The Houston Astros are a team in transition in more ways than one. They have been rebuilding now for the past couple of seasons and have finished with over 100 losses each of the past two seasons. However, 2013 is a season of new beginnings as the Astros will play their first season as a member of the American League West Division.
The team was not big players in free agency and didn't do much to generate excitement among the fan base, something that has disappeared over the past couple of seasons. The front office made it clear last fall that they would not rebuild this team through free agency but rather in the farm system, which has improved significantly the past two seasons.
This is a preview of what fans can expect of the Houston Astros entering the 2013 season.
2012 Record: 55-107
Key Arrivals (courtesy of CBSsports.com): P Philip Humber (claimed off waivers), P Alex White (from Colorado), Carlos Pena (FA), P John Ely (from LA Dodgers), P Jose Veras (FA), OF Rick Ankiel (FA), P Erik Bedard (FA), P Brad Peacock (from Oakland), 1B Chris Carter (from Oakland)
Key Departures: P Wilton Lopez (to Colorado), P Rob Rasmussen (to LA Dodgers), SS Jed Lowrie (to Oakland), CF Jordan Schafer
Projected Rotation (per official site)
1. Lucas Harrell (11-11, 3.76 ERA)
2. Bud Norris (7-13, 4.65 ERA)
3. Jordan Lyles (5-12, 5.09 ERA)
4. Philip Humber (5-5, 6.44 ERA)
5. Jarred Cosart (6-7, 3.30 ERA in minors)
6. Dallas Keuchel (3-8, 5.27 ERA)
7. John Ely (0-2, 20.25 ERA)
8. Alex White (2-9, 5.51 ERA)
C: Jason Castro (.257/.334/.401)
1B: Brett Wallace (.253/.323/.424)
2B: Jose Altuve (.290/.340/.399)
3B: Matt Dominguez (.284/.310/.477)
SS: Tyler Greene (.230/.274/.400)
LF: J.D. Martinez (.241/.311/.375)
CF: Justin Maxwell (.229/.304/.460)
RF: Fernando Martinez (.237/.300/.466)
Closer: Jose Veras (5-4, 3.63 ERA, 1 SV, 1 BLSV, 72 appearances)
Wesley Wright (2-2, 3.27 ERA, 1 SV, 1 BLSV, 77 appearances)
Rhiner Cruz (1-1, 6.05 ERA, 52 appearances)
Xavier Cedeno (0-1, 3.77 ERA, 44 appearances)
Josh Fields (4-3, 2.01 ERA, 42 appearances in the minors)
Hector Ambriz (1-1, 4.19 ERA, 18 appearances)
Sam Demel (0-1, 9.00 ERA, 1 appearance)
Chia-Jen Lo (0-1, 0.90 ERA, 19 appearances in the minors)
Jose Cisnero (13-7, 3.70 ERA, 28 appearances in the minors)
Scouting the Starting Pitching
The Astros pitching rotation seemed to be in a constant state of flux through all of last season. Houston traded away two of their pitchers, Wandy Rodriguez and J.A. Happ, in the middle of the season and had a total of eleven pitchers make at least one start last year. Compare this to the San Francisco Giants whose starting rotation started 160 of the 162 games last year and it is apparent that Houston has a glaring need to gain stability in their rotation.
Lucas Harrell was clearly the best pitcher last season and finished with a record of 11-11 and a 3.76 ERA. This does not guarantee Harrell the title of ace for Houston though as manager Bo Porter may rely on Bud Norris' experience to start the year. It will be interesting to see, and this is the case for all the Astros' pitchers, how they will adjust to the transition to the American League. They will no longer have the luxury of facing the opposing team's pitcher.
If Bud Norris is not named the number one starter he will be slotted in as the number two which is a much better role for him. He regressed in 2012 finishing with a 7-13 record and a 4.66 ERA after having a solid season in 2011 when he had a 3.77 ERA. He did lead the team with 17 quality starts and demonstrated the best ability of the Astros starters to work late into games. One obstacle he will face in 2013 is he may have to battle trade rumors this summer if he starts this year off strong.
Jordan Lyles was one of the top prospects in the Astros' organization before being rushed up to the majors in 2011, a move he has struggled with the past two years. Since being called up he is 7-20 with a career ERA of 5.20. The good news though is that he is still only 22 years of age and still has time to develop into the pitcher many envisioned.
Philip Humber joins Houston this season after they claimed him off waivers this past winter. He is coming off a season where he achieved one of the greatest feats a pitcher can by throwing a perfect game in April but came crashing back down to earth finishing the year with a record of 5-5 and a 6.44 ERA in 16 starts. It is no guarantee that he will end up in the rotation as the final two spots for the rotation will be one of the toughest battles this spring.
Joining Humber in the fight will be Dallas Keuchel, who went 3-8 with a 5.27 ERA, Brad Peacock, who came over in the Jed Lowrie trade, top prospect Jarred Cosart and veteran Erik Bedard. At this early point in spring training, the early favorites in my opinion have to be Philip Humber and Erik Bedard for the final two spots in the rotation due to their experience.
Scouting the Bullpen
The bullpen will have a lot of new faces this season for the Houston Astros, and that starts with Jose Veras who is penciled in right now as the team's closer. The closer role seems to be a revolving door for Houston since Jose Valverde left for Detroit with Mark Melancon, Wilton Lopez and Brett Myers being traded the past two seasons.
This has opened up an opportunity for Veras to step in as the team's closer even though he has a grand total of five saves in his seven year career. He did pitch well last year for the Brewers, appearing in 72 games and finished with an ERA of 3.63.
One player to watch this spring is Josh Fields, who the Astros selected in the Rule 5 draft this offseason. He will need to stay on the major league roster for the entire season for the Astros to keep his rights, or he could end up back with the Boston Red Sox. The team does have high hopes for him due to his 2.01 ERA last season in the minors. It would be surprising if Fields is not able to hold onto a spot in the bullpen this season.
Fields is not the only Rule 5 draft pick in the bullpen as he joins Wesley Wright and Rhiner Cruz, who were picked in previous drafts. The bullpen is pretty inexperienced, but there is a lot of potential with this group of pitchers and overall should be better than last year.
Scouting the Hitting
The Astros' offense last year was awful with the team finishing dead last in runs scored and second to last in batting average with a .234 team average. This is especially troublesome considering they play half their games in one of the most hitter friendly ballparks in the game.
The lone bright spot from this group last year was second baseman Jose Altuve who had a great first full season with the Astros. He was named to the All-Star game thanks to his .303 batting average over the first half of the year. Altuve is the spark for this offense and can create runs at the top of the lineup. He doesn't have blazing speed but is a smart runner and effectively used his speed to collect 34 doubles and 33 stolen bases.
With the team moving to the American League, they had to find a designated hitter and decided Carlos Pena was the right man for the job. The first baseman/designated hitter spent last season with the Tampa Bay Rays and has a developed a reputation as a player with a lot of power but can't hit for average.
Over the past six seasons, Pena has averaged almost 32 home runs each season but has had only one season where he hit over .250. The concern with Pena though is that his home run numbers have steadily declined each of the past six seasons, but hopefully playing half his games at Minute Maid Park could help him bounce back.
With Pena most likely primarily playing DH, this leaves a spring training battle between Brett Wallace and the newly acquired Chris Carter for playing time at first base. Wallace has spent the better part of the past three seasons bouncing between the majors and minors and has a career batting average of only .250. Once a promising prospect, Wallace is on one of his last chances with Houston and will need to capitalize this season.
Chris Carter could be the breakout star for the Astros this season and be exactly what they need for this lineup. He has shown an ability to hit for average, with a career batting average of .283 in the minors and power, hitting 182 home runs over eight seasons in the minors. Carter joined the Astros as a piece of the Jed Lowrie trade and it wouldn't surprise me if he made fans quickly forget about the shortstop.
The Astros' pitching stud has to be Lucas Harrell, who had a breakout year last season. In his first full season at the major league level he threw 193.2 innings and finished with a .500 record at 11-11. The impressive part for Harrell was he actually got better as the season went on.
Before the All-Star break he had a record of 7-6 with a 4.56 ERA and averaged just over one hit per inning pitched. Something clicked for him down the stretch as his ERA was only 2.87, opponents batting average dropped from .263 to .243 and he struck out ten more batters than in the first half in 11.2 less innings pitched.
If Lucas Harrell is able to pitch like he did the second half of last season for a full season, the Astros' pitching rotation will be in much better shape this coming season with Harrell being the ace.
This is an easy selection as Jose Altuve was clearly the Astros' best hitter last year. He led the team in hits, doubles, average, on base percentage and stolen bases. He even showed he has a little pop in his bat with seven home runs.
It will be interesting to see where manager Bo Porter puts Altuve in the batting order for this coming season. Last season when he led off he hit only .271 which is almost 50 points lower than when he hits second with a batting average of .318. However, he stole 20 bases at the leadoff spot compared to only 10 when he hit second.
In either spot, Altuve will be effective and the team's best bat. The question is there anyone else on this team that can help him?
The X-Factor for this team has to be Erik Bedard who if he is able to pitch effectively and stay healthy the whole season, completely changes the makeup of this team's rotation. These are both big ifs as he has not been able to demonstrate either since 2007.
Last season he made 24 appearances for the Pittsburgh Pirates and finished with a 7-14 record, averaging just over five innings per start and an ERA of 5.01. Injuries have been his biggest enemy the past few years but with a healthy Bedard, he could provide some veteran stability to a young, inexperienced rotation.
Prospect to Watch
The prospect to watch may not be a prospect for long as it is a real possibility that Jarred Cosart could start the year in the Houston Astros' rotation. The 22-year-old right-hander came over from the Phillies' organization in the Hunter Pence trade a few seasons ago and was the seventh best prospect in the Astros' organizations according to Baseball America.
Even if Cosart doesn't make the rotation at the start of the season, he will start the year at Triple AAA and would be one of the first call ups for Houston. This might be the best route for him as he has made only six starts at that level. The last thing Houston wants to do is make the same mistake with Cosart that they did with Lyles by rushing him up too soon.
What the Astros will do well
When a team is coming off consecutive seasons of 100 plus losses, there is not much they do well. One thing they have done well is they have provided their prospects with plenty of playing time at the major league level.
Some players have seized this opportunity (Jose Altuve and Lucas Harrell) while others have struggled (Brett Wallace and Jordan Lyles). The plus for the players who have struggled is that they don't necessarily have to look over their back every time they make a mistake and hopefully are able to learn and develop into quality MLB players this season.
What the Astros won't do well
Other than winning games, the Astros had one glaring weakness last year and that was their defense in the field. Last season, the Astros had committed the third most errors with 118 and this season may not be any better. The team will most likely try to find a way to get Chris Carter, Brett Wallace and Carlos Pena all in the lineup at the same time and the defense could suffer.
One option being thrown around is playing Chris Carter in left field which won't hurt at home as much with the Crawford Boxes, but on the road in some of the bigger parks he would be a liability in the field. Carter has already stated that playing left field isn't his ideal position and it will be interesting how this shakes out heading into the 2013 season.
Where will the Astros finish in the AL West in 2013?
The Houston Astros are a team of new beginnings with a fairly new owner and front office, new manager, new uniforms and a fresh start in the American League. However, this doesn't change the players on the field, and it looks like fans are in for another tough year.
This team is entering a competitive AL West with the high payroll Angels, cross state rival Rangers, and last year's division champion A's. The Astros don't have the talent to compete with these teams this year, but it is not completely a lost cause for this organization.
By trading away a number of their top major league talent the past few seasons they have rebuilt the farm system and collected a ton of prospects. They have the number one overall pick this coming season, and that player will join the number overall pick last year in Carlos Correa.
Overall, 2013 will be a struggle for anyone associated with the Astros in terms of wins and losses, but they are following a model that should lead to success for years to come.
Projected Record: 52-110