This is a guest post authored by Greg Thurston of FanSided’s Astros’ site, Climbing Tal’s Hill, and is the first of a 30-part series where we will look back at the highs and lows of each team and plant the seeds of what is to come during the Hot Stove League.
Author: Greg Thurston
The 2012 Houston Astros turned out to be exactly what everyone expected; a rebuilding team destined to lose over 100 games for the second straight season. The franchise is still suffering the consequences of former owner Drayton McLane’s ignorance in the areas of the draft and player development.
A 5-4 loss to the lowly Cubs on the final day of the season was the team’s 107th setback of the year, establishing a new franchise record for futility. Let’s take a look back at how they got there, and a look ahead at what to expect as the Astros prepare for their first season in the American League.
What happened on the field was often difficult to watch. But the behind the scenes maneuvering being done by the new ownership group and first-year general manager Jeff Luhnow gave Astros fans a reason to stay tuned.
Yes, it was a long and difficult summer but it didn’t start out that way. Although they were never in contention, the Astros were playing some decent ball at the beginning of the season. Leadoff hitter Jordan Schafer was doing a great job as a table-setter. Schafer reached base safely in each of his first 25 games, stealing eleven bases and scoring 19 runs along the way. Unfortunately, Schafer didn’t stay hot for long and battled injuries for most of the season.
Surprisingly, the club continued to hover around the .500 mark deep into the month of May. A 3-1 victory over Clayton Kershaw and the Dodgers on May 25 gave the Astros a 22-23 record. That was as good as it would get. Six days later the Colorado Rockies exposed Houston’s anemic offense and sub-par bullpen to the world. The Rockies pummeled the Astros in both ends of a Memorial Day double-header at Coors Field and the ‘Stros never recovered.
The Astros went an unbelievably dismal 3-24 in July, a month that also saw Jeff Luhnow trade away every high-priced veteran on the roster. Carlos Lee, Chris Johnson, J.A. Happ, Brandon Lyon, Wandy Rodriguez, and Brett Myers combined to fetch a total of 15 prospects in return.
August was another miserable month. The Astros managed only five wins in 27 games and manager Brad Mills didn’t make it to September. Veteran AAA Skipper Tony DeFrancesco replaced Mills on an interim basis and lost ten of his first eleven games at the helm.
The losing couldn’t go on forever because even bad teams will occasionally get hot. The Astros played .500 ball the rest of the way, going 15-15 under DeFrancesco over their final 30 games. Tony D. was one of several candidates interviewed for the managerial position which ultimately went to Washington Nationals’ third-base coach Bo Porter.
Porter inherits a team with lots of holes to fill. Unfortunately for him, what you see is what you get. The most talented prospects in the organization are still a year or two away from being ready to contribute at the big league level. Jonathan Singleton and George Springer are the two biggest names among a group of youngsters that should burst onto the scene in 2014 and beyond.
Several young players spent all or part of the season in the majors and many of them will be returning in 2013. Second-baseman Jose Altuve and starting pitcher Lucas Harrell proved to be the cream of the crop. Altuve hit .290 with 34 doubles and 33 stolen bases, replacing Schafer as the team’s leadoff hitter. Harrell made 32 starts, going 11-11 with a 3.76 ERA. Harrell also led the Astros staff in innings pitched. His record could have been much better with a little run support. The Astros were shut out in seven of Harrell’s starts.
Catcher Jason Castro and third-baseman Matt Dominguez also made positive impressions and figure to see the bulk of the playing time at their respective positions. Castro, who has had trouble with leg injuries, could also get some starts at DH. Other DH candidates include Fernando Martinez, Justin Maxwell, and Scott Moore.
There are no potential free agents on the Astros roster. Backup catcher Chris Snyder has a mutual option worth $4 million that the team will most likely decline. Bud Norris, Wilton Lopez, Wesley Wright, Jed Lowrie, and Edgar Gonzalez are the arbitration-eligible players.
Lowrie (SS) and Brett Wallace (1B) round out the infield (assuming they aren’t traded) and the outfield is still a bit of a mystery. Schafer figures to battle Brandon Barnes for the starting CF job. The Astros are hoping that J.D. Martinez can bounce back and nail down one of the corner spots and whoever doesn’t DH can handle the other.
The Astros don’t figure to be major players in the free agent market during the upcoming off-season But one area that will need to be addressed is the starting rotation. A veteran “innings eater” would seem to be a must. Luhnow and company should be willing to fork over a few million to get Harrell, Norris, and Jordan Lyles some much needed help in the rotation.
The bullpen is another area that needs to be upgraded. Lopez will be the favorite to claim ninth inning duties unless the Astros decide to bring in an established closer. Wesley Wright is the go-to lefty and the rest of the bullpen is anyone’s guess. I suspect Spring Training will again be a tryout camp for relievers and bench players. This Spring, Houston signed a number of minor league free agents and I expect a similar strategy to be employed in 2013.
Houston ranked 26th in the big leagues in 2012 with a 4.46 bullpen ERA. Only the Brewers, Mets, Rockies, and Cubs were worse, meaning every team in their new league had a better bullpen. Thirty-seven of the staff’s 75 wild pitches were uncorked by relief pitchers. The Rockies were the only team to throw more wild pitches and the only team to make more pitching changes.
The transition to the American League will be difficult for an offense that scored the fewest runs in the majors while posting a league-worst 22.7% strikeout rate. The Astros also ranked 28th in OBP and 29th in both slugging and batting average. If the young players don’t show some immediate improvement, 2013 could be another brutal season in Houston.
A die-hard Astros fan since the mid-seventies, Greg began writing for the FanSided Network prior to the 2011 season. Greg is also an avid bowler and USBC Certified Bronze Level Instructor. He has coached bowling at the High School level as well as Little League Baseball and Pony League Softball. Greg believes sharing his knowledge of the two games he loves with members of the next generation is important to the future of both sports. Be sure to visit Climbing Tal’s Hill for all your Astros needs and follow Greg and the staff on Twitter @astrosCTH.