AL West Preview: Houston Astros Will Remain in Cellar in New Division
In 2013 the Houston Astros will find themselves in a new division, a new league, with a new manager—former Nationals third base coach Bo Porter—and will don new uniforms. The changes and spiffy new uniforms will have little effect on the Astros winning percentage, however, and they are likely to finish last in the tough AL West, en route to their third 100 loss season in a row.
When Astros owner Jim Crane bought the team in 2011 he decided to strip the roster bare and build from the ground up. General Manager Jeff Luhnow cut the major league roster down to a shockingly low $25 million, less than the $29 million salary of Yankees third baseman Alex Rodriguez alone. The rebuilding project has done a lot to revitalize the Astros lagging minor league system, which has been barren for a decade but may leave the casual fan scratching their head when they go down the roster and find few identifiable faces.
The Astros major league team team consists of a few journeymen, plus a whole lot of young unknowns. For most Astros fans, this season will mostly be about seeing how well the young prospects develop. Given the organization’s focus on development instead of winning right now, it is likely that a lot of young players could receive significant playing time.
The Astros opening day starter will be 28-year old right hander, Bud Norris, who sported a 7-13 record and 4.65 ERA in 168.1 IP in 2012. Norris is a solid, middle of the rotation starter but has no business being designated as any staff’s “ace”. There is a good chance that he could end up on the trading block at some point in the season. The oft-injured starting pitcher, Erick Bedard, usually performed well when healthy until his velocity dipped in 2012 with the Pittsburgh Pirates, but the Astros took a flyer on him and hope that the 33 year old former ace can regain some of his past dominance.
The Astros pitching staff as a whole may be the worst in baseball, but they will have some young players worth keeping an eye on. RHP Brad Peacock, acquired in the Jed Lowrie trade with the Oakland Athletics along with catching prospect Max Stassi and slugging first baseman Chris Carter, made the rotation as the likely fourth or fifth starter.
Peacock struggled mightily in AAA last year and fell off the radar a bit as a top tier pitching prospect. His velocity stays generally in the low 90’s, but Peacock can reach the high 90’s on the radar gun from time to time. Peacock was let down last year by a breakdown of command, which has been a struggle for him throughout his minor league career. Nevertheless, he has some great peripherals, including a tremendous curveball. If Peacock fixes his command issues he has an outside chance of becoming a front of the rotation starter in the near future, but will most likely settle into being more of a middle of the rotation pitcher.
The bullpen contains a few live, young arms, but will most likely be overtaxed by a starting rotation that may often struggle to make it out of the 6th inning. Jose Veras, a 32-year old RHP, is now the de-facto “closer,” but it is likely that the Astros could end up in a closer by committee situation or give the reigns to one of the young guns, like RHP Josh Fields, who throws hard and has tremendous K-rates.
The starting lineup and defense may be even bigger issues for the Astros than the lackluster pitching. The Astros picked up first baseman, Carlos Pena, whose batting average now consistently hovers near the Mendoza line, but provides a little power. He will most likely share playing time with the aforementioned Chris Carter and Brett Wallace, a former top prospect who has underwhelmed in his three major league seasons. Wallace has both a consistently failed to get on base and has struggled to hit with much power, which was considered his strength as a prospect.
Carter could have a huge season in the hitter friendly Minute Maid Park and he seems to be a player on the verge of a major power-hitting breakout. He hit 16 home runs in 218 at bats last year, but if he becomes an everyday starter, Carter has the potential to hit 30-40, albeit with a low batting average and a whole lot of strikeouts. Although listed as a first baseman and left fielder, Carter is, to put it mildly, a liability in the field. His skills in the outfield make the circus that was Manny Ramirez in outfield seem like a gold glove performance. Carter’s best role is probably as a DH, but it may be hard for the Astros to justify moving a talented 26-year-old slugger into that less valuable position so early in his career.
The other bright spots on the team are 2B Jose Altuve, who may someday be one of the greatest 5’5” players in baseball history, and C Jason Castro, who could be poised for a major breakout.
Castro, a top 10 draft pick out of Stanford, has been plagued by knee injuries, which can spell doom for a young catcher, but he had a major power surge at the end of last year and has always had the ability to put up solid contact numbers. If Castro’s power surge is for real he could end up as one of the best catchers in the American league.
Overall, the Astros simply don’t have the talent to break out of the AL West basement and if they manage to lose fewer than 100 games it could be considered a significant achievement. However, in three to five years this team could have a relatively high number of talented players in their prime and be a force to be reckoned with, which is the case with every team that strips its roster and tries to build from the ground up. Look for a constant shuffling of players, a bevy of new faces and a lot of losing from the 2013 Astros.