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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.

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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.