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.

The Dodgers have a “strong interest” in Yu Darvish

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The Dodgers lost Clayton Kershaw yesterday. For how long we do not know, but he has missed a lot of time in the past with previous back injuries so it’d be somewhat optimistic to assume that he’s going to hit the disabled list for ten days, come back and be the Clayton Kershaw of six days ago without any muss or fuss. L.A. has also lost Brandon McCarthy to the DL, so while their division lead is comfortable at the moment, there could be some rough waters ahead.

In light of that, this rumor — which emerged before Kershaw left yesterday’s game against the Braves — may be one to watch in the next couple of days:

As we noted last week, the Rangers are looking at the possibility of moving Darvish, who will be a free agent at the end of this year. The Dodgers would seem to be an excellent landing spot for him.

Darvish is 6-8 with a 3.44 ERA and has struck out 143 batters to only 43 walks in 133.1 innings. While he has missed time with injury in recent years, he’s the sort of talent that one could easily see going on an ace-like run. If he did that for a Dodgers team that, otherwise, seems to be at its peak of competitiveness, it’d be worth the heavy price they’d have to pay to get him.

Old folks like me remember such runs from starters picked up at the deadline. Doyle Alexander cost the Tigers John Smoltz in 1987, but he also propelled them to the AL East crown. The Astros had to give up Freddy Garcia and Carlos Guillen to get Randy Johnson in 1998, but he went on an historic tear after arriving in Houston and helped the club to 102 wins and the NL Central title. As both of those clubs learned in the playoffs, of course, one ace and a division title do not a season make, but you can’t even make your season if you don’t have the horses.

It’s too soon to say whether the Dodgers will have the horses in their rotation to go farther than those two teams did, but they’d have a lot better chance with Darvish, would they not?

And That Happened: Sunday’s Scores and Highlights

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Here are the scores. Here are the highlights:

Indians 8, Blue Jays 1: Sometimes I’ll talk about a “quintessential [team] win.” When I say that I mean a win that seems like something that someone in the team’s marketing department would dream up. The stuff of program and media guide covers. Something that dovetails nicely with a season ticket sales campaign. The most obvious version of that is “Team Ace pitches wonderfully, Team Leader hits well and Team wins.” This game fit that mold, constituting a quintessential Cleveland Indians win. In it Corey Kluber fanned 14 Jays in seven and two-thirds innings while allowing one run on five hits while Michael Brantley singled home one run and knocked in two more with a homer. If the Indians were mapping out their season back in February, there would be a healthy number of games like this. It’s almost enough to make you want to say that a team should get one-and-a-half wins for such an outcome instead of just one.

Reds 6, Marlins 3: Sal Romano allowed one run over six innings and doesn’t seem to hold a grudge about being unceremoniously dumped from the art department of Sterling Cooper after season three. Scooter GennettEugenio Suarez and Tucker Barnhart all homered as the Reds avoid a sweep. Really, though: how do you not show Sal in the “Mad Men” series finale? How do you not let us know what happened to him? I’m still salty about that.

Athletics 3, Mets 2: Marcus Semien, Khris Davis and Matt Chapman all homered for Oakland, with Chapman’s breaking a 2-2 tie in the seventh. That made up for him getting picked off third base with no outs in the fifth, which is not a cool thing to do. Daniel Gossett got the win after allowing two runs over six. This was Bob Melvin’s 999th win as a big league manager.

Rangers 6, Rays 5: Two homers for Rougned Odor, the second one coming back to back with a Carlos Gomez bomb in the eighth. The Rangers sweep and the Rays, once again, lose a game in which they held a lead. They’ve done that 31 times this year, actually, which leads all of baseball. They’re 51-48 and 3.5 games out of first place. Imagine if they were even slightly better at locking down leads.

Orioles 9, Astros 7: The Astros fell behind by three runs twice but came back each time. They actually took a one-run lead in the sixth, but Baltimore tied it back up. That’s where it stood, tied 7-7 in the eighth, when the O’s scored two to take the lead. That set the stage for Zack Britton‘s first save since April. It was a record-breaking save, too: his 55th consecutive save without blowin’ on, breaking the AL mark set by Tom Gordon almost 20 years ago. The MLB mark is still a ways away: Eric Gagne’s 84 straight from 2002-04. Of course Gagne was juiced to the gills, but a record is a record.

Phillies 6, Brewers 3: Rookie Nick Williams remained hot, homering driving in three. Howie Kendrick knocked in two himself. Starter Jerad Eickhoff got into the act too, smacking two hits and driving in two himself. He also pitched six strong innings.

Tigers 9, Twins 6: This one was tied at two in the seventh when everyone apparently woke up and started to hit, with Detroit scoring seven runs in the final three frames and Minnesota scoring four. Seven is more than four, though, so you know how this ended. Ian Kinsler hit a two-run homer in the seventh and he, James McCann and Alex Presley had three hits apiece. The game lasted four hours and nineteen minutes. Woof.

Royals 5, White Sox 4: Nine straight losses for Chicago. This one stung, too, as they had a 4-3 lead in the eighth. That’s when Whit Merrifield homered to tie things up. In the ninth, Mike Moustakas singled and then Alcides Escobar was hit by a pitch. New White Sox reliever Tyler Clippard was brought into the game and promptly gave up a walkoff double to Brandon Moss. The trade deadline brings lots of changes in baseball, but some things remain the same.

Rockies 13, Pirates 3Trevor Story, Pat Valaika and Mark Reynolds each hit two-run homers in the sixth inning, a frame in which the Rockies scored seven in all, so yeah. Kyle Freeland got his first start since July 9 (he made one relief appearance to keep sharp) and he allowed two runs on six hits over six innings.

Angels 3, Red Sox 2: Rick Porcello was dealing quite efficiently, but a Mike Trout homer tied it at two in the sixth inning and a Luis Valbuena solo shot put the Angels up for good in the seventh. That efficiency allowed Porcello to pitch the entire game, needing only 96 pitches, giving him the rare CG-loss. Cool? Angels starter Parker Bridwell and two Angels relievers were also efficient, needing a combined 106 pitches to get through the whole thing, meaning this contest lasted only two hours and thirteen minutes. It came one day after the 20th anniversary of Greg Maddux needing only 76 pitches to toss a complete game against the Chicago Cubs. That one lasted two hours and seven minutes.

Padres 5, Giants 2: All the scoring was over with by the fourth inning. The fact that the Padres scored four in that inning was the difference. Wil Myers homered in the first — the third straight game in which he went deep — and Jabari Blash doubled in two in the fourth. Padres starter Dinelson Lamet allowed two runs in all and pitched into the seventh.

Yankees 6, Mariners 4: The Yankees take three of four, winning their first series in six weeks, a stretch in which they went 0-8-2, series-wise. The bullpen had been a big reason for all of those losses, but they shined here, with Chad GreenDellin Betances and Daniel Robertson combining for 4.1 perfect innings before Chapman bent but didn’t break in closing it out. For all of the crap they’ve gone through, New York remains a mere two and a half back of Boston.

Dodgers 5, Braves 4: A win, but an unpleasant one for Los Angeles, as starter Clayton Kershaw had to leave after two innings due to pain in his back that is going to place him on the disabled list. He’s suffered from back issue in the past, costing him a good bit of time. We’ll know more how much time after he undergoes an MRI today. As for the game, the Dodgers had a three-run lead in the eighth before Matt Adams tied it up with a three run homer off of Kenley Jansen of all people. Logan Forsythe saved his and everyone else’s bacon, however, with a walkoff RBI single in the 10th. Nice win, but a bad day for the Dodgers.

Nationals 6, Diamondbacks 2: The Dodgers weren’t the only one to lose a starter after two innings: Stephen Strasburg was knocked out of this one with “achiness” in his forearm. That was his term, not the medical staff’s, as they did not go to the Hollywood Upstairs Medical College. Dusty Baker turned things over to the bullpen and five relievers combined to allow two runs over seven innings to give Washington the win. They had a cushion, though, as Brian Goodwin hit a leadoff homer and the Nats scored four runs in the first.

Cubs 5, Cardinals 3: Willson Contreras hit a tiebreaking two-run homer in the bottom of the sixth. Kyle Schwarber went deep as well and Jose Quintana allowed three runs over six innings to give the Cubs their eighth win in nine games, pulling them into a tie for first place, a mere tenth of a percentage point ahead of the Brewers. We were all waiting for the Cubs to wake up. They’re up.