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.

Nationals place Stephen Strasburg on the disabled list

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Nationals starter Stephen Strasburg lasted only two innings in Sunday’s start against the Diamondbacks. He said he had trouble getting loose and had some stiffness in his forearm. Two days ago Dusty Baker said that expected Strasburg to make his next scheduled start on Saturday at home against the Rockies.

Nope. Not happening.Today the Nationals placed Strasburg on the 10-day disabled list with a right elbow nerve impingement.

Not that they expect it to be a long stay. The plan is for him to miss one start, rest up and come back. Erick Fedde will be promoted from Triple-A Syracuse to pitch in Strasburg’s place on Saturday against the Rockies.

Optimistically, this is a situation in which, if the Nats were in a tight race, Strasburg would try to gut it out, but since they’re not, they can afford to be cautious with him. Obviously time will tell if such optimism is warranted.

Danny Tartabull: dumbest fugitive alive

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Remember Danny Tartabull? He was a pretty dang good, and underrated, slugger in the 1980s and 1990s. For a brief moment he was even baseball’s highest-paid player. He began with the Mariners, but his best years came in Kansas City where he put up a line of .290/.376/.518 (144 OPS+) with 124 homers over five seasons. From there he went to the Yankees, where he continued to be a solid producer for the most part, with an .845 OPS (128 OPS+) and added another 81 homers in four seasons. He was a journeyman after that and retired after the 1997 season.

Since then things haven’t been all that great for Tartabull. While he was a key contributor to the teams for which he played, he didn’t contribute much to his own dang children. In 2011 he was adjudged a deadbeat dad with a $275,000 outstanding child support bill for which he received a criminal conviction. He was granted probation, which he violated, and then failed to report for the six-month jail sentence he was handed. Since 2012 there has been a warrant out for his arrest.

Given that there are still enough people around who know and remember Danny Tartabull, it seems like it’d be pretty easy to track him down. He’s been a fugitive for the past five years, however, likely due to the police not prioritizing a six-month sentence for a deadbeat.

Thankfully, though, Tartabull helped them out. How? He called them:

54-year-old Tartabull has basically been under the radar ever since … until July 24, when he called police himself to report that his car had been broken into near his apartment in Agoura, CA.

When cops arrived, they ran Tartabull’s name through the system and noticed the active warrant — and immediately arrested him.

Not supporting your kids is shameful. Skipping out on a jail sentence is wrong. Calling the cops when there’s a longstanding warrant for your arrest is stupid.

Congratulations, Danny. You haven’t played baseball for 20 years, but this week you won the triple crown.