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.

Video: Albert Almora, Jr. saved by the ivy

Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images
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The ALCS had a weird play in Game 4 on Tuesday night, but Game 4 of the NLCS did as well. This one involved Cubs outfielder Albert Almora, Jr. and his attempt to spark a rally in the bottom of the ninth inning against Dodgers reliever Ross Stripling.

After Alex Avila singled, Almora ripped a double to left field, past a diving Enrique Hernandez. The ball rolled to the ivy in front of the wall. Most outfielders there would’ve put their hands up, which would have alerted the umpires to call an immediate ground-rule double. Hernandez didn’t, instead fishing the ball out and firing it back into the infield. Avila had stopped at third base, but Almora kept running. Much to his surprise, he pulled up into third base to see his teammate standing there, resigned to his fate as a dead duck. Third baseman Justin Turner applied the tag on Almora for what he thought was the first out of the inning.

Almora, however, was then sent back to second base after the umpires correctly called a ground-rule double.

Unfortunately for the Cubs, the lucky break didn’t help as closer Kenley Jansen came in and took care of business, retiring all three batters he faced without letting an inherited runner score. The Dodgers won 6-1 and now lead the NLCS three games to none. They’ll try to punch their ticket to the World Series on Wednesday.