MLB 2011 Preview: Houston Astros Should At Least Finish Ahead of Pirates
Previewing the 2011 MLB season, we’ve already named the Phillies, Yankees and Red Sox the top World Series favorites. Last week we looked at the how the NL Central might shape up with the Cardinals, Reds, Brewers and Cubs Yesterday we previewed the Pirates, and today we finish up the division with the Houston Astros.
Off-Season Moves: The Astros acquired utility man Clint Barmes from the Rockies in exchange for right-handed pitcher Felipe Paulino. Essentially, they got a guy who can play almost anywhere on the field for a guy who seemingly has no business in any starting rotation. They also picked up another utility man in Bill Hall and took a flier on left-handed pitcher Ryan Rowland-Smith, a guy who showed some promise before a disappointing 2010, both via free agency.
Strengths: The Astros have several guys who can play all over the field. Barmes played second base, third base and shortstop last season and has played in the outfield in the past. Hall played every infield position except first base last season with the Red Sox and also played every outfield position. He even pitched an inning — without allowing a hit or walking a batter. Last year’s primary second baseman Jeff Keppinger also played at shortstop and has played at first and in the outfield in the past.
The starting rotation could be relatively strong at the top with Brett Meyers (14-8, 3.14 ERA) and Wandy Rodriguez (11-12, 3.60 ERA, pictured above). Rodriguez obviously wasn’t stellar last season, but he’s just a year removed from a 14-win season and 3.02 ERA. The Astros also do alright on the basepaths, mostly due to Michael Bourn’s (pictured below) 52 bags, good for second in the majors and more than half of his team’s total.
Weaknesses: The same thing that gives the Astros a lot of options — versatile players — also could prove to be a weakness. Utility players can be great coming of the bench, spelling regulars, but when you’ve got as many as they have, you’ve basically got a bunch of guys who aren’t really great at any one position. Also, not one of those three guys, Keppinger, Hall and Barmes, hit above .290, had an on-base percentage higher than .355 or drove in more than 60 runs. Power wise, only Hall hit more than 10 home runs (18).
The potential strength at the top of the rotation is followed by a lot of question marks. The projected three through five guys look something like this; Left-hander J.A. Happ (6-4, 3.40), righty Bud Norris (9-10, 4.92) and either Rowland-Smith (1-10, 6.75) or righty Nelson Figueroa (7-4, 3.29). Happ probably has the most potential of that group, but what he can do remains to be seen. As a Mets fan, I can tell you Figueroa isn’t helping anyone as a full-time starter.
Houston finished 27th in the majors with a team batting average of .247 and 29th wth a .303 OBP. Keppinger led all Astro regulars in OBP and batting average, at .351 and .288 respectively last season, but he may actually be the odd man out of the starting lineup. A big part of the problem is left-fielder Carlos Lee. While he did hit 24 home runs last season, his .246 average and .291 OBP were the worst of his career. His home run total has actually decreased every year since 2006, a trend that has him hitting about 22 this season.
Summary: The Astros finished last season 76-86, good for fourth in the division, ahead of the Cubs and Pirates. By all indications the Reds should remain strong, the Cardinals are hurt by the Wainwright injury, but should still be more than competitive, the Brewers got better — at least short-term — and the Cubs could surprise. In any case, Houston didn’t get a whole lot better in the off-season and another 76-win season seems likely, but that probably won’t put them higher than fifth in the division.