Houston Astros

Posted by Baseball Bob at 17:06
Feb 072011

It was an interesting season in some ways in Houston, though if you are an Astros fan it was more like the Spanish Inquisition (serious torture) followed by Chinese water drip (extended torture) followed by being tied up and tickled (pleasant torture, but still excruciating). That the Astros would not contend was pretty much conceded by everyone before the season started, and they took no time to prove us right.

Roaring out of the box, the Astros were shut out twice in their first four games (once by Zito, once by Happ) as they started off at home against the teams who would play for the NL pennant in October, and lost 3 straight to each. Two more losses in St. Louis ran the streak to 8 – they were already 6 games behind and it was only April 16!

But the won the final game in SL, took 2 of 3 in Chicago, 2 of 3 at home from the Marlins, and swept the Pirates to climb to 8-10, and from last to third in the division. Unfortunately they then had to host good teams again, and they were swept (again at home) by the Reds, and again at Atlanta. Home to meet the D-Backs they ran the losing streak to 8 (how many teams have had TWO 8-game losing streaks in the same month?), and after winning the third Arizona game they lost the fourth and the first two against the Padres. Now 9-21, they were on pace for 121 losses (more than the 1962 Mets!) and were very solidly last place, 9½ behind. Cool standings already was giving them less than 1 chance in 1000 to make the postseason, on May 8! They trailed the Cubs by 4½ for fifth place, and were 5 back of the Pirates and Brewers.

Winning the final game against the Padres, they traveled to St. Louis and swept the defending division champion Cardinals, but went on to the west coast where they were swept by the Giants and Dodgers. At home they split two with the Rockies, and lost 2 of 3 to the Rays. On the road they lost 2 of 3 to the Brewers and Reds. 2 of 3 losses was exactly their worth: they stood at 16-33 on May 29, 13½ behind. The Pirates were worse than 1000-1 for the postseason, and they led Houston by 3½. Thus ends the Spanish Inquisition portion of the schedule.

They came home to win 3 of 4 from the Nats (no great feat) and 2 of 3 from the Cubs (not much more of one), and (more surprisingly), went into Colorado and won 3 of 4 from the Rockies. This 8 of 11 streak put them “up” to 25-36 and they had escaped the cellar due to a Pirates losing streak. They went into New York, though, to face the Yankees at the start of an interleague stretch and were swept, NY scoring 22 runs in 3 games. They lost 2 of 3 to the Royals (now THAT’S bad) and were swept in Texas. Losing the first game to SF meant that they had followed up their 8 of 11 wins with 9 of 10 losses, before rallying to take the last two against SF and the first in Texas (they dropped the last two). They finished June by taking 2 of 3 at Milwaukee to be 31-48, still worse than 1000-1 for the postseason, but ahead of Pittsburgh by 3½ (Pirates listed at 0%). The first half ended with 3 of losses in San Diego, a sweep of the Pirates at home, and 2 of 3 losses to St. Louis, also at home. They were 36-53. Note that they were 20-20 since May 29, and well into the Chinese water torture part of the schedule.

They came out of the break on the road, losing 2 of 3 in Pittsburgh and winning 2 of 3 in Chicago. At home they lost 2 of 3 to Cincinnati and won 2 of 3 from Chicago. (now 26-26 since May 29). They seemed to break out, sweeping Milwaukee and taking the first two in St. Louis – combined with the final two against the Cubs it was a 7-game winning streak. But they lost the last two in St. Louis, were swept in Milwaukee, and lost 2 of 3 to the Braves to be 48-65, 32-32 since May 29. Thus ends the water torture part of the schedule. It is August 11, and this long stretch of .500 baseball has pulled them into 4th place, ½ game ahead of the Cubs. I actually count the end of the water torture two days earlier, for reasons that I will go into in a separate post, but this is the place where the treading water at 17 below .500 ends, more or less.

The tickling torture part of the season begins with a sweep of the Pirates, a split of 4 with the Mets, and the loss of 2 of 3 to the Marlins. It continues with a 4-game sweep, IN PHILLY, of the NL Champion Phillies and losing 2 of 3 to the Mets in NY. A sweep of SL at home and 2 of 3 wins in both Arizona and Chicago, followed by a win at home against the Dodgers and Houston is, amazingly, at 67-73, only 6 below .500. They are 12 back of the Reds and 7 back of the Cardinals, and have no playoff chance, but they are playing well, beating good teams (something they did NOT do early in the year) and a .500 season seems not only possible, but reasonable. They lost the last two to the Dodgers but won 2 straight from the Brewers to move to 70-75. Loss, Win, Loss, Win made it 72-77 and another win moved them to within 4 of that lofty (for them) and unimaginable (earlier in the year) goal. They had tickled their fans, and the chance of a winning season beckoned: they had three games left with the Nationals, Pirates, Reds and Cubs. They needed to win 8 of 12: a tall task but not impossible with this schedule.

Alas, it was not to be – they lost 3 straight to the Nats, won and then lost 2 to the Pirates, lost-won-lost to the Reds and lost 2 of 3 to the Cubs, winding up the season 76-86, losing 9 of their final 12 to end the torturous season.

Overall 76-86 D+

The Astros scored 611 runs (3.77/G) and allowed 729 (4.5) while the league average was around 4.25. The Pythagorean formula, then, suggests that they should have a record of 67-95; they bested this by 9 games, which is a lot (if the formula were off by this much often it would be pretty useless). As described in the season summary above, the Astros season can be roughly divided into the following segments:

Up until May 29 – 16-33 .327

May 30 – August 11 32-32 .500

August 12 – September 20 25-12 .676

September 21 – October 3 3-9 .250

It would be fun to gather the stats for the various segments, but WAY too much work, so I am not going to do it. The third segment, with the Astros one of the winningest teams in baseball, was the subject of my last post (though it was actually written a couple of months ago) in which the Astros were seen to have the BEST 30-game starting pitching of any team in baseball for any 30 games of the year. Clearly they were good in all aspects of the game, as this 37 game stretch represents a winning percentage which, if kept up all year, would result in a 109 win season.

For the record, the Astros segments grade out at F, C, A+++, F.

It IS interesting to note that the Astros good run started shortly after they traded their best pitcher and their iconic first baseman!

One question before I really start: when did Minute Maid Park become a pitcher’s park? It was formerly Enron Stadium (name changed for obvious reasons) and I don’t have park factors back that far (I get them from espn.com here: (http://espn.go.com/mlb/stats/parkfactor) but my memory is that Enron (nicknamed “home run” was a great hitter’s park. But here are the Run and HR factors for the past 10 years (100 is average, over 100 favors hitters, under 100 favors pitchers. So 103 means 3% above average, etc.

2001 Runs .562 HR .620

2002 Runs 1.087 HR .987

2003 Runs 1.076 HR 1.120

2004 Runs 1.004 HR 1.075

2005 Runs .952 HR 1.194

2006 Runs 1.034 HR 1.171

2007 Runs .901 HR 1.049

2008 Runs 1.036 HR 1.155

2009 Runs .930 HR 1.065

2010 Runs .864 HR 1.084

OK, it turns out that over the years it has drifted toward suppressing RUNS but not HRs. But this list shows the volatility of the park factor data – you just can’t use one year. Using the past 3 years, it suppresses runs scored by about 6% (.943 actually) but increases HRs by about 10% (1.101). So the RS/RA should be adjusted slightly for this.

Hitters 56.5-105.5 F—

Runs Times
<3 57
3 24
4 27
5 17
6 17
>6 20

It is not hard to realize that this was a very bad hitting club; any indicator you choose to use will tell you that. My metric has their offense at .349 – I require .425 to get to D-, so this is REALLY bad.

Even in the golden stretch, when they went 25-12, their run breakdown was:

Runs Times
<3 10
3 11
4 8
5 3
6 2
>6 3

This translates to 9.25-27.75, which is WORSE than their regular season! They really scored no runs at all in this stretch (the 3 games > 6 are two 7s and an 8 ) but their pitching was SO GOOD that it carried them. I refer you to the post describing this stretch.

Four of the Astros eight regulars were above league in hitting, as measured by OPS+ (and remember, Minute Maid in 2010 was a pretty serious pitcher’s park, but it hasn’t always been so):

Aging icon Lance Berkman, at first base, posted a .245/.372/.436/808/122 line which was off his norm by quite a bit, and pretty ordinary for a firstbaseman, but on the plus side. He was traded to the Yankees, for whom he did very little.

Super-star wannabe Hunter Pence, now 27, was solid in rightfield, though hardly super, as he posted a .282/.325/.461/786/114 line. He needs to get on base more to deserve that super title, but overall he is a keeper.

Rookie Chris Johnson was great at third base (with the bat, the defensive metrics had some problems with him) as he posted a .308/.337/.481/818/123 line and it is a tribute to the depth of the rookie class that he got no votes for ROY. He is 25, and at this point the most valuable property (among the position players anyway) on the Astros.

And journeyman Jeff Keppinger (he has played for the Mets, Royals, Reds and Astros and at second, third, short, first, and corner outfield) delivered near-league fielding at second base (some short) at age 30 while posting a .288/.351/.393/744/105 line which is out of context with his career in the sense that every number is a little higher, but is not off the charts. If he can produce at this level, he is an acceptable option at second base.

The other four regulars did not fare so well:

Humberto Quintero, 30-year-old catcher, and his 23-year-old counterpart, Jason Castro, split most of the catching (500 PAs between them) and posted identical OPS+ of 59 (ouch!). They were worth 0.3 bWAR between them, mostly because Quintero is a pretty decent defensive catcher. Ugly.

Tony Manzella (27) and Angel Sanchez (26) between them patrolled shortstop (over 600 PAs). Manzella was HORRIBLE (OPS+ 47) while Sanchez was only BAD (OPS+ 83). As an added bonus, neither was very good in the field, either. Between them B-R has them 2.4 wins BELOW replacement. (Ramiro Pena would have been much better than either, and he didn’t hit at all).

Carlos Lee, former star, patrolled left field full-time (157 games), earned a fortune ($18.5M) and posted a .246/.291/.417/708/93 line, not bad for a middle infielder. He did manage 24 HRs (but remember, while Minute Maid suppressed RUNS it INCREASES HRs) but that OBP is not acceptable for ANYONE in ANY ballpark. And Lee is not exactly a gazelle in left field (B-R has him -1.8 WAR on defense) and so he, too, was below replacement (-0.2).

Michael Bourn is the 27-year-old centerfielder, and he CAN play the field (he won, and deserved, a second-straight Gold Glove), plus he led the NL for the second time in a row in stolen bases. Thus, perhaps, his OPS+ 90 is not as bad as it might seem, and B-R has him worth 4.3 WAR, of which 1.9 is offensive, 2.4 defensive.

Are there bright spots on the horizon? I am not sure there are any which are visible. The ONLY Astro sub with an OPS+ over 100 was 34-year-old reserve outfielder Jason Michaels, at 111 in 203 PAs, who is not exactly a prospect. Castro and Brett Wallace (first baseman, OPS+ 70) were the ONLY position players under 25 to appear in an Astros uniform in 2010. Ugh.

Starters 95.5-66.5 A

Starter GS IP ERA W-L Deserves First Second
Brett Myers 33 223.2 3.14 14-8 22.25-10.75 11.5-6.5 10.75-4.25
Wandy Rodriguez 32 195.0 3.60 11-12 19.25-12.75 7.5-10.5 11.75-2.25
Bud Norris 27 153.2 4.92 9-10 12.75-14.25 4.25-7.75 8.5-6.5
Roy Oswalt 20 129.0 3.42 6-12 14.25-5.75 14-4 0.25-1.75
Felipe Paulino 14 91.2 5.11 1-9 7.25-6.75 7.25-6.75 0-0
J.A. Happ 13 72.0 3.75 5-4 9-4 0-0 9-4
Nelson Figueroa 10 67.0 3.22 5-3 5.75-4.25 0-0 5.75-4.25
Brian Moehler 8 56.2 4.92 1-4 3.75-4.25 3.75-4.25 0-0
Wesley Wright 4 33.0 5.73 1-2 1.25-2.75 0-0 1.25-2.75
Josh Banks 1 4.0 13.50 0-1 0-1 0-1 0-0

The Astros had no particular first half-second half split, though they were 36-53 before the break and 40-33 after, and you can see that it was mostly pitching. They did score only 307 in 89 games (3.45/G) in the first half and 304 in 73 games (4.16/G) in the second half, but in the 37-game good stretch the offense was (as noted above) worse than ever. It was the starting pitching that was amazing, and you can see that in particular Wandy and Norris picked it up in the second half, between them going from 6.5 BELOW .500 (in deserved record) to 11.5 ABOVE .500, a swing of 18 games. Since the team as a whole went from 17 below to 7 above, ¾ of that swing can in some way be attributable to these two pitcher. Not really, though, because you needed Happ to replace the outstanding work of Oswalt (he did: Oswalt deserved a .713 winning percentage for Houston, and Happ deserved .689). Plus Nelson Figueroa (also obtained in the Oswalt trade) was better than the fill-in he replaced (Wesley Wright).

JA Happ, the centerpiece of the Oswalt trade, was really terrific. As I remarked at the end of my previous post, if he is going to pitch like this, the Astros won’t miss Oswalt at all! Happ was really great for the Phillies in 2009 (2nd in the ROY voting) when he pitched 166 innings (23 starts, 12 relief appearances) at age 26 and posted an ERA of 2.93 in a great hitter’s park. He had made only 2 starts (GS 58 and 54, deserved 1.5-0.5) when he went onto the DL, and he had made only a single start (GS 47, mediocre) on his return before the trade. But he was just as good in the 1/3 season in Houston as he had been in Philly, and he is not even arbitration eligible until next year, so Houston gets 4 more years under team control.

I think of Wandy Rodriguez as young, but that is because he didn’t appear until he was already 26 – he turned 32 last month. His ERA+ for 6 seasons in the bigs: 77, 79, 97, 119, 136, 108. So he was progressing nicely until 2010, when he seemed to backslide. But his second half was terrific; he appears to be back at the 2009 level.

Bud Norris was only 25 and in his second year (he pitched 55 2/3 in 2009) – I am not sure if he was technically a rookie but he might as well have been. He got off to a slow start, but by the end of the year was pitching well, himself. His ERA before the break was 5.97, but after the break it was 4.18.

So these three form a decent rotation core, two young guys and a solid veteran. Happ would be the potential ace of the staff, though he hasn’t been thought of quite that way up until now. Oswalt’s are big shoes to fill.

And then there’s the enigma, Brett Myers. I thought he was going to be the ace of the Phillies’ staff years ago, when he posted an ERA of 3.72 (ERA+ 118) at the age of 24, in 34 starts (215 IP) in a tough park for pitchers. But he was 29 in 2010, and here are his ERA+ for his 9 ML seasons: 92, 90, 81, 118, 120, 106, 97, 87, 123. So which is the real Brett Myers? The one who just had a great season with a lousy Astro team, or the one who couldn’t get it done for the division-winning Phillies the past two seasons? If the former, then the Astros have the core of a REALLY good rotation, if the latter then there are holes.

Felipe Paulino was tried and found wanting (1-9 5.11 ERA+ 76) at age 26, and will likely not be counted on. Nelson Figueroa is old (36) and pitched very well for Houston but also is not a likely part of their future. Brian Moehler is even older (38) and pitched much more poorly. Wesley Wright was only 25, but he has pitched parts of 3 seasons in the majors and has yet to get his ERA for any year below 5.00. His minors numbers are high strikeouts and high walks, not so good in a HR park. He may work out, but the odds are long.

Overall, though, the Astros had a very good rotation, especially when you remember that the pitching that I use includes the defense, and the Astro defense was not particularly strong.

Relievers 72/507 C

1st Half 2nd Half
Reliever G IP ERA Val Gr G Val Gr G Val Gr
Brandon Lyon 79 78.0 3.12 30 A+ 41 11 B+ 38 19 A+
Wilton Lopez 68 67.0 2.96 34 A+ 34 12 A+ 34 22 A+
Tim Byrdak 64 38.2 3.49 16 B+ 33 5 C+ 31 11 A+
Matt Lindstrom 58 53.1 4.39 5 C- 35 8 B 23 -3 F
Jeff Fulchino 50 47.1 5.51 5 C- 29 -3 F 21 8 A+
Gustavo Chacin 44 38.1 4.70 -12 F 21 -5 F 23 -7 F
Chris Sampson 35 30.1 5.93 0 D- 30 6 B- 5 -6 F
Fernando Abad 22 19.0 2.84 8 A+ 0 0 22 8 A+
Mark Melancon 20 17.1 3.12 5 B+ 0 0 20 5 B+
Casey Daigle 13 10.1 11.32 -13 F 11 -7 F 2 -6 F
Brian Moehler 12 56.2 4.92 2 C+ 12 2 C+ 0 0
Wesley Wright 10 33.0 5.73 3 A- 6 -1 F 4 4 A+
Nelson Figueroa 8 67.0 3.22 2 B+ 0 0 8 2 B+
Henry Villar 8 6.0 4.50 0 D- 0 0 8 0 D-
Sammy Gervacio 6 3.2 12.27 -5 F 6 -5 F 0 0
Felipe Paulino 5 91.2 5.11 -3 F 0 0 5 -3 F
Gary Majewski 2 2.0 22.50 -2 F 0 0 2 -2 F
Enerio Del Rosario 2 1.1 20.25 -2 F 0 0 2 -2 F
Kevin Cash 1 1.0 9.00 -1 F 0 0 1 -1 F

The bullpen, too, improved in the second half, but not to the same extent as the rotation.

Lyon and Lopez were both terrific all year, and Byrdak was solid in the first half and terrific in the second half (he signed with the Mets). Lindstrom is now with the Rockies (no great loss) and Fulchino (yawn) and Chacin (ugh) are back. The only other pitchers on this list that are NOT in the Houston organization in 2011 are Daigle (Giants) and Paulino (Rockies).

The Astro bullpen was average, and actually improved from C- in the first half to B+ in the second half. Lindstrom had some blowups that affected his ERA but mostly got the job done. Lyon, Lopez, Byrdak and Figueroa all had ERA+ between 112 and 132.

The frightening thing about this bullpen is the ages of the pitchers. Here are the reliever’s playing ages in 2010, for everyone who logged 20 innings or more for the Astros:

Lindstrom 30, Lyon 30, Lopez 26, Fulchino 30, Byrdak 36, Figueroa 36, Moehler 38, Chacin 29, Wright 25, Sampson 32

It is not so much that they are old, but there is NO youth here, at all, really. Abad (24) and Melancon (25) may help, but they didn’t log enough innings to make any sort of judgment. The weighted age of the Astro hitters was 29.5 and that of the pitchers was also 25.

Summary

In one key way, it is better to be a bit below average with a strength harnessed to a weakness, rather than to just be below average everywhere: it is easier to change half than the whole. So having good pitching and bad hitting makes it easier to contend in the future, than being mediocre in both categories.

That said, there is a LOT of work to do to make this a contending team. The rotation has to hold up, including finding someone to take the fifth spot (Nelson Figueroa is listed there at the moment on ESPN), which means that Myers has to stay Mr. Hyde, Happ has to fulfill the promise that he made the past season and a half, Wandy has to keep up his level, and Norris has to take a step forward. And you have to find better than replacement players at several positions: catcher and short and left field and first base, plus some of your other players (Johnson, Bourn, Pence) have to consolidate and improve on their 2010. A tall order indeed.

This was a bad team with a TERRIBLE offense. There was a piece on FanGraphs (http://www.fangraphs.com/blogs/index.php/the-all-minor-league-contract-team/) about the best team you could put together from guys that signed minor-league deals this offseason, and the writer comments that the offense on this replacement-level team would have been better than the 2010 Astros. The hope lies in the pitching, and in replacing the hitters with major leaguers.

On to 2011

Here is the Astros 2011 roster as it looks today, according to espn.com:

Jason Castro C 24 Pre-arb
Humberto Quintero C 31 $1M
Brett Wallace 1B 24 Pre-arb
Bill Hall 2B 31 $3M
Clint Barmes SS 32 $3.925M
Chris Johnson 3B 26 $0.424M
Jeff Keppinger UT 31 $2.3M
Tommy Manzella UT 28 Pre-arb
Carlos Lee LF 35 $18.5M
Michael Bourn CF 28 $4.4M
Hunter Pence RF 28 Arb
Jason Michaels OF 35 $0.8M
Jason Bourgeois OF 29 Pre-arb
Wandy Rodriguez SP 32 $7M
J.A. Happ SP 28 Pre-arb
Brett Myers SP 30 $7M
Bud Norris SP 26 Pre-arb
Nelson Figueroa SP 37 $0.9M
Brandon Lyon CL 31 $5.25M
Wilton Lopez RP 31 Pre-arb
Alberto Arias RP 26 Pre-arb
Mark Melancon RP 26 Pre-arb
Jeff Fulchino RP 31 Pre-arb
Enerio Del Rosario RP 25 Pre-arb
Ryan Rowland-Smith RP 28 $0.725M

Eleven players on the 25 with fewer than 2 years of ML service seems like a lot, to me, but then the Astros did not have a banner season! It is always possible that you get your pre-arbitration youngsters and they play their heart out for you. I don’t decry the strategy, at all. On the other hand, there are not a lot of can’t-miss, true prospects on this list. And some of the “veterans” are like free-agent signing Ryan Rowland-Smith (and his 1-10 6.75 in 109 IP for Seattle) or Nelson Figueroa, a 36-year-old reliever who signed to avoid arbitration (!) and is slated for the rotation, though he has never started 7 games in the same season in his career.

The Astros payroll in 2010 was $92.6M. I may be missing something, but I add up these players, projecting $500K for the Pre-arbs (though they will mostly be $420K or so) to make the math easy, and assuming Hunter Pence wins his case (he submitted $6.9M and the Astros offered $5.15M) and I come up shy of $70M, so they appear to have seriously cut payroll. And with Carlos Lee getting $18.5M and Wandy and Myers getting $7M each, essentially half the payroll is tied up in 3 players, only one of which (Wandy) is a good bet to have a good year.

It may be another long season to be an Astros fan.

Hitters

2011 2010
Jason Castro C 1.0 0.6 Quintero
Brett Wallace 1B 2.0 1.5 Berkman
Bill Hall 2B 0.5 2.5 Keppinger
Clint Barmes SS 1.5 -1.5 Manzella
Chris Johnson 3B 2.5 1.7
Carlos Lee LF 0.0 -1.6
Michael Bourn CF 3.0 4.3
Hunter Pence RF 1.5 1.0

This is a remarkably difficult team to get a handle on, as far as how they are likely to hit goes. Let me run down my challenges, what I did, and where I came out.

Catcher: Castro was a rookie last year, earned -0.3 bWAR in 195 PAs, and will be 24. I had to guess at his value, and assumed that he will be better than Quintero, because Quintero is still there, and would presumably play if Castro is worse. So I gave him 1.0 WAR, but of course it could be almost anything.

First Base: The plan is to play almost-rookie Brett Wallace, who is also 24, with no ML track record. In his case I looked at his minor-league record, which is pretty solid, as he had an OPS of 868 in 2010 at AAA, and 870 in one stop and 769 in the other stop in 2009, also at AAA. So he has put in his time, and may be ready. I just guessed at the WAR, based on the fact that they haven’t seen the need for a veteran backup first-baseman (the depth chart lists Keppinger as the backup), and called it 2.0.

Second Base: the Astros signed Bill Hall to play second. Hall is a 9-year veteran with 3500 ML PAs, but B-R doesn’t think much of him, at all: he has a CAREER bWAR of 0.8 for the 9 years. He “earned” -0.1 with the Red Sox last year (Sox fans would say this is WAY generous) in 382 PAs, and 0.0 with the Mariners in 2009 in 131. But Milwaukee valued him, even if the numbers didn’t, as he can play anywhere (last year he played every position for the Sox except catcher, and that includes Pitcher), and he got 400+ PAs every year from 2004-2008 with the Brewers, with his best season rating at 0.6 bWAR. For some reason, the Astros felt he was a good signing at $3M, even though Keppinger did better than that for them in 2010. My projection system put him at 0, but I was generous and made it 0.5.

Shortstop: the Astros signed Clint Barmes to play short. Barmes’ last three seasons were 2.3, 1.9, 1.0 so he is clearly going in the wrong direction, but in only one of those (the middle one) did he play a full year. Almost all of his value is defensive, so he will not help with the run-scoring problem. His OPS+ for 2010, in 432 PAs, was 67. He has played his entire career-to-date in Colorado, which also may mean he might have trouble playing in a place that is not mile-high. I used the formula to project him.

Third Base: the Astros 2010 plan for third base was Pedro Feliz, which was a bad plan that worked out even worse. Then they switched to rookie Chris Johnson, and he was actually quite good with the bat, though UZR doesn’t like his glove. He earned 2.3 bWAR for offense in 362 PAs – projecting to a full season that would be about 4. He “earned” -0.6 for defense, though, so his 1.7 total would project to more like 2.5 over a full year. He is 27, so there might be some growth, so I decided to go with that, though I realize it could be way optimistic (of course, it could be low, but I don’t really try to project break-out years).

Left field: the $18M man is Carlos Lee, whose bWAR for the past 3 years on the big contract were 2.6, 0.3, -1.6. This projects to -0.3, but I weakened, and called it zero. Obviously, if he were to regain his form, he could be much better than this. But in reality the last time he was “in form” was 2004 (4.6 bWAR) – the next best is that 2.6 in 2008. I think at this point if you offered them a 2.0 season the Astros would jump at it, though it needs to be nearer to 4 for him to earn his salary.

Center (Bourn) and right (Pence) I just used the formula, but they are both highly variable players, as well.

So, if you are a Houston fan with a supply of rose-colored glasses, EVERY player in the projected lineup is a question mark, and hard to predict. We more or less know what Mark Teixeira is likely to do, and A-Rod and Granderson, so predicting the Yankees is not all that confusing. Sure, some of them will underperform, but some will overperform, and mostly the team will come out about where we expect. But with the Astros, there is NO ONE that I have ANY confidence in predicting. Adding up the values I have assigned, I am thinking the offense will be a bit better than it was in 2010 – it comes out +3.5 WAR. But I freely admit that this team could easily score 200 more runs than it did in 2010, or 100 fewer (less than that, and their AAA might outscore them).

It is a hard call, certainly beyond my poor abilities.

Rotation

I don’t use the same WAR formula for pitchers, but just go by impressions, ages, etc. I really like Happ, perhaps without much basis, and I have thought for some time that Wandy was a solid starter. Myers is erratic, and who knows which Brett Myers will show up. Norris came on strong, and is fairly young; I think he will be fine. Figueroa will be, I believe, a complete disaster – I hope they have a AAA option, as I think they will need it. Their 40-man roster has a LOT of pitchers, so I expect (without going to the trouble to look it up) that some of them are probably replacement-level or better starters, which will likely be an upgrade on a 36-year-old never-was-a-starter.

But this team kind of overperformed in the rotation department in 2010, and I don’t expect they can keep it up. Yes, Wandy could be as good. Yes, Happ could take up the slack from Oswalt (and himself, remember). Yes, Norris could round into a good #3. Yes, Myers COULD duplicate his 2010, it is not out of context with his career. Yes, Figueroa could surprise, or the Astros could have another Norris lurking. Any of these things could happen in 2011, even several of them. But for the Astros to duplicate their starting pitching of 2010 ALL of them need to happen, and I can’t see it.

I think the rotation will be about 5 games worse in 2011, which would still rate B+.

Bullpen

Much like the hitters, it is hard to know what to do with the Astros 2011 projected relief corps.

Lindstrom started the year as the closer, and on 7/16 he had saved 22 games in 24 tries, and had an ERA of 2.72. But he blew saves on 8/6 and 8/10 (and had several non-save games in between), then took a loss on 8/16 and spent 2 weeks on the DL. Brandon Lyon took over the closer role, and converted 20 of 21 the rest of the way (the Astros had WAY more save opportunities down the stretch, as noted in the season summary). Lindstrom came back September 1, but the Astros were playing well, Lyon was pitching well, and he didn’t get his job back. Lindstrom is gone, and Lyon has the closer job, which I expect he will do just fine.

Behind him, though, all is chaos.

Wilton Lopez, 27, was a rookie in 2010, and produced 1.2 bWAR and a great ERA and an even better FIP. But Bill James projects him to rise from 2.96 to 3.82 in ERA, and Marcel is even more pessimistic (3.91) so they must see something. He will likely be fine, but probably not great, and he will have greater responsibility in 2011, pitching in more close games with Lindstrom gone.

Alberto Arias is also 27, and did not pitch at all at any level in 2010, having had shoulder surgery. He pitched well for Houston in 2009 (46 IP 3.35 ERA) though his walks are higher than you would like. But who knows how well he’ll come through after a year off; we just have to wait and see.

Mark Melancon came to Houston in the Lance Berkman deal. The Yankees used him as an emergency reliever from AAA. He pitched 16 innings in 2009 (ERA 3.86) and 4 in 2010 (ERA 9.00) before the trade. He will be 26 next month, and the Astros kept him in the majors for the final 2 months, throwing 17 innings of B+ relief. His walks are a problem, at least they were a worry in NY, but his strikeouts in Houston (VERY SMALL SAMPLE SIZE) were 10/9IP and the walks 4.2/9 so he can throw. Whether he can PITCH is another question. He reminds me of Tyler Clippard, though, and the Yankees shipped HIM off and he turned out more than OK.

Jeff Fulchino is 31, and he pitched 47 innings of very mixed results for the Astros last year, but his second half was much better than his first (A+ to F) so there is hope that he has come around and will help.

Enerio del Rosario is 25, and didn’t really pitch in the majors last year (10 innings), only 1 of them in Houston after coming over from Cincinnati, but he did pretty well in AAA in 2009-10 (2.54 ERA) and he MAY be ready. Unfortunately he is a low-strikeout, low-walk type of pitcher, and that kind rarely thrives long-term. It could work for 2010, however.

Ryan Rowland-Smith was the Astros mystery signing (pitching edition). Rowland-Smith pitched 4 seasons for the Mariners, converting from the pen to starting halfway through 2008 and being exclusively a starter in 2009 (15 starts) and mostly in 2010, when he had 20 starts and 7 relief appearances. It may well be that espn.com has it wrong, and the plan is to use Figueroa in the bullpen and Rowland-Smith in the rotation. If that is the plan, it makes a LITTLE more sense, but not much, as Rowland-Smith was pretty awful: I have him as deserving a 5.25-14.75 record in 20 starts with the Mariners, and -2 in 7 relief appearances. If you are a traditional stats person, he was 1-10 with a 6.75 ERA in 27 appearances, 109 2/3 IP. The previous two seasons were better (ERAs 3.42 and 3.74) but he is low strikeout (last year 4/9) and high walk (last year 3.6/9) which is a bad combo, indeed. I don’t see what they get from him that they can’t get from any one of their half-dozen AAA kids.

The bullpen wasn’t all that good in 2010, so predicting that it will be a little worse in 2011 means it will not be good, at all.

Summary

Sadly for my Astro fan friends, it looks to me to be a long summer. I see Houston as about 6-7 games worse than 2010, which puts them in 70-92 range. They DID get a little younger, but they don’t seem to have any exciting young players on the horizon, unless you count Happ or Wallace.

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