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
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
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.
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.
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.