Houston Astros: 10 Reasons They Can Be NL Central Surprises in 2011

Brandon Croce@@BrandonCroceAnalyst IFebruary 3, 2011

Houston Astros: 10 Reasons They Can Be NL Central Surprises in 2011

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    If a team in a rebuilding process is smart and gets the right pieces, it's not out of the realm of possibility that a team could be playoff bound after one to two years of rebuilding. Last year, the Houston Astros felt it was time to start over and traded away Lance Berkman and Roy Oswalt and replaced them with young players like Brett Wallace and J.A. Happ. After these trades happened, the Astros actually started to play better and more competitive baseball down the stretch.

    When talking about the NL Central, many people will talk about the improved rotation of the Brewers, the Cardinals led by Pujols and Holliday or the NL Central defending champion Cincinnati Reds led by reigning NL MVP Joey Votto.

    However, there is one team that people are not giving a chance, and that is the Houston Astros. After the moves they made in 2010 and how they finished the year before, they are ready to turn this three-horse race for the NL Central in 2011 to a four-team battle.

    Here are 10 reasons why the Astros will surprise people in 2011.

Second-Half Finish in 2010

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    It is tough to imagine a worse start to a baseball season than what the Houston Astros went through last year. They started the year losing their first eight games and at one point were 17-34. This was probably one of the deciding factors for GM Ed Wade to go all in on a rebuilding project of the Houston Astros, trading probably the two most recognizable players on the team, Roy Oswalt and Lance Berkman.

    I am sure Ed Wade could not have predicted the way the team finished the season. Right around the time the Oswalt and Berkman trades were happening, they called up prospects Chris Johnson and Jason Castro. They also decided to start two key pieces from those trades in J.A. Happ and Brett Wallace. Within a week, it almost looked like a completely different team and it worked. The Astros finished the season by winning 32 of their last 59 games.

    They played with passion and were competitive down the stretch. If the Astros are able to recreate that same kind of magic in 2011, there is no reason they can't surprise some teams in 2011. 

Experience Gained in 2010 Will Propel Them in 2011

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    Major league experience is one of the most valuable things for young players starting out, and the fact that the Astros gave a number of these young players regular playing time in the second half of 2010 will make a huge difference in 2011. Most of the prospects, including Chris Johnson, Jason Castro, Bud Norris and Brett Wallace, saw their first extended stints in the majors this past year.

    They saw the success they can have at the major league level both as a team and on an individual level. It also provided them an opportunity to see what they need to improve on. This will allow them to be a step ahead compared to if the Astros decided to bring them in during spring training this season.

    This was also an important year for manager Brad Mills, who was in his first year as the head guy. It was impressive to see him get this team to play competitive baseball down the stretch after the Astros started off so poorly before trading away their two best players. This type of experience will help him heading into 2011, especially when the Astros hit a rough patch during the season.

Cincinnati Reds Have Down Year

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    The Cincinnati Reds had a great year last year, winning the NL Central and getting their first playoff berth in 15 years. Not many people believed the Reds had much of a chance heading into the season, as they were still a young team. But they proved people wrong, finishing with a record of 91-71 while having the best offense in the National League.

    The Reds found out quickly that the playoffs are a totally different animal compared to the regular season. In the Reds' first game of the NLDS against the Phillies, Roy Halladay went out and threw a no-hitter against them, and Cincinnati became only the second team in MLB history to have that happen to them. The Reds just looked over-matched, and if you blinked, you may have missed the series, as they were swept in three games.

    The problem is that sometimes teams have a playoff hangover and can struggle the next season, especially a young team like the Reds. I would not be surprised to see the Reds struggle and the NL Central being a very tight race in September. If one team doesn't run away with the division, this could allow for the Astros to sneak up and get involved.

Improving Offense

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    As these young Astros gain experience, they should learn from previous mistakes and develop their skills at the plate. As the season went on for the Astros, they did look like they were improving. Before the All-Star break, the team's batting average was only .238 with 57 HR and 291 RBI in 89 games. These are pretty bad numbers considering they play at Minute Maid Park, which is considered a hitter's ball park.

    After the All-Star break, the team batting average was .258 with 51 HR and 286 RBI in 73 games. This shows improvement and hopefully the team can continue this in 2011. The Astros have the building blocks to have a pretty good offense as players like Michael Bourn, Hunter Pence and Chris Johnson continue to develop. They also added more power and veteran leadership to their lineup for this season by bringing in Clint Barmes and Bill Hall.

    Two key players who will need to improve at the plate in 2011 will be catcher Jason Castro and first basemen Brett Wallace. Both have shown they can be effective hitters in the minor league system, but will need to show they can do it at a major league level next season. If this happens, along with this next player having a bounce-back year, the Astros will be tough to beat.

Carlos Lee Has Bounce-Back Year

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    Another reason the Astros will surprise the NL Central this year is because Carlos Lee will have a bounce-back year. With Lance Berkman now gone, they will need a big bat in the middle of that lineup, and I believe Lee is ready for that challenge.

    Before last season, Carlos Lee hit over .300 five times in six years while averaging 31 HR and 108 RBI per season over that span. Now it would be unrealistic to expect these kind of numbers from Lee in 2011, but it isn't out of the realm of possibility that he hits around .290 with 25 HR and 100 RBI.

    The downside with Carlos Lee is that he has become a serious liability in left field for the Astros. He never was considered a top defensive presence out there and his skills have dropped even more over the years. However, if Brett Wallace does struggle again this year like last year, Lee could make the move over to first base, where he played 20 games last season.

    This would help the Astros team defense and still allow them to keep his bat in the lineup. The problem with this is that it would severely cut into Brett Wallace's playing time, and the Astros want to see if he can develop into the player many people expect.

    In the end, Carlos Lee will be a regular starter, whether at left field or first base, and will have a bounce-back year which will help the Astros make some noise in the NL Central.

Brett Myers and Wandy Rodriguez Will Anchor the Top of the Rotation

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    Brett Myers was one of the biggest surprises for the Astros in 2010 and now expectations are much higher for this pitcher entering 2011. Before signing with the Astros, he struggled with the Phillies, bouncing around from a starting role, to the bullpen, down to the minors and back again. Maybe all Brett Myers needed was a change of scenery, because he looked like a completely different pitcher than what fans had seen over the past few years.

    Last year, Brett Myers went 14-8 with a 3.14 ERA and 180 strikeouts. After Roy Oswalt was traded, he took over that role as ace of the staff and looked fairly comfortable with it.  With an improved offense helping Brett Myers, he should rack up some more wins in 2011 if he pitches like he did last season.

    With the emergence of Brett Myers, Wandy Rodriguez is able to slide into the two spot in the rotation and create a pretty good one-two combination at the top of the rotation for the Houston Astros. Last year, Wandy had a decent season, but his numbers did drop a little bit from 2009. He finished the year with a record of 11-12 with a 3.60 ERA and 178 strikeouts.

    After the All-Star break though, he was 5-1 with a 2.11 ERA and holding opponents to a .204 batting average. If Wandy can find a way to recreate those numbers over a full season in 2011, the Astros will make some noise in the NL Central. 

J.A. Happ and Bud Norris Take Next Step

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    An improved offense will definitely help the Houston Astros in 2011, but if they really want to surprise some teams, the starting rotation will need to be their strength. It will be important for J.A. Happ and Bud Norris to take that next step to sure up the middle of the rotation.

    J.A. Happ was one of the key pieces who came to the Houston Astros in the Roy Oswalt trade, and at times last year showed why. He pitched 13 games for the Astros last season and went 6-4 with a 3.40 ERA and 70 strikeouts.

    The 28-year-old will need to become more consistent for the Astros in 2011, which hopefully will happen as he continues to get more major league experience. There were some games where he looked unstoppable, like his complete game shutout of the St. Louis Cardinals at the end of August. Then there were games where he would struggle and couldn't find his rhythm. In his last start of the season, he only went three innings but gave up seven earned runs to the Chicago Cubs.

    Another young pitcher who will help the Astros make some noise in 2011 is Bud Norris. Last season was Bud Norris' first full season in the majors, and like Happ had his up and down moments. He seemed to smooth it out after the All-Star break when he went 7-4 in 15 starts with a 4.18 ERA, which was almost two runs lower than before the All-Star break. It will be important for Norris to put together a full season.

    If Norris and Happ are able to take the next step, the Houston Astros will have a strong starting rotation, which will be able to keep them in games in 2011 and put some pressure on the other NL Central teams.

Houston Astros Schedule

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    At first glance of the Astros schedule for 2011, people may think that MLB is not doing the Astros any favors. The Astros open the season with six games on the road, travelling to face the Phillies before heading to Cincinnati for a three-game set.

    They also have an 18-game stretch where they play six games against the Brewers, six games against the Reds, three games against the Cardinals and then three games against Pittsburgh. A little further into the season, they have a 12-game stretch where they play six against the AL defending champion Rangers with three-game sets against the Tampa Bay Rays and the Boston Red Sox in between. It doesn't look pretty for the Astros.

    However, if the Astros are able to survive that first half schedule, it does set up nicely for them in the second half. If Houston is still in the race for the NL Central in September, the schedule could actually benefit them. Starting at the end of August, they play a three-game series with the Pirates twice, as well as a series against Milwaukee, Washington, Philadelphia, Colorado, Chicago, Cincinnati and St. Louis.

    There are a number of games that would be winnable for the Astros down the stretch that could keep them in the NL Central race. Not to mention, the other teams they play are within the NL Central or potentially competing for a Wild Card spot, which could allow the Astros to control their own destiny if they are in the hunt for a playoff spot.

Jason Castro

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    One call up who didn't have immediate success last year was catcher Jason Castro. The first round pick from the 2008 draft has been fast tracked through the minor league system and made his first appearance this past season. The 23-year-old only hit .205 with 2 HR and 8 RBI in 67 games last season, and there were times where he looked out-matched at the plate.

    However, he looked like a major league catcher when he was behind the plate and provided great defense at the catcher position, something the Astros haven't had in a while. He had a fielding percentage of .996 last year, which would have tied him for first among catchers in MLB. He also had a caught stealing percentage of .367, which would have been the third-best among catchers.

    Castro provided great defense behind the plate and kept runners honest on the basepaths, and should be a fixture behind the plate for years to come. The hitting will come as he gains more experience at the plate. He will be a key reason, along with this next player, why the Astros could surprise the NL Central in 2011.

Chris Johnson

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    The third baseman was called up in June last season and played very well in the second half of the season for the Astros. After the All-Star break, he hit .316 with 11 HR and 44 RBI, and had five of those home runs in the month of September. He will be entering what should be his first full season this coming season.

    If the Astros are going to make any noise this year, Chris Johnson will be a major part of this. Last year he hit nine of his 11 HR against NL Central opponents, as well as 38 of his 52 RBI. He also had a batting average of .322 against divisional opponents. It looks like he really enjoys playing the NL Central and can be a thorn in other teams' sides.

    If the Astros are going to surprise any teams in the NL Central, Chris Johnson will be the main reason. He played very well down the stretch and actually improved as the season went on. Hopefully after a full offseason as well as spring training, Johnson will be able to get off to a fast start in 2011 and get this team back competing for a division title.