Clearly, the Houston Astros believe it’s time to start over. This summer, they dealt arguably their two most important players, Roy Oswalt and Lance Berkman, and they’re currently 15 games out of first place in the National League Central. They have a less than 1 percent chance of making the playoffs this season.
There’s a small problem with the rebuilding plan, though: their farm system isn’t exactly loaded. Keith Law had them ranked in the bottom three organizations in baseball in that regard last winter.
There’s a good chance that, in the next two seasons, Wandy Rodriguez, Carlos Lee, Hunter Pence and Michael Bourn will join Oswalt and Berkman on their way out to make room for new blood — and Houston will have pick other players to build the franchise around. Can the core the Astros have already assembled lead them to the playoffs, or possibly a championship? It appears unlikely.
Jason Castro, C
Castro has advanced quickly through the Astros’ system, spending less than two years in the minor leagues; he’s known for his defensive abilities behind the plate, but his offensive potential is underwhelming. He batted .265 with four homers this year at Triple-A, and since being called up he’s posted a .568 OPS with an isolated power of .090. That’s weak. He’s only 23, but his glaring lack of pop makes it unlikely he’ll be more than a solid-average big leaguer.
Getty ImagesThe Astros need J.A. Happ to replicate his 2009 in Philly.
J.A. Happ, SP
The prized pig in the Roy Oswalt trade, Happ is hoping to right the ship that is his early career. After being an extreme control pitcher in prior years, Happ has struggled with getting the ball over the plate recently. (His BB/9 innings this year is 5.94, and that’s alarming.) Without any pitches that really fool batters, Happ won’t have a chance in the world if he can’t find his location again.
With his performance in 2009, Happ helped the Phillies get to the World Series, even if his season looked much better than it really was — his 2.93 ERA last year was fueled largely by an absurd .181 BABIP with runners in scoring position. The Astros are counting on Happ to replicate those 2009 numbers, and he probably never will.
Chris Johnson, 3B
Picked by Houston in the fourth round of the 2006 draft, Johnson has Astros fans drooling after his late-June call-up. Johnson has hit well over .300 since his promotion, but most of his success is built on a shaky foundation of a .411 BABIP. While in the majors, Johnson has been striking out more than the league average hitter (23.3 percent), while walking at a clip that is well below league average (4.2 percent). Without big-time power (career .429 slugging percentage in the minors), it is hard to make that skill set work.
Tommy Manzella, SS
Ever since he was selected in the third round by Houston in the 2005 draft, Manzella has had the reputation of being a slick fielder without much of a bat. He’s always flirted with hitting .300 in the minors, but overall wasn’t much with the bat due to a lack of power and a below-average walk rate. To his credit, Manzella kept a respectable strikeout rate throughout the minors, and even hit line drives at a decent rate.
During his brief big league stint this year, Manzella proved the scouts right when it came to the bat, putting up a wOBA of only .229. Manzella’s already 27, and he’s a utility infielder, at best.
Bud Norris, SP
Houston’s sixth-round pick in 2006, Norris has been impressive in the big leagues. Working with a mid-90s fastball and hard-breaking slider, Norris has struck out more than a batter an inning in just under 170 big league frames.
His control needs to improve a bit over the next few years, because 3.83 BB/9 is a tad high, but his ability to miss bats makes him a possible front-of-the-rotation starter.
Brett Wallace, 1B
Acquired from the Toronto Blue Jays at the deadline, Wallace has been a highly touted hitting prospect since his days at Arizona State. Wallace started out as a power-hitting third baseman, but had to be moved to the other corner due to defensive concerns.
No one ever expected Wallace to be a defensive whiz, but he was supposed to hit. Wallace, who’s 24, posted an .868 OPS at Triple-A Las Vegas this year, and while that looks good on the surface, Vegas is one of the most hitter-friendly parks in the minors, and that number isn’t that impressive for a prospect whose only skill is hitting. Since being promoted to Houston, Wallace has a .471 OPS and is striking out in a third of his plate appearances. If he doesn’t figure things out next year, he doesn’t have much value to a big league team.
The bottom line
You build championship teams through a combination of stars and role players — look at any recent World Series winner for documentation of this — and the Astros currently have the role players, but not the stars. GM Ed Wade is going to have to draft carefully for the next few years, or this rebuild will take a long time. He needs to develop a few star-caliber, quickly-rising-through-the-minors guys out of the draft to complement the players above.
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