2011 Houston Astros: If you’re a team that was lucky to win 76 games in the NL Central, you’re probably not a good team.

2010 Record: 76-86, 4th NL Central
2010 Prediction: 68-94, 5th NL Central
Diff: 8
2011 Prediction: 6th NL Central

Impact Player: RF Hunter Pence
Impact Pitcher: LHP Wandy Rodriguez
Best Reliever: RHP Wilton Lopez
Top Prospect: RHP Jordan Lyles

General Manager: Ed Wade
Manager: Brad Mills (76-86, .469)

Significant Acquisitions:
UTIL Bill Hall, SS Clint Barmes, LHP Sergio Escalona, RHP Lance Pendleton, RHP Aneury Rodriguez, LHP Ryan Rowland-Smith

Significant Departures:
3B Pedro Feliz, RHP Felipe Paulino, RHP Matt Lindstrom, LHP Tim Byrdak, RHP Brian Moehler
The Astros Pythagorean win-loss record in 2010 was 68-94 (identical to my ’10 prediction for them), a full eight wins less than their actual win total of 76.  So although the Astros were not a good team in 2010, they should have been a lot worse.  This year, that will normalize and with franchise stalwarts Roy Oswalt and Lance Berkman gone. The ‘Stros may be looking up at even the lowely Pirates at the bottom of the division.

The Astros got solid seasons from a few of their starters and the mid-season trade of Oswalt brought lefty J.A. Happ over from Philadelphia among many other young pieces.  All of this gives the Astros’ fans some hope that they could compete in the NL Central this season, but GM Ed Wade remains committed to rebuilding with a young core and an increasingly stronger farm system.  It’s likely going to be a rough few years in Houston.
Starting Rotation
Wandy Rodriguez
has established himself as a quality major-league starter, but at 32-years-old the late-bloomer may be primed for a regression very soon.  Last season, Rodriguez posted a solid 3.60 ERA and 3.50 FIP.  In fact, his FIP has fallen in each of the last three seasons.  He’d probably be a solid number three pitcher on most teams, but in Houston, he’s the de-facto ace.

Brett Myers had a career-best 4.0 WAR season in his first year in Houston in 2010.  He pitched at least six innings in every one of his first 32 starts of the season before pitching 5.2 innings in his 33rd and final start.  Despite the fact that it seems like he’s been around forever, Myers is just 30-years-old and has moulded himself into a durable innings eater.  He probably won’t repeat last year’s numbers, but he’ll still be a solid pitcher.

Happ came over in the Oswalt deal after an injury-plagued first half with Philly.  In his 13 starts with Houston, Happ had a 3.75 ERA but had mediocre peripherals that led to a 4.15 FIP.  Happ may seem like a young pitcher, but the fact is that he’s 28 and even in his solid rookie campaign, had a 4.33 FIP.  He is overrated and will never be anything better than a back-end pitcher.

Bud Norris is slotted in the four spot and at 26 has all the makings of a breakout year.  If he can keep his walk-number down to his minor-league levels, he’s a solid K/BB guy who got better as the season went on last year, giving up two runs or less in seven of his last ten starts.

The fifth spot will be battled for by a few pitchers including 37-year-old Nelson Figueroa, and much younger candidates such as Wesley Wright, Ryan Rowland-Smith, and Rule 5 Draft picks Aneury Rodriguez and Lance Pendleton.

Bullpen
This is an area where the Astros could really struggle in 2011.  Closer Brandon Lyon had a good year last season posting a 3.16 ERA and 3.34 FIP, but his park-adjusted FIP was 4.65 due to a very low 2.1 HR/FB ratio which is most certainly going to regress, especially since Lyon doesn’t strike out a ton and is by no means a groundball pitcher.

The best pitcher in this bullpen could very well be Wilton Lopez who was terrific in 2010 walking just five batters all year long which led to a ridiculous 10.00 K/BB ratio.  His FIP was 2.59 and he induced a ton of groundballs.  He was converted to the bullpen full time last year and it looks as though that move has paid off.  If he can come close to repeating his 2010 numbers, the Astros would do well to use him in every high leverage situation possible.

Jeff Fulchino is back again in 2011 and will look to be more like his 2009 version when he posted a 3.57 FIP and 2.96 BB/9 rate and not his 2010 version where he posted a 4.64 FIP and a 4.18 BB/9 rate, while Alberto Arias will also look to get back to 2009-form after missing all of last season with shoulder injury.  Unfortunately for him, he’s already experienced a setback in the spring.

There is likely a spot available for Mark Melancon who came over in the Berkman trade with the Yankees last year.  Melancon posted a 3.50 FIP in 21.1 innings of work last year and showed a knack for missing bats.

Left-handers Wright, Fernando Abad, Sergio Escalona, Rowland-Smith, and non-roster returnee Gustavo Chacin are all in the mix for the ‘pen with Wright and Rowland-Smith having the inside track if they’re not starting.  Mid-season waiver pickup Enerio Del Rosario is also around along with non-roster invites Sammy Gervacio and Casey Fien.

Catchers
Catcher-of-the-future Jason Castro will miss the entire 2011 season recovering from knee surgery which is a massive blow to the organization.  Even if Castro come back from this, there’s a very real chance that catching may not be a possibility for him.  This was the year he was to take the reigns as the everyday catcher and was one of my picks for Rookie of the Year in the NL.

With Castro out, career backup Humberto Quintero is expected to take over unless the team makes a trade.  Quintero’s .254 wOBA won’t scare anyone, but he is a solid defensive catcher.  The Astros are attempting to find a replacement starter through trades.  Bengie Molina may be out of shape, but the veteran free agent is a better stop-gap option than Quintero.

The backup job could go to any number of catchers in the organization including perennial bust J.R. Towles who could also grab the starting job if he finally shows any glimpse of his former potential.

Non-roster invites Brian Esposito and Carlos Corporan also have a shot.
Infielders
On paper, the Astros infield looks, well, awful.  The best player could actually be Brett Wallace at first base who had a dismal .272 wOBA in his rookie campaign after being traded for the third time before making his major league debut last July.  Wallace appeared to fare well defensively at first, but he doesn’t project well long-term.  His overall ceiling has been questioned more and more by scouts as well.

At shortstop, the Astros traded pitcher Felipe Paulino to the Rockies for Clint Barmes.  Barmes is a fine defensive player who has at times shown solid offensive ability, but he has a career .793 OPS at Coors Field and a .618 OPS everywhere else.  He’s probably not good enough to start on many teams.

At third base, the Astros will go with Chris Johnson who is terrible defensively but finally showed some ability at the plate last year after years of underachieving.  Johnson’s slash line at the major-league level was .308/.337/.481 and he hit 11 homeruns in only 362 plate appearances.  If he can repeat that over a full season he’ll be a solid contributor, but it’s doubtful he’ll be able to as his BABIP was a terribly high .387.

The second base job is up for grabs with the frontrunners being super-utility man Bill Hall, veteran utility-infielder Jeff Keppinger and possibly Tommy Manzella.  Hall was a decent fill-in with Boston last year at a number of positions and although he has the most offensive upside, because of his crazy versatility is probably better suited coming off the bench.  Keppinger managed a 2.4 WAR last year despite being a negative defender.  He played in a career-high 137 games.  Playing second base more often than short, where he played most of last year, may help his defensive ratings as well.
Outfielders
This is an area of strength for the Astros with the two best players on the team in center and rightfield.  Centerfielder Michael Bourn led the team with a 4.2 WAR in 2010 with terrific patience at the plate, 52 stolen bases and a ridiculous 17.6 UZR in the field.  He has another year of arbitration eligibility after this season which means he’s likely going to stay put for this year, but if the Astros aren’t contending (which they won’t) they may consider trading him next offseason.

Hunter Pence is back in rightfield after winning his arbitration case with the club.  There is some talk of signing Pence to a long-term extension, but at 28 and coming off an arbitration hearing, maybe the Astros are willing to shop him around as well.  Pence has posted four straight 3.0 WAR seasons.

In left is veteran Carlos Lee who’s probably better suited for either a first base or DH job in the AL.  If Wallace struggles this season, Lee may be moved there sooner than later.  At the plate, the 35-year-old showed all the clear signs of regression with a less than impressive .308 wOBA and a negative overall WAR rating despite 24 homeruns.  Taking him out of left field will go a long way to improving that.

Veteran Jason Michaels is back as the fourth outfielder after a decent season coming off the bench;  He can also fill in at first base when needed.

The fifth outfielder spot will probably go to either Brian Bogusevic or Jason Bourgeois.  Bogusevic has more versatility and can competently play centerfield which gives him the inside track, but he needs to prove he can hit even a little at the major-league level.

Here’s a homemade breakdown of the Astros roster.
Overview
The outlook is bleak for the Astros who are clearly in the middle of a rebuilding stage.  They were lucky to get 76 wins last year and expecting a repeat performance from many of their starting pitchers is probably a mistake.  Pence and Bourn are both solid trade chips who are still controllable despite both being 28.  If the Astros aren’t in the contention conversation, those two may be dealt.

Ultimately, there isn’t enough talent on this roster to contend even in the weak NL Central and they may have a hard time even catching the Pirates to get out of last place.
Final Prediction: 64-98, 6th NL Central

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