Team Preview: Houston Astros

While the top of the National League Central figures to be competitive in 2011, the Houston Astros will be fighting their own battle this season: to stay out of the basement. The Astros might not be a complete doormat this year, but it’s hard to envision a scenario where they compete for a division title. That being said, Houston has a few position players to watch and a pitching staff that might surprise in 2011.

The Starting Nine

1 CF Michael Bourn
2 SS Clint Barmes
3 RF Hunter Pence
4 LF Carlos Lee
5 3B Chris Johnson
6 2B Bill Hall
7 1B Brett Wallace
8 C Jason Castro

The Astros were the worst offense in the National League last year. Their team wOBA was .296, the only team below .300. Heading into 2011, there is little hope that the offense will significantly improve.

The lineup is anchored around Lee, who was both unlucky and bad last season. His BABIP and HR/FB were both career lows, so those can be expected to rebound slightly in 2011. Combine that bad luck with no walks, no power, and a -15.9 UZR and you see why Lee was a -0.8 WAR player in 2011. It’s hard to believe that Lee will continue to be a below-replacement-level player, and a possible move to first base will help that UZR, but there is little chance that he will contribute more than one or two WAR this season.

Pence will be an interesting player to watch this season. He has been a consistent offensive and defensive contributor since coming to the majors, as evidenced by his WAR since 2007: 3.8, 3.1, 4.1, 3.1. He will be 28 this year, so if Pence is destined to become anything more than a three- to four-win player, it needs to happen soon. Pence is arbitration-eligible through 2013, so if he can take a step forward this season, he can be the face of the franchise while it rebuilds over the next few seasons.

Bourne is another bright spot in this lineup. He has averaged 51.3 stolen bases per year since 2008, and logged four-plus WAR seasons in each of the last two seasons. As lead-off hitters go, he isn’t the best, but he certainly isn’t the worst. He is followed in the lineup by newcomer Barmes. The former Rockie is a decent defender, but a liability with the bat. His .284 wOBA in the two-slot means he will receive a lot of plate appearances and do little with them.

Houston’s third-basemen will be Johnson, a second-year player who posted some eye-popping numbers in 94 games as a rookie. Johnson had a .354 wOBA last year. Both the Bill James (.342) and Marcel (.341) projections see a slight regression in 2011, but the fans are more pessimistic, projecting Johnson to have a .314 wOBA.

Perhaps the Astros’ biggest offseason move was signing Hall to a one-year deal. The former Red Sox and Brewer put up a .342 wOBA in a utility role last season, and Houston is hoping for more of the same in 2011. Hall will definitely bring more power to the position, held by Jeff Keppinger in 2010, but both Bill James (.333 to .318)and Marcel (.312 to .303) see Keppinger as the superior player in terms of wOBA for this season.

The Pitching Staff

RHP Brett Myers
LHP Wandy Rodriguez
RHP Bud Norris
LHP J.A. Happ
RHP Nelson Figueroa

CL RHP Brandon Lyon
RHP Wilton Lopez
RHP Mark Melancon
LHP Fernando Abad
RHP Jeff Fulchino
LHP Ryan Rowland-Smith
RHP Aneury Rodriguez

While the offense and bullpen were horrible last year, Houston’s starters were not half bad. The staff finished with a 14.7 WAR, which puts them directly in the middle of the NL, between the Cubs and Braves. The Astros’ starters should return to that level again this season, and if things fall just right, they could be a top-five rotation in the league.

Myers had a solid 3.82 xFIP season in 2010 and should perform similarly in 2011 barring injury, which is certainly never out of the question given his history. Outside of Myers, Houston’s rotation is full of youth and inconsistency, but there is plenty of upside.

Rodriguez got off to a horrific start last season, but hit his stride to finish the season with fantastic numbers: 195 innings, 3.68 xFIP and 3.6 WAR. He has solid strikeout (8.2 K/9) and ground-ball (47.9 GB%) rates, which means that there simply are not many plate appearances which result in a hard-hit ball. As it stands, Rodriguez is already an excellent pitcher, but if he can continue to improve, there is no reason why Rodriguez cannot follow in former Astro Roy Oswalt‘s footsteps as a truly dominant starter.

Following Rodriguez in the rotation is Norris, who just turned 26. Norris is a strikeout machine who has the potential to give Houston a formidable 1-2-3 combo. More on him in a bit.

Happ and Figueroa fill out the rotation, and they could not be much different. While Figueroa is only on the roster to eat some innings until a young starter is ready to take his job, Happ was the lynch pin in the Oswalt trade, and Houston is counting on him to emerge as a plus starter in the next few years. Happ pitched to fantastic results last season, posting a 3.40 ERA in 87.1 innings, but his skills simply did not back those results up, as evidenced by a 4.81 xFIP. Starting his first full year in the majors, 2011 will be a key season to see if Happ can start developing the skills to consistently be a sub-4 ERA pitcher.

In the bullpen, Houston again turns to Lyon as the team’s closer. Although he’s logged 74 saves in his career, Lyon is simply not a closer-worthy pitcher. Lyon has only posted one sub-4 xFIP season in his career, when he had a 3.98 xFIP with Boston in 2003.

Melancon and Lopez are the team’s best options in the pen. In particular, Lopez had a great 2010 campaign. Through his tiny 0.67 BB/9, Lopez posted a 2.97 xFIP and 1.3 WAR in 67.1 innings. If Lyon begins to struggle, Lopez could be an intriguing closer-in-waiting.

Key Player

While the Astros are a long shot to even finish .500, their pitching staff could turn some heads in 2011. Myers is solid, Rodriguez is an emerging ace, and Happ has tons of potential. Norris is the player who could make the difference between Houston being decent or being a complete doormat in 2011.

Tim Lincecum, Yovani Gallardo, Jonathan Sanchez, and Clayton Kershaw. That’s the entire list of NL starters with better K/9 rates in 2010 than Norris’ 9.25. Heck, there were only 26 relievers with better strikeout rates. Norris can really miss bats. Hitters only made contact 56.7% of the time against Norris on pitches outside the strike zone, and only 84.6% on pitches inside the zone, both well below the league averages (66.5 and 88.1).

The knock on Norris is obvious: control. He walked 4.51 batters per nine last season, which is the biggest thing holding him back from becoming a dominant starter. With fewer than 40 games started in his career, Norris is definitely in the learning portion of his career, and 2011 will be a key season to see which direction his career heads. If he continues to be a high-strikeout, high-walk pitcher, then all the Astros have is another Daniel Cabrera. If he can drop the walk rate while keeping his K rate over nine, Norris can have a bright future, and can combine with Rodriguez to give Houston an electric 1-2 punch for the next several years.

Summary

There are not a whole lot of positives for Houston heading into this season. The offense might be the worst in the league, the bullpen is average at best, the defense is bad and the division will be competitive.

Outside of seeing the development of some of the organization’s prospects (Wallace and Jordan Lyles in particular), the best thing to watch this season will be the pitching staff. The Astros could have an above-average rotation in the NL this year. While all-pitching, no-hitting teams had success last year — the Padres and Giants, for example — this Houston team simply does not have the defense or bullpen to make it work this season.

The best-case scenario has Houston finishing fourth in the division, as they did in 2010. If the Astros hit some bad luck, there is a good chance they finish last in the division and maybe the league.




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Jesse has been writing for FanGraphs since 2010. He is the director of Consumer Insights at GroupM Next, the innovation unit of GroupM, the world’s largest global media investment management operation. Follow him on Twitter @jesseberger.

21 Responses to “Team Preview: Houston Astros”

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  1. actiontal says:

    Castro down with a meniscus tear, surgery likely. Not that it matters, but I wonder who sees time behind the plate now. Quintero I guess. And what ever happened to J.R. Towles?

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  2. don says:

    Last year is the only year in his career Myers has been anything but terrible at keeping fly balls in the park. Is last year the fluke, or is his entire career the fluke?

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  3. Ja4ed says:

    WandRod is already 32 years old. I think he’s their best pitcher this year, and I guess it’s possible that he continues to improve. But in all likelihood, his skills will start to decline soon.

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    • mister_rob says:

      Reading this, I thought I was completely mis-informed about Wandy. Because the Wandy I thought I knew was comfortably into his 30s

      Its like calling Ted Lilly a developing ace

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      • DL80 says:

        Not only that, but it’s not like Wandy has actually been getting any better over the last 3 years. His K rate is down very slightly, his BB rate is up very slightly, and his FIP, xFIP, and even ERA are stable at best. Not only is he 32, he isn’t improving.

        He’s probably not getting worse (yet), but I would be shocked if he suddenly improved.

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  4. NLeininger says:

    Towles is still around. He’s the ultimate AAAA player, minus that cup of coffee in 2007.

    I really do wish they would just commit to complete rebuilding and trade of their remaining assests Pence, Bourn, and Rodriguez.

    The Astros aren’t going to do anything for 2-3 years unless they hit on almost all their top picks from the past 3 years, but with Castro hurt, Mier unable to keep weight, and DeShields already an alcoholic, times seem bleak.

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  5. Jim Lahey says:

    Usually the spelling/grammar doesn’t bother me so much… but seeing Meyers spelled wrong so many times really drives me nuts..

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  6. Terence says:

    You kidding Jim? His name is Myers. That is the correct spelling.

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  7. Kenny says:

    When I look at the Astros right now, I can’t help but think “This is what the Pirates and Royals must have gone through 15 years ago”

    Where’s the hope? Where’s the light? Astros are AWFUL in the majors and AWFUL in the minors.

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  8. timmy! says:

    The defense is bad because Lee roams the outfield. Move him to first and the Astros at worst become an average defense.

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    • NLeininger says:

      No they are average to below average at 3rd, 1st(Wallace or Lee), 2nd, and rf. Quintero is a definitely a + defender as is Castro and Barmes. Bourn is the best defensive player in baseball regardless of position.

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      • CJ says:

        Based on what I’ve seen of Wallace at 1st base, I think he will be well above average on defense. The sample size is small for UZR and DRS, but both agree that Wallace’s first base fielding was good last season. This isn’t surprising, since Wallace is a 3d baseman moving to his right on the defensive spectrum.

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  9. Bourn says:

    I’m not sure about your claim (Bourn being best defender in baseball), but it’s a good topic.

    I’d contend Yadier Molina, Brandon Phillips and Adam Jones are better. But, defensive is always pretty subjective. Bourn is awesome, no doubt.

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    • JP says:

      “you see why Lee was a -0.8 WAR player in 2011.”

      Proof read your articles please.

      Wandy has had an unusual career progression. Based on his stuff, even though he is 32, there is little reason to believe he cannot stabilize his performance more in line with what he has done at home (his home road splits have tended to be wildly apart, but the gap narrowed in his last 18 starts of last season).

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  10. JP says:

    also ‘while the offense and bullpen were horrible last year’
    look at their ERAs did you?

    The bullpen was a major reason why the Astros won an awful lot of close games late on in the season. Lyon and Lopez had very good seasons and Melancon and Abad impressed in short stints.

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  11. Gerry Weldon says:

    The acquisition during trade scored gems as in Cosart. Looking at those left from where these trades come, minors have Wooster, Campbell, and others around the horn Cosart played. New league new ideas and the new opportunities look impressive.

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  12. Kim Fernet says:

    Can you like working with the new template layouts?

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