years.

The Astros were ranked No. 2 by ESPN in its recent rankings of professional teams that best use analytics, which sounds promising, until you consider that the Philadelphia 76ers are ranked No. 1, and they’re 32-108 over the last two seasons. Using analytics for what, the rankings didn’t say.

(The Giants, who won the World Series, were placed in the One Foot In category. No word on whether analytics were the lead or trailing leg on their way to winning the World Series.)

Whether it’s analytics or high draft picks, the Astros’ advances in 2014 are real. They’ll be more in 2015, but the terrain gets more treacherous the higher up your win count is.

The Astros were fourth in the majors in home runs in 2014 with 163, and they’re a good bet to be No. 1 — at least at sea level — in 2015. The Astros replace Robbie Grossman (six home runs) with Evan Gattis (22), who moves from behind the plate and out of Atlanta and Dexter Fowler (eight) with Colby Rasmus (18); they get a full season of George Srpinger, who hit 20 in 78 games last year; and they reasonably expect a spike from Jon Singleton, who hit 13 in 95 games but had 14 in 54 AAA games.

But the Astros might also lead the majors in solo home runs. Last year they were 21st in on-base percentage (.309) and 25th in average (.242), and they won’t get much better until Correa is called up for good. Even Jose Altuve, who led the Astros with a .377 on-base percentage, accumulated most of that a hit at a time; his OBP was just 36 points greater than his .341 average, or one point for all of his 36 walks in 707 plate appearances.

The Astros should pass the A’s this year and .500 too, on the strength of their power and bullpen; doing more will depend on Dallas Keuchel (2.93 ERA in 2014, 4.16 career) and Collin McHugh (2.73 ERA in ’14, 4.19 career) repeating their success. Beyond them, the rotation didn’t have much success — Roberto Hernandez was a February free-agent signee — which makes the trade of 23-year-old pitching hopeful Nick Tropeano for catcher Hank Conger curious. Tropeano had a 3.03 ERA in Class AAA and the Astros need starting pitching; Conger is a switch-hitting catcher who batted .188 vs. lefties, the side he’ll be asked to hit backing up Jason Castro. Not sure how analytics told them to do that. Trivia answer: The nine Astros or Colts 45s Hall of Famers, with their years with the team: Biggio (1988-2007), fellow 2015 inductee Randy Johnson (1998), Don Sutton (1981-82), Nolan Ryan (1980-88), Robin Roberts (1965-66), Joe Morgan (1963-71, 1980), Eddie Matthews (1967), Nellie Fox (1964-65) and Leo Durocher (1972-73), who managed the team.

Bonus answer: The six first-round picks from the 2012 draft to have already played in the majors are catcher Mike Zunino (No. 3 to the Mariners), pitcher Kevin Gausman (No. 4 to the Orioles), pitcher Andrew Heaney (No. 9 to the Marlins, since traded to the Angels), pitcher Michael Wacha (No. 19 to the Cardinals), pitcher Marcus Stroman (No. 22 to the Blue Jays) and pitcher Eddie Butler (No. 46 to the Rockies).

Team song: Don McLean: Till Tomorrow


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