The Houston Astros are not going to be good this year. They weren't good last year. They've added no one of consequence during the offseason, but they did lose the guy who was their best pitcher by a good margin, and are even helping his new team pay his contract. Their farm system is almost universally regarded as the worst in MLB. For at least the 2nd year in a row. Baseball America, Sickels, AOL News - it doesn't matter who's been doing the ranking, the Astros always come out at the bottom. And with $26 million committed to Roy Oswalt and Carlos Lee this season, they don't have the budget to go out and fill holes with good free agents even if they want to (which Ed Wade probably does).
Not to pile on (OK, I don't mind piling on), but Fangraphs has rated the Astros as the worst organization in baseball for the second year in a row. The ranking there take into account current talent, future talent at the minor- and major-league levels, front office acumen, and financial resources. Dave Cameron has come under a good deal of scrutiny for these rankings at times (#6 org!), but it doesn't really matter what nits people might be picking about the ranking method when your team finishes dead last every year the rankings are done.
To top it off, hometown hero Jeff Bagwell could barely muster half the necessary votes to go into the HoF, despite having what really ought to be a slam dunk case. Their ballpark has seen four different names in the span of its 10 years of existence, and the Astros caught a good deal of backlash when the Enron scandal blew up. Pence won his arbitration case against the team, which offered nearly $2 million less than his asking price. Almost everyone expected the club to win easily. At least they don't have any injury trouble to speak of.
enron-logo (via Madalin Matica). Is the team headed for a downfall/dismantling similar to its erstwhile sponsor?
So the Astros burned bright for a while, finishing 2nd or better in their division 12 of the 13 years from 1994-2006, going to the postseason 5 times between 1997 and 2005. But this star retains mere vestiges of it's former glory, having jettisoned most of it's mass in the last few years, leaving a cold, dim dwarf. Is there anything positive to say about this franchise right now? A little. Because they do have some major league talent on the roster.
RF Hunter Pence: .282/.325/.461 (658 PA)
Pence is a solidly above-average player on offense and at least average on defense. He even adds some value with his baserunning, though his SB% isn't that great. He does a little bit of everything to help a team win, though he isn't great at anything. You can pencil him in for 25 HR and 15 SB and 155+ games.
Hunter Pence..hehe (via adio_chick123)
Hunter Pence / Houston Astros (via andrewwinn). It could be because he looks awkward with every move he makes on the ball field. Or because he throws like a girl. Or swings like a girl. Or because he only wears one batting glove and chokes way up on the bat. Or because he's pretty good despite all this. But for some reason, he's a prime candidate as a Jim Edmonds Honoree for RR Hate.
CF Michael Bourn: .265/.341/.346 (605 PA)
Bourn is monstrously good in two ways: running the bases and playing CF. According to Baseball Prospectus, Bourn was more than 35% better than the 2nd best baserunner in MLB last year. Pujols never approached being 35% better than the 2nd best hitter. Take it for what it's worth. Bourn struggles to be an average offensive player if you don't count the baserunning, but when you add everything up, he is solidly above average overall.
LF Carlos Lee: .246/.291/.417 (649 PA)
Wow, this guy fell off a cliff last year. He did recover somewhat in the 2nd half, but the extent of the decline has to be worrisome for Astros fans. He's a safe bet to at least have a dead-cat bounce (if he really is done) thanks to only having a .238 BABIP last year. Considering that this is his age-35 season, he might not be completely done as a hitter yet. His defense though...well, maybe we wouldn't complain quite as much about Jonny Gomes if we had to watch Lee every day.
I think Lee has one more average season in him, though at a price of $18.5 million for each of the next three seasons, that's not much consolation. If Brett Wallace flops at 1B, it might extend Lee's usefulness as a player long enough to not hate this contract with a passion.
3B Chris Johnson: .308/.337/.481 (362 PA)
On the surface Johnson's numbers look great. A .387 BABIP might have something to say about their reproducibility. Johnson doesn't walk, he does strike out, and hits for about average power. None of the defensive systems like his glove, though the sample is rather small. All in all, I give him a chance to be about average if he plays full time.
1B Brett Wallace: .222/.296/.319
It was not the debut the Astros were hoping for from their main return in the three-team Oswalt trade. He's always hit at the minor league level, and he can't even blame batted ball luck for the ugly line. The blame has to fall on his strikeouts (35% is virtually untenable territory). Coupled with pedestrian walk rates, it's a recipe for the kind of line you see above. But he has a good pedigree, so it's conceivable that he puts it together on offense this year and manages to be an average player.
After this it starts to get ugly. Yes, the guy who barely had a .600 OPS last year is going to be relied upon for some of the better production this year, and after him is where it gets ugly. There's a reason the Astros aren't in a good place right now.
2B Bill Hall: .247/.316/.456 (382 PA)
Bill Hall had his best year at the plate in the last 4 years in 2010. Which is what allowed him to have a WAR that wasn't negative. His defense has been erratic his whole career (perhaps the product of being moved around the diamond constantly), but has never been considered a strength. Considering that his bat maxes out at about average, he's purely a stopgap player. At least he draws walks at about an average rate - he's the only player on the Astros team that does.
I think it rather needless to debate the Bill Hall All-Star candidate on this team. But maybe his Reds-killing days are behind him...I personally don't care to see him beat us around with an OPS near 1.000 anymore.
SS Clint Barmes: .235/.305/.351 (432 PA)
Barmes has been unable to produce respectable batting lines practically for his entire career, despite the fact that he's played at Coors Field. He also hasn't played full-time at SS since 2006, though his defense is generally above average. I'm not sure what the Astros expect to get out of Barmes, but I doubt it'll be much. Even still, he is almost a guaranteed improvement over Tommy Manzella, so there is that.
C Humberto Quintero: .234/.262/.317 (276 PA)
Quintero has been an abjectly terrible offensive player for his entire career. Apparently the Astros have a thing for catchers who are embarrassingly bad at the plate. I think Astros fans had better hope this is the year J.R. Towles discovers how to translate his minor league success to the Bigs, or this platoon could be painful.
Not good. There's the aforementioned Manzella, along with Jason Michaels as a backup outfielder, who at least can provide some pop. Brian Bogusevic can backup the OF and 1B, but no one wants to see him full time anywhere. His only skill is drawing some walks. Angel Sanchez actually should have started full time in front of Manzella last year, as he has the skill set to be an average player in the middle infield.
So the lineup is a challenger for worst in the league. Is the pitching good enough to keep the team from being an embarrassment?
SP1 Wandy Rodriguez: 195 IP, 178/68 K/BB, 47.9 GB%
This is a good start; Wandy is a legitimately good front-of-the-rotation starter. At 32 he is approaching his decline phase most likely, but the Astros have him under control at a good price for the next 3 years, during which time he should still be a valuable asset. If the Astros decide that the rebuild really is overdue, Wandy will bring back some of the best trade pieces of anyone on the team.
SP2 Brett Myers: 223.2 IP, 180/66 K/BB, 48.7 GB%
Myers is another pretty good pitcher. He was a workhorse last year, and at 30 years old, is still in his prime and should be able to give a similar performance this season. He's also under control at a decent price for the next few years.
SP3 J.A. Happ: 87.1 IP, 70/47 K/BB, 39.0 GB%
So what do you believe about Happ? The Astros are betting on him beating his peripherals soundly like he did for the Phillies in 2009. But those peripherals do not inspire much confidence. At his very best, he's a league-average starter.
SP4 Bud Norris: 153.2 IP, 158/77 K/BB, 43.0 GB%
Now here's a pitcher with some upside. A K-rate above 9 always gives a pitcher some more leeway with his mistakes. At 26, he's still on the upside of his career, and under team control. Maybe he doesn't put it all together this year, but they've got a few years (at least) before they need him to be in top form anyway.
SP5 Nelson Figueroa: 93 IP, 73/34 K/BB, 42.3 GB%
The Astros are probably (smartly) playing the arbitration clock with Jordan Lyles, but many teams are doing worse than Figueroa for their 5th starters. He's a useful pitcher, though at 37 he has no upside. Durability might be a concern, but he probably only needs to last half a season or so.
No real Tomo Ohka All-Stars here, but Wandy Rodriguez does have over 10 K/9 versus the Reds in his career. Ick. At least 4 of the top-10 strikeout performances of his career have come against the Reds. Close enough.
CL Brandon Lyon - his contract caused a lot of laughter, but as a pitcher he is serviceable. As a closer he's one of the lower-tier options.
SU Wilton Lopez - a very good reliever who is not as well known as he should be. His BB-rate was incredible last year, and he gets a ton of groundballs.
RHP Jeff Fulchino - typical middle relief, nothing special.
RHP Alberto Arias - groundball specialist will probably be called upon in DP situations. 1 HR allowed last year in 45 IP.
RHP Mark Melancon - I remember when Yankees fans were excited about this guy. The strikeout rate is still there, but he's not really special.
LHP Wesley Wright - has a real problem with giving up HRs. Holds lefties to a merely league-average batting line. Umm, you usually want to do better with your LOOGY.
LHP Fernando Abad - big time strikeout rates in the minors to go along with great walk rates too.
RHP Enerio Del Rosario - I wish our old farmhand the best. He is unscored upon so far in Spring Training in over 10 IP.
Overall a bullpen that's about average, maybe slightly better.
Long story short, the Astros aren't good now, and they might not be good for a while. However, the Astros have managed to rather peskily defy their lack of talent for a number of years, prompting Ed Wade to keep pushing back the inevitable rebuild (until now), and have managed to be competitive and even in contention in recent years. Their knack for outperforming their expected win totals, while nice for Astros fans in the past few years, is something they're going to have to pay for now. The rest of the NL Central should feel pretty unthreatened for a while. Wade and company should go full supernova and blow this thing up, so that new stars can begin to form.