There are reasons for optimism in 2012.
When you go 56-106 and fans find out you are probably changing leagues, it doesn't get much worse. Still, there are always reasons to be optimistic in baseball, and when the offseason begins, you always have to be optimistic when the offseason begins.
Since the Astros are a young team, they have plenty of reasons to be optimistic. Here are 15 guys to watch in 2012.
Castro should be 100 percent by Spring Training.
Jason Castro tore his ACL at the beginning of spring training last year. He almost made it back by the end of the season, but the Astros decided to let him wait. Castro should be able to play some in the winter leagues and will be 100 percent by the time camp opens. He won't make anyone forget Johnny Bench, but the Astros' collective catcher situation matches up closer to John Mizerock than Bench. Castro should be able to do at least that much.
Lee will get a full season at first base.
Carlos Lee gets dogged a lot in Houston, but last year was one of his best seasons in Houston. In particular, he began to really hit when he moved to first base. If he gets a full season at the position, it will likely help him that much more. Someone has to drive in runs, and Lee is one of the better run producers in baseball. Look for him to surpass 100 RBIs again next year.
It's put up or shut up time for Wallace.
Brett Wallace's story is common in baseball. Of course, his story isn't finished. There are can't miss prospects that miss all the time. Sometimes they don't develop like scouts think they will. Sometimes their careers are derailed by injuries. Sometimes they are good college or high school players that can't make it at the highest level.
Then, there are those players that fall out of the starting gate, but get up the second time and stick for a long time. Wallace has had an extended opportunity, so this year will tell the tale on Wallace. If he shows up to spring training and hits a ton, they will find room for him. If he continues to hit after that, they will find a way to put him in the lineup. In 2013, they will need a DH, so there are spots to be had. If he doesn't hit, he will likely be gone.
Altuve hit at every level of the minors.
Jose Altuve hit at every level of the minors. At every level, scouts said he was too small, and at every level, he proved them wrong. At the big league level, size was never mentioned. Now, it was a lack of patience that caused a concern. Altuve can't grow, but maybe he can learn to be a little more selective. At least that's some progress.
Downs hit ten home runs this season.
When you win 56 games, you want to develop young players. You also have to stop giving jobs away and start giving it to people that earn it. Matt Downs hit 10 home runs largely in relief. He deserves a shot to win the third base job. Here's hoping Brad Mills will give him the opportunity.
Barmes deserves the Gold Glove award this year.
Clint Barmes is a free agent, but both parties want a reunion. Barmes hit 12 home runs and missed the first month of the season. If you project those numbers out to a full season, that would be 15 home runs, and he played Gold Glove defense. Look for a repeat this season.
J.D. Martinez set the Astros rookie record for RBIs in a month.
J.D. Martinez never hit lower than .302 at any level of the minors. Even that .302 mark was an abberation. He hit ,403 in rookie ball, .326 at Lexington, .362 at Lancaster and .338 this year at Corpus Christi. So, his .274 average seems like a disappointment by comparison. His August was brilliant, but he slumped in September.
Like Altuve, Martinez needs to be a little more selective at the plate, but he has hit at every level, so there is no reason to believe he can't do it in the big leagues.
All Shuck does is get on base.
J.B. Shuck is one of those guys scouts and fans love to make excuses for. He shouldn't play because he doesn't have enough power. He doesn't have the speed to cover center field. He doesn't have enough speed to be a top of the order hitter. He's never hit for average at any level. It's funny how people will make as many excuses for the players that can play and will excuse bad play from the ones that can't.
Here are the strikeout to walk ratios for Shuck since he entered professional baseball.
. . . . . . . . . .K/BB. . . . .Ratio
2008. . . . . ..34/35. . . . .1.00
2009. . . . . ..55/64. . . . .0.86
2010. . . . . ..72/65. . . . .1.11
2011. . . . . ..37/67. . . . .0.55
Now, to put these numbers in context, you should know the league average is two strikeouts to every walk, and the Astros average in 2011 was nearly three to one. This is a free swinging team. Shuck was born to lead off whether he is the second coming of Lou Brock or Lou Groza. He should be penciled in center field.
Bogusevic turned a lot of heads this year
Coming into 2011, Brian Bogusevic was already being penciled in as a bust. The Astros selected him in the first round to be a pitcher. When that experiment failed, he began hitting and was doing OK. The problem was that he wasn't doing anything special. He had the look of a reserve outfielder at the next level. That included this season until he was called up after the all-star break.
Even though he will turn 28 in February, he is still relatively young as a hitter. He did not begin hitting full-time until 2008. He came up this year and produced four home runs and 22 RBIs in only 182 at bats. This included an "ultimate slam" late in the season. An ultimate slam, for those that don't know, is a walk-off grand slam. You got to love all of these new fangled terms.
Happ had a forgettable year in 2011.
Usually, a pitcher like Happ would be someone you kill with false praise. You'd say something like, "well, he can't be as bad as he was last year." That would be true, but Happ took his demotion to AAA and used it for his benefit. In August and September (following his return), he was 2-2 with a 3.51 ERA in 41 innings.
It takes resolve and mental toughness to go through what he did and come out the other side in one piece. Happ will never be a staff ace, but he is a guy that will eat innings and compete for you every fifth day. He still needs to throw more strikes, but he showed something this year when he didn't completely fall to pieces.
Lyles struggled but his numbers are deceiving.
It would be easy to look at Jordan Lyles' season and call it a failure. However, the numbers don't necessarily tell the whole tale. For one, his 5.36 ERA is inflated by the fact that he sported a 12.46 ERA in a little more than four innings of relief work. His starter ERA was still high at 5.02, but that little tidbit has to make fans feel a little better.
As a starter, he struck out 2.65 hitters for every walk. He demonstrated the same command he demonstrated in the minors. The difference was that he surrendered nearly one home run for every start he had. Like control pitchers before him, he is learning the difference between general command and command within the zone. He doesn't have the stuff to dominate without putting it in spots. Based on his history, this is a lesson he will learn eventually.
Norris took a big step forward this year.
There are pitchers that have to hit spots like Jordan Lyles, and then there are pitchers that just need to find the zone somewhere. Bud Norris is the latter kind. His mid 90s fastball has a lot of life and late action. He doesn't have to pinpoint it to be successful. He just needs to stay ahead of hitters so he can use his breaking pitches to keep hitters off-balance.
2011 represented a significant improvement in that category. If he has similar incremental improvement in 2012, he will be a Cy Young candidate. There is no reason to think he can't do it. He has improved in each season with experience. He will need to improve, as it appears he is likely to lead the rotation in the next few years.
Abreu could compete for the closer's job.
Brett Oberholtzer and Paul Clemens headlined the Michael Bourn deal. Jordan Schafer was a name that became bigger when he was busted with the funny tobacco. That left Juan Abreu in the background. Abreu can reach 100 on the gun and is disappointed when he hits a mere 95 on the gun. He didn't disappoint in his September call-up.
Most experts wonder about the long-term options at closer. Mark Melancon was passable, but he has the look of a setup man. Brandon Lyon will be back, but it is hard to see him get that job out of the gate.
Abreu might end up being a candidate. If he throws strikes, there is no reason to believe he can't do it.
Rodriguez was used often down the stretch.
The final numbers were a bit deceiving. Rodriguez spent most of the season with an ERA under 3.00, but was overused by Brad Mills down the stretch. They talked about shutting him down several times, but he kept taking the ball. From June 1 on, he pitched 50 innings at the big league level. Add that to his AAA innings, and you can see what happened.
The splits show what happened in graphic detail. In the last two weeks of the season, Rodriguez had a 24.00 ERA in three innings of work. Take those innings out, and he comes through with a 2.74 ERA for the season. That's what can happen to relief pitchers, and that's why it's difficult to look at just ERA. Rodriguez was a workhorse, and if the extra work didn't do any long-term damage, he will be valuable in the pen again.
Lyon could come back strong in 2012.
OK, now many of you are wondering if I got my hands on Schafer's stash. Brandon Lyon is grossly overpaid and coming off of a horrible injury, but if his career history has shown anything, it has shown that he can be valuable in a setup role. Lyon has had three seasons when he opened the season as the primary closer.
. . . . . . . . . . .ERA/SV
2005. . . . . . ..6.44/14
2008. . . . . . ..4.70/26
2011. . . . . ..11.48/4
The rest of the seasons saw him compile ERAs of 4.12 or lower. Even in 2010 when he had 20 saves, he did not open the season as the closer and sported a 3.12 ERA. For the love of God, tell him anything but that he will be the closer. If Melancon falters, he should be able to take over, but he seems to have a mental block against being the guy.