The Houston Astros reached a new low in 2011, winning just 56 games and finishing dead last in the National League Central.
It's hard to believe that this team was playing in the World Series just a couple seasons ago. Now they're almost totally bereft of talent and they stand a very good chance of losing 100 games once again.
No matter how many games the Astros win this season, this will be their last hurrah in the National League. After 2012, the Astros will pack up and move to the American League for the 2013 season.
Here's a look at how the Astros' last season in the NL is shaping up.
2011 Record: 56-106
Key Arrivals (courtesy of BaseballProspectus.com): OF Travis Buck (FA), OF Brad Snyder (FA), C Carlos Corporan (FA), SS Diory Hernandez (FA), RHP Rhiner Cruz (waivers), SS Marwin Gonzalez (from Boston), RHP Kyle Weiland (from Boston), SS Jed Lowrie (from Boston), OF Fernando Martinez (waivers), OF Jack Cust (FA), C Chris Snyder (FA), LHP Zach Duke (FA), 3B Mike Hessman (FA), RHP Livan Hernandez (FA), OF Justin Ruggiano (FA), SS Jose Martinez (FA).
Key Departures: RHP Mark Melancon (to Boston), C Craig Tatum (waivers), SS Clint Barmes (FA).
Projected Rotation (per official site)
- Wandy Rodriguez (11-11, 3.49 ERA, 1.31 WHIP)
- Bud Norris (6-11, 3.77, 1.33)
- Henry Sosa (3-5, 5.23, 1.44)
- J.A. Happ (6-15, 5.35, 1.54)
- Kyle Weiland (0-3, 7.66, 1.66)
- Jordan Lyles (2-8, 5.36, 1.41)
- Lucas Harrell (0-2, 4.50, 1.72)
C: Jason Castro (.205/.286/.287)
1B: Carlos Lee (.274/.342/.446)
2B: Jose Altuve (.276/.297/.357)
3B: Jimmy Paredes (.286/.320/.393)
SS: Jed Lowrie (.252/.303/.382)
LF: J.D. Martinez (.274/.319/.423)
CF: Jordan Schafer (.242/.309/.315)
RF: Brian Bogusevic (.287/.348/.457)
Closer: Brett Myers (R) (7-14, 4.46 ERA, 1.31 WHIP)
Brandon Lyon (R) (3-3, 4 SV, 4 BLSV, 11.48 ERA, 2.40 WHIP)
Wilton Lopez (R) (2-6, 14 HLD, 6 BLSV, 2.79, 1.27)
Enerio Del Rosario (R) (0-3, 2 HLD, 2 BLSV, 4.58, 1.70)
Sergio Escalona (L) (2-1, 6 HLD, 1 BLSV, 2.93, 1.27)
Aneury Rodriguez (R) (1-6, 1 HLD, 5.27 ERA, 1.35)
David Carpenter (R) (1-3, 1 SV, 3 HLD, 1 BLSV, 2.93, 1.48)
Fernando Rodriguez (R) (2-3, 6 HLD, 3.96, 1.55)
Wesley Wright (L) (0-0, 3 HLD, 1 BLSV, 1.52, 0.92)
Juan Abreu (R) (0-0, 2.70, 1.35)
Rhiner Cruz (N/A)
Scouting the Starting Pitching
Starting pitching was not a strength for the Astros in 2011. Houston starters combined for just 80 quality starts and posted an ERA of 4.52. That was the third-highest mark in the National League.
Not much changed over the offseason. With the exception of Brett Myers, who will be closing games out in 2012, Houston's rotation went largely unchanged this offseason.
With Myers in the pen, Wandy Rodriguez takes over as Houston's No. 1 starter. This is not a good thing.
The Astros should be thankful that they know they're going to get roughly 190 innings out of Rodriguez, but he's not an ace. He'll do a pretty good job of getting out of trouble, but he's going to put a lot of guys on base and he's not going to miss that many bats. Hitters always hit in the .250 range against Rodriguez, and in 2011 they hit him hard. Hitters had a .420 slugging percentage against Rodriguez, and he gave up a career-high 25 home runs.
In years past, Rodriguez's ERA has typically been pretty close to his FIP. This was not the case in 2011, as Rodriguez's 3.49 ERA was significantly lower than his 4.15 FIP.
Because he's good at working out of jams, Rodriguez will not be horrible in 2012. But by that same token, he won't be great. He's not going to give the Astros seven, eight or nine innings every time he takes the mound, as an ace should.
If there is an ace candidate on this pitching staff, it's Bud Norris. He still has a lot of things to figure out, but he can strike people out and his career is trending in the right direction. I'll have more on him in just a moment.
Beyond the top two spots, this starting rotation leaves you shaking your head.
J.A. Happ has not lived up to the promise he showed in 2009. He's struggled with his control in Houston, and he's coming off a season in which batters hit .265 off him with 21 home runs. That was over just 156.1 innings, which is not good at all.
Henry Sosa and Kyle Weiland had the same problem last season, albeit in limited action. Hitters hit .320 off Sosa in his five September starts and Weiland allowed 29 hits in 24.2 innings with the Red Sox last season.
So this rotation is shaky up top and even shakier at the back end. Watching these guys go to work is not going to be fun.
Scouting the Bullpen
Houston's bullpen was even worse than its starting rotation last season.
By the end of the season, the Astros' bullpen had a 4.49 ERA, the worst such mark in the National League. There was no real reason for it, aside from general ineffectiveness, of course. Astros relievers simply put too many runners on base, compiling a major league-worst WHIP of 1.48.
Tabbing Myers to close games out in the ninth should help stabilize things. Taking him out of the starting rotation was a curious decision, but the fact of the matter is that somebody has to close games out for this team, and Myers was the best candidate for the job.
We know this because Myers has closed games before. He served as Philly's closer all the way back in 2007, and he was pretty effective. He saved 21 games in 24 opportunities.
The trouble is that Myers will be lucky to get that many opportunities all season, and that the bridge leading to him is not strong.
The loss of Mark Melancon is going to be felt. He was easily Houston's best reliever last year, and he would have been very much of use setting things up for Myers.
Since Melancon is gone, your guess is as good as mine as far how the pieces in this bullpen are going to align to form a bridge to Myers. Brandon Lyon was good once upon a time, but his shoulder has a lot of wear and tear on it. He'll be a solid setup man if he's healthy and effective, but if he's not, somebody from the team's rabble of relievers is going to have to take that job for himself.
Things will be cleared somewhat throughout spring training, but this bullpen will still be a work in progress once the season begins.
If all goes well, this pen will be better than advertised. If all doesn't go well, this pen will be as bad as advertised.
Scouting the Hitting
The Astros weren't as inept on offense as most people probably think they were, but they were still pretty inept.
All told, the Astros scored just 615 runs, fourth-fewest in the National League. They batted a respectable .258, but they only slugged .374. Only the San Diego Padres hit fewer home runs.
Not surprisingly, the Astros didn't change much. Jed Lowrie is in at shortstop and there are a few competitions worth monitoring, but no matter what happens, this lineup is not going to be significantly better than it was last season.
One guy who does catch the eye, though, is right fielder Brian Bogusevic. He became an everyday player after Hunter Pence was traded, and he played well. He hit an impressive .338 in the month of August, with four homers and 13 RBI. He then proceeded to hit .283 in September.
Bogusevic will likely be backing up Carlos Lee in the order, so he can do this team a lot of favors by picking up where he left off last season. The better he is, the better pitches Lee gets to hit. The more he hits, the more opportunities there are for Bogusevic, and so on.
Lee needs as much protection as he can get at this stage of his career. He was one of the top right-handed hitters in the league once upon a time, but not anymore. The sad part is that he's still the best hitter in this Houston order.
Beyond those two, the other guy worth watching in this lineup is J.D. Martinez, who will probably end up being Houston's No. 3 hitter. He too became an everyday player in August, and he responded by hitting .295 and driving in 28 runs. It was an impressive month, and the Astros will gladly take that kind of production over a full season.
You really can't overstate how important it is for the guys in the middle of this lineup to hit this season. If they do, the Astros will be able to score a respectable amount of runs. If they don't, the Astros are going to be one of the worst offensive teams in baseball. This lineup is simply too thin.
I mentioned above that Bud Norris is an ace candidate, and the numbers support that theory.
Well, kind of.
Norris ended up having a decent season last year, but it should not be forgotten that he was much better than decent in the first half of the season. His record before the All-Star break was a mere 5-6, but Norris had a 3.46 ERA and opponents were only hitting .234 off him. Both of those figures ballooned after the break.
The one thing Norris improved last season was his control. His BB/9 was 4.51 in 2010, and he dropped it all the way down to 3.39 in 2011. He deserves props for lowering his walk totals, but he still needs to figure out how to keep the ball in the yard. He gave up home runs at a high rate in 2010, and he gave them up at an even higher rate in 2011.
Merely keeping the ball down and getting more ground balls will help. It's not a coincidence that Norris' ground ball rate dropped and his home run rate escalated last season. He improved his control, but that led him to make too many mistakes in the zone.
If Norris fixes that problem, he'll be the ace this team needs.
There aren't a whole lot of guys to choose from here, but this lineup hinges on what Carlos Lee is able to do with the stick.
The good news for the Astros is that Lee had a bounce-back season in 2011. He hit .275 after hitting a mere .246 in 2010, and he upped his OBP to .342. He's still a far cry from the hitter he used to be, but Lee showed in 2011 that he still has something left in the tank.
The reason Lee was able to rebound is because he simply got more selective. He was a free swinger for a while there, but Lee saw much pitches per plate appearance in 2011 than he had since 2005. This led to a higher walk rate and better contact when Lee did swing the bat. He had a .279 BABIP, up from a dismal .238 in 2010.
If we can take if for granted that Lee is re-learning how to be a smart hitter, better things should be in store in 2012.
And yes, it helps that this is a contract year for Lee.
Last year, Baseball America had Jordan Lyles ranked as Houston's No. 1 prospect.
Lyles isn't a prospect anymore. He pitched nearly 100 innings in the majors last season, and this year he's probably going to get even more work in the majors.
Lyles is not a guy who is going to overpower anybody with his stuff, but he has the poise on the mound of a veteran. He pitched like a youngster last season, though, posting a WHIP of 1.41. He allowed hitters to hit .285 off him.
Lyles has very little left to prove in the minors, so the time is not for him to prove that he belongs in the majors. Since Houston's rotation is wide open, there's a home for Lyles in it if he earns it.
If Lyles proves he deserves to be starting in the majors, this rotation will suddenly be deeper than it looks.
Prospect to Watch
Jonathan Singleton was the key prospect in the Hunter Pence trade, and he's the guy Astros fans should be monitoring this season.
Singleton is still a few years away from reaching the majors, but he's put up good numbers in the minors so far. He owns a career average of .294 and a career OBP of .393. After the Astros acquired him from the Phillies last season, Singleton hit .333 with four home runs with their Single-A affiliate.
The book on Singleton, according to ESPN's Keith Law, is that he's a sweet-swinging first baseman with plenty of hitting know-how. He has some kinks to work out, particularly with his defense at first, but he's got it where it counts.
If all goes well, Singleton will evolve into the franchise player the Astros desperately need.
What the Astros Will Do Well
The Astros didn't hit for a whole lot of power, but they did hit better than they got credit for last season.
Things will stay the same this year. This is not a deep lineup by any stretch of the imagination, nor is it a powerful lineup. However, the middle of Houston's order has the potential to surprise people, and it could more than make up for the ineptitude of the rest of the lineup.
Pitchers won't be going up against the 1927 Yankees when they face the Astros, but they would be wise not to underestimate these guys.
What the Astros Won’t Do Well
The Astros are going to be a decent hitting team, but they're not going to be a decent pitching team.
There's no point in sugarcoating it. This is one of the weakest pitching staffs in baseball. The starting rotation lacks an ace, the rotation as a whole is at best mediocre, and the bullpen is a collection of castoffs and misfits who aren't likely to improve on last season's performance.
Houston's pitching is the reason the team's opponents are going to look forward to facing them in 2012. They'll know heading into a given series that Astros hurlers aren't going to shut them down.
This is not a good team. To put it more specifically, this is a bad team that didn't get any better in recent months.
Much of Houston's offseason was focused around the franchise's ownership change, so it makes sense that nobody seemed overly concerned with drastically improving the team on the field. The people in charge are looking forward, not at what they have in front of them.
They may want to avert their eyes all season. The Astros have no hope of contending for the NL Central, and another 100-loss season is headed their way.
Projected Record: 61-101, sixth in NL Central.
American League Central
National League West
American League West
Zachary D. Rymer is a lifelong baseball junkie with an impressive collection of Nomar Garciaparra rookie cards and a knuckleball that is coming along. He loves the Red Sox and hates the Yankees, but he has a huge mancrush on Derek Jeter and would like nothing more than to have a few beers with Nick Swisher. He's always down to talk some baseball, so feel free to hit him up on Twitter:
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