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Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Season Previews, Part One: Houston Astros

Look alive, blog readers!  Players have started to report to camp, which means rosters are close to being finalized and baseball is only a few short, painfully long, weeks away.  This time of year only means one thing: the third installment of season previews.  For those outside the board, I've done this for 3 years now only being slightly successful.  This time, I've banded with a bunch of other writers to tackle this and hopefully put out the most efficient, unbiased, proper pre-season analysis possible.  No better way to start than with the worst of the worst, as is the policy for the previews.  Without further ado, here is how the Houston Astros are looking:

2011 Record: 56-106
Pythagorean Record: 62-100
Games Out of First: 40.0
Top Performers by WAR (rWAR for hitters and fWAR for pitchers):
1. Carlos Lee 4.6 (a 2.1 dWAR rating made me go "wut")
2. Michael Bourn 4.4
3. Hunter Pence 2.7
4. Bud Norris 1.8
5. Wandy Rodriguez 1.5 
2011 Recap:
Some may wonder where really to begin with an article about a team where so many things went wrong, but I'll try to put things into perspective with one general statement that should suffice: 2011 solidified the Houston Astros as the worst-run organization in baseball, and the team was sold as a result.  Nothing went right.  Nothing.  We can try to look for positives, but that's like looking for undamaged pencils after a major house fire.  You can look at the record overall to get a look at the general outcome of events, but that does so little to truly explain how bad things were.  Things got so bad that the Astros traded players #2 and #3 on the top performers list mid-season (would be #1 and #2 if not for fluke defensive ratings).  That's 7 wins that were replaced by replacement level (or worse) talent.  So really, the Astros finished the season with a team that would win 49 games, which is treading water over what a replacement level team would do.  Outside of the 2003 Detroit Tigers (winners of only 43 games), you will be hard-pressed to find a team that was worse at any given time than the Astros were at the end of the 2011 season.  They hit rock-bottom from an organizational standpoint.  Anyway, we're not all about the negatives here.  Every organization has something that comes out positive, but the Astros really just don't have anything that stands out.  I don't want to label a section "2011 bright spots" and then talk about the "breakout" of Bud Norris, who erupted for a 1.6 fWAR. So sorry, Astros fans...your "2011 bright spots" section is being left empty.  Gotta protect the integrity of the post, after all.
Off Season Recap:
The news that dominated the headlines for the Astros had nothing to do with player personnel.  They have been dead quiet all off season, but that was highly expected, because the team was sold.  For those of you reading this somewhere without the ability to click the link, the Astros were sold to Jim Crane for $610 million and agreed to move to the American League in 2013.  Ownership did not hesitate to begin making personnel moves, either.  In late November, GM Ed Wade and President Tal Smith were axed, meaning a complete and total reload of the organization's front office.  The Astros struggled to get individuals for the GM job, and eventually chose to go with Jeff Luhnow, former vice president of the St. Louis Cardinals.  Luhnow has been placed in a very difficult situation: very little individual talent at the MLB level and even less talent in the minors.  How he builds the farm system in the next two seasons will really determine where the Astros end up going forward.
SS Jed Lowrie
OF Jack Cust
Subtractions (off season only):
RP Mark Melancon
SS Clint Barmes
2012 Outlook:
Unfortunately, 2012 probably won't be all that much different from 2011 for the Astros from a results standpoint.  What fans need to be most concerned about is how Luhnow handles the farm system.  He has some players that could be moved, and has the huge responsibility of making the #1 overall draft pick in June's draft.  The rebuilding process has finally begun in Houston, and the organization needs to do it right if they want to be able to contend against the big spenders (Texas and LA), the roller coaster Mariners, and Moneyball.  In 2012, they won't have to worry as much about trading within the division, since they won't be a part of it for 2013 and beyond.  With that being said, let's look at a couple of things that will be important to the 2012 Houston Astros:
1. #1 Overall Pick in June's Draft
Essentially, the Astros need to hit on a franchise player here if they want to accelerate the rebuilding process.  In my opinion, the safest guy they can possibly pick is RHP Mark Appel of Stanford University.  The 6'6 200 pound righty is the kind of pick that teams look to if they are trying to get the closest thing to a "sure thing" in the draft.  Appel features an arsenal of four pitches: 4-seam fastball that sits in the mid 90's, a circle change in the low 80's, a low-80's slider with a clean bite, and a cut fastball that sits in the upper 80's.  His mechanics are strong, from what I've seen (don't treat my scouting report of him as anything worthy of reading.  Look him up and do some research, as I'm no scout).  Appel is a guy that can come in and move to the top of a good rotation in a rather "short" amount of time, and he's as MLB ready as anyone in the draft (once again, just from things I read, so go do some research yourself).  Every mock draft I have seen puts Appel number one, and it makes even more sense for him to go number one in this draft (since the Astros *need* to hit on their picks this June).
2. The return of Jason Castro
The event that really started the snowball rolling down the mountain in the Astros' case was the off season injury that young catcher Jason Castro suffered.  A torn ACL ended Castros' season before it started, but it's looking like he should be all set and ready to go for the 2012 campaign.  Prior to the 2011 season, Castro was ranked as a top 50 prospect by Baseball America, and he was slated to start at catcher out of spring training.  Castro will be 25 years old this June, so this is a critical year for his career path.  If he can manage to come back and get healthy, he will be the Astros' number one impact player in 2012.
3. The Handling of Wandy Rodriguez
With the new CBA rules, compensation for free agents has really been limited.  This means the Astros will likely try to up their efforts to move Wandy in 2012.  In this current environment, Rodriguez' contract is really dead weight for the Astros.  He's making 10 million in 2012 and 13 million in 2013, and that is 23 million dollars the Astros really could afford to save and shift towards the rebuilding process.  The 2012 Astros are going to struggle a lot to win games, so moving Wandy is a priority, because they don't want to be put in a spot where they are sitting on his contract while trying to rebuild the team.  They will likely move Wandy at the deadline for the top prospect package offered (which will completely depend on how Wandy performs and what the market for starting pitching looks like).
Potential Breakout Player for 2012:
I really shouldn't do this, because it's against almost everything I've been saying this off season and isn't likely to happen, but do yourselves a favor and keep an eye out for shortstop Jed Lowrie.  He's had stretches in his career where he has shown serious offensive promise, and he's got the offensive tools to succeed.  However, the dude needs to stay healthy.  He still hasn't reached 350 PA at any point in his career and will be 28 years old this year, so it's hard to say he has "potential."  However, guys who once had potential and haven't seen it due to injury are players I would consider to be ideal breakout candidates.  All he needs is 125 games to be one of the better shortstops in the division (definitely could be 2nd best in the division if he stays healthy).
Potential Bust Player for 2012:
He's going to be 36 years old, his power has been declining, he isn't likely to repeat his 2nd best BB%, and he's not going to post an 11.2 UZR and 2.0+ dWAR again.  Power hitters who are old and starting to lose their power are guys who are ready to fall off a cliff.  I don't think we're talking about anything drastic here, but the red flags are all over the place.  
Projected 2012 Starting Eight:
C: Jason Castro
1B: Brett Wallace
2B: Jose Altuve
SS: Jed Lowrie
3B: Chris Johnson
LF: Carlos Lee
CF: Jason Bourgeois
RF: Jack Cust
Projected 2012 Starting Rotation:
1. Brett Myers
2. Wandy Rodriguez
3. Bud Norris
4. Jordan Lyles
5. J.A. Happ
2012 Expected Finishes:
Record: 48-114
Finish: 6th Place
Most Valuable Player: Wandy Rodriguez: 3.1 fWAR
Lasting Thought: 
Let's not kid ourselves, here.  This is the team that we all think about in our heads when we think "rebuilding."  2012 is a major transition year with several players that need to be moved and multiple players that need to prove themselves.  No Astros fan wants the lasting memory of the Astros in the NL to be the team finishing with its worst record in franchise history (and the two worst years back-to-back), but that is what they are staring at right now.  Unless the club can get some major karma going their way and have a bunch of unexpected breakouts and flukes, this team won't go anywhere and will be picking 1st overall in June of 2013.  

1 comment:

  1. I assume you mean Carlos Lee as the potential bust player, but his name isn't mentioned in that paragraph. Good read though.