Your friend and mine Travis Reitsma returns to preview all 30 big league teams. Before he does that, let’s take a look at the Houston Astros! Try the fish!
There’s a military term known as the “Scorched Earth” policy which was banned under the Geneva Conventions back in 1977. The policy’s aim is to completely destroy any useful part of the enemy’s assets in order to squash any chance of retaliation—leaving behind a baron wasteland of destruction resembling a scorched landscape.
Such a policy, although considered by most to be a war crime, is apparently allowed under the rules of Major League Baseball. Of course, the Houston Astros scorched earth policy is self-inflicted rather than brought on by an enemy. Since General Manager Jeff Luhnow took over in December 2011, the Astros have gone about dismantling any and all semblance of Major League value and have used those assets to rebuild a previously bare farm system into one of the league’s best.
In the meantime, the Major League team will be beyond terrible. The 107 losses in 2012 were the most in franchise history — beating out the previous worst of 106 the year before. These are truly dark times for Astros fans, but flowers grow out of fecal matter and you can’t fault the Astros for taking this ‘rebuilding’ project to the extreme.
Lucas Harrell had a nice season in 2012, pitching in nearly 200 innings and posting solid peripherals and along with fellow “veteran” Bud Norris will make up the top of the Astros rotation in 2013. Norris, is the team’s highest paid player heading into the season at just $3.0-million (unless you count Wandy Rodriguez, whom the Astros will pay $5.0-million to play for the Pirates) and should be considered a tradable asset as the season wears on.
The rest of the rotation will consist of 22-year-old Jordan Lyles—who has moderate upside—and some combination of Philip Humber, former Cleveland and Colorado prospect Alex White and any numbers of low-ceiling arms. Jarred Cosart, one of the prospects acquired in the Hunter Pence trade with Philadelphia in 2011, could make an impact at some point in 2013.
There isn’t much in the way of brightness emanating from the bullpen either as free agent pickup José Veras enters camp as the likely choice to close out games. He posted solid strikeout numbers last year in Milwaukee but also walks far too many and had a high strand-rate which will likely normalize slightly. Left-handers Wesley Wright and Xavier Cedeno have some upside and Hector Ambriz struck out a ton of batters in limited time in 2012, but the rest of the bullpen will be made up of Quad-A relievers and unproven talent.
Fun-sized second baseman Jose Altuve may be the best player on this team, which is both awesome and terrifying if you’re an Astros’ fan. After a great start in 2013, Altuve cooled off significantly after April posting an 89 wRC+ from May on. He is entering his age-23 season so there is room to grow, but expecting Altuve to be much better than an average player is probably too bullish.
Some other pieces have breakout potential, especially centerfielder Justin Maxwell and Chris Carter, who will try as he might to play leftfield—at least to start the year. Maxwell, a behemoth man with terrific tools across the board has always had the talent, but injuries and inconsistency have plagued him. At 29, he’s poised for a breakout season if he can stay healthy. In only 352 plate appearances last season, Maxwell had a surprising 2.3 WAR according to FanGraphs and had a solid .232 isolated power. Carter, meanwhile, was acquired in the Jed Lowrie trade and will be a disaster to watch in left. He could, however, be a monster at the plate with crazy power and a solid approach at the plate. If he can make more consistent contact, he could hit 40 home runs.
Formerly promising prospects such as catcher Jason Castro, first baseman Brett Wallace and third baseman Matt Dominguez will anchor the rest of the lineup along with free agent pickup Carlos Pena, who should get most of the plate appearances at DH. Fernando Martinez, Rick Ankiel and J.D. Martinez will all battle for playing time in the outfield and some combination of Tyler Greene and Marwin Gonzalez will likely see most of the playing time at shortstop, at least to start the year. Prospect Jonathan Villar held his own in AA last season and could be poised for a mid-season promotion if (or more accurately when) Greene and Gonzalez struggle.
Houston ranked third from the bottom of the NL in defensive efficiency in 2012 and could be worse in 2013 with the realistic possibility that Carter plays significant time in left field. Maxwell fared well in center field last season, posting a +10 UZR in 403 innings there, also faring well in DRS and Baseball Prospectus’ FRAA, but at 6’5” and 235 pounds one has to wonder if he can keep that up over a full season. The metrics did not like Altuve, Gonzalez and Greene up the middle and Brett Wallace is as close to immobile at first as they come, but Dominguez is considered an excellent defensive third baseman—too bad he can’t cover the rest of the infield. Castro is not considered a great defensive catcher and neither is projected backup Carlos Corporan.
Overall, the Astros, like in all other facets of the game, look to be headed toward the bottom of the AL.
The self-inflicted scorched earth policy will likely continue for a few more seasons as the Astros look to build from the bottom up in order to compete in their newer, tougher division and league. Brad Mills has been replaced at field manager by Bo Porter who will look to make the most of his first Major League managing gig, but his success will assuredly not be determined by win-loss record. With a staggeringly low payroll that may top out under $25-million, the Astros will be the doormat of the otherwise talented AL West in 2013 and the foreseeable future.
The increasing vat of prospect wealth being accumulated by the new front office won’t make an impact for a while with the future core of the team—Carlos Correa, Jonathan Singleton, et al, still far away from being consistent everyday players.
2013 Prediction: 58-104, 5th AL West
For a chart detailing the 2013 Astros roster, click here. Some stats courtesy of Fangraphs, click here to view the Astros team page. Depth chart information derived from the wonderful MLB Depth Charts.