Team Time Machine: Looking back at the 2011 Houston Astros

2011 was a tough season for the Houston Astros, but it fueled one of the best runs in team history. Here’s a trip down memory lane.

Before the Houston Astros became a powerhouse in the AL West, there were many years of last place finishes, wasted talent, and nicknames like “The Lastros” and “The Disastros.” So, let’s take a look back at one of those years: 2011.

With a year full of Charlie Sheen being fired from Two and a Half Men, Game of Thrones premiering for the first time, Osama Bin Laden’s death, and the Iraq War ending, the Astros were scraping the bottom of the standings. The Astros didn’t come out of nowhere; they were built by the mind of Jeff Luhnow, and 2011 was the last season before his arrival. It was the 50th season for the franchise and the 47th as the Astros, and while playing in their 12th year in Minute Maid Park, they would become the first team in franchise history to lose 100 games in a season.

The Team

Many fans remember the days of a slightly empty Minute Maid Park, but the Astros dugout held some well-known names. Humberto Quintero was at catcher. Brett Wallace, Jose Altuve, Chris Johnson, and Clint Barmes made up the infield. Carlos Lee, Michael Bourn, and Hunter Pence filled out the outfield. It looked like there was enough talent there to win some games, and they held slim value in former All-Star Lee along with current All-Stars Bourne and Pence.

A rookie Jose Altuve made his debut in 2011 as well. The second baseman did have a slow start while hitting .276/.297/.357, but a possible Hall of Fame career would kickstart the next season. Additionally, there was a well-known player on the bench: a rookie J.D. Martinez. The now three-time All-Star struggled mightily with Houston but excelled the seasons after the Astros released him later in 2013. The bench also consisted of a few remembered names in Jason Bourgeois, J.R. Towles, JB Shuck, Jimmy Paredes, Jeff Keppinger, and Carlos Corporan.

The pitching staff was far from complete and lacked a pitcher with a winning record or an ERA sub 3.40. Brett Myers, Wandy Rodriguez, Bud Norris, J.A. Happ, and Jordan Lyles made up the rotation, and while it didn’t look stellar, Happ would one day become an All-Star pitcher. Mark Melancon was the big name out of the bullpen. The rest of the pen consisted of Wilton Lopez, Enerio Del Rosario, Fernando Rodriguez Jr., and Sergio Escalona.

The Season

The team was sometimes hard to watch. They were six years removed from their last playoff appearance, and in the shadows of the age of the Killer Bees. It was hard to build a playoff team with the 20th ranked payroll in baseball, while not many free agents saw success in Houston.

The team was managed by Brad Mills, who would end his managerial career with 171-274 record. He was one year removed from placing 6th in NL Manager of the Year voting with a somewhat similar team. The Astros lost Roy Oswalt and Lance Berkman in trades during the 2010 season hinting to the rebuild in 2011 and beyond.

The offense was lackluster, though Pence, Bourn, and Lee were the only hitters close to or above average. Hunter Pence was raking in his fifth year with the Astros. While slashing .308/.356/.471, the righty would pick up his second All-Star appearance that year. He eventually finished 16th in MVP voting that year as well. Michael Bourn was one of the only outfielders to play Tal’s Hill correctly, and it showed. While playing centerfield, Bourn was a quick player. He led the league in stolen bases (61) while also leading the NL in caught stealing (14). Bourn was one year removed from an All-Star appearance but missed one in 2011 even though he had better numbers at the plate. Carlos Lee would be average at the plate during the ’11 season while hitting .275/.342/.446. He will always be a fan favorite for his funny moments in left field, and 2011 would be his last at that position.

Both Pence and Bourn were talented players, but they were burning a hole in a weak Astros team. The organization noticed this early and traded the two stars come the trade deadline. On July 29, the Astros dealt Pence to the Philadelphia Phillies for a player to be named later (Domingo Santana), Jarred Cosart, Jon Singleton and Josh Zeid. At the time, the trade looked strong for Houston with the haul they brought in, but none of these players ever panned out with the Astros. On July 31, the Astros would then trade Michael Bourn to the Atlanta Braves for Juan Abreu, Paul Clemens, Brett Oberholtzer and Jordan Schafer. The Astros were building what looked like a great farm system, but of these players, only Oberholtzer had somewhat an impactful career. He didn’t last long in Houston but had an ERA under 3.00 for one season.

On the mound, the rotation lacked an ace. While Rodriguez was the only pitcher with a .500 record (11-11), no other starter had double digit wins. Myers, Happ, and Lyles all had ERAs north of the 4.40 mark, while Rodriguez and Norris were in the upper 3.00 range. The Astros rotation wouldn’t get any help as the season progressed and looked dismantled come September. The bullpen wasn’t as struggling as the rotation. Melancon, Lopez, and Escalona all kept their ERA south of 3.

The 2011 Houston Astros finished 56-106. While having the worst recorded in baseball, they were awarded the No. 1 overall pick in the 2012 Draft. The Astros would select Carlos Correa. They would also draft Lance McCullers Jr., Brett Phillips, now Tampa Bay Ray, and Preston Tucker.

Takeaway

The Astros had the 11th pick in the draft in 2011, and with that pick they took George Springer. We all know how that turned out. The first pick in that draft was future Astros pitcher Gerrit Cole. Houston’s other notable picks were Adrian Houser, who is now with the Milwaukee Brewers. Nick Tropeano, who pitched for the Pittsburgh Pirates in 2020, and Matt Duffy, who is now out of baseball.

The 2011 Astros didn’t have a winning record against any team they faced in 162 games. They would go on to lose 100+ games the next two seasons, but management was changing, and the future of Houston was about to be gifted. Jim Crane would buy the Astros in May 2011 and be handed the keys to the organization in November. Houston also fired GM Ed Wade come November and signed Luhnow less than two weeks later. The team would soon move away from the brick red and pinstripes and turn to an old look while joining the AL West. The 2011 Houston Astros featured some dark days, but the outcomes led to a domino effect that would benefit the franchise in 4 years.

2011 is one of the most impactful seasons in Astros history. They had rookies Altuve and Martinez, a young Melancon, traded two top 25 outfielders in Bourn and Pence for a haul of busted prospects, were bought by Crane, hired Luhnow, lost 100 games for the first time ever, had the worst record in baseball and drafted George Springer. 2011 was an eventful year for the Astros, but there was so much more behind the loses.

It was the season that fueled one of the best turn arounds in MLB history.