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Houston Astros Opening Day Primer

2011 Record: 56-106 Manager: Brad Mills

The Astros have a new owner, new front office people, and next year, a new league as the Astros will move to the American League next year. As a National League fan living in Texas, that stinks, as the closest NL team to Texas is either St. Louis or Denver. Billings, Montana and Fargo, North Dakota are closer to National League baseball than most people in Texas. Think about that.

Player in the spotlight: Carlos Lee 1B

Lee is quite simply, the only recognizable name in the everyday lineup for the Astros on opening day. Lee is now famous for his albatross contract that has essentially anchored him in Houston with very little chance of being traded. Lee is due $19M this season and only near the trade deadline might a market develop to acquire Lee’s bat. If the Astros are to avoid another 100 loss season, Lee will have to hit like he did near the beginning of his contract from 2007-2009.

Biggest question mark in the lineup: Jed Lowrie SS

Lowrie would be another “name” in the Astros lineup if he wasn’t, surprise, injured again. Lowrie comes over from the Red Sox DL where he occasionally came off and played for weeks at a time. When healthy Lowrie is a good defender and a decent bat for a shortstop, but those days are few and far between. The likely outcome here is that the Astros try to rehabilitate Lowrie’s image durability-wise and move him for some more prospects. He certainly won’t be the cornerstone of a playoff team.

Pitcher in the spotlight: Wandy Rodriguez

Wandy represents, possibly, the only tradable commodity that Astros haven’t moved in the past two seasons. It would be shocking if he were to be in Houston when August 1st arrives. But until then, he’ll be the cornerstone of a young, developing pitching staff as they try to avoid 100 losses again.

Biggest pitching question mark: Brett Myers   Closer

Wait, there’s another pitcher who could be moved. Myers moves back to the bullpen for reasons unknown. It’s hard to believe that Myers will be more tradable as a reliever than a starter. For a team that should treasure each opportunity to win games and will need to finish those games strong, Myers will have to be good in those rare opportunities.

Prospect with a chance to make an impact this year: Jonathan Singleton 1B

This is a little bit of a stretch to expect Singleton to impact this year, but he should get a chance in September if he continues to progress as expected. Singleton came over in the Hunter Pence deal with the Phillies last summer and gives the Astros fans some hope for the future.

Prediction: 6th in NL Central

The goal for the worst team in baseball is avoiding 100 losses for the second consecutive season and for only the second time in club history. Unlike 1991, there aren’t any Craig Biggio’s already on the roster and it’s doubtful that they have Jeff Bagwell ready to burst upon the scene. This rebuilding job is going to be a long, hard slog. They acquired a boatload of prospects over the past two seasons, many from the Phillies, and they will need to have a solid success rate to get this team back into contention by 2014, at the earliest. The goal here is to find optimism with a team, and the Astros look like a winner by 2015. Other good news, this will be their last 6th place finish until MLB expands again.

NL Central Weekly Overview April 13

NL Central Weekly Overview April 13

As of April 12      
NL Central W L PCT
Cincinnati 8 3 0.727
Milwaukee 5 5 0.500
Pittsburgh 5 5 0.500
Chicago 5 6 0.455
St. Louis 4 7 0.364
Houston 3 8 0.273

 

Cincinnati Reds

Pitching

The Reds pitching has been slightly below average so far, but their numbers are going to be higher due to their home ballpark. The Reds are currently leading the NL in strikeouts despite their 12th ranked ERA (4.27). So far, Bronson Arroyo and fifth starter Sam LeCure have pitched well, but the three others starters have struggled. Mike Leake’s struggles could make the Reds think about sending him down to AAA when Johnny Cueto returns.

The bullpen should be a relative strength due to the depth and has gotten solid work from everybody but Nick Masset and Matt Maloney. As long as their late innings relievers continue to do well, there shouldn’t be much concern.

Lineup

The Reds are pounding the ball offensively with a .294 average and a NL leading 14 homers. Their 72 runs lead the NL and none of their regulars are struggling enough to be under .200. Reigning NL MVP Joey Votto is hitting .415 with 12 runs scored in 11 games. That kind of production makes it tough on opponents as Votto seemingly scores every game.

Scott Rolen and Jay Bruce are the only regulars hitting below average right now and the Reds shouldn’t be concerned unless they are still hitting poorly in a few weeks.

Overview

The Reds are taking advantage of their schedule with their early season success and have already swept their projected divisional rival Milwaukee. The biggest challenge all season will be trying to get consistency out of their pitchers, especially their young starters.

With the solid start, the Reds just need to edge further and further ahead in the NL Central race. They have one more game in San Diego before heading home to face the Pirates for four. These next games provide the Reds a very good chance to extend their great start and put some valuable distance between the rest of their division.

Milwaukee Brewers

Pitching

The Brewers were expected to have a top shelf starting rotation this season and they are off to a decent start without Zack Greinke. The staff is 5th in the NL with a 3.49 ERA and already has 2 shutouts. Co-ace Yovani Gallardo has a complete game shutout and a 2.70 ERA so far. Amazingly he’s been effective with a horrible K-BB ratio at 8 to 9. Chris Narveson hasn’t allowed a run in two starts as he’s been better than expected. The other starters have scuffled a bit as newcomer Shawn Marcum and Randy Wolf have been mediocre and the Brewers will need more.

The bullpen could be an issue as John Axford only has part of one year of closing experience but has rebounded well since his opening day blown save in Cincinnati. Takashi Saito had his own rough game against the Braves last week so the Brewers have taken their lumps a bit in the pen so far. Kameron Loe has been good through 6 games and should continue to be a reliable piece in the back of the pen.

Lineup

The bats are in the middle of the pack with a .259 average, but their 12 homers are 3rd in the NL. Somehow, the Brewers have been unable to score as their 38 runs in 10 games indicate. None of the everyday players are hitting below .200 and Ryan Braun and Prince Fielder are off to good starts.

The biggest surprise has been Nyjer Morgan’s start and he should gradually take more and more at bats away from incumbent center fielder Carlos Gomez. Morgan’s career OBP is over .050 better than Gomez and he seems to bring an added energy to the lineup when he’s in there.

Overview

The Brewers have overcome a pair of bullpen collapses to be at .500 so far as they’ve played a somewhat difficult schedule. The sweep against the Reds was tough but they can make that up in a few weeks. Right now, the biggest question facing the Brewers is the stability of the back end of the bullpen and whether Axford can handle the job fulltime.

The Brewers have a pair with the Pirates in Pittsburgh and then travel to D.C. for the weekend. This is a very good opportunity to make up some ground on the Reds with a winning week.

Pittsburgh Pirates

Pitching

The Pirates staff has been surprisingly effective so far and maybe the tide is turning near the Three Rivers. Their ERA is 4th in the NL at 3.29 as they have gotten very good starts from three starters. Kevin Correia, Charlie Morton, and Paul Maholm have ERAs under 2.20 so far. Whether Morton can continue his success with a 3-10 K-BB ratio remains to be seen. James McDonald was expected to be solid and hasn’t been yet. Ross Ohlendorf was still performing at last year’s bad level but is on the DL now with a shoulder strain.

The bullpen should be solid and Joel Hanrahan has converted 4 of 4 save chances so far. Setup man Evan Meek has struggled and he’ll need to be better as the season progresses.

Lineup

The young Bucs hitters are only hitting .238 in the cold weather, as Pedro Alvarez, Roger Cedeno, and Garrett Jones are all under .200. Alvarez should be fine but Jones and Cedeno are both in danger of losing their jobs if they are still struggling by Memorial Day.

The key for the Bucs have been their timely hits so far as they’ve won a couple of games in their last at bat. Also, Jose Tabata and Neil Walker have continued their good hitting from last season and look to be productive mainstays in the lineup. The rest of the lineup is around where they will probably end up.

Overview

The Pirates are looking to go from 57 wins last season to something better this year. The start has been good and it appears like Clint Hurdle has helped change the attitude around the club. Finishing at .500 seems like a pipe dream but as long as the Pirates are at or above .500, they have that goal in sight.

The Bucs have two with the Brewers then go to Cincinnati for four this weekend. A split against the top of the division would be a good week.

Chicago Cubs

Pitching

The Cubs staff needed to improve from last year and Matt Garza was supposed to be a major reason for the improvement. Unfortunately, right now the Cubs are 13th in the NL in ERA with a 5.06 ERA and they have already started 7 different pitchers this season. Randy Wells and Andrew Cashner both had a good starts and are now on the DL with forearm strains. Their top 3 starters all have ERAs over 5.00 coming into Wednesday.

The bullpen is considered the strength of this team, but Carlos Marmol has already blown a save to the Pirates. But the major pieces in the bullpen have been relatively good so far and they will need to be if the Cubs starters continue to struggle.

Lineup

The Cubs hitters are faring better than the pitchers as they are 5th in the NL with a .269 average. Alfonso Soriano isn’t hitting for average but has 3 HRs already. They need him to get back to being a major threat in the order. Marlon Byrd is just under .400 so far and 21 year old Starlin Castro is at .367 and has already scored 10 times.

Carlos Pena, Geovany Soto, and Tyler Colvin are all players with over 30 at bats who are under .200. Pena makes up for his average with 7 walks, but the others need to improve their averages to make a positive impact on the lineup. Also, the Cubs aren’t going to scare too many opponents if they don’t run at all. They only have 1 steal so far this season.

Overview

The starting pitching has arguably been a worst case scenario situation with their three top starters struggling and their two others pitching well and then getting hurt. Nothing goes right. The good news is that it’s a long season and the injuries don’t seem serious. Their hitting should improve even more when the weather gets warmer in Wrigley.

The Cubs are only a game under .500 and have a chance to get over that this week. They play one more in Houston before heading to Coors Field for the weekend.

St. Louis Cardinals

Pitching

The Cards pitching has posted a modest 4.05 ERA which is good for 9th so far in the NL. Chris Carpenter has been hit around a bit as his 5.82 ERA would show. The key for the Cards has been 2nd year starter Jaime Garcia who could put together a Cy Young contending season after a stellar rookie year. His ERA stands at 0.60 so far. Kyle McClellan’s move to the rotation has been solid as he’s at a 3.00 ERA through his first two starts.

The bullpen has been more than shaky as Ryan Franklin has already blown three saves to make him 1 for 4 so far this season. It might be a matter of days or weeks before setup man Jason Motte takes over. The rest of the bullpen has been mediocre and needs to be much better for the Cards to contend all season.

Lineup

Despite Albert Pujols slow start with a .200 average, the Cards are hitting a modest .256 so far and their 10 HRs are good for 4th in the NL. The biggest issue that their lineup has faced was Matt Holliday’s emergency appendectomy after Opening Day. He’s now back and looks like he didn’t miss a beat. Lance Berkman also looks rejuvenated in a Cardinals uniform as he has 3 of those homers.

When the biggest issue facing a lineup is whether or not the great Albert Pujols will hit, then this offense should be one of the better ones in the NL this season.

Overview

Despite the slow start, Tony LaRussa will keep the players focused and they should straighten things out soon. They still have quality starting pitching and a dynamite lineup with the best player in the game. Only the bullpen has real issues that might need to be addressed right now.

The Cards have another game in Arizona before heading to Dodger Stadium for four this weekend. They have a chance to make up some ground and might be able to get to .500 by the end of the weekend.

Houston Astros

Pitching

The Astros have the worst pitching in the NL so far with a 5.34 ERA. Only Brett Myers is pitching well with a 1.77 ERA. The other four starters ERAs are over 6.00. This can’t continue all season at this level.

The bullpen hasn’t been that good either. Only Mark Melancon is exceeding expectations with no runs in 5 innings so far. He could end up at closer eventually if Brandon Lyon continues to struggle.

Lineup

At least the hitters are producing so far this season as they are 4th in the NL with a .276 average. There’s no power as they are last in the league with only 6 HRs, but they do have a NL leading 5 triples. Angel Sanchez has been the best hitter with his average just under .400. Michael Bourn isn’t hitting for a high average, but already has 6 doubles and 1 triple to go along with 4 steals. He’s a dynamic at the top of the order that could be a major offensive presence all season.

Carlos Lee is struggling so far at .200 but has legged out 2 triples already. His production is huge for the Astros if they are to stay near .500 all season and/or if they are able to trade him later in the season provided that he waives his no-trade clause.

Overview

The Astros are destined for the worst record in the NL if they don’t turn around their starting pitching. The good news is that their starters aren’t that bad, they’ve just gotten off to a bad start. But will they be good enough to get the Astros back to .500? Right now that has to be the short term goal.

They have one more with the Cubs before hosting the Padres for four this weekend. This is a great opportunity to turn their poor start around, especially their pitchers and inch closer to the .500 mark.

Houston Astros Opening Day Overview

Houston Astros Opening Day Overview

Manager: Brad Mills        GM: Ed Wade

  Lineup:
1 CF Michael Bourn
2 SS Clint Barmes(DL)/Angel Sanchez
3 RF Hunter Pence
4 LF Carlos Lee
5 1B Brett Wallace
6 2B Bill Hall
7 3B Chris Johnson
8 C Humberto Quintero
9 Pitcher

 

Bourn leads off and had another solid season last year. He cut down on his strikeouts and led the league in steals again. The Astros can make a major improvement in the standings if Bourn can increase his OBP from about .340 to .380. That would result in over 70 steals and 100 runs.

Barmes suffered a broken hand last week and will miss the first month or so. Sanchez played in 65 games last year and hit .280. But that’s hollow since he doesn’t have any power or ability to draw walks. He’ll end up hitting 8th, hopefully sooner than later for Astros fans.

Pence is as steady as they come hitting 3rd. He’s hit 25 HRs each of the past three seasons and has hit .282 the past two seasons. His walks dropped last year and he going to need to do better than the .325 OBP that he put up. If he’s under a .800 OPS again this season, they’re going to have to either move him to the #2 hole or drop him down to #6 or so. With his arbitration years upon him, he could become trade bait to help Ed Wade’s rebuilding plans.

Lee was a consistent 30+ HR guy for awhile there but now continues to decrease closer to 20. What was alarming about last season was that he went from hitting .300 to .247. He’ll be 35 in June and has 2 years and $37M left on his contract. For obvious reasons, as quick start with him hitting for power and average might convince a righty hitting deprived team in need of a bat to take a chance on him if he’s willing to waive his no-trade clause. He’ll get to showcase his talent in front of one on opening day at Citizens Bank Park.

Wallace came over last year for Anthony Gose who had been acquired for Roy Oswalt. He struggled in his two months with the Astros but has hit well enough in spring training to win the first base job and hit in the #5 hole. Wallace had a solid year at AAA for Toronto but he’s now on his fourth organization after being a first round pick in 2008. Pretty soon his uniform is going to look like Gaylord Perry’s.

Hall is a decent pickup who can play all over the field which gives him more opportunities to play every day. If he can turn back the clock to 3-4 years ago in Milwaukee and hit like he was then, he will be a huge bargain. Otherwise he’s an average contributor who can fill-in in a pinch.

Johnson hit well last season after taking over in June and could be a candidate to move up into the #2 spot in the order if he hits like last season. With 19 HRs between AAA and the majors, Johnson could be developing some decent power as well. The key this season will be to get a better command of the strike zone and get his walk total up.

Quintero is a very good defensive catcher, but he’s highly mediocre at the plate. If the Astros actually want some offense out of this position, they might consider calling the Yankees and prying away one of their many top catching prospects. I’m sure they would accept Brett Myers in return. Wade will need to hold out and make sure that Lee is in the deal as well.

  Starting Pitching
1 RHP Brett Myers
2 LHP Wandy Rodriguez
3 LHP JA Happ
4 RHP Bud Norris
5 RHP Nelson Figueroa

 

Myers stepped up last season with his best season of his career. Maybe he just couldn’t pitch in Philly? One note of caution is that Myers hasn’t pitched back-to-back 190+ inning seasons since 2006. With a new two year contract, the Astros will be reluctant to trade Myers. But they might be able to fleece a desperate team like the Yankees who could provide them with a top catching prospect and a major league ready pitcher.

Rodriguez pitched really well in the second half of last season when the Astros were over .500. He’s a solid pitcher who the fantasy types like a lot because of his strikeouts. Wade liked him enough to sign him up for three more years and an option. If Myers and Rodriguez can pitch like last season and win 30-35 games, then the Astros could be a surprise team this season.

Happ came over for Oswalt and pitched well immediately. He’s not a top of the rotation type but could really be solid as a #4 starter. If he’s to be anything better than that, then he’s going to need to increase his K-BB ratio as it’s less than 2-1 right now. Oh, and keep the ball on the ground too.

Norris brings the heat but has problems with his control and keeping the ball out of the air. Those last two are major issues for a pitcher in a home run park like Minute Maid. Norris had similar numbers in the minors in 2009. If he can harness his control and lower his ERA to the low 4.00 region, Norris might be able to win 12-14 games and help the Astros get over .500.  

Figueroa is an Ed Wade favorite. Once traded to the Phillies for Curt Schilling, he’s now hanging on in the majors at 37. He’s actually pitched pretty well over the past two seasons and if he can pitch like that in 30 starts, he could win 12-14 games for the Astros. If he struggles, however, there are a few young pitchers in the bullpen who are ready to pounce on his spot.

  Bullpen
CL RHP Brandon Lyon
SET RHP Jeff Fulchino
  RHP Wilton Lopez
  RHP Mark Melancon
  RHP Enerio del Rosario
  LHP Fernando Abad
  RHP Aneury Rodriguez

 

Lyon took over after Lindstrom went on the DL last summer and pitched well. He saved 20 of 22 save opportunities and really helped the Astros during their winning stretch run. Despite the success, the Astros have to be searching for other potential closers due to Lyon’s relatively poor strikeout rate and high walk total. If he pitches well during the first half of the season, the Astros might be able to convince a contender to take the final year of his contract off of their hands.

Fulchino throws hard but his inclusion at the back of the bullpen is an indictment of the lack of quality arms. He’s much better suited to pitching in the 6th and 7th innings when the team is behind than as a setup man.

Lopez is a very good relief pitcher who has great command and keeps the ball on the ground, giving the defense a chance to make a play. He doesn’t throw hard but it doesn’t keep him from getting the opposition out. It’s not very trendy to make somebody without a mid-90’s fastball a closer, but Lopez could get a look later this season if he pitches like he did in 2010.

Melancon came over for Lance Berkman last year and pitched fairly well in his short time in Houston. He throws hard and could get a look at closer as well if Lyon gets traded or becomes ineffective.

Del Rosario, Abad, and Rodriguez are all young prospects with solid potential. Rodriguez was a Rule 5 draft pick from the Rays and will most likely spend the season on the roster since he’d have to be offered back if they wanted to send him to AAA.

  Farm Prospects who could help in 2011
1 RHP Jordan Lyles
2 OF JD Martinez
3 OF JB Shuck

 

Lyles could be up with the big club by the end of the season if all goes well in AAA. Martinez is a talented hitter who could end up in left field if somebody (please) can take Carlos Lee off the Astros hands. Shuck is a utility outfielder who could find his way in the majors if they need an injury replacement before Martinez is ready.

Three Questions:

1. Can the Astros starting pitching outperform last season?

  • Myers and Rodriguez both pitched really well, especially in the second half. Happ was solid after coming over at the end of July and Figueroa keeps fooling hitters. Norris is probably the biggest key since he’s got a great arm and if he’s able to decrease his walks and home runs, he could have a big season.

2. Can Carlos Lee stop the downward spiral of his career?

  • At two years and $37M remaining on his contract with a no-trade clause, Lee has to hit better for the Astros to have a chance at reaching .500 this season. As the most dangerous hitter in the lineup, he needs to get his average back to at least .280 and start slugging close to .500 again. Anything less than that and the Astros will struggle offensively again.  

3. How is the young bullpen going to work out?

  • Brandon Lyon took the reins last season but he’s at best a short term solution to their late inning success. The best case scenario would be for Melancon to take over the closers role and have somebody like Lopez set him up in the 8th. As the Diamondbacks proved last season, a bad bullpen can turn a potential .500 team into a 90 loss team.

 

Projection

The Astros are realistically shooting for a .500 record. If they finish at 81-81 then they have to be pleased in Houston. Trying to get put together a productive lineup and getting solid production from their veterans will be the key to this. If Lee can hit like 2009 or earlier and if Hall can add about .020 points to his average, the lineup should be palatable. Then it will be up to the bullpen to provide stability at the end of games. There’s still a lot more that needs to be done and it will be interesting to see how bold Wade gets and who he’s able to trade to make this team better.