Team Profile – Houston Astros
2012 marks the last year that the Houston Astros will play in the National League (for the foreseeable future anyway). In 2013, the Astros will move to the A.L. West, evening out every division in baseball with five teams. Despite the recent failures by the team (including a 106-loss season in 2011), it wasn’t that long ago when the Astros were true competitors in their division, as well as Major League Baseball. Unfortunately, those recent failures – combined with the success of division rivals such as the Brewers, Cardinals, and Reds – have left the Astros near the bottom of the division, looking up. Will the team fare any better in 2012? Or perhaps a move to the American League will be just what it needs to get the winning jumpstarted again.
The Astros’ rotation is anchored by Wandy Rodriguez. In the last eight seasons, Rodriguez has been a fairly mediocre pitcher. He’s pitched exclusively for the Astros since being called up in 2005, but other than 2009, he’s never posted a record over .500. Granted, the win-loss totals don’t entirely reflect the talent of a pitcher (reflecting more the ability of the offense to provide run support), but it is an adequate benchmark to reflect how well he pitches early in games. If he’s not able to keep opposing offenses to minimal runs when he is in the game, then how can the offense even hope to help win games? Wandy’s lifetime ERA is 4.01, which adds to the idea that he’s average, at best. In most rotations, he’d be a number four or five starter.
In this rotation, however, Wandy Rodriguez is the ace. Behind him are J.A. Happ, Lucas Harrell, and Bud Norris (with the current fifth rotation member, Kyle Weiland, on the disabled list). If Rodriguez is average, the other three are even less than average. Happ had success in 2009, while a member of the Philadelphia Phillies, but in Houston he’s found limited success. The Astros’ rotation has a lot in common with the Mariners’. While the Houston pitching staff has more elevated numbers, all of them are putting up numbers that would make them very serviceable back-of-the-rotation pitchers for a team that could provide even moderate run support. There was a lot of interest in Rodriguez from teams looking for just that, and Happ pitched for the Phillies in a year when they went to the World Series.
The Astros’ offense is anchored by veterans Jed Lowrie and Travis Buck. Lowrie played most of his career with the Red Sox, and Buck played for many years in Oakland. Both have found new homes in Houston, though, and currently give the team a very solid boost. Both men are career .260-.270 hitters, and have thus far continued that this season. Other key players in the Astros’ lineup include Jose Altuve, J.D. Martinez, Chris Johnson, and Jordan Schafer. Other than Johnson, the rest of those players are only in their second year of major league service. While young and unproven, these players are hitting adequately thus far in the early season, thus allowing the Astros to hover at 9-14 right now. Not a great record, but given the recent struggles of this team, it could be much worse.
The main shortcoming of the offense is that, like most small market teams, when a player starts doing well he’s traded or signed by a better team that can afford the talent. For instance, Hunter Pence. This doesn’t give the Astros a chance to field a talented bat that can be a game changer. All that leaves you with are a bunch of average bats that can’t quite put it together. Add to that a starting rotation that can’t win more than half their starts, and you end up with a pretty subpar team trying to win the largest division in baseball.
This has to be the one bright spot in the whole Astros organization right now. Brett Meyer and Rhiner Cruz are fantastic thus far, and Wilton Lopez and Fernando Rodriguez have really eaten some innings when the starting rotation has failed to perform. It really says something when the bullpen has almost as many wins as, and fewer losses than, the starting rotation.
Brandon Lyon is especially worth noting out there. He’s a veteran presence that provides a reliable arm, even after a decade of pitching. In his career he’s played with Toronto, Boston, Arizona, Detroit, and Houston. Other than one hiccup injury-shortened season last year in Houston, Lyon has kept his ERA near or below four for his career. While not stellar for a guy that is supposed to come into games to hold the opposing team, it speaks volumes to his longevity and consistency in the game. You know what you’re going to get from him. You don’t have to worry about a surprise beating or elevated numbers that leave your team in worse shape. And on a team that doesn’t have a lot going for it, even one player with that kind of consistency late in games is more than a manager could hope for.
Keys to Success
Um…get better? Seriously, there doesn’t seem like much Houston can do to actually succeed this year. They’re playing in the same division as the reigning World Series champion Cardinals, the Brewers (who won the division in 2011), and the Reds (who are clawing their way back to the top of this division again this season). The best thing you can hope for at this point is to just finish ahead of the Pirates and Cubs, and even that is looking like a half-complete plan at this point. I guess if the Astros want to find any success, the starting rotation is going to have to get a lot better. These guys have the ability, I’m sure. They just need to practice. The offense can give them as much run support as they want, but it won’t matter if the deficit is too large to overcome. Honestly, this division seems to be stacked against the Astros, and the future isn’t looking much better. Next year they move to a division with the Texas Rangers and Los Angeles Angels. Not exactly an easier schedule. I guess the only hope now is for monumental collapses by the teams at the top of the division. It could happen, I guess, but it’s unlikely (especially since the Brewers and Cardinals both lost their top sluggers to free agency, and they’re still in command). With any luck the new ownership will be able/willing to spend during the offseason and bring in talent that could actually turn the Astros’ first A.L. season into something of a success.
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