Springtime Storylines: What will the Astros’ final year in the National League look like?

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Between now and Opening Day, HardballTalk will take a look at each of baseball’s 30 teams, asking the key questions, the not-so-key questions, and generally breaking down their chances for the 2012 season. Up next: The departing ‘Stros.

The Big Question: What will Houston’s farewell season in the National League look like?

The short answer here: ugly. Really, really ugly.

The Astros were one of baseball’s most successful franchises last decade, finishing second or better in the National League Central for six straight seasons (2001-2006) and advancing past the first round of the playoffs twice (in 2004 and 2005). But a lackadaisical attitude toward the draft and international market and a misguided infatuation with veteran talent eventually depressed the club right past mediocrity and into the company of baseball’s bottom dwellers.

Houston lost a league-worst 106 games last season. Long-suffering teams like the Orioles and Royals managed to fare better, and even the injury-ravaged Twins tallied seven more wins. The Mariners, who lost 17 straight games at one point and batted just .233/.292/.348 as a team, bested the Astros by 11 victories.

And it’s quite possible that things are going to get worse down in southeast Texas before they get better.

The Astros, under the guidance of new owner Jim Crane and new GM Jeff Luhnow, have finally plunged into full rebuilding mode and are beginning to inject life into a farm system that went ignored for far too long. But it’s likely to take several years for the fruits of the new regime’s labor to begin appearing on the big league vine.

There isn’t a player in Houston’s projected starting lineup for 2012 who can be considered anything better than league-average. Jed Lowrie showed flashes of offensive potential at times with Boston, but the 27-year-old shortstop batted just .252/.303/.382 in 341 plate appearances last year. Carlos Lee is still somewhat productive, but he’s a first baseman now and that position demands elite power. Small-statured second baseman Jose Altuve carries a good deal of upside, but he looked lost in his rookie campaign.

What Else Is Going On?

  • The hiring of Luhnow was far from headline-grabbing news, but those who have tracked his career trajectory are well aware of what a perfect fit he is for what the Astros want to and need to do. The data-loving executive helped transform the Cardinals’ farm system from one of baseball’s worst to one of baseball’s best during his nine-year tenure in St. Louis. Luhnow specializes in identifying talent in the amateur draft and encourages an aggressive approach to international free agency. With a little luck, he’ll have legitimate prospects pouring into the Astros’ minor league coffers in no time.
  • By far the best player on Houston’s 25-man roster, left-handed starter Wandy Rodriguez is likely to be shopped around the league as the July 31 trade deadline approaches. He’s 33 years old, owed a guaranteed $23 million over the next two seasons and doesn’t fit into the Astros’ several-year rebuilding plan. So Luhnow and Co. may as well flip him to a contender for a couple of projectable youngsters. Rodriguez registered a solid 3.49 ERA and 166/69 K/BB ratio across 191 innings in 2011.
  • The Astros made the odd decision earlier this spring to convert Brett Myers — one of their more reliable starters last season — into a reliever. Specifically, a closer. Our guess is Luhnow is thinking ahead to the trade deadline and trying to maximize the 31-year-old right-hander’s potential market value. Contending clubs aren’t going to be looking for innings-eaters in July. But there’s always a market for relief help, and Myers may be able to fetch a prospect if he enjoys a strong first half in Houston’s ninth-inning role.

How Are They Gonna Do?

This season? Horribly. And in 2013 — their first year in the star-studded American League West? Probably even worse. But that’s all a given by now, and when something is a given it’s often easier to swallow. Look for the Astros to finish at the very bottom of the National League Central in their final tour through the senior circuit, behind (in ascending order) the Cubs, Pirates, Brewers, Reds and division-champion Cardinals.

Bruce Maxwell is the first MLB player to take a knee during the National Anthem

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Athletics’ rookie catcher Bruce Maxwell did not stand for the National Anthem on Saturday night. He’s the first MLB player to do so and, like other professional athletes before him, used the moment to send a message — not just to shed light on the lack of racial equality in the United States, but to specifically protest President Donald Trump’s suggestion that NFL owners fire any of their players who elect to protest the anthem by sitting or kneeling.

“Bruce’s father is a proud military lifer. Anyone who knows Bruce or his parents is well aware that the Maxwells’ love and appreciation for our country is indisputable,” Maxwell’s agent, Matt Sosnick, relayed to the San Francisco Chronicle’s Susan Slusser on Friday. He continued:

Bruce has made it clear that he is taking a stand about what he perceives as racial injustices in this country, and his personal disappointment with President Trump’s response to a number of professional athletes’ totally peaceful, non-violent protests.

Bruce has shared with both me and his teammates that his feelings have nothing to do with a lack of patriotism or a hatred of any man, but rather everything to do with equality for men, women and children regardless of race or religion.

While Maxwell didn’t make his own statement to the media, he took to Instagram earlier in the day to express his frustration against the recent opposition to the protests, criticizing the President for endorsing “division of man and rights.”

Despite Trump’s profanity-laced directive to NFL owners on Friday, however, it’s clear the Athletics don’t share his sentiments. “The Oakland A’s pride ourselves on being inclusive,” the team said in a statement released after Maxwell’s demonstration. “We respect and support all of our players’ constitutional rights and freedom of expression.”

Whatever the fallout, kudos to Maxwell for taking a stand. He may be the first to do so in this particular arena, but he likely won’t be the last.

Alex Wilson broke his leg on a 103-MPH comebacker

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This one is brutal. Tigers’ right-handed reliever Alex Wilson was diagnosed with a broken leg after taking a blistering 103.8-MPH line drive off of his right leg during Saturday’s game against the Twins. According to the Detroit News’ Chris McCosky, it’s a non-displaced fibular fracture, but will still warrant an extended recovery period and signal the end of Wilson’s season.

Wilson replaced Drew VerHagen to start the eighth inning and worked a full count against Joe Mauer. Mauer roped an 93.3-MPH fastball back up the middle, where it struck the pitcher on his right calf. While Mauer took first base, Wilson got to his feet and tried to toss a warm-up pitch, but was in too much pain to continue and had to be helped off the field.

Even in a season that isn’t going anywhere in particular, this isn’t how you want it to end. The Tigers have yet to announce a recovery timetable for the 30-year-old reliever, but he won’t return to the mound until 2018. He exited Saturday’s outing with a 4.35 ERA, 2.3 BB/9 and 6.3 SO/9 over 60 innings.

The Tigers currently trail the Twins 10-3 in the bottom of the ninth inning.