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2011 Astros Preview: Astros Still Soul Searching

Michael Rusignola

Michael Rusignola

Michael Rusignola has been covering fantasy baseball for RotoWire since 1998. He roots for the NY Mets and SF Giants, his two hometown teams.

Reality set in quickly for the 2010 Astros, who stumbled out of the gate with eight quick losses, five of them without scoring more than a single run. Before the team could stop the bleeding, it was 9-21 and thoroughly mired in last place in the NL Central.

The fans did their share of losing as well - losing franchise icons Roy Oswalt and Lance Berkman at the deadline, and standing on the precipice of bidding farewell to the first owner to bring them some respectability in Drayton McLane. If you're one of those people who insist on finding a silver lining, take comfort in the team's youth movement: the Astros went 40-33 (.548) with the youngsters after the break, trailing only the Phillies, Giants and Reds in the NL over that same stretch, all of whom went to the playoffs.

2011 figures to showcase more Astros youth, and perhaps the limitations of their farm system. Though they will almost assuredly get younger (still), their prospects are far from blue chip with Jordan Lyles the lone exception. The NL Central figures to be even stronger this year, adding the revamped Brew Crew and rebounding Cubs into the mix of one of the more interesting divisions in baseball. Houston should be able to stay ahead of the Pittsburgh, but expecting much more out of a team doing some serious soul searching would be a mistake.

Offseason Moves:

1B Geoff Blum and RHP Brian Moehler elected free agency
Sometimes what you don't do is as important is what you do. The Astros, who (truth be told) aren't going anywhere in 2011, opted not to bring back two of their veteran stalwarts, which is a great call considering how poorly the pair fared in 2010.

Houston Astros traded Felipe Paulino to Colorado Rockies for 2B Clint Barmes 
This was an interesting move for the Astros. One can surmise that GM Ed Wade grew frustrated with Paulino's inconsistency and fickle health. That said, it would have been nice to see Houston get a little more back for such a young power arm.

Houston Astros signed free agent LHP Ryan Rowland-Smith
Trendy, preseason 2010 deep sleeper Rowland-Smith found himself with a new team in 2011. Though the Astros' plans call for him to be a reliever this season, it wouldn't be inconceivable to see him snatch Nelson Figueroa's fifth spot with a hot start and/or a poor one from Figueroa.

RHP Sammy Gervacio elected free agency;  Houston Astros signed free agent RHP Sammy Gervacio
There was a moment there when the Astros declined to offer Gervacio a contract where it looked like the young reliever would move on to greener pastures. Thankfully for the Astros, Gervacio (who was injured through much of 2010 and may start 2011 on the DL) stayed put. By late July of this year, there's a good chance that a host of GMs in search of quality bullpen arms will be kicking themselves at the missed opportunity to get a great one for next to nothing.

Houston Astros signed free agent 2B Bill Hall
Even though the Astros are in a rebuilding mode, they still have to field a team. The looming sale of the franchise complicates the picture, as prospective owners want to see as little committed salary as possible. Working within those parameters, it's hard to fault the Astros for signing free agent Hall to a $3M, one-year contract.

Houston Astros traded RHP Matt Lindstrom to Colorado Rockies
Here today, gone tomorrow: Lindstrom found himself second guessed, demoted, and ultimately traded all within the course of a year. Back problems contributed to his difficulties, but plain old inconsistency did too. He'll join teammate Felipe Paulino in Denver.

Projected Lineup/Rotation:

Projected Lineup

1. Michael Bourn, CF
2. Clint Barmes, SS
3. Hunter Pence, RF
4. Carlos Lee, LF
5. Chris Johnson, 3B
6. Brett Wallace, 1B
7. Bill Hall, 2B
8. Jason Castro, C

The Astros lack a true #2 hitter, so Clint Barmes will attempt to hold down that role. Pence saw equal time hitting third and fifth last season, but with Lance Berkman's departure and Chris Johnson's newness, we would expect Pence to hit third and Johnson fifth. Astros manager Brad Mills might opt to hit Hall sixth and Wallace seventh to take some of the pressure off of the young first baseman (a lot will depend on how the spring progresses). Jason Michaels and Jeff Keppinger figure to be the regular subs off the bench, in the outfield and infield respectively. Carlos Lee and/or Brian Bogusevic could steal at-bats at first if Wallace struggles.

Starting Rotation

1. Wandy Rodriguez
2. Brett Myers
3. J.A. Happ
4. Bud Norris
5. Nelson Figueroa

Fresh off his new contract, Astro hurler Wandy Rodriguez will anchor the rotation, followed by 2010 staff ace Brett Myers. The steady Happ will eat innings from the three spot, followed by Bud Norris and surprise rotation returnee Nelson Figueroa. Recent additions, Aneury Rodriguez, Lance Pendleton and Ryan Rowland-Smith could all see time in the back end of the rotation, depending on how Norris and Figueroa fare in the early going. Consider the Jordan Lyles watch officially started: the hyped prospect could make a debut as early as June.

Closer: Brandon Lyon

Key Bullpen Members: Jeff Fulchino, Alberto Arias, Wilton Lopez, Mark Melancon and Wesley Wright

Unlike 2010, which began with an open job share for ninth inning, Brandon Lyon will see relatively little competition for the closer's role this season. By trading Matt Lindstrom in December, the Astros committed to the 31-year-old Lyon, at least for the foreseeable future.

Notes of Import, Fantasy and Otherwise:

1. What can we expect from Jason Castro?

This is a big year for Castro, who will open the season behind the plate as the team's starter. The former number one pick will have some room to prove himself, even though the team has a number of catching options waiting in the minors. As a college player, Castro hit close to .400 with power to spare; as a professional he has yet to show any of that potential. He should hit better than the .205 he put up in 2010, but how much better is a big question. If you draft him on his upside, be sure to have a safety net in case he fails to materialize.
 
2. Will Wandy Rodriguez live up to his new contract?

For this coming season, it's not unreasonable think Rodriguez, who finished with a 3.60 ERA and 1.29 WHIP after a horrendous first half, will be worth $7M. The problem with the deal is that it (like most deals) is back-loaded, and there's a real strong possibility that Rodriguez won't be worth $13M as a 34-year-old. Be thankful his contract won't hit your books and draft Rodriguez for the present not the future.

Strengths

An open minded manager in Brad Mills, who is willing to roll the dice with whoever has the hot hand;  a cash-strapped GM in Ed Wade, who won't give his manager much more than he has already. These two things in concert mean you can expect to see a lot of rookies on the field this season - and if you pay attention, you may be able to catch fantasy lightning in a bottle.

Weaknesses

...abound. Beyond the front 2-3 starting pitchers and a couple of outfielders, there are very few "sure things" on the projected Opening Day roster.

Sleepers

Rising: Bud Norris - Norris was an up-and-down pitcher in 2010, but should be a little more consistent as he enters his second full season as a starter. As with most strikeout pitchers, there tends to be a period of adjustment, where finesse and command become more critical than sheer power. If Norris can make that transition, he could become a real dominant force in the NL Central.

Declining: Carlos Lee - For a variety of reasons, it appears that Lee's heart is no longer in the game of baseball. Last season, at age 34, El Caballo began telling the press that he is ready to retire (and this with two years still left on his financial albatross of a contract). He will improve somewhat on a miserable 2010, but he will likely never be the same player that he was in his prime, or even the same player that he was three years ago.

Sleeper: Brett Wallace - Wallace is one of those textbook post-hype prospects who don't garner the headlines but get astute owners excited on draft day. Despite what the team is saying publicly, Wallace should have some job security, since the team owes it to themselves to see what he's got. Wallace was a top-10 prospect as recently as the 2009 season. Certainly worth an end-game pick to see whether he can translate minor league success into major league stats.

Supersleeper: Brian Bogusevic - A lot has to break Bogusevic's way, but with a little luck and enough misplayed flyballs to Carlos Lee in left, he could see semi-regular playing time. Bogusevic will be 27 by Opening Day, but has only spent the last three years as a hitter, converting from pitching in 2008. He's lightning fast and has developing power, and could be a good waiver wire claim if the stars align.

Roster

Here's a rundown on the rest of the team not mentioned above.

Jason Bourgeois - The longer this goes on, the more it looks like Bourgeois has hit his ceiling in the high minors. Over the past three seasons, the speedy outfielder has put up a .309/.354/.423 line at Triple-A and a .215/.285/.276 line in the big leagues. Bourgeois brings speed and defense to the table, and can serve as a defensive replacement in either outfield corner or at second base, where he made a brief appearance last season. He'll battle Brian Bogusevic for the last spot on the bench, and if he sticks, could also see some additional at-bats filling in around the infield.

Tommy Manzella - Manzella struggled offensively through most of the 2010 season and did himself no favors with a poor showing this offseason in winter ball. The Astros had given the rookie the starting job last season knowing he was a Major League-ready defensive shortstop and hoping his bat would come around. It didn't, and now he will have to show big strides in spring training just to rejoin the club as a backup.

Matt Downs - Downs made the occasional start down the stretch last season while teammate Jeff Keppinger nursed a toe injury. While he didn't do much, it's reasonable to think Downs could win the utility infield job out of spring training, especially with the departure of Geoff Blum to Arizona. He'll need a strong spring where he shows a little more with his bat for that to become a reality, however.

Angel Sanchez - Coming over in the minor deal that sent Kevin Cash back to Boston, Sanchez got his first real taste of the majors since 2006. He's got no power to speak of, but managed to hit an empty .280 through 250 at-bats. Sanchez can play shortstop and second, but is better suited for second given his limited range and weak arm. He has never been able to translate his speed into stolen bases, which really limits his upside. With starting shortstop Clint Barmes on board and Bill Hall holding down second, he'll battle for playing time as a utility option off the bench.

J.R. Towles - Towles had another shot to nail down the starting catcher position last season but failed to impress. He had just four extra-base hits in 47 at-bats and drew only two walks while striking out 12 times. He faces an uphill battle this spring now that Jason Castro wears the "catcher of the future" tag. Chances are, Towles will find himself playing elsewhere in 2011 with Humberto Quintero penciled in as the No. 2 backstop behind Castro for Houston this season.

Humberto Quintero - The Astros finally came to terms with the fact that Quintero's poor batting eye - he featured a 8:59 BB:K ratio in 2010 - does not make him a viable major league regular. That said, he has established himself as Brett Myers' personal catcher, leading the hurler to one of the best seasons of his career. That distinction and Jason Castro's youth will ensure Quintero gets a decent number of at-bats this season, but just because he gets into some games doesn't mean you'll want him in your lineup. At his best, Quintero is nothing more than a backup catcher and organizational filler.

Fernando Abad - Abad got some big league exposure as a left-handed arm out of the bullpen, finding his way into 22 games in 2010. He showed good strikeout numbers in the low minors, but has seen his strikeout rate steadily decline as he has moved up the ladder. He's got a shot to break camp with the team, but will likely find himself ironing out the kinks in the minors to start the season.

Top Prospects:

Jordan Lyles - Lyles had a nice 2010 season at the upper levels of the minor leagues, combining for a 3.57 ERA and 137 strikeouts between Double-A and Triple-A. He swooned a bit in September at Round Rock, but he probably just ran out of gas in an otherwise amazingly steady year. Lyles has clean and easy mechanics, hitting 93-94 mph on his best days and usually working right around 90-91. There has been some talk that the Astros will give Lyles a shot to break camp with the team as their No. 5 starter, but the more likely scenario is a midseason callup after some additional Triple-A seasoning.

J.D. Martinez - Martinez was named the minor league player of the year for the Astros in 2010. The 23-year-old outfielder hit .341 with a .937 OPS across two levels in 2010. He was a bit old for Low-A, where he did most of his damage. He will likely begin 2011 back in Double-A.

Koby Clemens - The son of Roger Clemens has hit 48 homers and driven in 208 runs the last two years between High-A and Double-A. Clemens is prone to slumps, but his 51 extra-base hits last season show signs of power potential at higher levels. The Astros have some well-documented problems with their offense, but if Clemens can rein in the strikeouts and hold his own a little better in the field, he could emerge as the first baseman of the future. He's likely headed to Triple-A to open 2011 after a decent stretch during the Arizona Fall League (.288/.337/.463) against advanced prospects.

Jay Austin - Austin's relatively poor numbers are a bit misleading. At a playing age of just 19-years-old he was very young for high-A, where the average age is somewhere north of 23. Still, the speedy center fielder managed to swipe 53 bases and score 83 runs despite sporting a paltry .313 on base percentage. He fanned far too many times in 2010 for a top-of-the-order threat, but remains one of the better prospects in the Houston organization.

Jiovanni Mier - Mier looked overmatched in his first taste of Double-A pitching, closing the year with a .235 batting average and an OBP (.323) higher than his slugging percentage (.314). Though disappointing, bear in mind that Mier was very young for the level at age 19 and had jumped to the Southern League all the way from rookie ball. The team still thinks of him as the shortstop of the future, despite the fact that he did not show much last season. For fantasy purposes, he's still a few years away from being a contributor in Houston, in the best-case scenario.