Houston Astros: Grading the Second Half Position by Position
It would be difficult to paint the 2011 season as anything other than a disaster. The club finished with a franchise record 106 losses, and most of the season was played under the cloud of a problematic ownership situation. Players, coaches and fans are all thankful it is over.
Despite that, there are always bright spots in even the worst of seasons. So, we will take a look at each position and see how each player at those spots did. We'll also take a sneak peak at the future as well.
You have to feel for Humberto Quintero in some circles. He begins every year as No. 2 on the depth chart and somehow winds up on top. It is reminiscent of Alan Ashby, who always seemed to be the insurance policy and parlayed that into a lengthy career.
Astros' catchers finished the campaign with a .550 OBPS (on base + slugging percentage). That was good enough for 29th in the MLB. The Astros have ranked at or near the bottom in this category every year since 2000.
Quintero can't take the bulk of the blame here. He hit above .250 and was asked to play more than he normally would. The combination of Chris Corporan and J.R. Towles was nothing short of a disaster at the plate. If Jason Castro could muster even average production this could be a huge area of improvement in 2012.
Did you know that Carlos Lee has averaged over a 100 RBIs per season in each of his five years in Houston? This should surprise you, as often as he has been criticized by the locals. Did you know that John Dewan (author of the Fielding Bible) had him as an above average defensive left fielder and first baseman in 2011? That was also a huge shock.
Lee has one more year on his contract and, with the performance of J.D. Martinez, it looks like Brett Wallace will be the odd man out. He fell off the map after the break, although he made more contact than he did in 2010. If left to his own devices, he'd probably be a .280/15/80 guy, but Jonathan Singleton is on the rise. Look for a full year of Carlos Lee at first base.
Those expressing disappointment in Jose Altuve should keep two things in mind. First, he began the year in Class A ball. To even make it the big leagues for the final two months was a huge accomplishment. Secondly, he is only 21-years-old. All expectations should be tempered.
That being said, there are warning signs everywhere with Altuve. He walked in just two percent of his plate appearances in Houston. That is not acceptable. He walked in about eight percent of his plate appearances in the minors. If his walk rate progresses to that level, the Astros will be ecstatic.
Altuve has good power for his size, good speed and a solid glove. This already makes him a superior second baseman when compared with Jeff Keppinger. So, any results he gets next year should be measured against what Keppinger would have done.
If you ask the Astros front office right now who they would put at third base they would probably answer Jimmy Paredes. This is where we get to play a fun little game called guess that player. Below you will see four statistics: batting average, on base percentage, slugging percentage and BABIP. You guess the player.
Player A. . . . . ..286/.320/.393/.386
Player B. . . . . ..308/.337/.481/.387
Player A would be Jimmy Paredes from this season. He doesn't have the power that Player B has, but he is a better defender and more of a threat on the basepaths. Player B was Chris Johnson in 2010. Both players had eerily similar batting averages on balls in play. Johnson crashed back to earth this year. Paredes will do the same next year.
As for Matt Downs, there are all kinds of excuses for why he won't be given the opportunity. They will say that he can't field the position well (neither can Chris Johnson). They will say that his success came in limited exposure. All of this may be true, but you don't know for sure until you try. It is very likely that 2011 was a mirage, but you know the other two probably won't cut the mustard either.
I'm a pretty big Clint Barmes guy. Yes, he hit just .247 for the season, but he also hit a dozen home runs and had a good walk rate. More importantly, he is a top-five defensive shortstop at a time when the club is bringing up a lot of young pitchers. Nothing builds a pitcher's confidence like having plays made behind him.
Barmes is a free agent, but he has frequently said that he wants to come back. Houston wants him back, so now it is just a matter of whether they feel they can afford him. I wouldn't break the bank to keep him, but he is the best all-around shortstop this city has seen since the days of Dickie Thon.
J.D. Martinez spent August methodically dismantling the Astros' rookie record for RBIs in a month. He spent September limping through and finished up running on fumes. However, unlike Parades or Johnson before him, he legitimately performed at the minor league level. His. 341 minor league average leaves a lot of Astros' fans salivating.
In reality, he is probably closer to a .280 hitter at this point, but he has good power and he should improve in the plate discipline department. What's more, he made some nice plays in left field. He should be a fixture out there for at least a few seasons.
Back in 1996, Terry Collins (then the manager of the Houston Astros) said that all that John Cangelosi did was get on base. Of course, that was meant to be a derogatory comment. The tone of the comment alone should have gotten him fired on the spot. Luckily for Astros' fans, he was released after the season.
Collins instead kept throwing out Brian L. Hunter because he was fast. Hunter got on base at a .296 clip that season. All the speed in the world doesn't matter when you are returning to the dugout that often. The 2012 Astros appear poised to repeat history with Jordan Schafer and J.B. Shuck.
Schafer was once a highly touted prospect with the Braves. He hit .245 in Houston and got on base a little more than 31 percent of the time. If you find the performance a little underwhelming, you aren't alone. Shuck got on base at a .359 clip in a short stint in Houston. If you think that is a fluke, you should consider he had only one worse professional season and that was a .348 OBP at Round Rock in 2010.
Watch as history will repeat itself in 2012. Schafer will get the majority of the time and the front office will throw out all kinds of excuses as to why Shuck shouldn't be the everyday guy. Fortunately, he can play all of the outfield spots, so he will get some at bats either way.
Brian Bogusevic already has an ultimate slam to his credit (a walk-off grand slam). If he never does anything else, he will have a story for his grandchildren. Bogusevic is a converted pitcher that is relatively late to the hitting game. So, while he will turn 28 at the beginning of spring training, he only became a full-time position player in 2008.
Normally, you would look at his age and minor league numbers and yawn. Yet, his late conversion makes his development a little more interesting. Will he show more of what he did late this season or will he be a career fourth or fifth outfielder? 2012 will ultimately answer those questions.
His OBP numbers are promising, and he is athletic enough to play all three outfield slots. He may never be a big enough power hitter to hold down a corner outfield slot, but the flexibility that the young outfielders have makes for interesting matchup possibilities.
Jason Bourgeois is another interesting case. He never looked as good as he did last season at any stage of his career. This screams career year to just about everyone in baseball. Hopefully, the Astros are hearing that primal scream as well. While he shouldn't be a regular, his ability to run the bases and play every outfield slot makes him a valuable man off the bench.
J.A. Happ is about as good an example there is of the season and how it played out. He was dreadful until being sent down to the minors in late July. When he returned a few weeks later he was a much better Happ. In his last 41 innings, he sported a sub 4.00 ERA and a 2-2 record. He wasn't the only pitcher to experience such a renaissance.
Brett Myers went 4-1 in September with a 2.62 ERA. The strong finish may have been enough for the Astros to put him on the market in the winter. Myers joins Wandy Rodriguez as the two most likely trade possibilities. If the two remain in Houston the rotation will be set, with Bud Norris and Jordan Lyles joining those three pitchers.
Henry Sosa proved to be a good fifth starter candidate late in the season. He managed 53.1 innings in ten starts. While his ERA finished above 5.00, he had two rough starts that inflated that ERA significantly. Most teams will take an 80 percent decent start rate from their fifth starter. If he cuts down on his walks he could challenge for that slot this Spring.
Of the six pitchers with at least 40 games, four of them had ERAs under 4.00. At first glance, it would appear as if the Astros are in good shape when it comes to the bullpen. Unfortunately, basic statistics like ERA hide the truth. Their bullpen ERA of 4.46 was the 29th best in baseball and they finished with the worst bullpen WAR in baseball.
There could be help on the way. Three separate trades netted them Juan Abreu, Jason Stoffel, and Josh Zeid. Abreu already appears to have staked his claim on a bullpen slot and the other two could make a push in spring training. This doesn't even mention whatever arms Ed Wade can find in between now and this spring.
It may not seem possible, but the Astros actually performed worse than their ERA suggests. The Astros were a distant last in bullpen win probabilities added. WPA is an indication of leverage when used to grade bullpens. In regular English this means that as the pressure mounted, so did the runs the Astros surrendered. When pressure was light, they were lights out. Considering they are so young we can hope for some improvement here.