Emergence of key building blocks has Porter, Luhnow excited about team's progress
HOUSTON -- The Astros' rebuilding process is still at the point where wins and losses don't matter as much as identifying some players the team believes will be a big part of its future.
In that sense, the Astros were thrilled with some of the developments in the first half, especially in the final weekend before the All-Star break. Only hours after pitcher Jarred Cosart threw eight scoreless in his Major League debut Friday, the club locked up second baseman Jose Altuve to a four-year contract extension.
Cosart and Altuve figure to be building blocks for the Astros as they go forward, but several others emerged in the first half as well. A completely healthy Jason Castro made the American League All-Star team at catcher with a breakout season, and 22-year-old pitcher Jordan Lyles showed his potential as well.
The Astros hit the All-Star break with more losses than any other team in its first year in the AL, but reasons for optimism remain.
"We're [one-game] behind the pace of last year, and obviously last year is not our goal," general manager Jeff Luhnow said. "Also, if you look at what happened last year in July and August, we won eight games over those couple of months and that's one of the roughest stretches I've ever been through. This team is much better positioned to avoid those of bumps."
MVP: Jason Castro Finally healthy after missing all of 2011 following ACL surgery, the former first-round pick has developed as a reliable starter and team's No. 3 hitter.
Cy Young: Bud Norris There were some bumps along the way, but Norris finally showed the consistency that made him the Astros' top pitcher and one of the hottest commodities on the trade market.
Rookie: Brandon Barnes The high-flying center fielder won a starting spot because of his early offensive output, but his defense has been Gold Glove worthy.
Top reliever: Jose Veras Veteran closer shook off a shaky start with new club to blossom into a dependable closer.
The Astros began the season with a stirring win over the Rangers on Opening Day but wound up 10-30 at about the one-quarter mark of the season as the strikeouts piled up and the starting rotation struggled to find consistency.
Once the starting rotation stabilized behind ace Bud Norris, veteran Erik Bedard, Dallas Keuchel and the up-and-coming Lyles, the Astros went 20-20 over their next 40 games and hit the midpoint of their schedule feeling good about the way they were playing.
"I've never looked at this season and thought about the numbers of wins or losses," first-year manager Bo Porter said. "More so, I came into the season with the thought process I wanted to be able to leave this season and look around the diamond and have players establishing themselves as Major League players. And I can't stress how thrilled I am in the fact Jason Castro has established himself as an everyday catcher."
In addition to Altuve and Castro, the Astros also feel they found their third baseman of the future in Matt Dominguez, who hit 11 homers in his final 57 games of the first half after not hitting a home run in his first 33. He also played the kind of stellar defense the Astros anticipated when they got him from the Marlins in the Carlos Lee trade last July.
Then there's outfielder Chris Carter, who led the team in homers (18), RBIs (47) and runs scored (44) in the first half of the season while splitting time between left field, first base and designated hitter. Carter still has to cut down on his strikeouts, but his raw power can be a game-changer.
"He's going to continue to get better," Porter said.
Players to watch in second half
Jarred Cosart Pitcher was dazzling in his Major League debut on Friday and could provide a boost to the rotation.
Jason Castro All-Star catcher has a chance to finish the season with more home runs than any catcher in club history.
Brett Wallace He struggled mightily to start the season, but he has been on a tear since he was called back up June 25.
The Astros liked what they saw in Norris and Lyles on the mound, though Norris remains a prime candidate to be traded. Lucas Harrell, who was the team's best pitcher a year ago, was removed from the rotation in late June after struggling.
Veteran closer Jose Veras did a nice job for the Astros, with youngsters Jose Cisnero and Paul Clemens emerging in the bullpen.
"My feeling is on any given night, all five of our starters give us a chance to win," Luhnow said.
The second half of the season could be an exciting one for Astros fans. Cosart should return to the rotation at some point to get a longer look, and top prospects George Springer and Jonathan Singleton are knocking on the door at Triple-A Oklahoma City.
Springer, the team's first-round pick in 2011, hit 19 home runs in 73 games while at Double-A Corpus Christi and didn't slow down when he was promoted to Triple-A, hitting .404 with seven home runs and 17 RBIs in his first 17 games. Still, it could be September before Astros fans get a look at the player who could be the cornerstone of their lineup.
"As the pieces start to come together, I would say I am extremely excited about the way our players have developed and we have another half of the season to go, and I think by the time we get to the end of the year we're going to be excited about the players that are coming back to the organization," Porter said.