Astros take leap forward in eventful 2014 season

Altuve makes history while Springer, Keuchel and McHugh emerge

Astros take leap forward in eventful 2014 season

HOUSTON -- Yes, the Astros had nowhere to go but up after winning only 51 games in 2013, and their performance this year certainly brings reasons for optimism when you consider they finished with one of the biggest turnarounds in the Major Leagues.

More important to general manager Jeff Luhnow than wins and losses, however, are the reasons why the Astros showed so much improvement on the field. Several players emerged, some surprisingly so, to make the kinds of contributions that could set the club up nicely in the near future if they can add the right pieces.

The Astros pitched better, struck out fewer times and showed more power. And even though manager Bo Porter didn't make it through the season -- he was dismissed Sept. 1 after clashing with Luhnow -- there was tangible evidence at the Major League level the Astros are on the right path.

"At the beginning of the year, I was asked about what we were trying to achieve win-loss-wise, and I said we're looking for a bit step in the right direction," Luhnow said. "I didn't know what that meant in terms of wins and losses, but I thought we would know. And I do feel we know.

"We've made a substantial improvement, whether we went up with 70 or 71 wins is really irrelevant. More important, we feel we've got a foundation in place to build on to get the team to the next level, and the next level really is a .500 team or better. I think we're in position with a good offseason to get there."

The Astros avoided 100 losses for the first time since 2010 and climbed out of last place in the rugged American League West by winning the season series from their in-state rival Texas Rangers, who had dominated them in recent years.

The bright spots were many: All-Star second baseman Jose Altuve set a team record, led the Major Leagues in hits and won the first batting title in Astros history, the starting rotation -- led by Scott Feldman, Dallas Keuchel and Collin McHugh -- was much improved, designated hitter Chris Carter came into his own in the second half of the season and rookie outfielder George Springer showed exciting promise, when healthy. Veteran outfielder Dexter Fowler was a nice addition as well.

"I think it's been a pretty strong improvement," veteran catcher Jason Castro said. "It's definitely what we were looking for in Spring Training this year. To see a lot of the pitching staff really step up and grow as pitchers has been kind of one of the biggest bright spots for this organization moving forward."

The Astros started poorly out of the gate once again and were 17-32 in late May when they came together and played close to .500 ball the rest of the year. In May, they posted their first winning month in three years, thanks in part to Springer's stellar performance that earned him Rookie of the Month honors.

"Having Springer in the lineup every day makes a huge difference for us," Luhnow said.

Even though Springer didn't play after July 19 because of a strained quad, the Astros rode the hot bat of Altuve and Carter, who led the Majors in homers after July 1, to post a second winning month in August, going 15-14. Keuchel, Feldman, McHugh and Brett Oberholtzer all pitched well down the stretch and gave the Astros a solid foundation in the rotation.

"It all starts with the starting pitching, and we made some giant strides," Luhnow said.

Record: 70-92, fourth in the American League West

Defining moment: The Astros were 12-27 with the worst record in the Major Leagues after being shut out on May 12 by the Rangers, who had dominated them the year before. Left-hander Dallas Keuchel took the ball the next day at Minute Maid Park and threw his first career shutout, sparking the Astros to 12 wins over a span of 17 games to get back to respectability. It also was the Astros' first of seven consecutive victories against the Rangers en route to winning the season series against them for the first time since 2006 -- a big reason why Houston finally escaped last place in the division.

What went right: All-Star second baseman Jose Altuve put himself on the national stage by breaking Craig Biggio's franchise record for hits in a season and leading the Majors in hits on his way to the Astros' first batting title. … Rookie outfielder George Springer made his much-anticipated debut and showed his potential by hitting 20 home runs in 78 games before missing the final 2 1/2 months with a strained quad. … Left-hander Dallas Keuchel established himself as the ace of the staff by reaching career highs in nearly every category, including five complete games. … McHugh, a waiver claim, came out of nowhere to emerge as one of the AL's top rookie starting pitchers. He was nearly unbeatable the final six weeks. … Despite a three-week stint on the disabled list early in the year, veteran pitcher Scott Feldman delivered one of his best seasons of his career. … Designated hitter Chris Carter went on a second-half tear and emerged as one of the biggest power threats in the AL.

What went wrong: A growing discord between general manager Jeff Luhnow and manager Bo Porter came to a head Sept. 1 when the second-year skipper was dismissed and replaced on an interim basis by Tom Lawless. … The signings of veteran pitchers Matt Albers and Jesse Crain to shore up the bullpen proved to be busts after injuries kept them off the field. Albers, signed for $2.25 million, pitched in eight games, and Crain, signed for $3.25 million, didn't get on the field. … Prospect Jon Singleton made his debut in June and struggled mightily for much of the season with many strikeouts. … Shortstop Jonathan Villar got off to a quick start, but didn't pan out and spent much of the season in the Minor Leagues. … Third baseman Matt Dominguez and catcher Jason Castro both took steps backwards offensively after promising seasons a year earlier.

Biggest surprise: McHugh, called up when Scott Feldman went on the disabled list early in the season, struck out 12 batters in 6 2/3 scoreless innings in his Astros debut April 22 in Seattle. It wasn't a fluke. McHugh blossomed into one of the top young starters in the AL by piling up the quality starts and eventually the wins. Had he pitched enough innings, McHugh would have finished among AL leaders in ERA this year. Not bad for a pitcher claimed off waivers from the Rockies last winter.

Hitter of the Year: Who else? Jose Altuve. He set the franchise record for hits in a season, multi-hit games and three-hit games and wound up with more hits in a season than any Venezuelan-born player. Winning the first batting title in Astros history, Altuve joined Ty Cobb as the only players to have at least 220 hits, 45 doubles and 54 steals since 1917. He had the most hits by a second baseman since Charlie Gehringer (227) in 1936.

Pitcher of the Year: Keuchel. The lefty didn't even make the starting rotation until the final days of Spring Training, but he quickly emerged as the Astros' ace. Keuchel set career highs in almost every category, including wins, innings pitched, ERA and complete games, where he was among the leaders in the Major Leagues. When he was on the mound, the Astros won more often than not.

Rookie of the Year: McHugh. Springer, who was named AL Rookie of the Month for May, would have earned this honor had he not missed the final three months of the season. McHugh would have made a run at AL Rookie of the Year had it not been for Jose Abreu of the White Sox.

Brian McTaggart is a reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog, Tag's Lines. Follow @brianmctaggart on Twitter. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.