2011 MLB Preseason Preview: NL Central—Houston Astros

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2011 MLB Preseason Preview: NL Central—Houston Astros
Bob Levey/Getty Images
Astros RF Hunter Pence

Houston Astros (2010 record: 76-86)

It doesn’t appear the 50th-anniversary season for the former Colt .45s will be much of a celebration.

The team played pretty well last year after dispatching longtime stars Lance Berkman and Roy Oswalt, but I don’t believe there’s going to be a tremendous carry-over into the new season.

All of the teams in this division got better this offseason, and in most instances they got MUCH better. Houston failed to keep pace.

With apologies to the fans in Houston, there doesn’t appear to be much of a reason to buy a ticket to see the Astros play—unless you are a fan of the visiting team.

 

Notable additions: SP Ryan Rowland-Smith, 2B Clint Barmes, INF Billy Hall

Notable subtractions: SP Felipe Paulino, IF Geoff Blum, RHP Matt Lindstrom

 

The offense

Catcher: J.R. Towles

Infield: Brett Wallace (1B), Billy Hall (2B), Clint Barmes (SS) and Chris Johnson (3B)

Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images
LF Carlos Lee

Outfield: Carlos Lee (LF), Michael Bourn (CF) and Hunter Pence (RF)

The offense scored the second-fewest runs in the league last season (611)—well below the league average (701). It says here that the offseason additions won’t improve that outcome significantly, so the team will have to rely on existing players to improve their productivity (significantly) if this team has any hope of contending.

The offensive attack in 2011 will revolve around speedster Michael Bourn (52 SBs) and sluggers Carlos Lee (24 HR) and Hunter Pence (25 HR), but the keys to the offense’s productivity will rest at the corner infield positions. The club will need young 3B Chris Johnson to build on his rookie campaign and 1B Brett Wallace to prove he is finally ready for prime time.

The under-the-radar addition of free agent Billy Hall should help, as he will be productive with consistent playing time, but I don’t see Clint Barmes (.235 in Colorado last year) being helping the offense at all.

With the recent season-ending injury to Jason Castro, the backstop duties will be handed to one-time catcher-of-the-future J.R. Towles, who is a decent backstop but has been a major disappointment thus far with a bat in his hands.

 

The pitching staff

Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images
Brett Myers

Rotation: Brett Myers, Wandy Rodriguez, Bud Norris, J.A. Happ and Nelson Figueroa

The starting rotation posted an excellent 3.42 ERA after the All-Star break last year (third-best in the NL) and should be pretty solid in 2011. The team lost Oswalt but returns three of the four starters who posted sub-4.00 ERAs for last year’s squad.

RHP Brett Myers (14-8, 3.14) and LHPs Wandy Rodriguez (11-12, 3.60) and J.A. Happ (5-4, 3.75) will head up the rotation and will be joined by Norris and either Figueroa or Rowland-Smith.

Happ is a highly regarded prospect who arrived from Philadelphia in the Oswalt trade. The Astros hope he will be able to blunt the impact of the veteran’s departure. Norris was plagued by nagging injuries during the first half of the year (when he posted an ugly 5.97 ERA) but was much better after his health returned in midseason (he posted a 4.18 ERA for the second half).

Beyond the offense, the biggest headache manager Brad Mills will face this season has to do with bridging the gap from the starters to the back end of the bullpen.

The trade of Matt Lindstrom to Colorado leaves Brandon Lyon (20 saves, 3.12 ERA) as the undisputed closer, but the bullpen behind him lacks depth. Wilton Lopez (2.96 ERA) will move into the setup role. They will be joined by either Figueroa or Rowland-Smith and a bevy of young arms.

Astros Top Prospect: Delino DeShields Jr

 

Prediction for 2011: Fifth place (72-90)

The Astros had an awful lot go right in the second half last year as the club pitched its way to a fourth-place finish, but I am skeptical the team can replicate that kind of performance in 2011. Lightning doesn’t strike in the same place twice. I don’t foresee much improvement in the offense and predict regression from Myers (78 percent strand rate) and Rodriguez (48 percent GB rate).

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Top Five Prospects

1. Delino DeShields, Jr., 2B
2. Jordan Lyles, RHP
3. Jimmy Paredes, 3B
4. Jonathan Villar, SS
5. Austin Wates, OF

DeShields was the Astros' first-round selection (eighth overall) in last June’s draft and began his professional career last summer at two levels of Rookie League ball in the Gulf Coast League and Appalachian League. His father played 13 years in the major leagues and was once a first-round selection (12th overall) as well.

DeShields’ calling card is his exceptional athleticism and plus-plus speed (rated an “80” on the scouts’ 20-80 scale). He has outstanding bat speed and a compact swing. Those tools, combined with his speed, should lead him to become a consistent .300-plus hitter in the big leagues.

Some scouts believe he has average power and that he will hit his fair share of home runs, possibly setting himself up to be a No. 3 hitter in the big leagues, but I believe he’ll be coached to keep the ball down to take full advantage of his speed. I see him as a leadoff hitter who will frequently use the bunt to get to first base and then steal a base to get himself into scoring position. Think Kenny Lofton more than Rickey Henderson.

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