Five questions: Houston Astros

The 2011 season is being talked about as “the year of the kids” by both the Astros organization and the local media. Translation: The Astros no longer have great players, let alone stars, but a few of the men on the 25-man roster will be under the former requisite age of decrepit—albeit on extremely short leashes—but at least going to the ballpark will be fun on Friday Fireworks Night!

The Astros traditionally have been loath to start young players (unless they have been heavily touted by the Astros), preferring to acquire veterans, invariably on the downslide of their careers. The one young player given a chance last season was Tommy Manzella, a light-hitting, good-glove shortstop. Chris Johnson, who hit very well in spring training, had been thought by the Astros as merely minor league filler, so the remnants of Pedro Feliz was signed at the ludicrous price of $4.5 million to manufacture outs—er, RBIs.

At the beginning of the year, everything that could go wrong did go wrong: Lance Berkman began the season on the DL, Carlos Lee, Hunter Pence and Feliz didn’t hit, Wandy Rodriguez and Bud Norris couldn’t find the strike zone, Felipe Paulino DID throw strikes, but unfortunately down the middle and Roy Oswalt couldn’t “pitch well enough to win.” By the end of April, Michael Bourn was the only Astro with a positive Runs Created Above Average (RCAA).

The poisonous atmosphere created by the previous manager and pitching coach had dissipated, thanks to Brad Mills and Brad Arnsberg, but nothing they could do improved the hitting. Oswalt, the ace of the Astros for a decade, had had enough and allowed trade demands—previously hinted at because of his distaste for the previous manager and pitching coach—to be made public.

Owner Drayton McLane, who had been trying to sell the team since the disaster created by Hurricane Ike in 2008, first quietly, then openly, saw an opportunity to rid the team of two of its three onerous contracts (Carlos Lee has always refused every trade presented to him). He traded Oswalt at the end of July to the Phillies for young, cheap pitcher J.A. Happ and another minor leaguer, whom he traded to Toronto to obtain the much-traded, formerly highly touted first baseman Brett Wallace. He then traded Berkman, who still wasn’t hitting very well, who had volunteered to be traded for the good of the team, to the Yankees for reliever Mark Melancon and a minor leaguer.

The Astros had already made positive changes by releasing Kaz Matsui and his negative OPS+ and replacing him with Jeff Keppinger‘s solid bat. They finally released Feliz at the end of June, promoting Johnson and “catcher of the future” Jason Castro, then trading inept catcher Kevin Cash for shortstop Angel Sanchez, who was needed as a fill-in when Manzella went on the DL.

By the beginning of July, the Astros began to win more, buoyed by increased production from Pence, league average production from Lee, and the presence of Johnson and Sanchez after Feliz and Manzella were not on the field. The improvement was NOT because franchise icon Jeff Bagwell, who replaced Sean Berry midseason, caused everyone to hit better. Fans, who had not come to see the lackluster, losing team at the beginning of the year, began to filter back to watch the young players Johnson, Wallace, Castro, Happ and Sanchez and talk of “The Young Team” began to circulate.

The 2011 team is not much younger. Second baseman Keppinger has been replaced by Bill Hall, who is expected to provide Jeff Kent-level slugging, and Clint Barmes has replaced Sanchez; as for some reason, the Astros expect him to provide run production, if he can reproduce his superlative 82 OPS+ from his 2009 season. It is possible that several rookies will make the bullpen, but this is no 1991 Astros team, which was, in fact, loaded with good young talent, albeit inexperienced.

Who will replace Jason Castro as catcher?

Castro was heavily touted from the minute he was chosen as the Astros’ first-round draft pick in 2008. He was hyped for his makeup, for his defense, for his bat. By the time he was drafted in June, the organization had already soured on J.R. Towles, the young catcher who had shown such promise the previous September and was given the starting job that spring.

Castro was uncharacteristically (for the Astros) rushed through the minors in less than two years, and practically as soon as he raised his Triple-A batting average above his weight, he was promoted. Unsurprisingly (his OPS at Double-A was .747 and at Triple-A .720) he didn’t hit, posting a 59 OPS+ over 195 at-bats. Surprisingly, he also did poorly at defense, allowing an astonishing seven passed balls and 40 wild pitches over only 68 games. (He did display a strong and accurate arm.)

In spite of the fact that he didn’t outhit Towles, who has the same career 59 OPS+, the Astros planned to use him as the starting catcher. However, he tore his knee in spring training and is likely out for the year. Humberto Quintero, Brett Myers‘ personal catcher, has secured at least one catching spot. The Astros will have to either give Towles, who has at least proven that he can hit Triple-A pitching (OPS of .830 over 420 plate appearances), another chance, or pick from veterans Brian Esposito or Carlos Corporan, neither of whom can even hit Triple-A pitching, or from minor leaguers Jon Fixler, Rene Garcia and Federico Hernandez, none of whom has hit a lick over Double-A ball.

The Astros don’t appear eager to give Towles, who spent most of the 2010 season on the DL, another chance. If they can find some cheap Proven Veteran to sign to a one-year contract, he will most likely be handed the job. On the other hand, the Astros may just promote Esposito or Corporan: they had no hesitation using Kevin Cash, yet another dreadful hitter, as a backup catcher and he was traded only because the Astros needed a shortstop immediately when Manzella went on the DL.

Will Jordan Lyles make the Opening Day starting rotation?

Jordan Lyles, age 20, is the Astros’ other 2008 first-round pick who has been pushed rapidly through the team’s minor league system, skipping hitter’s heaven, high-A Lancaster. He pitched well at all levels, but appeared to hit a wall after being promoted to Triple-A, where he started six games and pitched poorly in the last four.

Ordinarily, I would be positive that the Astros would not call him up before the Super 2 deadline had passed, but as McLane is selling the team, and will surely find a buyer before Lyles’ third year, he has no reason to care that Lyles’ salary would be someone else’s problem. Still, I would guess that he would start the year at Triple-A, since the Astros have plenty of filler for the fourth and fifth starter positions, and Lyles most likely needs more experience. I wouldn’t be surprised if he was called up anytime later in the season, especially if he pitched at Triple-A and the Astros need to stir fan excitement, as did the promotion of Hunter Pence in 2007.

What will happen with Carlos Lee?

Currently, Lee is being paid $19 million a year to play left field and to produce runs; he greatly underperformed at both tasks last season. His poor fielding had been ignored for years because of his high batting average and RBI, but his slugging dropped precipitously along with his average in 2010, and fans, for the first time, became aware of his significant deficiencies in the field.

Brett Wallace was installed as the starting first baseman immediately after the Berkman trade. He had hit for power and average at all levels of the minors, and was expected to repeat those numbers in the majors. However, major league pitchers quickly noted that Wallace apparently could hit only pitches up and in, and consequently seldom threw them there. Wallace’s batting average quickly plummeted and the Astros, instead of allowing him an adjustment period, moved Lee to first, with the excuse that Wallace wouldn’t have to face lefties.

They also hoped that Lee would hit better, increasing his trade value for 2011, as his contract allows him to be traded to 10 teams of his choosing. (He becomes a five-and-10 man at the end of the year.) His OPS increased from .751 all the way to .762, and he proved to be a defensive liability, unsurprisingly: Wallace, by the way, was quite agile for a man of his bulk and he has very soft hands and an accurate arm.

Wallace will most likely be kept on a very short leash again. He, barring unforseen complications, will be the starting first baseman on Opening Day. If he doesn’t hit well from the beginning, he will be sent back down, Lee will replace him at first and most likely Brian Bogusevic will become the regular left fielder. At least Bogusevic can field well, run well, steal bases AND hit.

Will Lee manage to increase his OPS+ to at least league average? After all, until last year he had kept it over .800. Well, he’s older (35 in June), fatter and slower, and he wasn’t injured last year, so it is doubtful.

Who will win the utility infield and fifth outfield positions?

On Opening Day, the starting position players will be Humberto Quintero, catcher; Brett Wallace, first base; Bill Hall, second base; Clint Barmes, shortstop; Chris Johnson, third base; Hunter Pence, right field; Michael Bourn, center field; Carlos Lee, left field.

Jason Michaels has already secured the fourth outfield spot; Brian Bogusevic, Drew Locke and Jason Bourgeois are the serious competitors for the fifth one, as J.D. Martinez, T.J. Steele and Jon Gaston haven’t faced Triple-A pitching yet, or, in the case of Steele and Gaston, Double-A. Bogusevic, Locke and Bourgeois have all hit Triple-A pitching well. Both Bogusevic and Bourgeois run and steal bases; both hit for average, not for power, but Bogusevic has a decent walk rate. Locke is the only one who has hit for power at both Double-A and Triple-A. Bourgeois can also play infield; if none of the prospective backup infielders hit in spring training, this may give him an edge. This one will most likely go to the guy with the hottest bat.

Keppinger is currently the main backup infielder, but unfortunately for McLane, who wanted him and his salary traded before spring training, Keppinger required foot surgery and will be on the disabled list for a few more months. Therefore, McLane is out $3 million and some lucky guy will have a few months to seriously impress the organization before Keppinger comes off the DL, and plays a few games and McLane manages to dump him and the remainder of his salary.

The current candidates for backup infielder are Sanchez, a passable shortstop and good second baseman who hit (singles) decently after being obtained from the Red Sox midseason; Oswaldo Navarro, who can play second, short and third, who was given almost no playing time in several weeks on the major league roster last year; Matt Downs, who can play second, short and third and has posted a .452 SLG/.787 OPS over 810 plate appearances at Triple-A and is being touted as a “power hitter” in spite of his career .300 SLG in the majors; Anderson Hernandez, a carer bench warmer who has a 65 OPS+ over six years and 648 plate appearances and can play second and short and who, for some reason, is admired by general manager Ed Wade; and Manzella, the starting shortstop in 2010 who went on the DL with a broken bone in June and essentially lost his job to Sanchez when he returned.

Manzella has, by far, the best glove of the group, but has not played any position except for shortstop. Wade has already named Barmes as this year’s starting shortstop, so unless Barmes “hits” like Kaz Matsui 2010 and Manzella tears the cover off the ball, he’ll either repeat Triple-A or be traded. The most likely candidates are Downs and Sanchez, unless Wade’s inexplicable love for Anderson Hernandez wins out.

Will McLane be able to sell the team in 2011?

McLane has slashed payroll, would prefer to slash it further, and has apparently informed Wade that he doesn’t want to spend any more money. He apparently has no shortage of suitors, but none of them will meet his price and it is possible that none of them will receive Bud Selig’s stamp of approval to join the cabal. At this time, it appears that two glamor franchises, the Dodgers and Mets, are in serious financial difficulty and may have to be sold. It is certainly possible that groups looking to purchase a franchise would prefer one that would generate more income and confer more celebrity than Houston.

It is, however, important that McLane attempt to complete his sale before it appears to prospective buyers that the Astros are headed for a Pirates-like losing-season streak. Then again, with modern revenue sharing, teams with low payrolls, low attendance and minimal winning earn their owners profit each year, so even owning a Washington Generals-type franchise would be a fine investment.

McLane will most likely find a buyer and complete the sale of the team before the end of 2011. Bud Selig may be able to persuade him that selling the team is like paying prospects slot rates; he’d be doing it for the Good of The Game and at Bud’s Suggested Retail Price. McLane has been Selig’s faithful soldier from the beginning.

Bonus question: Is 2011 the year the Astros will wrest last place in the NL Central from the Pirates’ death grip?

It’s going to be a close call, but the Astros’ pitching staff, though hardly Oswalt, Andy Pettitte, Roger Clemens quality, is still better than the Pirates. So the Astros will have to settle for fifth place.

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