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

Mar 28, 2012, 10:04 PM EDT

Brad Mills AP

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.

  1. mybrunoblog - Mar 28, 2012 at 10:16 PM

    2013 will be weird. Seeing the Astros in the AL will take a while to get used to.
    In my minds eye they will always be playing in bad rainbow uniforms wearing stirrups inside the astrodome.

  2. jkaflagg - Mar 29, 2012 at 12:03 AM

    FINALLY somebody gets it with the Brett Myers move. All these stat heads have been ripping the Astros for moving him to the bullpen, but they conveniently ignore the fact that no one is interested in him as a starter….but if he has success in the pen, there’s always teams that are looking for depth in July. Astros will definitely have to eat some salary, but will gladly do so to add a decent prospect…..As far as the 11 million dollar closer complaint, Luhnow correctly considers that a “sunk cost”.

  3. Old Gator - Mar 29, 2012 at 1:06 AM

    I feel for stex52. Last year was anguishing down here in Macondo so we can become blood brothers by clenching palms and jamming our open wounds together.

    • stex52 - Mar 29, 2012 at 9:45 AM

      In the immortal words of Rocky, ” Ya woist nightmahr”

      Looks like your boys may put together another WS championship before the Astros get to Triple A status. But patience and a lot of cursing will win out in the end.

      If not, my palm is up and clenched.

  4. oms0004 - Mar 29, 2012 at 1:22 AM

    Is Wandy only 33? I thought he was 33 when he was supposed to be 31? Wasn’t there a story out like that? He traded names with a younger guy back home to be considered more seriously as a prospect ala Fausto Carmona.

    • bravojawja - Mar 29, 2012 at 9:15 AM

      Wandy’s been 33 for as long as I can remember.

  5. Jonny 5 - Mar 29, 2012 at 8:44 AM

    Myers thrived as a closer in the past. I guess when you don’t have to worry about another few innings you can give it your all. The next question is how many saves will he get before the TDL behind that anemic offense?

    • stex52 - Mar 29, 2012 at 9:51 AM

      Saves are unlikely to be much of an issue. He had better concentrate on ERA ( I know that’s another bad metric, but what else can he do?)

      After the Bagwell/Biggio/Berkman years, this is really tough to watch. They are starting a minor league independent team in Sugarland (about 15 miles SW of town) this year. Between that and the fact that there are two good college baseball teams in town playing into June, I predict really tough attendance numbers. But at least there should be lots of cheap seat deals.

      Unless I’m down in Sugarland.

  6. ezthinking - Mar 29, 2012 at 9:59 AM

    Lee might, might, be another piece come the trade deadline if he waives his 10-5 to go to a, likely surprise, contender at DH an occasional 1B.

    • Old Gator - Mar 29, 2012 at 10:56 AM

      A vast image out of spiritus mundi troubles my sight regarding the Astros summer housecleaning. The day before the July 31 trade deadline – which would be July 30, if I have the requisite number of fingers and toes to work with – El Topo manages to remove at last the big rocks blocking the cave entrance and disgorges its entire population of the genetically traduced towards the little town down the hill. The townspeople take one look at what’s coming and since the town has a “stand your ground” ordinance, they dust off their Winchesters and Colts and make quick work of the invading aliens.

      Well, it’s as viable a metaphor for what’s going to happen in Houston as any….

      • stex52 - Mar 29, 2012 at 11:50 AM

        Disturbing image, but possibly appropriate. What passed for quality pretty much exited at the deadline last year. All of the guys they speak well of these days pretty much exist in the hypothetical at Single A or Double A.

  7. jeffa43 - Mar 29, 2012 at 1:51 PM

    Something to be said about a loyal fan these days…. All this losing, and it will continue…. It may continue for a long time (5 years to a decade?)

    All this losing will make it really special when they do start winning again….

    Thats when the real Astro fans will really savor the wins….

    Suggest a lot of patience, and dont try and figure out moves like 1.9 million to Jack Cust for a month of spring training service.

    Enjoy the young kids trying, and enjoy our 50 to 60 winse this year.

    • stex52 - Mar 29, 2012 at 3:08 PM

      I guess we’re in it together, so we might as well. Hope it’s not as long as you speculate. I’m getting a bit older. I was at the original game in the Astrodome in 1965.

      I hope they win a WS in my lifetime.

  8. royalsfaninfargo - Mar 29, 2012 at 9:14 PM

    Is there any way that you guys can collate all of your Springtime Storylines onto a single page or link?

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