As we get closer and closer to what should be another long year for the Houston Astros, we realize that we must be somewhat masochistic because we cannot wait for the pain to start. The Astros have done very little to improve upon a team that has lost 213 games the last two seasons, and they appear to be content stockpiling number one draft picks instead of worrying about being competitive. Obviously a team with these issues is going to have a multitude of weaknesses, but I want to look at the most glaring of them all. In other words, I am going to look at what pushes this team from being a very bad team to being the worst team in baseball once again.
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The Astros have basically decided to stand pat with their outfield which ranked last in the major leagues in several offensive categories in 2012, including: batting average, WAR, slugging percentage, strikeout percentage; and they were next-to-last in on-base percentage. Barring a trade or a lower-level free agent signing (which I believe will happen), the Astros have five guys that spent some time in their outfield last season as well as a couple of minor league players that could be options (Robbie Grossman and Trevor Crowe). Sadly, the only sure thing for the Astros’ outfield is that Justin Maxwell will claim one of the positions. Maxwell led the team in home runs with 18, while hitting .229 and playing solid defense at all three outfield positions. Other outfield options include: the lead-footed RBI leader from last season, J.D. Martinez; the injury-prone, once top prospect of the Mets, Fernando Martinez; the 24-year old switch-hitter that had a rough transition from the infield to the outfield last season, Jimmy Paredes; and the light hitting but strong fielding Brandon Barnes, who put up a .204/.250/.265 line in 105 plate appearances. While it is likely that the Astros will add at least one more option to this mix, they will be relying heavily on this group of guys to develop drastically and take huge strides forward.
Another glaring area of weakness is pitching. Both the rotation and bullpen ranked amongst the bottom of the league in most statistical categories for the 2012 season. The starters ranked 24th in ERA (4.52), 25th in walks per 9 innings (3.31), 28th in home runs allowed per 9 innings (1.20), and had a 5.9 WAR which was 27th in the league. Astros’ General Manager Jeff Luhnow has decided to add cheap options for the back of the rotation instead of adding any expensive, front-line starters. Lucas Harrell, Bud Norris and Jordan Lyles will be the top three pitchers in the rotation for 2013, barring a trade. The Astros added veteran Philip Humber during the offseason, and Luhnow has said he will have a leg-up for the fourth spot in the rotation. The final spot will likely come down to a battle between Dallas Keuchel and Edgar Gonzalez (both with Houston last year), Alex White and John Ely (both offseason acquisitions), and a host of minor league prospects. While this will not be an intimidating rotation by any means, Luhnow and company have accomplished what they set out to do: create some competition for the back of the rotation while not sacrificing the losses it will require to take that #1 pick for the 3rd straight year.
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The bullpen was just as bad as the rotation last season. After the strong start to the 2012 campaign, the bullpen guys gave themselves the nickname “The Regulators”. By the end of the season they looked more like “The Masturbators”. They finished 29th in the majors in ERA with a 4.49, 27th in home runs allowed per 9 innings with 1.13, and last in WAR by a LONG WAY with -1.6. In fact, they were the only bullpen in all of baseball with a negative Wins Above Replacement value. This offseason the Astros have traded away their best bullpen pitcher from last season (Wilton Lopez), added a bargain bin arm (Jose Veras) and picked up a Rule 5 Draft Pick (Josh Fields). The current #7 prospect in the system, according to Baseball America, Jarred Cosart, may have the opportunity to help out in the pen if he is denied a rotation spot, but it is more likely that he will not be seen in Houston until later in the season. Veras is coming off of the best season in his seven year career, going 5-4 with 1 save and a 3.63 ERA with the Milwaukee Brewers. While his numbers are only slightly above average, he does lead the league in “weird pitching faces”. I would be surprised if there wasn’t at least one more bullpen arm added before Opening Day by way of trade or free agency.
These are the Grand Canyon of holes in the Astros 2013 roster. While these are obviously not the only issues in Houston, they are the ones that will clinch the first pick in the 2014 draft, and I am okay with that. I believe as the late author, Hunter S. Thompson said, “Anything worth doing is worth doing right”, and apparently the current Astros Owner, Jim Crane, feels the same way. It looks like 2014 may be the earliest we can expect many of our top prospects to arrive, so until then, why not be the best at losing and stockpile draft picks? It worked for Tampa Bay and Washington!