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Astros' Team Preview: Rebuilding Process, Year 2

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.

To get a sense for just how bad the Astros' 2012 season was, consider this: in July and August, Houston won just eight games. They went 3-24 in July and 5-22 in August. Sure, the fact that the team dumped more veterans didn't help (with the front office sending Wandy Rodriguez, Brett Myers and Carlos Lee packing), but to be that bad you have to lack replacement level players at multiple positions across the diamond and in the rotation.

This year, the Astros will be moving into one of the most challenging divisions in baseball, so things will almost certainly get worse before they get better. To their credit, the team's new management is sticking to the long-term rebuilding plan, focusing on strong drafts, smart deals and low-risk, movable free agents. It may not be fun to watch on the field yet, but at least the team is laying the groundwork for sustainable success a few years down the road.

Offseason Moves

Lost OF Jordan Schafer to the Braves on waivers.

Schafer, who spent the last year and a half with the Astros, returns to the team that drafted him back in 2005. With Schafer departing, it removes all obstacles for George Springer to take over in center field when he is ready.

C Chris Snyder elected free agency.

Last offseason, Snyder signed a one-year deal with the Astros that included an option for 2013, but the Astros cut him loose after he posted just a .602 OPS over 76 games. Snyder should hook on with a team looking for a veteran backstop.

Claimed Phil Humber off waivers from the White Sox.

After being claimed off of waivers, Humber inked a one-year deal with the Astros that includes a club option for 2014. His 2012 season went downhill fast after his perfect game in April, but he'll look to turn the page this season. He is expected to compete for one of the final spots in the starting rotation during spring training

Traded RHP Wilton Lopez and Player To Be Named Later to Colorado for RHP Alex White and RHP Alex Gillingham.

White struggled mightily with the Rockies, going 4-13 with a 6.30 ERA and 1.70 WHIP over 30 games (27 starts). The change of scenery may help him to an extent, but he'll need to iron out his troubling major league walk rate (4.4 BB/9) to have a real chance of fulfilling his potential.

Selected Josh Fields in the Rule 5 draft.

As a Rule 5 pick, the Astros will have to keep Fields on their 25-man roster all season or offer him back to the Red Sox. Fields went 1-0 without giving up an earned run in 10 games pitched last year in Triple-A. He has a chance to be an instant contributor in the Astros' bullpen, and may emerge as a candidate to close at some point.

Signed free agent 1B Carlos Pena.

Pena's contract is worth $2.9 million guaranteed and includes as much as $1.4 million in incentives. With the Astros' move to the American League, Pena will likely play first base against right-handed pitching, moving Brett Wallace to the DH role and occasional time at third base.

Acquired RHP John Ely to from the Dodgers for LHP Rob Rasmussen.

Ely is coming off a nice season with Triple-A Albuquerque in which he went 14-7 and posted a 3.20 ERA over 27 starts, but he is past prospect status and owns a 5.70 ERA over 25 major league games. He appears to be stuck between the levels, but on an inexperienced Houston squad, he will have a chance to earn a spot in the rotation during spring training.

Signed free agent CF Rick Ankiel.

Ankiel appeared in 68 games with the Nationals last season before being released in July. The former pitcher possesses possibly the top outfield arm in the league, but he has not hit above .239 in any of the previous four seasons. Houston is looking for a left-handed complement to J.D. Martinez, so with a good spring, Ankiel could carve out some playing time.

Signed free agent LHP Erik Bedard.

Bedard will return to the American League after going 7-14 with a 5.01 ERA in 24 starts for the Pirates in 2012. The 33-year-old southpaw has a 3.85 ERA and a 8.7 K/9 for his career, and it looks like he'll get a real chance to crack the rotation as general manager Jeff Luhnow feels the club needs a lefty starter.

Traded SS Jed Lowrie and RP Fernando Rodriguez to Oakland for 1B/OF Chris Carter, P Brad Peacock and C Max Stassi.

Carter should immediately slot into the mix at first base, DH and left field for the Astros, providing much-needed right-handed power and an approach that should play very well at Minute Maid Park. Peacock struggled at Triple-A last season, and there's some doubt as to whether he'll remain a starter in the long haul, but the Astros will likely give him a look in that role before deciding on a potential move to the bullpen. Stassi will likely need two more years of development in the minors before knocking on the door for a regular job in Houston.

Projected Lineup

1. Jose Altuve, 2B
2. Tyler Greene, SS
3. Chris Carter, LF
4. Carlos Pena, 1B
5. Brett Wallace, DH
6. Justin Maxwell, CF
7. Fernando Martinez, RF
8. Matt Dominguez, 3B
9. Jason Castro, C

Jose Altuve continued his growth in his sophomore campaign, swiping 33 bases and hitting .290 for the last-place Astros. His batting average was bolstered by his absolute crushing of left-handed pitching: he hit .359 against lefties and just .264 against righties. The Astros' move to the American League will afford J.D. Martinez some added opportunities in the DH spot, but the poor-fielding Wallace should have the first crack at DH this spring. The days of Fernando Martinez stealing bases are likely gone forever, but if his newly found power sticks, he could emerge as a viable option in Houston. With the Astros desperately in need of run producers, Justin Maxwell has shown enough to find himself in the mix for the starting center field job this spring. Carlos Corporan will be ready to step in as the starter if Jason Castro is unable to build on last year's pedestrian offensive numbers.

Projected Rotation

1. Lucas Harrell
2. Bud Norris
3. Jordan Lyles
4/5. Phil Humber/Erik Bedard/Jarred Cosart/Dallas Keuchel/John Ely/Brad Peacock

While lacking ace-type stuff, Lucas Harrell pitches deep into games and gives the Astros quality innings -- something most of the starters on the team struggled to do last season. For all the perpetual sleeper hype, Bud Norris is maddeningly inconsistent from game-to-game, prone to big innings and fragile on the mound. Jordan Lyles was pushed too aggressively through the minors, but he's too good of a prospect for the Astros to cut bait. The Astros will in all likelihood keep him in the rotation. Humber will be given an opportunity to earn a rotation spot with his new club in spring training, but will not benefit from a league change with the Astros' move into the American League West for 2013.

Jarred Cosart, Dallas Keuchel and Ely will enter spring training in competition for a starting gig. The Astros' coaching staff went over some adjustments they would like to see Keuchel make this year in order to stick in the rotation. In addition to wanting him to get bigger and stronger, the team has asked him to establish his sinker more and hold runners better. Cosart's secondary stuff remains a bit unrefined for a major league caliber starting pitcher.

Closer: Jose Veras - Jose Veras spent one season in Milwaukee as primarily a late-inning reliever, but was let go after allowing 61 hits and walking 40 batters in 67 innings. Though Veras was a bit erratic last season, he owns a 3.73 ERA and has struck out 212 batters in 186 innings over the last three years. If he can regain his control in 2013, he could be a cheap but effective bullpen option if used correctly.

Key Bullpen Members: Wesley Wright, Rhiner Cruz - Wesley Wright will attempt to build on his breakout 2012 campaign and cement his role as a key left-hander for new manager Bo Porter. Rhiner Cruz got into 52 games for Houston, showing decent strikeout potential but serving up far too many home runs (1.3 HR/9) and experiencing significant command issues.

Notes of Import, Fantasy and Otherwise:

1. Which of the Astros prospects will be the first one to become a solid major league regular?

The answer was Jonathan Singleton before he was suspended 50 games for marijuana use. Now, the answer isn't as clear, although Cosart and Springer are the most likely candidates. Given the Astros' pitching problems, Cosart has a decent shot to break camp with the team, potentially even as a reliever. Springer could be a midseason callup, depending on how he fares this year in the minors. Those hoping it would be speed demon Delino DeShields Jr. shouldn't hold out hope. He will likely spend at least the next two years in the minors; he is still very raw and has a lot of development time ahead of him.

2. Who will get dealt at this year's deadline?

With the Astros shedding nearly every other player in his late-20s this past November, one has to imagine that Bud Norris will be next. General manager Jeff Luhnow will wait, however, until he can get top dollar for him, which could come at any point this summer when the right opportunity presents itself. The 27-year-old Norris still struggles to limit walks and the long ball, which makes 2013 a pivotal year in his career. If the breakout does happen in 2013, it is will be a prime time to deal him to a contender.

3. Will the Astros record a third, consecutive 100-loss season?

It seems likely. The team was very quiet this winter, and with no major short-term improvements, the move to the much tougher AL West should only make things worse in Houston. How quickly the Astros begin the ascent back to respectability is something of a debated point. It's very possible the team has two or three more rebuilding years before sniffing .500.

Strengths

A rapidly improving farm system and the leadership of a forward-thinking front office should help the Astros' rebuilding efforts yield fruit in a couple of seasons.

Weaknesses

The Astros' pitching staff is well below league average. They need proven innings eaters, something they have really struggled to develop. Houston desperately hoped Norris would establish himself as the go-to guy at the top of the rotation, but he has yet to rise to the occasion. One has to wonder why Lyles has not emerged as the star that the 2008 supplemental draft pick was expected to become to this point. Harrell is the closest thing the team has to an innings eater, but do not expect a repeat of the 2012 season.

Rising: Wesley Wright - Wright got into an insane number of games last season, making 77 appearances and leading the team in holds after pitching just 12 innings for the Astros in 2011. The team finally committed to making Wright a LOOGY and with good results. He will spin plenty of sliders, albeit with average movement. Wright stays ahead of hitters by throwing first-pitch strikes, which helps him keep his pitch count down. With the departure of Wilton Lopez, Wright is a lock to see high-leverage situations coming out from the bullpen.

Declining: Carlos Pena - After a slight rebound in production with the Cubs in 2011, Pena's production regressed back to 2010 form with the Rays in 2012. For the second time in his career, his batting average came in below the Mendoza line at .197. In years past, he has made up for that with his power, but Pena only hit 19 home runs and drove in 61 runs with a .684 OPS, his lowest totals since 2006. Another concern is his career-high 182 strikeouts he posted. Turning 35 in May, he is still capable of power and potentially getting back on track, but the batting average will almost certainly remain a negative category.

Sleeper: Matt Dominguez - After coming over to the Astros in the deal that sent Carlos Lee to Miami, Dominguez showed flashes of what made him the 12th overall pick in the 2007 draft. He certainly has the glove to handle the hot corner, but there are questions as to whether his bat, which stalled out in the upper minors, will develop enough for him to be a legitimate corner infielder. A closer look at Dominguez's .284/.310/.477 splits for the Astros reveals a reverse home/road split, with most of his offensive output occurring on the road. In 58 at-bats in Houston, Dominguez hit just .207. With third base a revolving door after the Chris Johnson trade, the time is now for Dominguez, and his glove should give him the upper hand to secure the starting job during spring training.

Supersleeper: Jimmy Paredes - The starting third baseman for the Astros just one year ago, Paredes spent most of 2012 in the minors looking for a new position. He hit for a high average, stole bases and showcased his power on the farm. In the majors, he has still yet to show that gap power you would expect to see from someone his size, and without it he is unlikely to stick in the middle infield let alone a corner-outfield spot. Paredes may not have proven he is ready for prime time, but the potential is there and this may be the season he pulls it all together. Most likely, he will work in something of a utility role if he becomes a steady part of the Astros' plans.

Top Prospects

Carlos Correa - The surprise first overall pick of the 2012 draft struggled a bit in his first Gulf Coast League action, but turned it on when he was promoted to the Appalachian League in early August -- hitting .371/.450/.600 in limited at-bats. Correa looks like he will stick at shortstop, but at just 18, a lot will depend on how his body matures over the next three-to-four years. He will need to work on his endurance as he did not play every day in Puerto Rico. Correa will likely start the year on one of the Astros' short-season teams, but if things go well he should find his way to one of the team's full-season clubs when all is said and done.

Jarred Cosart - The 22-year-old Cosart had a solid season between Double and Triple-A, sporting a combined ERA of 3.30, with a 1.40 WHIP and 92:51 K:BB. His arm is strong, and there are those who think he would be better suited to close than start. Cosart finished well in Triple-A, which could make him a candidate for a starting spot with the big club in 2013. More likely than not, however, Cosart will stay in Triple-A for additional seasoning if the Astros feel that he should remain in the mix to work out of the rotation.

Delino DeShields - Had it not been for Billy Hamilton's historic season, DeShields would have been the minors' top stolen-base man. The second-generation keystoner swiped an impressive 102 bags getting caught just 19 times, several of those in the last few days of the season while he was making his push to 100. It is hard not to compare a player to his father, especially when they have the same name, but DeShields is bigger and more physical than his father, which may mean that he will hit for more power as he matures. His tools have the potential to be really quite exceptional.

Mike Foltynewicz - The second time through the Sally League was much better for Foltynewicz than the first: he posted a 14-4 record across 27 starts and lowered his ERA by nearly two runs to 3.14. The improvement was enough to earn him the Most Outstanding Pitcher award in the Sally League and the Minor League Pitcher of the Year award for the Houston organization. The former first-round pick has pitched to contact more in recent years, which has resulted in fewer strikeouts, but (at least last year) better outcomes. While the team is still trying him out as a starter, there are those that think the lack of viable secondary pitches may make him best suited for the bullpen down the line. He will likely begin 2013 in Double-A, still working out of the rotation.

Lance McCullers - The Astros drafted McCullers with the No. 41 pick in the 2012 draft, far lower than he was projected pre-draft due to what was perceived to be excessive bonus demands. The Astros were able to meet those demands with a $2.5 million bonus, thanks in part to signing the surprise first overall pick (Carlos Correa) for far less than slot. McCullers gets the ball up near 100 mph, but his arm action is far from easy, putting him at increased risk of injury. With dominant stuff, McCullers projects as a future ace. He'll likely begin the year in High-A, but could wind up in Double-A before all is said and done.

Rio Ruiz - Part of the reason the Astros had what many believed to be the best draft of anyone last summer was their ability to use the slot money saved on signing Carlos Correa for talent later in the draft. One such signing was Ruiz, who the Astros lured away from USC with a fourth-round pick. Ruiz has drawn comparisons to Eric Chavez, and not just because he is third baseman from Southern California that bats left-handed and throws right. Ruiz has a short stroke with good bat speed and sure hands in the field, all of which should translate as he develops. He battled a life-threatening blood clot as a high school senior, but with the surgery now behind him, nothing stands in the way of his development.

Jonathan Singleton - Singleton overcame a brutal midseason slump to string together a pretty nice season, hitting .284/.396/.497 with 21 long balls as a 20-year-old in Double-A. As a first baseman, Singleton is going to need to hit home runs consistently, especially if his batting average is not going to be north of .300. He silenced some of his critics with his 2012 campaign, but he will need to build on the progress to cement his future. The Astros' move to the American League should not do much to change Singleton's long-term positioning: teammate Brett Wallace doesn't offer much in the way of defense, which means first base should belong to Singleton when he is ready to take the reins. He'll open the season with a 50-game suspension after testing positive for marijuana use, making a 2014 arrival more likely.

George Springer - Springer's first full season line was pretty much as anticipated: lots of homers, steals and strikeouts. Despite the big 6-foot-3 frame, he is fairly lean, weighing just 200 pounds. As he matures, Springer figures to put on some muscle, which should only add to his power potential. He is going to need to fix the hole in his swing if he wants to continue to succeed in the upper minors. Springer has outstanding upside, and in Minute Maid Park he could emerge as a five-tool player. He will need more seasoning, though, so do not expect him to arrive this year as anything more than a September callup.

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