This will be a different kind of challenge.
In Boston, the Jays massacred a lifeless shell of a good team. The Red Sox pretty clearly just wanted to get the games over with so they could find out who had been traded. Houston is the inverse: the Astros may suck, but they suck with vitality and moxie. Never mind that they're 20 games under .500 and they've been outscored by 99 runs. They're coming off a spirited series win over the A's in which they outscored the World Series favorites 19-11, pounded all three of Oakland's starters, and almost swept them altogether.
(And I know absolutely nothing about these guys, so I figured it would be a good time for the advance scout to make a cameo...)
Tonight's starter is Jarred Cosart, a native of nearby League City who grew up rooting for the Astros. He's a righty with a turbo-sinker and a hard curveball. The Astros obtained him from Philly in the Hunter Pence trade. This is Cosart's second season in the majors, and he's been in Houston's starting rotation all year. He has basically no platoon splits this year, and had a pronounced reverse split in 2013. As you'd expect, he is a groundball pitcher; the Astros' relatively weak infield defense does him no favors, but he's hung in there and posted a solidly positive WPA for the second year in a row.
Friday, it's marginal prospect Collin McHugh, who may be too smart for baseball and, due to his limited velocity, profiles best as a swingman or potential #5 starter. The Mets and Rockies each invested about 25 big-league innings in proving his limitations, and the Astros claimed him off waivers from Colorado this past winter for the very reasonable price of nothing. After a few weeks in Oklahoma City, he got another big-league shot, punched out 12 Mariners in his Astro debut, and didn't look back. He's got a 28% K rate and a 3.45 ERA. D'oh. Anyway, he's a righty who throws in the low 90s and has a nice curveball and slider, both of which he can command. And his blog is terrific. The post that's currently at the top (it's from May) has some lucid reflections on failure, perspective, and security that many fans would do well to absorb. "Baseball has a way of evening things out over the long run...a concept that's hard to grasp when you, as a player, don't know how long that run will be. Before, in my career, I would worry that one bad outing would define me. That if I pitched poorly I would get sent down, and if I got sent down or designated enough, teams would have a bad opinion of me. It was a self fulfilling prophecy." Come to think of it, some GMs could take the hint too.
Saturday, it's lefty Brett Oberholtzer. He came to Houston from the Braves in the Michael Bourn trade of 2011. He throws around 90, has a killer changeup, and consciously adds and subtracts on his breaking ball depending on the game situation. Like Cosart, Oberholtzer is in his second season in the majors, though he's seesawed back and forth between Houston and OKC a few times. He's been a league-average starter in the bigs. He threw 6.2 innings in a win over Oakland on Monday.
Sunday, it's Houston's Opening Day starter, the veteran Hawaiian-born righty Scott Feldman. He is easily the highest-paid player on the 2014 Astros, making $12 million in the first year of a front-loaded three-year contract. His mission: to eat innings. You know him: cutter/curveball, reverse splits, pitches to contact, can be very effective when he induces ground balls. He's solid, but the fact that Scott Feldman started (won!) on Opening Day says it all about the Houston front office's level of ambition for 2014. To be fair, he was considered quite the catch at last year's trade deadline. He fetched the Cubs Jake Arrieta and Pedro Strop and pitched capably for the Orioles down the stretch, though they finished third and might regret that trade now.
The leadoff man is Jose Altuve, the second baseman and two-time All-Star. Altuve is an oddity on this team, and not just because he's a home-grown player who didn't arrive in Houston via a scorched-earth trade. He's also a contact hitter (and a really good one). The little guy leads the AL in hits, batting average and steals (42), is currently riding a 12-game hit streak, and goes up there swinging, though he has very little power. It's a bit ironic that he's the face of the team, given that practically everyone else in the lineup is an anti-Altuve: patient, powerful, extremely strikeout-prone.
Marwin Gonzalez is a versatile, switch-hitting infielder who has been manning shortstop recently, though he's playing through hamstring tenderness (he missed yesterday's game) and may land on the DL. He's 25. He came to Houston in an unheralded trade before the 2012 season: Boston picked him in the Rule 5 draft and shipped him to Houston for pitcher Marco Duarte, who's currently a swingman for the Diablos Rojos del Mexico. Gonzalez is probably most famous for being the guy who broke up Yu Darvish's bid for a perfect game with two out in the ninth inning last April.
Designated hitter Chris Carter has been traded three times, for Carlos Quentin, Dan Haren and Jed Lowrie. He will strike out, and he will hit homers. Carter's 212 strikeouts last year led the majors, and were the third-highest single-season strikeout total in MLB history. (Adam Dunn is second, with 222 K's in 2012. Dunn is also 7th, 13th, 15th and 16th. Mark Reynolds is first, with 223 in 2009. Reynolds is also 4th, 6th and 12th.) I'd throw in a crack about George Springer challenging for the strikeout record, but he's on the DL and won't return until at least Monday. Carter also has a 27.6% groundball rate, one of the lowest in the majors, and the short left-field porch in Houston suits him well.
Catcher Jason Castro, of Castro Valley, California, is having a rough year with the bat; his strike zone control had been pretty good the last couple of years, but this year, it's deserted him. He's 27 - I'd be betting on a return to form next year. The Astros clearly are, too, as they're making him the #4 hitter day in and day out. Castro also had the misfortune of being asked to play clubhouse spokesman and defuse the ridiculous Mark Appel bullpen session controversy, a fate worse than death. Just a rough year all around.
Following Castro are three more young all-or-nothing hitters. Marc Krauss was acquired from Arizona in 2012 for Chris Johnson; he's a 26-year-old sophomore left fielder who has a pretty good hitting record in the western minor leagues that hasn't quite translated to the majors. Jon Singleton, the rookie first baseman, came to Houston with Cosart in the Hunter Pence trade; he's struggled to make contact in the bigs as well. Third baseman Matt Dominguez, a slow, powerful righty, came from Miami in exchange for Carlos Lee. It'll be interesting to see how Hutchison approaches these guys tonight.
The right fielder is Robbie Grossman, another Houston-area native who switch-hits and has drawn a ton of walks in the minor leagues. He came to the Astros from Pittsburgh in the Wandy Rodriguez trade. I believe that means every tanking move Houston has made in the past four years has at least one representative on the Astros' active roster.
With Dexter Fowler sidelined, centerfield duties have fallen to 22-year-old Puerto Rican rookie Enrique Hernandez (call him Kike - no, it doesn't rhyme with Ike). After falling off the prospect radar, he figured out AA in his third crack at it this year, and then hit .337/.380/.508 in the PCL to earn a promotion. He's played second, short, and all three outfield positions for Houston, and after Altuve he might just be the second-toughest out in the lineup right now. Could be the super-utilityman for the next contending Astros team - if such team materializes before he reaches free agency…
As for the bench, L.J. Hoes (from the Bud Norris trade!) and Jesus Guzman are decent hitters mired in ghastly slumps; one presumes they will both start against Happ tomorrow unless Houston wins 15-0 tonight. Gregorio Petit is a 29-year-old journeyman who was just called up a week ago, and this is his first taste of the majors since he played for Oakland in 2009. Carlos Corporan is in his fourth season as the Astros' backup catcher.
The bullpen is well-rested thanks to ace Dallas Keuchel, who fired a complete-game four-hitter yesterday. (The Jays are lucky to dodge him.) The closer is Chad Qualls, who's returned to the city where he started his big-league career after stints in Arizona, Tampa Bay, Philly, Pittsburgh, the Bronx, Pittsburgh and Miami. Qualls is still a sinker-slider guy with colossal platoon splits (.461/.903 OPS), and his 3.2 pitches per plate appearance is remarkably low for a closer. He blew a three-run lead to Oakland on Tuesday, so look for Bo Porter to try to get him back on the horse early in this series. Veteran Tony Sipp and 28-year-old sophomore Josh Fields are twin strikeout machines from the left and right sides, respectively, and they'll be the primary setup men. Jose Veras, Darin Downs, Paul Clemens (no relation) and Jake Buchanan round out the bullpen.
The Credit Section: Fangraphs - it's pretty great. I feel like, this being 2014, the chart should really include some kind of pitch data somewhere, but couldn't figure out where best to put it. The "DRS" column is Defensive Runs Saved at the position listed in the chart. The roster and pitching matchups are accurate as of 11 am Thursday morning...