HOUSTON - Second baseman Jose Altuve #27 of the Houston Astros can't handle the high throw from catcher J.R. Towles #46 as David Freese #23 of the St. Louis Cardinals slides into second base. (Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images)
The Houston Astros are a baseball team. They play in the National League Central, and they will likely have 25 players on their roster.
The Houston Astros.
I just …
Look, I've done 18 of these team previews already. I don't want to be a jerk in any of them, so I try to find at least a few nice things about the teams I'm previewing. Even in the Pirates season preview, I tried not to lay it on too thick. As my mom used to say, if you can't say anything nice about the Pirates, don't say anything at all until you have another drink.
But the Houston Astros …
After much deliberation, the format of this preview was narrowed down to three options:
1. Analysis formed after use of psychotropic drugs
It's not like the Astros are uninteresting, but they're not exactly fun to write or read about. I could go Hunter S. Thompson on the preview and give the masses what they didn't know they needed.
Scouts are quick to point out the low ceiling of Jose Altuve, citing his non-traditional height and body type, but what they probably don't realize is that he's now sixteen-feet tall, made of pure energy, and swinging from my uvula like a gibbon on a chandelier.
2. Dust off a classic format first used by the master
Bill James didn't feel like writing about Jeff Bagwell in his New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract, so he just wrote "Pass." Every writer should get one of those. Astros fans are used to it now, so no one could blame me if I used it again. It would be an homage.
3. In which I shut up and write the preview
This is probably the only practical choice. Dammit.
Okay, so the Astros. The Houston Astros. Suppose I should start with the good stuff.
Bud Norris is also underrated, and the improved command he showed from 2010 to 2011 bodes well for his future, especially if he can curb the home runs somewhat.
Jordan Lyles struggled a bit last year, but he was 20 years old, and he actually had some decent peripherals for someone who is a college sophomore in an alternate universe. The strikeout rate will increase, and his control is already above-average. He should get better.
That's it. That's all I've got that could go well for the Astros in 2012. Three starting pitchers could do okay. Maybe one of them is traded away for shiny prospects. That's "shiny," with one "n." Oh, and Lyles isn't a lock for the rotation. No, those spots are reserved for Livan Hernandez and J.A. Happ. That might be a good thing for Lyles' future. It's probably not a good thing for the 2012 Houston Astros.
Maybe there's something more. Maybe I'm just not looking hard enough. Former first-round pick Jason Castro is back after missing the 2011 season with a knee injury, and his minor-league numbers suggest he has a chance to be an above-average-OBP, lefty-swinging catcher -- that's a pretty rare combination in baseball. Carlos Lee had a pretty good year last year -- never forget that he had the second-best UZR in the National League -- and though he'll be 36 this season, he'll probably continue to be okay at the plate.
So that's the upside of the lineup. The catcher who will probably hit eighth and the expensive guy in his mid-30s.
After that, I'm not sure where to start. Jordan Schafer will likely lead off. He has a career .327 on-base percentage. In the minors. Jose Altuve is a fascinating, easy-to-root-for player who might have a long and productive career, but he's still 21 and he was rushed from double-A last year. J.D. Martinez was also rushed from double-A last year, though he's 24, so it wasn't as surprising of a move as Altuve. His strikeout-to-walk ratio indicates that he'll struggle until he makes adjustments.
Say, speaking of strikeouts and walks, former first-round pitcher Brian Bogusevic will hit fifth according to MLB Depth Charts. The 28-year-old is a career .272/.355/.391 hitter in AAA. We'll give him a pass because he wasn't a full-time hitter until he was 24. Jed Lowrie has upside if he can stay on the field, though it's tough to slap the injury-prone label on him when one of the injuries that caused him to miss time in his career was mononucleosis.
Let's see … Chris Johnson and Jimmy Parades are both like Pedro Feliz without the defense and plate discipline, but the only alternative at third would be Brett Wallace, who was nicknamed "The Walrus" by scouts in college because he fielded third base like a present-day John Lennon. That and the flippers.
I don't want to do this. I want there to be an exciting prospect to highlight, a guy who is just on the cusp of something great. But I'm not making this up -- the offense is likely to be a disaster. Look at the ZiPS projections. Maybe there will be some average performances from the positions where you hope for above-average; maybe there will be some slightly below-average performances from the positions where you hope for average.
The section of the ZiPS projections that gets me, though, is the defense. Jordan Schafer should be okay in center. Apart from that, there's a chance that every other starter is below-average defensively. That will make Wandy and Norris look worse than they actually are. Happ and Livan allow base runners as if they trigger incentive clauses in their contracts. The defense isn't going to help keep those runners from scoring.
The Astros lost 106 games last season despite getting fantastic half-seasons from Michael Bourn and Hunter Pence. They added Jed Lowrie and Jason Castro. I like both of those players in isolation. But they're not enough to stop the over/under on this year's team from being 106 losses. I'll take the under to be nice. But not by much.
Coulda Shoulda Woulda (Hole they didn't fill)
The Astros probably would have liked to acquire baseball players who were good relative to their peers. They did not.
Jack Cust was the big free-agent signing of the offseason. He signed a one-year deal with a team option, ostensibly to be the designated hitter when the Astros move to the American League in 2013. Spring-training stats don't mean a whole lot, but there's some sort of cosmic significance to Cust going 0-for-24 so far this spring. He might hit well off the bench. One down year -- in Safeco, no less -- doesn't automatically mean that someone's washed up. But if he starts hitting at the upper levels of what he can do, will the Astros put him in the field? Heck, put him at third. Go for some history, Astros.
One of Happ or Hernandez has an ERA close to 6.00 before they're taken out of the rotation. Two-thirds of the outfield is different by September. Altuve has a surprisingly good year, if only because we're all rooting for him. They'll hit 100 losses, but not by the All-Star break. Also, the team's lone All-Star will be Brett Myers. You can probably pre-order the jersey with the All-Star patch.