When one thinks of the Houston Astros, greatness often comes to mind. You reminisce about superstar pitchers like Nolan Ryan and J.R. Richard. Employed in Houston were Latino icons like Cesar Cedeno and Jose Cruz, a quiet yet fierce competitor. Not to be forgotten are the trio of Jeff Bagwell, Craig Biggio and Lance Berkman, the latter still knocking the cover off the ball with the St. Louis Cardinals. And those one-of-a-kind rainbow jerseys, never duplicated, although the Miami Marlins are trying.
Unfortunately, all is not well in Houston these days. On the eve of the Astros’ 50th anniversary as a National League franchise, longtime owner Drayton McLean officially sold the club on November 17 to fellow businessman Jim Crane for $610 million. This came as no surprise, since Crane and his group have been negotiating the purchase for some time. What sweetened the deal, however, left many folks with a sour taste in their mouths. McLean and MLB Commissioner Bud Selig pledged a combined $70 million discount on the sale, provided that Crane move the Astros to the American League West, effective in 2013.
The Houston faithful are livid, to say the least, and they haven’t been very happy anyway. The wholesale exit of Hunter Pence and Michael Bourn at the trading deadline last season was a public relations disaster. But the reality of changing leagues was the ultimate slap in the face. Selig bobbleheads are being hung in effigy. One disgruntled fan even stated sarcastically that he might forgive Crane if he fired Houston’s Hall of Fame broadcaster Milo Hamilton! What does poor Milo have to do with this mess?
Astros manager Brad Mills is a man with lots of patience, and he’ll need it to cope with his team’s “golden” edition. The club is top-heavy, with slugging first baseman Carlos Lee and closer Brandon Lyon slated to make a combined $33 million in 2012, the final year of their contracts. You can bet General Manager Ed Wade will do some more “fire sale” haggling to dump those aging veterans, if he’s lucky enough to keep his job. There’s even talk of moving popular, front-line pitcher Wandy Rodriguez, which could trigger a fan boycott of Minute Maid Park.
So, how will the Astros do next season, their “swan song” in the National League Central? Probably as well as a summer snowball on the tarmac at George W. Bush International Airport. But that doesn’t mean they won’t be entertaining to watch. They will be a scrappy bunch, with pretty good pitching, decent speed and adequate defensively. Scoring runs, though, will be a challenge.
The Astros rotation is actually above average. It should be, since the pitching staff alone absorbs a big chunk of the payroll. The staff ace, Rodriguez ($10 million) and Brett Myers ($11 million) are pricey. The bottom half of the group, J.A. Happ and Bud Norris, are more economically attractive and have held their own. Norris was the hard-luck guy last season, losing 11 times while posting an attractive 3.75 ERA. He also averaged over one strikeout per inning.
Erratic but hard-throwing Henry Sosa will probably round things out, but he’ll have plenty of competition. Paul Clemens and Brett Oberholtzer, a right-left combo acquired from the Atlanta Braves in the Bourn deal, could make a spring-training splash. Oberholtzer, only 22, changes speeds and uses both sides of the plate like a young Tom Glavine.
This area has been problematic. Lyon makes a lot of money and is on the downside of a nice career. Mark Melancon, Enerio Del Rosario and Sergio Escolona, plus Aneury and Fernando Rodriguez will all compete for various roles. Escolona is the only incumbent southpaw, but an interesting option is Xavier Cedeno, a 24-year-old Puerto Rican who had contemplated quitting baseball altogether. The lanky lefty gave it another go last season, however, and was extremely reliable for Houston’s double-A affiliate in Corpus Christi. Cedeno is versatile enough to shore things up in the pen, and can even make a spot start. A pair of power-pitching Dominicans, Alberto Arias and Jose Valdez, should also contribute to the cause.
The Astros have a couple of capable receivers in veteran Humberto Quintero and young Jason Castro, who is learning on the fly. With the catching market a bit slim, the team is not expected to upgrade and will give journeyman Craig Tatum an opportunity to win a job.
Everyone is excited about highly regarded second baseman Jose Altuve, who should roll up lots of double plays with underrated shortstop Angel Sanchez. Jimmy Paredes is expected to be a regular at the hot corner. These are not household names, but the Houston front office is counting on these guys to pull it together long-term. Not part of the future is the first baseman, Lee, although the team desperately needs his bat until a cheaper replacement can be found.
J.D. Martinez, the pride of Miami, will permanently patrol left field and is expected to drive in some runs at the plate. Speedy Jordan Schafer took over for Bourn in center field and has blended in well. Brian Bogusevic is penciled in as the right fielder, but Houston native Jason Bourgeois will get some playing time there, and also in center if Schafer doesn’t hit. Another hometown kid, Nick Stavinoha, and veteran Brad Snyder both signed minor league contracts and have career power numbers that hope to bolster the lineup.
A final knock on the Astros is a lack of depth and bench help. The farm system has dried up with the premature promotion of young prospects, and Crane has indicated that his immediate goal is to address that issue. The Astros have some nice-looking kids, but the majority are still two or three years away from any realistic shot at the “show.” A case in point is 20-year-old shortstop Jonathan Villar, who was an amazing defender last year with Corpus Christi, but still needs to develop his hitting skills.
On a positive note, at least a majority of players on the 40-man roster have seen some sort of major-league service. They are also largely Latino, which means marketing potential in a city like Houston with a sizable Hispanic population. A no-brainer would be to bring an admired, former star like Cruz down from the front office to give this group some direction. In fact, put Biggio back in the dugout, too.
After all, the Astros need all the help they can get.