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2013 Preview: Houston Astros

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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 2013 season. Up next: The Houston Astros.

The Big Question: Will the Astros be historically bad?

Maybe this isn’t the biggest question facing the Astros this year, but it’s one that’s sort of been sticking with me for a couple of weeks as I’ve made the rounds on various radio shows previewing the 2013 season. Almost all of the hosts ask me how bad the Astros will be and almost all of them are assuming this is going to be some sort of 1962 Mets situation or something. I actually had one guy take the under on an over/under of 45 wins for them. Which seems kind of nuts.

Look, the Astros aren’t going to be good, I’ll agree with that. But we have to be realistic here and note that in the 162-game era, only two teams have failed to win 45 games: the 1962 Mets and the 2003 Tigers. Indeed, unless I’m overlooking someone, I do not believe any team has won fewer than 50 games in a full 162 game season apart from those two teams.  Every season brings us some bad teams, but teams that putrid are few and far between. And really, there is no reason to think that these Astros, as thin as they are, will be historically bad.

Part of this is a gut feeling, based on the usual composition of awful teams. They tend to be teams who have not yet begun the full rebuilding process yet — or expansion teams — which feature a lot of old guys and castoffs on the roster. The sorts of players who can fool a GM into thinking, “well, maybe we’ll be OK because I’ve heard of that guy,” and thus causes them to forego real substantive fixes. That was the 2012 Astros, right? Home of Carlos Lee, Wandy Rodriguez and Brett Myers. A team which gave Armando Galarraga a shot because, hell, he almost had a perfect game once, right? A team which went on a 7-43 stretch at one point because, eh, just because?

The 2013 team is not a talented one, but the moves to make them better have begun. The Jed Lowrie trade, which brought back Chris Carter, Max Stassi and Brad Peacock is the sort of move I like: boring ones to most fans, but moves which constitute the dirty work of a rebuilding process. Getting depth and incremental improvement. That, along with a pretty substantial overhaul of the minor leagues, represents an all-in approach which is admirable and rare in rebuilding. Let’s just forget for a moment that Carlos Pena, currently slated to be the Astros’ DH, was on that 2003 Tigers team, OK?

Little upside at the moment, but fewer gaping holes and a lot of hungry young players who are happy to be anywhere make for a much better vibe than last year’s 107 loss team possessed and, I have a feeling, will help stave off some sort of historically bad showing.  Perhaps that doesn’t make Astros fans feel better at the moment, but merely believing that this team will not set records for futility is a compliment. One that, for some reason, a lot of people are unwilling to offer. I think that’s both ahistorical and kinda sad. Think positively, Houston!

What else is going on?

  • Positive thoughts and the avoidance of ignominy are one thing, but this lineup isn’t gonna scare anyone:

1. Tyler Greene, SS
2. Jose Altuve, 2B
3. Carlos Pena, DH
4. Chris Carter, LF
5. Brett Wallace, 1B
6. Justin Maxwell, CF
7. Jason Castro, C
8. Fernando Martinez, RF
9. Matt Dominguez, 3B

Jose Altuve is legit and will likely be the last dude left from this bunch when the Astros next win 90 games, but I don’t know where the runs are gonna come from. Maybe Carlos Pena has one last good year in him. Maybe he can check the pockets of the pants he wore back in 2009.

  • How’s about that rotation?

1. Bud Norris
2. Lucas Harrell
3. Jordan Lyles
4. Philip Humber
5. Erik Bedard

Hmm. Phil Humber. Let’s forget that comment I made about Armando Galarraga and signing someone just because they once did something interesting above too.

  • The Astros may play poorly, but they’ll look awesome doing it. They will be sporting what are easily the nicest new uniforms any team has switched to in years if not decades.
  • That’s pretty, but you know what’s ugly? Moving to the American League West. With the Angels and Rangers being two of the most talented teams around, the defending champ Oakland A’s always being solid and with an improved Mariners team, the Astros are gonna have way tougher competition this year than they’ve seen in the past.

So, how are they gonna do?  Not good!  I will refrain from predicting loss totals, but I’ll give a range of somewhere between 100 and 110. And if things break awesome in six different ways and they lose only, like, 97, well then they should be allowed to crack champagne. Because it’s not 2013 that matters for this franchise. It’s the future. And no matter how dark the present may be, they’re finally doing the heavy lifting they’ve long needed to do in order to make that future bright, so bully for them.

That said: Fifth Place, AL West.

Dodgers sign Rich Hill to a three-year, $48 million deal

LOS ANGELES, CA - OCTOBER 18:  Rich Hill #44 of the Los Angeles Dodgers pitches in the first inning against the Chicago Cubs in game three of the National League Championship Series at Dodger Stadium on October 18, 2016 in Los Angeles, California.  (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
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The Dodgers have signed lefty Rich Hill to a three-year, $48 million contract.The deal was reported to be imminent over the weekend, but was finalized today following Hill’s physical.

Hill missed a good deal of time in 2016 with blister issues — and he’ll be 37-years-old on Opening Day — but when he was healthy he was fantastic, posting the best season in his 12-year career. He had a a 2.12 ERA and 129 strikeouts in 110.1 innings between the Athletics and Dodgers.

Along with a healthy Clayton Kershaw a maturing Julio Urias and Kenta Maeda, the Dodgers rotation looks to be a strength in 2017.

UPDATE: Giants agree to a deal with Mark Melancon

LOS ANGELES, CA - OCTOBER 10:  Mark Melancon #43 of the Washington Nationals reacts after the final out as the Nationals defeat the Los Angeles Dodgers 8-3 in game three of the National League Division Series at Dodger Stadium on October 10, 2016 in Los Angeles, California.  (Photo by Jeff Gross/Getty Images)
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UPDATE: Buster Olney reports that a deal is in place pending a physical. The financial terms are not yet known. UPDATE: Joel Sherman of the New York Post hears it’s in the four-year, $62 million range. That will make him, temporarily at least, the highest-paid closer in baseball history.

12:15 PMKen Rosenthal reports that the San Francisco Giants are close to a deal with closer Mark Melancon.

Melancon had an outstanding 2016, posting a 1.64 ERA, 2.42 FIP and a 5.42 K/BB rate in 71.1 innings while saving 47 games for the Pirates and Nationals. You may recall that the Giants had a strong interest in Melancon last summer. It was a well-founded interest given the bullpen woes which waylaid San Francisco in the second half of last season and continued on into the playoffs.

The terms of the apparently impeding deal will be known soon enough, but Rosenthal reported yesterday that Melancon was fielding offers in the four-years, $60 million range. That’s a lot for a closer, but it’ll probably look like a bargain compared to the deals signed with the other two top closers on the market, Aroldis Chapman and Kenley Jansen. Some have speculated that Chapman could get a deal closer to $100 million than $50 million, though that seems optimistic.

What the past couple of seasons have shown, however, is that having a top bullpen will get you very, very far in Major League Baseball. Champan may have been gassed at the end of Game 7, but he was essential to the Cubs’ World Series title. Powerful bullpens gave the Royals a title in 2015 and the Indians an AL pennant this past year. A weak one was, obviously, the Giants’ achilles heel.

Their great need at the back end of the pen, according to Rosenthal’s report, is apparently about to be filled.