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Houston Astros: 2011 MLB Season Preview

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Houston Astros: 2011 MLB Season Preview
Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

HOUSTON ASTROS

Last Year: 76-86, fourth in NL Central 

Manager: Brad Mills 

PROJECTED LINEUP

C- Humberto Quintero (R)

1B- Brett Wallace (L)

2B- Bill Hall (R) 

3B- Chris Johnson (R)

SS- Clint Barmes (R)

LF- Carlos Lee (R)

CF- Michael Bourn (L)

RF- Hunter Pence (R)

The Astros' lineup was the worst in the NL last season, but the club should be improved with the acquisitions made in the middle infield. Bill Hall and Clint Barmes will provide power that the club desperately lacked at those positions. Bill Hall has 20 HR power, but he strikes out over 30 percent of the time. He should post a line of .240/.310/400. Clint Barmes should hit 10-15 HRs with a .260/.315/.400 line.

Those lines may not be that impressive, but they will be significant improvements. Brett Wallace will be key to this lineup, and I will break down his potential 2011 season later. Chris Johnson had a wonderful 90 games when the Astros benched Pedro Feliz and installed Johnson as the everyday third baseman.

Johnson should have a solid year, but his numbers were inflated by an abnormal .387 BABIP. His lack of plate discipline is also concerning, but I think he will hit 15-20 HRs with a .285/.315/.455 line. 

The lineup revolves around both corner outfielders, Hunter Pence and Carlos Lee, who will bat third and fourth respectively. Pence was the Astros' best offensive player in 2010, and has been remarkably consistent since 2008. Pence is a sure bet to hit 25 HRs, steal 14-18 bases, and post a line around .280/.330/.470.

Carlos Lee had his worst offensive season in 2010, but that was due to an extremely unlucky .238 BABIP. His power has decreased over the last few years, but I expect Lee to bounce back to his old ways and hit 28 HRs with a .290/.350/.490 line.

Michael Bourn is the one of the most dangerous leadoff men in baseball because of his ability to steal bases at an absurd rate. Bourn complies an average .270/.350/.355 line, but he has the potential to steal upwards of 60 bases in a full season.

Humberto Quintero will bat eighth in the lineup, after Jason Castro tore his ACL a few weeks ago. He won't provide much offense in this lineup, and he is considered a backup at best. 

The Astros finished in the bottom half of UZR rankings, and it is hard to see the team making many improvements. Michael Bourn is the club's best defender and is considered the best defensive center fielder in baseball.

In the corners, Hunter Pence is an above average fielder in right, but left fielder Carlos Lee has some of the worst range of any outfielder in baseball. Humberto Quintero calls a great game behind the plate, and has recorded very good CS numbers. The infield defense may be the worst in baseball.

Clint Barmes has played well at SS in the past, but he hasn't played more than 100 games there since 2006. Bill Hall can play most positions on the diamond, but his range at second base is below average. Chris Johnson really struggled at third base in 2010, committing 17 errors and having a negative nine UZR rating. Brett Wallace played well at first base in limited time, but scouts say he is below average at first base.

BENCH

IF- Tommy Manzella (R)

IF- Angel Sanchez (R)

OF- Jason Michaels (R)

C- JR Towles  (R)

OF- Jason Bourgeois (R) or Brian Bogusevic (L)

IF- Jeff Keppinger (R) (Will start year on DL with foot surgery) 

STARTING ROTATION 

RHP- Brett Myers

LHP- Wandy Rodriguez

RHP- Bud Norris 

LHP- JA Happ

RHP- Nelson Figueroa 

The best part of this lackluster Astros squad is the starting rotation. Ace Brett Myers had a career year for the Astros by cutting down on his BB and HR total. However, the most important change in 2010 was that Myers started using his mediocre fastball less (avg. 89.3 MPH), and throwing his slider and curveball more often.

Both were pitches were fantastic in 2010, but I don't think he will be as effective in 2011. I expect an ERA in the high 3.85-4.00 range, 7 K per 9, and close to 3 BBs per 9 innings. Wandy Rodriguez got off to a terrible start in 2010, but still proved to be one of the more consistent starters in baseball.

Rodriguez does not have the greatest stuff (avg. 89.6 MPH), but he changes speeds well with his slow curve and decent change. He strikes out a good deal of hitters, averaging more than eight per nine innings over the last three years, and records a strong groundball rate.

Looking at his xFIP over the last three years, he is a safe bet for something around a  3.50 ERA. The 26-year-old Bud Norris has a lot of talent, and pitched much better than his final stat line would indicate. He was hurt by a high BABIP and a below average left on base percentage.

Norris has a 94 MPH fastball that he has trouble locating, but he uses a nasty slider to strikeout more than a hitter per inning. Norris will walk a litte more than four per nine innings, but he should have an ERA in the lower 4's. 

JA Happ, acquired in the Roy Oswalt deal, has pitched well in the 60 major league games he has appeared in over the last few seasons. Happ hides the ball well, which makes his 89 MPH more explosive to hitters.

He compliments his fastball with an average slider, curveball and change. Happ will strike out seven per nine innings, but he does not have great command walking almost five per nine innings last year. Happ will pitch at an ERA around 4.40, but he could he has surprised before.

The fifth spot in the rotation comes down between veteran Nelson Figueroa and Jordan Lyles. Nelson Figueroa will probably get the first crack while Lyles starts the season in AAA. Figueroa is a soft tossing right-hander (avg. 88 MPH on fastball), who relies on his slider, curveball, and change-up to keep hitters off balance.

He can put up good strikeout numbers, and probably pitch to something like a 4.30 ERA. However, he will probably head to the bullpen to make room for Lyles at some point this season. 

BULLPEN

RHP- Brandon Lyon (Closer)

RHP- Wilton Lopez

LHP- Fernando Abad 

RHP- Mark Melancon 

RHP- Jeff Fulchino 

LHP- Ryan Rowalnd-Smith or LHP- Wesley Wright or LHP- Gustavo Chacin 

RHP- Alberto Arias or RHP- Aneury Rodriguez or RHP- Ernerio Del Rosario 

The bullpen will be a problem for the Astros this season. Brandon Lyon will start the year as the closer, but at best he is considered a setup man. He has only had one season with a WAR above 1.5, due in most part for his below average strikeout and walk rates. Lyon throws 90-92 with a good slider, curve and changeup, but he doesn't have the dominant stuff to be a good closer in this league.

Wilton Lopez might be the best option for the Astros. He averages 92 on his sinking fastball and compliments it with a decent change and show-me slider. He should only strikeout 6.5 per nine, but his command and ability to get ground balls are unbelievable. He finished with a BB rate of 0.67/9.

Mark Melancon, acquired from the Yankees in the Lance Berkman deal, is another good option from the right side. He throws a 92-94 MPH with a very good curveball that should lead to him striking out a batter per inning and an above average grounball rate. 

The rest of the bullpen is up in the air. Fernando Abad, who will be the primary lefty, impressed in his 20 games last year. He throws a 89-91 MPH fastball with a curveball, and change, but hasn't had enough major league innings to prove he can do it for the entire season.

Jeff Fulchino pitched very well in 2009, but he struggled with an elbow injury that rendered him ineffective for most of 2010. He throws hard, averages 93.8 MPH, and he has hard breaking slider and splitter. I don't think he should be counted on to provide many good innings for this club.

The rest of the bullpen is still auditioning for roles in Spring Training and could be any combination of the pitchers listed above. My guess is Ryan Rowland-Smith and Anuery Rodriguez make the team. 

NOTABLE NON ROSTER INVITEES 

LHP- Gustavo Chacin

IF- Anderson Hernandez (S)

KEY PLAYER- Brett Wallace

The Astros need Brett Wallace to develop into the 20 HR .300 hitter that many scouts have projected. Wallace struggled in 144 ABs with the Astros last season hitting .222 with 2 HRs and striking out 30 percent of the time. I don't think Wallace is there yet, but he should hit 15 or so HRs with a .270/.330/.415. I don't know about his power, but I do think he will eventually become a consistent .300 hitter in this league. 

PROSPECT TO WATCH- RHP- Jordan Lyles 

Baseball America rates Jordan Lyles as the Astros' top prospect in 2011. Jordan Lyles had some success in the minors by controlling his 89-92 MPH two seam fastball and throws his four-seamer a little harder. His secondary stuff doesn't isn't supposed to wow anyone, but the curveball is a little better than a show-me pitch. He will throw a change to lefties, but his major league success will depend on how he locates his fastball. He should make his debut sometime this season. 

PROJECTED FINISH- fifth in NL Central

The Astros don't have a good enough lineup or bullpen to compete in the division. The starting rotation will keep the team in games, but I can't see a final record reaching .500. The organization should think about dealing Brett Myers and Wandy Rodriguez if many of the younger players don't produce, because this organization needs to infuse some talented young prospects into this farm system. 

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