Brad Mills

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


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.

Yadier Molina scratched from Cardinals’ lineup

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Yadier Molina was in the Cardinals’ initial, posted lineup for Game 4 of the NLDS this afternoon, but the injured catcher has been scratched and replaced by backup Tony Cruz.

Molina has been playing through a significant thumb injury and exited Game 3 early in obvious discomfort. He no doubt talked his way into the lineup, but manager Mike Matheny told reporters that Molina was removed due to “considerable weakness in his hand.”

Not only will the Cardinals try to stave off elimination without Molina behind the plate, if they are able to advance past the Cubs in the NLDS they could be without the seven-time All-Star catcher in the NLCS.

Robinson Cano underwent sports hernia surgery

Robinson Cano

The Mariners announced today that second baseman Robinson Cano underwent surgery on his “core muscles” today, to repair that which we more commonly refer to as a sports hernia.

Cano played through the injury during the second half of what was a below par season. Hit hit .387/.334/.486 on the year though, surprisingly, did much better in the second half, posting a line of .331/.387/.540. The hernia may have been bothersome, but it didn’t really hamper him, it would seem.

He’ll need six weeks of recovery time, but should be good to go by spring training, looking for a bounce back year.

NLDS, Game 4: Cardinals vs. Cubs lineups

John Lackey

Here are the Cardinals and Cubs lineups for Game 4 of the NLDS in Chicago:

3B Matt Carpenter
1B Stephen Piscotty
LF Matt Holliday
RF Jason Heyward
SS Jhonny Peralta
CF Randal Grichuk
2B Kolten Wong
C Yadier Molina Tony Cruz
SP John Lackey

Yadier Molina is in the lineup despite leaving Game 3 early with obvious discomfort in his injured thumb. Randal Grichuk starts in center field after Tommy Pham played there in Game 3, which is interesting because in Game 1 the Cardinals used Grichuk in right field and Jason Heyward in center field. John Lackey is starting on short rest after winning Game 1, as manager Mike Matheny bypassed Lance Lynn with the season on the line.

UPDATE: Molina has been scratched from the lineup and replaced by Tony Cruz.

CF Dexter Fowler
RF Jorge Soler
3B Kris Bryant
1B Anthony Rizzo
2B Starlin Castro
LF Kyle Schwarber
C Miguel Montero
SP Jason Hammel
SS Javier Baez

Addison Russell is out of the lineup after injuring his hamstring in Game 3, so Javier Baez is taking his place at shortstop and batting ninth behind the pitcher. Jorge Soler’s hot streak gets him another start in the No. 2 spot, with Kyle Schwarber batting sixth again. Jason Hammel makes his first start in 12 days.