2012 Previews: The Houston Astros

2011 Record: 56-106, 6th NL Central
2011 Prediction: 64-98, 6th NL Central

Impact Player: 1B/LF Carlos Lee
Impact Pitcher:
RHP Bud Norris
Best Reliever:
RHP Brett Myers
Top Prospect:
1B/OF Jonathan Singleton

Last Year

Years of poor management under the Ed Wade regime not only brought down the talent level on the Major League roster in Houston over his tenure, it also left the farm system completely barren. Things came to a head in 2011 and the team lost more than 100 games for the first time in franchise history, bottoming out at 106 total losses. Since their trip to the World Series in 2005, the Astros have lost franchise cornerstones Jeff Bagwell, Craig Biggio, Lance Berkman, and Roy Oswalt and last year traded away the last pieces of a respectable era in franchise history when they dealt outfielders Hunter Pence and Michael Bourn at the trade deadline.

Wade was relieved of his duties after the season when the sale of the franchise to Jim Crane became official and ownership vowed to implement a more progressive, analytically-inclined approach. Enter former Cardinals’ director of scouting Jeff Luhnow who was named the new GM in early December. The new approach is good, but the Astros are such a broken franchise that it’s difficult to imagine them contending any time in the next half-decade, especially considering they’ll be plying their trade in the American League West starting next season.

Pitching

The Astros gave up more runs than any team in the National League last season and the additions of Livan Hernandez and Zach Duke probably won’t remedy the issue. The only pitcher who threw more than 200 innings for Houston last season was transferred to the bullpen when management decided Brett Myers was better suited as their closer. Although this seems counterintuitive, it’s likely that the Astros feel they’ll be able to get more for Myers in a trade if he performs as an above average closer than if he performs as a slightly below average starter.

The Astros do have the depth to make up for Myers’ switch even if none of the pitchers projected to make the rotation are particularly good. Lefthander Wandy Rodriguez and portly righthander Bud Norris are the best the team has to offer, but they would likely be back-end starters on any halfway decent team. Norris puts up decent strike out numbers which led to a 3.73 xFIP in 2011, but he has middling walk rates and gives up too many home runs. Rodriguez, meanwhile, could be a trade chip come mid-season but has seen a gradual decline in his peripherals every year since 2008. At 32, he likely won’t get any better and considering he doesn’t have the most favourable contract ever, the Astros may be stuck with him.

Remember when Blue Jays fans were clamouring for the acquisition of lefthander J.A. Happ during the Roy Halladay trade negotiations with Philadelphia a couple years back? I couldn’t be happier that the Jays dodged that bullet. Happ has rounded into a replacement-level pitcher on a terrible team whose only redeeming quality is a moderately decent strikeout rate. He’s a much better pitcher against lefties and it wouldn’t surprise me to see him in a lefty-specialist relief role within a couple years.

Hernandez is a true workhorse who provides almost no value outside of his ability to pitch a lot of innings. Last season with Washington, Livan posted a 4.28 xFIP and a terrible strikeout rate. He could be used as trade bait in July or August if a contending team needs a warm body to fill out their rotation.

The final rotation spot is still being battled for in Spring Training. Lefty Zach Duke and young Jordan Lyles appear to have the inside track while Aneury Rodriguez and former Red Sock Kyle Weiland are still in camp but will likely start the year in the minors. Duke is one of the worst strikeout pitchers in baseball and shouldn’t be counted on for much. He pitched in just 76.2 innings last year with Arizona. Lyles, meanwhile, is just 21 and has some serious upside. Last year in 94 innings he showed decent command and poise beyond his years. He gave up a lot of homeruns but he still has plenty of time to get better. He could be a good number three pitcher once he puts it all together, which of course would make him the ace of the Astros.

Myers pitched out of the bullpen for the Phillies back in 2007 and saw a marked increase in his strikeout rate due to increased velocity on his fastball, but now that he’s a few years older, it’s hard to assume the same will happen. Ultimately, he’s not the worst pitcher around to throw into a late relief role. If he falters, veteran Brandon Lyon looks to be healthy heading into 2012. Lyon was signed to be the closer ahead of the 2010 season but missed most of last year due to shoulder problems. He wasn’t very good when they signed him either although he does seem to be able to outpitch his peripherals fairly consistently.

Like most of the Astros roster, there isn’t much to get excited about in the middle-relief core. Righthanders Wilton Lopez, David Carpenter and Henry Sosa seem likely to make the team. Carpenter has the ability to miss bats, but his walk-rates are troubling and Lopez posts impressive groundball numbers, but none of them appear to be dominant shut down relievers. Lefthander Wesley Wright is intriguing, but he’s never been able to stay healthy long enough to make any real impact and long-man Lucas Harrell will likely fill out the ‘pen. Duke and Rodriguez may challenge Harrell for the final spot if they aren’t starting and there are options such as Enerio Del Rosario, Sergio Escalona and Fernando Rodriguez who could push for a spot on the Opening Day roster.

Lineup

The Astros managed to score more runs than four NL teams last season, but much of that had to do with Pence and Bourn who were there for most of the season. There’s almost no way the Astros will score more runs in 2012, especially if the last remaining asset in the lineup, Carlos Lee, is traded. Lee is a terrible defender in leftfield (despite what some metrics suggested last year) and is expected to move to first base on a relative full-time basis. Lee can still hit, but durability is an issue and hopefully moving him to first can help with that. He’s a free agent at season’s end, but any trade involving him during the 2012 season will result in Houston eating some salary; he’s set to make $18.5-million this year.

Brett Wallace doesn’t appear to have what it takes to be an everyday regular, but he could force his way on to the roster at either first or third base if he finds his stroke. Wallace is passable defensively at first, but putting him there will mean Lee moving back to the outfield. Watching Wallace play third might be more painful than Rick Santorum winning the American presidency. Topical!

23-year-old Jimmy Paredas looked good in a cameo last year and will likely beat out Wallace for the third base job while Matt Downs and Chris Johnson could also see time there. The middle infield will consist of Jed Lowrie at short and diminutive hitting ninja Jose Altuve at second. Lowrie was acquired in the Mark Melancon trade with Boston this winter and he’ll finally get his chance to be an everyday shortstop. Altuve, meanwhile, struggled in his big-league debut but should get better in his first full season.

There is at least some marginal upside in the Astros outfield with J.D. Martinez in left, Jordan Schafer in center and Brian Bogusevic in right. Martinez might end up being the best hitter on the team in 2012. He has solid power, is an excellent defender and should improve upon his walk-rate considering his minor-league numbers were much better in that regard than his small sample of Major League plate appearances. Schafer was acquired in the Bourn trade with Atlanta last July and still has some upside, even if it’s much more muted now than it was when he was coming up through Atlanta’s system. Bogusevic, meanwhile, is a former pitcher who managed to put up a 2.4 fWAR last season. He’s terrific with the glove and had a team-best 122 wRC+ in just 87 games. Jack Cust is also around and could find his way into a corner spot if someone gets hurt or struggles.

With the recent trading of catcher Humberto Quintero to the Kansas City Royals, the Astros will likely go with Chris Snyder and Jason Castro splitting time behind the plate. Castro is just 25, but missed all of last year after a pretty nasty knee injury. He was once a very highly touted prospect and still has significant upside. Snyder, meanwhile, is a very good offensive catcher, but he struggles behind the plate.

Bench

Infielders Downs and Marwin Gonzalez are considered the most likely to make the Major League team to start the year, but Diory Hernandez and Angel Sanchez could also find their way onto the roster. J.B. Shuck, Fernando Martinez, Travis Buck and Justin Ruggiano will battle for the fourth outfield spot and Cust is also likely to be on the Opening Day roster even if it is as a pinch hitter and occasional corner outfielder. He can also play first base if needed.

For a more detailed look at the AstrLOLs roster, click here.

Outlook

It’s hard to imagine the Astros losing more games than they did last year, mostly because very few teams in history have lost 106 or more games in a season. Having said that, they aren’t exactly “improved” over last year and with their impending move to the American League, it could be a long time before they’re relevant again. The only thing Astros fans have to look forward to is a branding redesign next winter. A modernized version of these outstanding works of art would be a welcome change in my mind.

2012 Prediction: 61-101, 6th AL Central