MLB March Report: Houston Astros

The bottom fell out for the Houston Astros in 2011. Though they hadn’t made the playoffs since their pennant-winning year of 2005, the Astros had remained a respectable team, had a winning season as recently as 2008 and been in the mid-70s in 2009-10. Last year they couldn’t hold up the fort any longer, and collapsed to a 56-106 record. Brad Mills, in his third year as manager, and general manager Ed Wade are under a new ownership group now and a move to the American League is ahead next season. It stands to reason that the duo needs to show some progress this year or the new owners might just decide to turn the AL-debut year into a wholesale new look. TheSportsNotebook takes a look at Houston’s prospects in 2012, breaking them down into the four key areas: the ability to get runners on base, power, starting pitching and relief pitching.

ABILITY TO GET ON BASE: The problems start right here. Houston has no one that’s really effective at setting the table. There’s some hope for rightfielder Brian Bogusevic, a 28-year-old converted pitcher who had a .348 OBP in 164 at-bats last year. He’s listed as the starter this year, so we’ll find out if that can sustain while playing every day. What Houston is really banking on is a lot of improvement from young players. Jordan Schafer once one of the better prospects in the Atlanta organization last year and acquired as part of the deal where Houston shipped out a solid leadoff man in Michael Bourn at the trade deadline. 23-year-old third baseman Jimmy Paredes has to earn the job over competition from Brett Wallace and Chris Johnson, but if Paredes can do it, it will be his ability get on base and then to make things happen once he’s there. The organization likes 21-year-old Jose Altuve at second base and being able to hit for average is his strong suit. What he doesn’t do is show much plate discipline. That’s fine for the long haul, as he can improve that with time, but it won’t do much for his on-base percentage in 2012. Carlos Lee, still pulling his $19 million annual salary at first base, is still pretty decent in this area, although for that money, he’s going to have to do a lot more than be decent at taking walks and hitting a few singles.

POWER: Lee is the focal point here, and unfortunately it’s the loss of power that’s most noteworthy in tracking the decline of the 35-year-old. He did slug .446 last year and drove in 94 runs, but the home runs have been in a steady descent and slipped to 18 last year. And all of his numbers (for that matter, all of everybody’s) have to be read in light of the fact that Houston’s Minute Maid Park is a terrific place to be a hitter. On the positive side, Lee swung the bat better this past season then he did in 2010, so while he can’t earn his $19 million salary anymore, perhaps he can hit well enough to persuade a big-market team in need of a bat to give Houston some prospects at the trade deadline.

There are three other noteworthy players who can end up making an impact. Matt Downs played every infield position last year and in 199 at-bats was able to produce a .347 OBP and .518 slugging. He’s 27 years old, so it’s not like you’re compromising a rebuilding project by getting him some time. For an offense this anemic, Downs has to get everyday at-bats, even if you shuffle his position. Jack Cust is an interesting acquisition to say the least. He was a DH in Oakland and over the last five years his OBP swung between .344 and .408, while his slugging ran between .329 and .504. The problem is that the low end of those spectrums were what he produced last year, he can’t play the field and since he’s on a one-year deal there’s no guarantee Houston will have him—or want him—next year when they can use a DH. The third interesting piece is shortstop Jed Lowrie, picked up from Boston. Health problems, from mono to shoulder injuries have derailed Lowrie’s career just when it seems like he’s hitting the ball. If he stays healthy, he plays a respectable defense, will get on base and hit the ball to the alleys.

STARTING PITCHING: I was surprised when Wandy Rodriguez stayed in Houston through the trade deadline last year, and I’ll be even more surprised if the same happens this year. The 33-year-old is good 190-200 IP a year and an ERA in the mid-3s. He’s good enough to get a nice return, but not good enough, nor young enough to be a cornerstone of a team rebuilding. One pitcher who is both is Bud Norris. In his second season last year he improved his ERA to 3.77 while logging 186 IP. Norris only won six games, but after reviewing the offensive personnel I trust you can understand why. And the bullpen was horrible last season. J.A. Happ is 29 years old and last year did not live up to the promise of his 2009 campaign in Philly when he won 12 games with a 2.93 ERA for a pennant-winning team and persuaded Wade to get him in the deal that sent Roy Oswalt north. Happ needs to pitch better, and for one more year I’m going to assume he can. 21-year-old Jordan Lyles will be in the back end of the rotation, and the Astros picked up veteran Livan Hernandez to chew up some innings. Hernandez hasn’t had good ERAs, he takes the ball consistently and can save wear and tear on the bullpen.

RELIEF PITCHING: Mills had to deal with a complete disaster area here last year and one of the solutions is to transfer Brett Myers to the closer’s role. I have mixed feelings about this. Myers was similar to Hernandez in that he could chew up innings, even if they weren’t effective innings, and it bears wondering how valuable a closer is on a bad team. Furthermore, Houston does have Brandon Lyon. While Lyon was awful in 2011, he did close 20 of 22 save opportunities the prior season. I’d have given him first crack at the job. It’s still pretty thin in the middle innings, with Wilton Lopez coming off a nice season and Fernando Rodriguez showing that he might be able to be respectable. Three pitchers hoping to angle out Lyles in the starting rotation will likely also end up here, in Kyle Weiland, Henry Sosa and Aneury Rodriguez. All are in their mid-20s and none have done anything at the big-league level to merit getting excited about.

LAS VEGAS OVER/UNDER WIN PROP: 64—Do you really think the Astros are ready to win eight more games than they did a year before? Do you think they can hold themselves to under 100 losses? I don’t see either one. I’d take the Under.