The Houston Astros’ 2011 season figures to go about as well as NASA’s recent Glory satellite launch — it’s going to end with disappointment and a thud. CAIRO, Oliver and PECOTA all project the ‘Stros for fewer than 70 wins, and considering that Marc Hulet dubbed Houston’s farm system second-worst in the game, it could be years before Houston has the talent to compete once again. The Astros’ plight got even bleaker today, as it was announced that one of the club’s precious few long-term talents, Jason Castro, will likely miss the entire year with a torn right ACL.
Castro, selected out of Stanford with the 10th overall pick in the 2008 draft, was expected to grab most of the starts behind the plate for the Astros. The lefty batter showed Ausmusian power in the minors — his ISO was under .100 at the AA and AAA levels — and he struggled in his big league debut, batting .205/.286/.287 in 217 plate appearances. But his strike zone control and defensive acumen earned him Top-50 prospect status by Baseball America prior to last year.
For 2011, ZiPS projected Castro for a .246/.323/.351 line. That’s mild, even by catcher standards (the cumulative line by MLB catchers last season was .249/.319/.381). But, considering that Castro would have played the ’11 season at age 23, and he figured to save a few runs defensively, the Astros certainly could have lived with that performance from a developing player at a premium position.
Now, though, Houston might turn to a hack-tastic veteran and a busted former prospect to don the tools of ignorance.
Humberto Quintero, he of a sub-four percent career walk rate, is projected by ZiPS to hit .240/.275/.337. Quintero’s considered a good defender — Total Zone says he has saved about six runs per 135 defensive games during his career — but his catching exploits don’t come close to making up for a bat that makes Astros fans wax nostalgic for Brad Ausmus.
J.R. Towles was supposed to be the catcher of the future, ranking as Baseball America’s number 53 prospect prior to 2008, but he’s now 27 and is coming off a 2010 campaign that saw him go from Houston’s Opening Day roster to AA to the DL after he tore ligaments in his right thumb. Out of options, Towles was expected to try the infield and outfield corners in an attempt to increase he versatility. But now, the career .189/.273/.327 MLB hitter might get one last chance at meaningful big league playing time. Then again, hamstring problems bothered him throughout his minor league career, and ZiPS projects a .221/.306/.378 triple-slash in 2011.
Given those punch less options already on the roster, the Astros could explore the trade or free agent markets. The Pirates are eager to unload Ryan Doumit (.264/.329/.429 ZiPS) and his $5.1 million salary, though he makes Towles look like a picture of health and comes with the “No-Mitt” moniker for a reason. Tampa could look to dump Kelly Shoppach (.217/.316/.400), who missed two months with a right knee injury last year, is owed $3 million and figures to be bumped off the roster soon by Matt Garza trade bauble Robinson Chirinos. Maybe they’ll inquire about Washington’s Jesus Flores. The former Rule V pick out of the Mets’ system has shown good power, but his career has stalled due to labrum surgery. On the free agent front, Bengie Molina‘s out there. But the 36-year-old is mulling retirement and his ZiPS forecast (.258/.290/.392) is wretched.
Castro didn’t figure to be anything more than a marginal starter in 2011, but his injury hurts the Astros nonetheless. The team has a paucity of young talent, and one of their best just lost a year of development time. Unless Houston can add a catcher or Towles suddenly remembers he was supposed to be the good version of Jason Kendall, keeping ahead of the Pirates and avoiding the ignominy of last place in the NL Central just got tougher.