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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.

Marlins acquire starter Dan Straily from the Reds

CINCINNATI, OH - SEPTEMBER 3: Dan Straily #58 of the Cincinnati Reds throws a pitch during the first inning of the game against the St. Louis Cardinals at Great American Ball Park on September 3, 2016 in Cincinnati, Ohio. (Photo by John Sommers II/Getty Images)
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The Miami Marlins have acquired starting pitcher Dan Straily from the Cincinnati Reds. In exchange, the Reds will receive right-handed pitching prospects Luis Castillo and Austin Brice and outfield prospect Isaiah White.

For the Marlins, they get a solid starter who logged 191.1 innings of 113 ERA+ ball last year. Straily has moved around a lot in his five big league seasons — the Marlins will be his fifth club in six years — but it was something of a breakout year for him in Cincinnati. The only troubling thing: he tied for the league lead in homers allowed. Of course, pitching half of his games in Great American Ballpark didn’t help that, and Miami will be a better place for him.

Castillo is 24. He split last season between high-A and Double-A — far more of it in A-ball — posting a 2.26 ERA over 24 starts. Austin Brice is also 24. He pitched 15 games in relief for the Marlins last year at the big league level with poor results. He seemed to blossom at Triple-A, however, after the Marlins shifted him to the pen. White was a third round pick in the 2015 draft. He played low-A ball as a minor leaguer last year, hitting .214/.306/.301.

A mixed bag of young talent for the Reds, but stockpiling kids and seeing what shakes out is what a team like the Reds should be doing at the moment. For the Marlins: a solid mid-to-back end starter who may just be coming into his own.

Have Hall of Fame Voters actually made the PED thing More complicated?

Sammy Sosa
Associated Press
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The story coming out of this year’s Hall of Fame balloting is that the BBWAA voters are finally easing their antipathy toward players with performance enhancing drug associations.

Jeff Bagwell — the subject of unconfirmed PED rumors — made the Hall! Pudge Rodriguez, who was named in Jose Canseco’s book and who had a . . . curious physical transformation around the time PED testing came online, made it on the first ballot! Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens, whose PED use was well-documented, saw their vote totals advance above the 50% mark, making their future elections look more likely!

It’s an interesting development, and one I’m obviously pleased with, but I wonder if the BBWAA’s new approach to PED guys, while far more forgiving than it used to be, has actually become more complicated in practice.

I ask this because I look way, way down the ballot and I still see Sammy Sosa scraping by with around 8% of the vote. I ask this because I still see Gary Sheffield at 13%. I ask this because when Mark McGwire was on the Today’s Game ballot in December, no one really stumped for him at all. I ask this because, even though Bagwell and Mike Piazza got in eventually, they still had to go through a lot of hazing first and I suspect, if they hit the ballot for the first time again tomorrow, the same arguments and delay would occur with respect to their cases.

In light of that, what I suspect has happened has not been a wholesale surrender of the anti-PED voters. Rather, I think it has been a transformation. One in which a moral test — did he use PEDs or not? — has been discarded as a threshold question and a scientific/physiological test — would he have been great even without the PEDs? — has replaced it. In essence, voters are becoming “PED discounters” in the aggregate. Making calculations as to whether a guy was, in their mind, a creation of PEDs or not.

Such an approach explains these new voting patterns as well as those in recent years.

  • Ivan Rodriguez may have been called out by Canseco and may have noticeably shrunk over an offseason, but his calling card was his defense behind the plate and voters, I suspect, have told themselves that such a thing is not PED-aided.
  • Bonds and Clemens may have been PED users, but each of them was undeniably talented and, if you discount for the PED use, hey, they’re still all-time greats.
  • Sammy Sosa’s case rests disproportionately on homers and, as everyone knows, PEDs = instant dingers, so no, he’s not gonna cut it.

And so on.

As I said, I’m glad that the strict moral test — did he use or not? — is losing its hold on Hall voters. But I do not think the “did PEDs make him who he was test?” is a good approach either. Baseball writers are in no better a position to assess the physiological and performance enhancements caused by pharmaceuticals than they are to be judges of character and morality. Given the identities of players confirmed to be PED users, the old eye test implicit in these cases is famously faulty (Neifi Perez, anyone?). The idea that PEDs only affect home run totals — and not, say, the ability for a player to take the abuse of the catcher position for 21 seasons — is crude and ignorant.

I suppose it’s naive to expect voters to completely disregard PEDs in their assessment of players. It’s a bell that cannot be unrung. But while we may, thankfully, be moving away from a moral test with respect to drugs, it’s been displaced by a scientific test that is no more reasonable in practice.