The Astros, for a few years, were really bad. They accumulated triple-digit losses in three consecutive seasons, and dropped a total of 324 games during those years — the third-most ever for such a span. Since then, things have improved in Houston. The club "only" lost 89 games in 2014, and it's built off that further thus far, with a 53-43 record entering Thursday. Jeff Luhnow, who orchestrated the hardships that preceded their present success, can now revel in the product of his labor.
On the field, a good deal of the credit for Houston's accomplishments should go to its starting pitching. After continually rounding out the majors, they — much like the team itself — have risen to respectability:
With that said, every team can stand to get better, and the Astros can certainly attest to that. While Dallas Keuchel and Lance McCullers have each posted superb numbers to date, and Collin McHugh and Vincent Velasquez have held their own, the starters beyond that haven't done much. That quadrumvirate has compiled 373.2 innings of 3.11-ERA, 3.08-FIP ball, but their colleagues have undermined that with a 5.50 ERA and 4.52 FIP in 206.1 innings of work.
Scott Feldman, signed in the 2013 offseason, managed to overperform his declining peripherals during 2014. He's since lost that ability, pitching to a 4.93 ERA and 4.39 FIP in 11 starts. Brett Oberholtzer has matched his mediocre results with mediocre supporting numbers — across eight outings, he owns a 4.46 ERA and 4.42 FIP. Roberto Hernandez has played as well as would any 34-year-old retread: The team moved him to the bullpen after he eked out a 5.18 ERA and 4.85 FIP in 11 starting opportunities. A cast of thousands, all just as uninspiring as these men, have exacerbated the situation. All in all, the Astros could use a rotation upgrade.
Enter Scott Kazmir. The Athletics inked him to a two-year deal after his incredible 2013 comeback, and he rewarded them with another solid performance in 2014. He's followed that up with further improvement:
As I detailed in April, Kazmir's replaced his slider with a cutter, returning to ace-dom as a result. The Athletics, however, have lost all hopes for October — on account of the cruel Lady Luck — so they have little use for a #1 starter on an expiring contract. Thus, they shipped Kazmir to Houston this afternoon, where he'll presumably pick up where he left off in the Bay.
On account of Kazmir's superiority thus far, the Astros gave up some solid talent to acquire him. Daniel Mengden, one of the prospects heading the other way, ranked 22nd in Chris St. John's aggregation of prospect lists for Houston's system. In other words, heading into the year, twenty other farmhands for the Astros had more potential than Mengden, He started 2015 off well, with a 1.16 ER and 2.65 FIP in 38.2 innings at A-Ball, but the subsequent promotion to upper A — where those marks rose to 5.26 and 4.02, respectively, in 49.2 innings — clearly came too early. A 22-year-old, he can improve from here; strikeouts have always come easily to him, but he'll need to work on control to take the next step.
Meanwhile, the other player on the way to Oakland, Jacob Nottingham, didn't appear on anyone's radar in the offseason. He played at the Rookie level in 2014 at age 19, and showed his age, hitting only .230/.307/.385. Perhaps that failure fueled him, because he's looked nothing like that hitter in 2015: His triple-slash across A and A+ stands at .326/.383/.558. Cutting down on strikeouts and hitting the ball harder earned him a spot on the coveted Fringe Five, from which he may go on to greatness. Even better, he's done all of this at catcher — one of the more offensively-starved positions baseball; even better, he's exhibited an above-average arm and overall defense at that position, suggesting he could stick there long-term. If he keeps this performance up, the Athletics could have their future backstop.
But the Astros already have a deep minor-league system — as evidenced by the humble rankings of these two players; besides, the present concerns them more than the future. They currently battle the Angels for control of first place in the AL West, in what has nearly become a two-team race (the third-place Rangers languish nine games back). Per FanGraphs' projections, Los Angeles has a 60.3% chance of capturing the crown, while Houston's odds sit at 37.3 percent. Together with a 40.8 percent chance at a wild-card spot, that gives the Astros more than a three-in-four shot at seeing October baseball.
Let's focus on the division. Both teams have a .497 projected winning percentage for the rest of the season, but the Astros need two more victories than the Angels to make up the distance between them. Kazmir — whom FanGraphs foresees as a 1.1-WAR pitcher from here on out — coming into the rotation, and ridding it of its replacement-level fifth member, will theoretically give them one of the wins they'll require. Should they receive a few lucky bounces, and maybe a bit of overperformance, they could feasibly skip the wild-card round entirely.
And, of course, that doesn't even get into what could happen once they arrive in the postseason. Not only does Kazmir top the various scrubs that have filled out Houston's rotation thus far, he probably can also beat Velasquez or McHugh head-to-head. If he replaces either of them in a four-man playoff order, the team will fare much better. A top three of Keuchel, McCullers, and Kazmir will strike fear in the hearts of any divisional opponent.
The Astros have endured a lot to arrive at their current destination, and they won't turn back now. Pushing ahead may require some sacrifice, but if they can return the glory of the days of yore to Houston, it'll all be worthwhile. While Kazmir doesn't make them a complete team, he puts them one step closer toward their ultimate goal.
. . .
All data as of Thursday, July 23rd, 2015.
Ryan Romano is an editor for Beyond the Box Score. He also writes about the Orioles on Camden Depot (and on Camden Chat that one time), and about the Brewers on BP Milwaukee. Follow him on Twitter at @triple_r_ if you enjoy angry tweets about Maryland sports.