Five questions: Houston Astros

The Astros finished 40 games back in the National League Central last year. Their second-best player yielded a .244/.312/.386 triple-slash line, which rivals the hitting prowess of a pitcher by the name of Daniel Hudson*.

Organizational centerpieces Michael Bourn and Hunter Pence were shipped out of town for relatively (compared to, say, a Zack Greinke haul) small bounties. A good portion of the September lineup was fetched from the Corpus Christi Hooks, the Double-A affiliate.

It’s safe to call the 2011 Astros season a slew of things: a mess, a fire sale, a Hindenburg, a humbling experience in the cellar. The main question is, “Where is rock bottom, and have they hit it?” Let us explore, with other ramblings and divergences along the way.

*Seriously, though, Daniel Hudson had a .277/.309/.369 line in 79 plate appearances and put up an 81 wRC+, meaning he was 19 percent below league average at the dish. Clint Barmes, the sorry lad in question, had a career year in 2011 with a 94 wRC+ but is more like 25 percent below league average in terms of hitting ability (a career 74 wRC+).

Well, where is rock bottom, and have they hit it?

Astros pitchers were worth 4.1 wins above replacement in 2011 in 1,435 innings. The second-worst staff, that of the Pirates of Pittsburgh, put together a “more respectable” 6.9 mark. For illustration’s sake, 24 pitchers, including Mr. Matt Harrison of the Rangers (super-underrated, may I add), had more valuable seasons than did the entire Astros staff. Yikes.

The brunt of the trouble remains in the staff: Wandy Rodriguez dwindled in value last year, Bud Norris took a miniscule step forward (but not enough of one to make any considerable difference), and the rest is downright bleak.

Unlike the Rockies—a team without front-line talent in the rotation (yet) but a plethora of fill-in candidates and high-upside guys vying for three rotation spots—the Astros will fill out the remaining spots with some combination of Henry Sosa, 2009 runner-Up Rookie of the Year J.A. Happ*, Jordan Lyles, Lucas Harrell, and Kyle Weiland. Not a ton to get excited about there.

The basement dwelling afforded the ‘Stros some room to let the kids with the bats loose, and some keepers were discovered among the September blues. J.D. Martinez, for one, seems like a mainstay in left with respectable power and a history of high average and slugging in the minors. Jose Altuve, bless his slap-hitting ways and his cute (yeah, I said it) 5-foot-6 frame, will surely scurry his way to respectability.

Further, Jordan Schafer, Brett Wallace, Jimmy Paredes and Jed Lowrie (an offseason acquisition from the Boston Red Sox) all provide varying degrees of intrigue, untapped upside and projection.

So, I’d say rock bottom was safely met. After all, with Brett Myers manning the final frame, how could they be any worse? Hold up…what?

*Chris Coghlan edged out Happ by nine points in the voting, but the two were far beyond the pack that included Tommy Hanson and Andrew McCutchen next. To me, that order seems wrong in retrospect. Hmm…

Why the hell is Brett Myers their closer?

Myers was chosen as the replacement for Mark Melancon (shipped to the BoSox for the aforementioned Lowrie) above Wilton Lopez, David Carpenter and Brandon Lyon, all highly flawed and half-intriguing options to fill a sorry role*.

He was clearly chosen in part due to his brief foray into the role in his Phillies days (2006 to be precise, when he saved 21 games with some success). His results as a starter have been all over the map, but his last three full seasons (190+ innings) have been, at worst, acceptable, and, at best, excellent.

Myers’ range of 1.5-4.0 WAR would, in theory, surely be welcomed in the Houston staff of outcasts and had-beens, but instead, they decided to clear his spot for a younger, potentially untapped hurler.

In those terms, the move makes sense. Spoiler alert: The Astros will not compete this year, so why not explore the likes of Lyles & Co.? It won’t be pretty, but neither is Myers.

*“After all, how many games will they even win?” you groan. Touché.

So…about this J.D. Martinez kid?

Martinez’s minor league numbers are eye-catching—at worst*. His worst batting average (.302), on-base percentage (.357), slugging percentage (.407), wRC+ (112), and strikeout rate (20.3 percent) came in his first 50-game cameo in Double-A. When he revisited, he conquered: a .338/.414/.546 triple-slash and a five percent improvement in strikeout rate led to a promotion to the majors, where he continued his torrid hitting ways.

We all know what he did, but can he keep up his 4-WAR pace?

BABIP
Martinez’s batting average on balls in play was high (.325) compared to the league average but low compared to his minor-league tendencies. His lowest BABIP in the minors came in Low-A, when he put up a .353 mark. His high-water mark was a .398 showing in Single-A; all warrant a degree of skepticism when his lack of speed is considered, but his batted-ball profile supports a high BABIP and high average as such.

Batted ball profile
A 27.6 line-drive percentage is high and mighty—perhaps unsustainable—and is another sign of a talented hitter who can carry his weight at the dish. The league average was 19.6 percent last year, and the home run-to-fly ball rate for the average hitter last year was 9.7 percent. Martinez’s mark was 10.3 percent, meaning his 17 HR/600 at-bat pace could be sustainable.

Splits
Ah, here’s the catch. Martinez struggled against righties and absolutely mashed lefties, torching the latter crew to a 1.119 OPS and a .360 batting average. The .620 OPS against righties is concerning; however, the balls didn’t fall on the green grass quite as much they did against southpaws, and an improvement in his sub-.300 BABIP should raise his average a bit. If he sees 600 at-bats and improves his approach against righties, his batting average may end up closer to .300.

*I don’t know what the best-case scenario is for Martinez, nor do I know what his numbers are “at best”. It’s just a figure of speech, you see.

How far away from competing are they?

Considering that the rebuilding process hasn’t even picked up steam yet, the Astros are quite a ways away from October baseball. An impending move to the AL complicates things—how competitive the team will be in a new division remains to be seen—but one thing is clear: The next year and several years after that are purely for experimenting.

As noted above, Houston has some price-controlled assets in the forms of Martinez, Altuve, Norris and others, and the current mission is something like this: Build up homegrown talent a la Hunter Pence, draft well, harness all that talent into a small time frame for competition, and buy, buy, buy. It’s a tall task, but the first step is finding their keepers, and that alone makes the Astros worth watching.

Jonathan Singleton might taste the majors in September if all goes terribly well, but Jarred Cosart won’t make it until 2014, nor will Jonathan Villar or George Springer. The low minors of the organization have a handful of lottery tickets scattered among the bodies, but the window isn’t close to visible yet.

Who’s next out of town at the deadline?

Myers and Rodriguez were names thrown around during the summer fire sale in Houston, but contract concerns dampened the market for both. Both are legitimate options, but the same overpay concerns exist.

Myers is due to make $11 million in 2012 and has an option that was reworked as his closer role was announced, but will vest, according to KFFL, with a “good, healthy season in the bullpen.” The option was previously worth $10 million, and a suitor going for gold might be hard to find due to this contractual commitment.

Rodriguez, too, is due a lot of money in the next three years, as the Astros are potentially on the hook for $36 million through 2014 if his option vests in its final year. His age, durability concerns, velocity drops, and strikeout dips are all legitimate drawbacks, and it’s hard to imagine a new home for the Wandy unless a good chunk of the contract is eaten.

Carlos Lee is the other albatross contract on the books. His $19 million salary in 2012 is humongous but will be easily shipped out of town at the deadline if Houston eats much of his salary. Lyon, due to make a more respectable $5.5 million in 2012, will also leave Houston at the deadline*.

So, to summarize, the entertainment will come from one or all of the following sources: Martinez’s full breakout, the suspense of seeing prospects sizzle or fizzle, and the new bodies that will come in early August. The only October baseball that’ll be seen in Houston for the next few years, though, will be via a trip to the Arizona Fall League. Sorry.

*According to my magic 8-ball.

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