2011 pre-season preview: NL Central – Houston Astros
Astros RF Hunter Pence
Houston Astros (2010 record: 76-86)
Notable additions: SP Ryan Rowand-Smith, 2B Clint Barmes, INF Billy Hall
It doesn’t appear the 50th-anniversary season for the former Colt-45’s will be much of a celebration. The team played pretty well last year after dispatching long-time stars Lance Berkman and Roy Oswalt, but I don’t believe there’s going to be a tremendous carry-over into the new season. All of the teams in this division got better this off-season, and in most instances they got MUCH better. Houston failed to keep pace. With apologies to the fans in Houston, there doesn’t appear to be much of a reason to buy a ticket to see the Astros play – unless you are a fan of the visiting team.
Catcher: JR Towles
The offense scored the second-fewest runs in the league last season (611) – well below the league average (701). It says here that the off-season additions won’t improve that outcome significantly, so the team will have to rely on existing players to improve their productivity (significantly) if this team has any hope of contending.
The offensive attack in 2011 will revolve around speedster Michael Bourn (52 SBs) and sluggers Carlos Lee (24 HR) and Hunter Pence (25 HR), but the keys to the offense’s productivity will rest at the corner infield positions – the club will need young 3B Chris Johnson to build on his rookie campaign, and for 1B Brett Wallace to prove he is finally ready for prime time.
The under-the-radar addition of free agent Billy Hall should help as he will be productive with consistent playing time, but I don’t see Clint Barmes (.235 in Colorado last year) being helping the offense at all.
With the recent season-ending injury to Jason Castro, the backstop duties will be handed to one-time catcher-of-the-future JR Towles, who is a decent backstop but has been a major disappointment thus far with a bat in his hands.
The pitching staff:
Closer: Brandon Lyon
The starting rotation posted an excellent 3.42 ERA after the all-star break last year (third-best in the NL) and should be pretty solid in 2011. The team lost Oswalt, but returns three of the four starters who posted sub-4.00 ERAs for last year’s squad. RHP Brett Myers (14-8, 3.14) and LHPs Wandy Rodriguez (11-12, 3.60) and JA Happ (5-4, 3.75) will head up the rotation, and will be joined by Norris and either Figueroa or Rowland-Smith.
Happ is a highly-regarded prospect who arrived from Philadelphia in the Oswalt trade… the Astros hope he will be able to blunt the impact of the veteran’s departure. Norris was plagued by nagging injuries during the first half of the year (when he posted an ugly 5.97 ERA), but was much better after his health returned in mid-season (he posted a 4.18 ERA for the second half).
Beyond the offense, the biggest headache manager Brad Mills will face this season has to do with bridging the gap from the starters to the back end of the bullpen. The trade of Matt Lindstrom to Colorado leaves Brandon Lyon (20 saves, 3.12 ERA) as the undisputed closer, but the bullpen behind him lacks depth. Wilton Lopez (2.96 ERA) will move into the set-up role. They will be joined by either Figueroa or Rowland-Smith and a bevy of young arms.
Prediction for 2011: 5th place (72-90)
The Astros has an awful lot go right in the second half last year as the club pitched its way to a fourth-place finish, but I am skeptical the team can replicate that kind of performance in 2011. Lightning doesn’t strike in the same place twice. I don’t foresee much improvement in the offense and predict regression from Myers (78% strand rate) and Rodriguez (48% gb rate).
Top Five Prospects:
DeShields was the Astros first-round selection (8th overall) in last June’s draft and began his professional career last summer at two levels of Rookie League ball in the Gulf Coast League and Appalachian League. His father played 13 years in the major leagues and was once a first-round selection (12th overall) as well.
DeShields’ calling-card is his exceptional athleticism and plus-plus speed (rated an “80” on the scouts’ 20-80 scale). He has outstanding bat speed and a compact swing… those tools, combined with his speed, should lead him to become a consistent .300+ hitter in the big leagues. Some scouts believe he has average power and that he will hit his fair share of home runs, possibly setting himself up to be a No. 3 hitter in the big leagues, but I believe he’ll be coached to keep the ball down to take full advantage of his speed. I see him as a leadoff hitter, who will frequently use the bunt to get to first base and then steal a base to get himself into scoring position. Think Kenny Lofton more than Rickey Henderson.