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.

Derek Norris signing with the Rays

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Yahoo Sports’ Tim Brown reports that Derek Norris is signing with the Tampa Bay Rays.

Norris was released by the Nationals nine days ago, made redundant by the Nats’ signing of Matt Wieters and by everyone sliding down a notch on the depth chart below him. Norris hit only .186/.255/.328 with 14 home runs and a .528 OPS for the Padres in 2016.

Still, there always seems to be a place for a backup catcher. For Norris that place is Tampa Bay.

The Braves are banning outside food. And they’re probably lying about why they’re doing it.

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Here’s a thing a lot of people don’t realize: there are a lot of ballparks that allow you to bring in outside food.

Not all of them, but a lot do. They don’t publicize it, obviously, because they want you to buy their expensive food, but if you go to the concessions policy page on most team’s websites, you can get the scoop. It often lists “soft-sided coolers” under “permitted items,” which is code for “yes, you can bring your own food in.” Some may specifically limit THAT to sealed plastic water bottles, but for the most part, if you can bring soft-sided coolers into the park, that means it’s OK to bring in grandma’s potato salad and a few sandwiches. They may check your coolers, of course, to make sure you’re not bringing in alcohol or whatever.

The Atlanta Braves have always allowed food into the ballpark. But thats going to change in shiny new Sun Trust Park. The AJC reports that the Braves have announced a new policy via which ticket holders will not be allowed to bring in outside food. Exceptions will be made for infant food and for special dietary restriction items.

Which, OK, it’s their park and their rules. If they want to cut out the PB&J for junior and force you to buy him a $9 “kids pack” — or if they want you to forego grandma’s potato salad to buy that pork chop sandwich we mentioned yesterday — that’s their choice. Everything else about the Braves new stadium has been about extracting money from fans, so why not the concessions policy too?

My beef with this is less about the policy. It’s about their stated reason for it:

The changes are a result of tighter security being put into place this season throughout the league, said the Braves spokesperson.

This, as the French say, is horses**t.

We know it is because not all teams are prohibiting outside food. If there are tighter security measures across the board, other teams are implementing them without the food restriction. Even the Yankees, who take security theater to extreme heights as it is, are still allowing fans to bring in their own food.

The Braves, I strongly suspect, are using these measures as an excuse to cut down on competition for their concessions. Which, like I said, go for it. Just be honest about what you’re doing and stop blaming “tightened security” for your cash grab.