Brad Mills

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.

Jose Fernandez’s high school jersey was returned

MIAMI, FL - JULY 09:  Jose Fernandez #16 of the Miami Marlins pitches during the game against the Cincinnati Reds at Marlins Park on July 9, 2015 in Miami, Florida.  (Photo by Rob Foldy/Getty Images)
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Yesterday it was reported that someone stole Jose Fernandez’s high school jersey, which had been hanging in the Alsonso High School dugout in Tampa for a vigil. That was pretty vile stuff indeed.

Thankfully, however, someone’s conscience got the best of them: the jersey has been returned. School officials say that a family found a large envelope outside of the high school with the words “Jose’s jersey” written on it. They took the envelope into to the school this morning and the jersey was found inside.

Bad form taking it, whoever you are, but in most cases it’s never too late to make a better decision and fix your mistakes.

The Tigers have an interesting weekend ahead of them

ATLANTA, GA - APRIL 08:  A general view of outside the stadium ahead of the Philadephia Phillies versus Atlanta Braves during their opening day game at Turner Field on April 8, 2011 in Atlanta, Georgia.  (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)
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In late August, when everyone started looking at the schedule in an effort to see who had the easiest road ahead of them to the playoffs, the Tigers stood out as particularly blessed. The end of their season featured several games against the lonely Twins and, if things were tight heading into the final weekend, a three-game series against the lowly Braves.

Problem: the Braves have not been very lowly lately, and that could cause the Tigers all kinds of grief.

Atlanta has won 10 of 11 games. They’ve scored 66 runs in those games and their pitching staff has an ERA of 3.28 over that span. Oh, and remember how, earlier in the season, the Braves were hitting like a deadball era team, being outhomered by multiple individual players? Well, they’ve hit ten during this neat little run. Really, though, the run isn’t that little. They’ve won 19 of 30 and have been a solid team, offensively speaking, since late July. They’re hot as heck now and haven’t been pushovers for some time.

So enter the Tigers, who have been seesawing through August and September and who have to play in Atlanta this weekend without their DH, Victor Martinez. Oh, and who stand a halfway decent chance of having to fly out of Atlanta Sunday evening for a makeup game in Detroit that could then cause them to play a tiebreaker game in Toronto or Baltimore which could then have them travel to the other city for a Wild Card game. And that’s if things break decently.

If they break poorly? It’ll be a long, season-closing flight home from Atlanta. A city that was supposed to provide respite for them when it first appeared on the schedule.