2013 Season Forecast – Houston Astros

I’m watching Opening Day on ESPN and decided I might as well write while I am getting settled in…  To be fair, with the Florida Marlins having decided to trade away all the talent they had recently acquired, I chose to find a new team to follow closely in 2013 – and that team is the Houston Astros.

Here’s a quick summary of where they are coming from:

Recent Records:
2012: 55 – 107 (Last, NL Central)
2011: 56 – 106 (Last, NL Central)
2010: 76 – 86 (4th, NL Central)
2009: 74 – 88 (5th, NL Central)
2008: 86 – 75 (3rd, NL Central)

This is a team that has hit rock bottom – even that team from five years ago was a bit of a fluke, having given up more runs than they had scored that year.

2012 Summary:
Home:  35 – 46
Away:  20 – 61 (ouch)

Runs Scored: 583
Runs Allowed: 794

There is a simple way to look at this.  A team that scores 100 runs more than it allows is likely to win 90 games.  The converse is also true.  At 200 runs, it’s another ten wins – 100 wins or 100 losses.  The Astros allowed 211 runs more than they scored – hence the lousy record.  So – things have to be looking up, right?

Record by Month:
April:  9 – 14
May:   13 – 15
June:  10 – 17
July:   3 – 24
Aug:    5 – 22
Sept:  15 – 15

The Astros started 3 – 1, were reasonably competitive through 45 games, and not altogether awful heading into the last week of June.  Then, Houston lost the last six games of the month and the first six of July.  After breaking that streak, they lost four in a row, then twelve more in a row – 28 of 30 games were lost…  When the month ended, anyone with any trade value was gone.  August wasn’t much better…  What team has ever had a stretch where they won just eight of sixty games?

Feeling Optimistic?

Beginning on September first and covering the last 30 games, the Astros played .500 ball.  Houston edged Cincinnati, toppled Philadelphia, split with Pittsburgh, edged Milwaukee, and split with Chicago.  Only St. Louis proved troublesome, taking five of six.  They did this without scoring a lot of runs – only 102 runs were scored in that period.  What allowed this to happen was that their pitching staff tossed a number of gems down the stretch, including three straight shutouts over Milwaukee and Chicago at the very end of the season.  In eleven of these wins, the Astros threw six shutouts and allowed just one run in five other starts.

Opening Day Lineup:
CF: Jordan Schafer
2B: Jose Altuve
LF: J.D. Martinez
1B: Carlos Lee
RF: Brian Bogusevic
3B: Chris Johnson
C: Jason Castro
SS: Marwin Gonzalez
SP: Wandy Rodriguez

Regulars by Games Played:
C: Jason Castro
1B: Brett Wallace or Carlos Lee (gone…)
2B: Jose Altuve
SS: Jed Lowrie (gone…)
3B: Chris Johnson (gone…)
LF: J.D. Martinez
CF: Justin Maxwell
RF: Brian Bogusevic (gone…)

4OF: Jordan Schafer
C2: Chris Snyder
UT: Marwin Gonzalez or Tyler Greene?

SP: Lucas Harrell
SP: Bud Norris
SP: Jordan Lyles
SP: Wandy Rodriguez (gone…), Dallas Keuchel
SP: J.A. Happ (gone…)
CL: Brett Myers (gone…), Wilton Lopez
RP: Brandon Lyon (gone…)
RP: Wesley Wright
RP: Francisco Rodriguez (gone…)
RP: Rhiner Cruz
RP: Fernando Abad

Key Transactions:

OCT (2011):

Lost Jason Michaels and Clint Barmes to free agency…  Michaels spent the year as an insurance policy for the Nationals in their AAA Syracuse affiliate, and likely is looking to become a coach.  As for Barmes, he moved to Pittsburgh and hit like someone who is 33 and running out of seasons.

NOV (2011):

Added Carlos Corporan, Travis Buck as free agents; claimed infielder Brian Bixler off of the waiver wire.

DEC (2011):

Traded Marc Melancon to Red Sox for Jed Lowrie and Kyle Weiland.  Melancon had been a pleasant surprise for Houston in 2011, but was miserable in Boston and eventually demoted to AAA.  Weiland had an infection in his throwing shoulder that required surgery and hopefully can return in 2013, but I would be leery of high expectations owing to a general lack of control.  I see him as a spot starter/long reliever type.  Jed Lowrie is a pretty good ballplayer, so the trade was a good one.

Claimed Rhiner Cruz off of waivers.  This was, at best, organizational depth as Cruz had just been promoted to AA Binghamton in an eight year career drifting in the low minors.  Putting Rhiner on the major league roster when he has no idea where the strike zone is (his mid-90s fastball has crazy movement and he can’t control his breaking ball) showed how little major league talent the Astros had.  I mean, Cruz walked 45 batters in 71.2 innings in the minors in 2011.

JAN (2012):

Here, the Astros were looking to find as many players who might be able to do SOMETHING as possible.

Signed, as free agents, Livan Hernandez, Zach Duke, Chris Snyder, Jack Cust, and Fernando Martinez (waiver claim).

FEB:

More minor signings…

MAR:

After (and during) spring training, the Astros released Hernandez, Duke and Cust, moved anyone who needed time to the minors, and made one trade…

Acquired LHP Kevin Chapman from the Royals for OF Jason Bourgeois and C Humberto Quintero.  Bourgeois was, like Melancon, a nice surprise in 2011 but is a 30-year-old outfielder with no long-term future.  Quintero is, at best, a backup catcher and the Astros had other options.  Chapman at least represents a future – had 90Ks in 62 innings in 2011, and built on that in 2012.  He still needs work (especially with his control), but at least he has a shot to be a late inning contributor very soon.

JULY:

The Astros, as sellers, moved what they could for prospects:

Carlos Lee (and cash) to the Marlins for 3B Matt Dominquez (good glove, minor bat) and LHP Rob Rasmussen (could be a starter in 2014).

Brandon Lyon, J.A. Happ, and David Carpenter to Toronto for Francisco Cordero, Ben Francisco, Joseph Musgrove, Asher Wojciechowski (decent arm, not overmatched at AA, doesn’t miss enough bats), David Rollins, and Carlos Perez (athletic catcher, decent arm, not much offense).

Brett Myers to the White Sox for prospects Matthew Heidenreich and Blair Walters.

Wandy Rodriquez to Pittsburgh for Colton Cain, Robbie Grossman, and Rudy Owens.

Chris Johnson to Arizona for Bobby Borchering and Marc Krauss

If nothing else, that’s a lot of prospects.  If you see the kids producing in 2014 and the Astros making steady improvement, then these deals worked.  Seeing as the team went belly up in July and August of 2012, this did nothing to help the guys who were left behind to play.

By the way, Ben Francisco only hung around for a month.  He was shipped to Tampa for a player to be named later.  (That player was LHP Theron Geith.)  Despite being a pretty good outfielder, Francisco hasn’t been able to keep a regular job and at 31 seems destined to be a fourth outfielder for a few more years.  Geith, however, has a bright future.  In two minor league seasons, Geith has a 2.66 ERA, 83Ks in 84.2 innings, and just 18 walks.  He will be on the roster by 2014, and maybe next September.

Key Injuries:

Jed Lowrie missed time leaving spring training with a bruised thumb.  Kyle Weiland made three starts and went down with what was then termed shoulder bursitis.

Relievers Fernando Abad (intercostal strain) and Rhiner Cruz (ankle sprain) missed time in May.

June brought minor injuries to Travis Buck (Achilles tendinitis), Carlos Lee (strained hamstring) Marwin Gonzalez (bruised heel), Bud Norris (spraineed knee), Wilton Lopez (sprained elbow), and Justin Maxwell (loose bodies in ankle).

Jordan Schafer, Jed Lowrie, and Francisco Cordero spent some time on the DL in August and early September, Cordero wound up missing the rest of the season with a foot injury just six awful outings after his arrival.  He really wasn’t missed, and – as he turns 37 in May – has already been released.

Cordero’s was the only injury of signifigance.  Jed Lowrie missed a lot of games, but with small injuries that kept him out a couple of weeks at a time.

[Writer’s Note:  I had pulled much of this together a while ago when I had decided to become a Houston Astros fan.  The Astros got the Rangers in order in the first, but the Rangers did the same to the Astros – in part thanks to a bad call at second on a stolen base attempt by Jose Altuve.  If the Astros are lousy this year, it could just be that I have jinxed them.]

LOOKING AHEAD:

Starting Pitchers:

The rotation appears to be Bud Norris, Lucas Harrell, Philip Humber, Brad Peacock, and Erik Bedard.

Lucas Harrell is pretty good.  He gets some strikeouts but he walks a few too many guys.  Bud Norris has better stuff, but has been way more inconsistent, especially on the road.  Even at that, he’s marginally below average with a chance to become really good.  Bud Norris is the type of guy you might consider drafting in your fantasy league this year…

Philip Humber is trying, again, to get his career on track.  Humber threw a perfect game for the White Sox, but otherwise was awful.  He CAN pitch, but he can also think his way into oblivion.  If Humber can find his way, the Astros will have found a gem.  The problem is that his track record doesn’t give you a whole lot of reason for hope.

A guy who might, however, is Brad Peacock. The Palm Beach, FL native navigated his way through the minors, getting better every year, until he got a test drive with the Washington Nationals in 2011, where he wasn’t half bad.  Moved to Oakland, he spent 2012 in Sacramento, where he held his own despite being in a league that pounds pitchers.  After a pretty nice spring, he’s going to see if he’s ready for 25 – 30 starts.

Finally, Erik Bedard might be able to help – if he can stay healthy.  Having missed essentially two and half of the last five years, Bedard has been reasonably successful – well, at least until last year when he went 7 – 14 for Pittsburgh.  His walk rate was too high, and his ERA went over 5 (5.01), but there are reasons to think that he can be better than he was last year – starting with the fact that he has always been better than he was last year.

So, just trying to see if the rotation is better, at first glance, the answer is probably no.  Harrell and Norris are the same (though Norris might be slightly better).  I don’t buy that Humber is better than Jordan Lyles was in 2012, and Erik Bedard won’t be as good as a partial season of Wandy Rodriguez.  If one pitcher surprises, it might be Peacock who COULD be as good as J.A. Happ was.  So, let’s go with the team allowing perhaps 30 extra runs here.

Relief Pitchers:

The Astros are going to give the closer job, at least at first, to Jose Veres, who has four career saves.  Veres isn’t awful, but he isn’t a big time closer.  Brett Myers wasn’t awesome last year, so that’s not a big loss.  I was surprised that Wilton Lopez didn’t get a second chance, he pitched well enough, but the Astros went with younger arms – Hector Ambriz, Xavier Cedeno, Rhiner Cruz, Josh Fields, Edgar Gonzalez, and Wesley Wright.

This group will be no better or worse than last year.

Cruz had a 6.05 ERA last year – is that really worthy of a significant role?  Wesley Wright wasn’t half bad for a situational lefty.  Xavier Cedeno was league average and could be better.  Edgar Gonzalez has been around and he’s never been a dependable option.  The guy I like is Hector Ambriz, who fanned 22 in 19 innings in a late call last year.  He could wind up the setup man before all is said and done.

Catchers:

Last year’s catchers were league average in total, but had a few weaknesses, including starter Jason Castro not being too solid against the run.  Chris Snyder is gone, so Carlos Corporan is back as the backup.  He looks like he can throw.  Castro isn’t a bad hitter – he was slightly above average because he showed a little power and a little patience while hitting .257.  Chris Snyder hit .176 and didn’t hit enough to be worth keeping around.  Corporan can hit better than that – maybe .240 with a few homers, so that would be a step forward offensively.  If Castro can be stronger against the run that would help immensely.  This unit should score about 15 more runs than in 2012.

Infielders:

Three-quarters of the infield in use toward the end of the season returns – Brett Wallace at first, Jose Altuve at second, and Matt Dominguez at third.  Jed Lowrie is gone, replaced by Ronnie Cedeno.  Wallace is getting better defensively, Altuve is slightly below average as a glove man, but not problematic, and Dominguez is a solid defensive option – far better than Chris Johnson.   Cedeno may have more experience, but he won’t put up more runs than, say, Marwin Gonzalez.  They are essentially the same guy.  The problem is that neither is a long-term solution, so as we are following this team, look for them to find a better shortstop through the minors.

Carlos Pena was added to back up Wallace at first and be the primary DH – which will last as long as Pena keeps drawing walks and hitting homers.  I fear, however, that he may not hit .220.

As a unit, this team will probably hold the line offensively (Wallace will help offset the loss of Jed Lowrie), but it could be ten runs better defensively.

Outfielders:

This year’s outfield features Chris Carter, the old Oakland As prospect, Justin Maxwell, and Rick Ankiel – a reclamation project of sorts.  J. D. Martinez will be back as a possible fourth or fifth outfielder, sharing the role with Brandon Barnes.

Defensively, Carter can’t be worse than J.D. Martinez was, and he has the potential to put a lot more runs on the board by virtue of his power and patience.  Justin Maxwell is a better fielder and hitter than Jordan Schafer was – it would be nice if he hit, say, .250 rather than .220, though.  Ankiel hasn’t been a good hitter for a few years, but he’s still better than Brian Bogusevic was, and even if he isn’t, J.D. Martinez can hit better.

As a unit, this team could score about 60 more runs and save ten to fifteen in the field.

[As I reach this point in the essay, Justin Maxwell just hit a high drive off the top of the wall in left for a two-run triple, giving the Astros an early lead.  Woohoo!!!]

Down on the Farm:

Most of the guys who did anything at AAA are on the club, and nobody stands out as a prospect.  Moving to the Corpus Christi Red Hawks, the top prospects at AA would include first baseman Jonathan Singleton, who hit .284 with power, 88 walks, and is 21-years-old.  Another option is shortstop Jonathan Villar, a 22-year-old with speed and some hitting skills.  I’m just not sure he can hit in the majors.  A top pitching prospect might be Jason Stoffel, who fanned 57 in 58 innings, walked just 16, in a relief role.  Jarred Cosart made 15 starts at AA and was decent, but not great.  He is ranked highly by scouting organizations.

At A+ Lancaster, right fielder Domingo Santana impressed with power and average, while centerfielder George Springer has all that and speed, too. Both are free swingers.  Coming up in A Lexington is Delino Deshields II – who plays like his dad, but is a few years away (and only 20).  Another guy making marks include shortstop Carlos Correa, a top pick out of Puerto Rico last year.

Best guess on their record?

They aren’t as good as last September.  They aren’t as bad as last August.  I see the team being 75 runs better offensively, and five runs worse defensively, thanks to a slightly worse starting rotation.  That puts the runs scored/runs allowed ratio at about 660/800.  Working against that is the move to the offensively charged AL West, which features the Rangers and Angels, a decent Oakland, and an improving Seattle.  The system calls for 66 wins, which seems a tad bit high.  So, I’ll temper that to 64 – 98, hopefully avoiding a third straight year with 100 losses.  If that happens, let’s consider it a a success and watch for some talent to get added to this young team.

As I finish this, I see that the Astros have extended their lead to 4 – 0 in the fifth over Texas.  If they hold on for the win, it would make for a great start to the season.

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Rating the Pitchers: 2012 National League

In rating pitchers, my system looks at the number of runs allowed per nine by each pitcher, then is modified by a couple of things – the park in which he pitches, and the defense of the players behind him.  When I have that, I compare the number of runs he allowed to what the average pitcher might have allowed in the same number of innings to get a positive number of runs saved, or a negative number of runs – essentially how many additional runs that pitcher cost his team. In case you were curious, the average NL pitcher allowed 4.3054 runs per nine…

A pitcher in Colorado had a lot of things going against him.  First, games in Colorado scored about 400 more runs (5 per game for both teams combined) than Rockies road games.  Then, the defense behind him was brutal – costing pitchers an extra 100 runs.  Meanwhile, the pitchers in San Francisco got help from the park, and the team’s fielders (about 45 runs).

Top Starters:

37.91 Kris Medlin, ATL (138.00 innings)
33.34 Johnny Cueto, CIN (217.00)
31.06 Kyle Lohse, STL (211.00)
30.34 Clayton Kershaw, LAD (227.67)
28.98 R.A. Dickey, NYM (233.67)

22.27 Ryan Dempster, CHC (104.00)
21.95 Gio Gonzalez, WAS (199.33)
21.79 Cole Hamels, PHI (215.33)
21.15 Wade Miley, ARZ (194.67)
20.83 Cliff Lee, PHI (211.00)

Honorable Mentions:

Jordan Zimmermann
Yovani Gallardo
Matt Cain
Mat Latos
Zack Greinke

The NL Cy Young award went to Dickey, the uniqueness of his being a knuckleballer making his season seem so improbable – given how baseball loves smoke or power and loathes gimmicks.  Still, the system says that the most effective pitcher was a guy who pitched essentially a half-season (half a season from 15 years ago), which will happen from time to time.  Medlin finished with a 1.57 ERA, gave up fewer than a baserunner per inning and allowed but a homer every 23 innings.  Personally, I would have voted for Dickey and then Johnny Cueto, who didn’t get the same kind of help from his defense or park as Dickey.

Ryan Dempster didn’t pitch nearly as well in Boston as he did in Chicago before he left, and the Phillies decline can partially be traced to losing the performance of an ace (Roy Halliday).  Additional props shall be given to Clayton Kershaw who essentially repeated his Cy Young performance from 2011.

Kyle Lohse can’t get an offer from someone?  People remember too well how he pitched before he got to St. Louis and must think that he can’t carry this to another team…

Top Relievers:

22.41 Craig Kimbrel, ATL (62.67 innings)
21.73 Aroldis Chapman, CIN (71.67)
16.19 Mitchell Boggs, STL (73.33)
14.38 Rafael Betancourt, COL (57.67)
14.37 Wilton Lopez, HOU (66.33)

13.72 Brad Ziegler, ARI (68.67)
13.56 David Hernandez, ARI (68.33)
13.54 Luke Gregerson, SD (71.67)
13.53 Craig Stammen, WAS (88.33)
13.25 Matt Belisle, COL (80.00)

Honorable Mention:

Sergio Romo
Jason Motte
Eric O’Flaherty
Sean Marshall
Jonathan Papelbon

Craig Kimbral was only slightly more effective than Aroldis Chapman, who will likely become a starter.  Both pitchers were crazy good – Kimbrel allowing just 27 hits and 14 walks in 62.2 innings, while striking out 116 batters.  Chapman pitched nine more innings, gave up a few more hits and a few more walks, and struck out a hair fewer per nine.  Those two were well ahead of the next guy (Boggs), and to be honest, there wasn’t much difference between the next several guys.

Rafael Betancourt may be the best setup man in baseball and has been for many, many years now.

Worst Pitchers:

-44.88 Tim Lincecum, SF (186 tortuous innings)
-28.58 Erik Bedard, PIT (125.67)
-26.23 Chris Volstad, CHC (111.33)
-25.96 Jordan Lyles, HOU (141.33)
-24.77 Ross Ohlendorf, SD (48.67)

-22.07 Kevin Correia, PIT (171.00)
-21.56 Barry Zito, SF (184.33)
-20.41 Justin Germano, CHC (64.00)
-20.12 Jair Jurrjens, ATL (48.33)
-19.15 Tommy Hanson, ATL (174.67)

Usually, Tim Lincecum is on the top starter list – and the Giants gave him every chance to get his season on track.  Instead, he finished 10 – 15 and didn’t miss a start.  His K/9 rate was still pretty good, but he walked too many guys and was hurt by the long ball.  Throw in the fact that his defense and park were actually HELPING him, and that 5.18 ERA is even worse, really.

That both San Francisco and Atlanta were able to make it to the post season with TWO starters who were killing them is impressive.  And Pittsburgh was loaded with poor starters and still were competitive for most of the season.

In the case of Jurrjens and Ross Ohlendorf, this was the case of eight or nine brutal starts rather than a full season of below average misery.  Ohlendorf was allowing more than 4.5 runs than the average pitcher every nine innings.

2010 Season Forecast: Houston Astros

Last Five Seasons:

2009: 74 – 88 (5th NL Central)
2008: 86 – 75
2007: 73 – 89
2006: 82 – 80
2005: 89 – 73

For two straight seasons, the Astros have outperformed their stats – which is to say that their record is better than the ratio of runs scored to runs allowed.  In 2008, the Astros were 11 games over .500 despite allowing 31 runs more than they scored.  In 2009, the Astros scored and allowed the same number of runs as Pittsburgh and yet won 12 more games.  That can’t keep happening…

Season Recap:

On the heels of a ridiculously over-successful 2008, some people thought the Astros might remain competitive in 2009.  Instead, long time veterans fell off (Roy Oswalt, Lance Berkman), and eventually Cecil Cooper was fired because people didn’t think he knew what he was doing.

The Astros won an extra inning game on April 7th to pull to .500 with a win and a loss.  Houston lost five in a row, and then would trade wins and losses for about a month never getting better than four games under .500 until late June.  As the month turned into July, the Astros played their best baseball, winning 18 of 26 games.  This got their record to 50 – 46 and into the the NL Central race, just two games behind St. Louis and tied with Chicago for second place.

What happened next was that the Astros ran out of mojo.  A slow slide brought them back under .500, and despite sweeping the Phillies in four games the Astros could never get closer than two games under .500.  When the clubhouse, management, and media turned on Cecil Cooper, knowing that season was over anyway, Cooper was let go.  September was spent wondering what could have been, including a nine-game losing streak that knocked Houston into fifth place.

Were they really that good?  Probably not.  The Astros scored five runs more than Pittsburgh (743 – 738) and allowed two more (770 – 768).  Houston was as lucky as Pittsburgh was unlucky – and should really have won about 67 games.

Pitching:

Wandy Rodriquez turned into an ace, winning 14 games, throwing nearly 206 innings, and saving his team about 28.5 runs over what an average starter might have given up.  Roy Oswalt, admittedly having an off season, won just eight games but was still better than league average in his 30 starts.  And that’s where it ends.

Last year, Brian Moehler got 29 starts, allowed nearly six runs per nine, and was bad enough to virtually offset Rodriguez.  Mike Hampton returned to go 7 – 10, and he was 13 runs worse than the average pitcher over 112 innings.  How many of you thought he would make 100 innings?  Felipe Paulino was atrocious – 22 innings worse than average in just shy of 100 innings.  Ouch.  Russ Ortiz got 13 brutal starts.  Yorman Bazardo went 1 – 3 and had an ERA of 7.88.  Only rookie Bud Norris got a few starts and didn’t look lousy.  No team is going to be successful with what amounts to 500 innings of horrific pitching unless the lineup is eight Albert Pujols.

What saved Houston was a remarkable bullpen.  Jose Valverde had just 25 saves (injuries interruped his season), but he also was 12.6 runs better than the average pitcher in his 52 innings.  LaTroy Hawkins had perhaps his best season ever – 63 innings and a 2.13 ERA.  Jeff Fulchino was a stopper in middle relief, and Tim Byrdak allowed only 39 hits in his 61.1 innings.  Sure, the rest of the staff was a mixed bag of arms, but four solid relievers can keep games in hand even when the starters get lifted – and these starters were regularly lifted…

For 2010, the big move was adding former Phillie, Brett Myers, to the rotation.  A one-time starter, Myers can help here just by staying around league average.  Moving Bud Norris into a full time spot (#4) would also help some.  Sadly, Paulino and Moehler get to fight for that fifth spot in the rotation – or get starts that someone else might miss.  Still – this could be a 30 run improvement on the defensive side.

For the bullpen, Jose Valverde is gone, as is Hawkins.  Matt Lindstrom arrives from Florida with a 100 MPH fastball that has little or no movement.  Brandon Lyon was signed to a three-year deal to set up Lindstrom.  I don’t see how this is going to be better – and it could easily be 25 runs WORSE than last year.

Catching:

Ivan Rodriguez was installed as the starter at the beginning of the year and was still solid – makes few mistakes, strong against the run, still reasonably mobile, but isn’t a run producer.  After Pudge was allowed to leave for Texas, Humberto Quintero took over and was exceptional against the run though a bit more mistake prone.

One time prospect J.R. Towles gets one last shot at this job (one assumes that Jason Castro or Koby Clemens will be taking over soon enough) – with Quintero as his backup.  Though Towles didn’t throw anyone out last year (one guy – he threw out one guy), he does have better overall skills.  Overall, this might be five runs better, but I don’t buy it.  Let’s call the overall production a wash.

Infield:

Lance Berkman had his first off sesason after a long run of productive hitting.  He’s still an offensive force, but he missed a month of games with injuries.  Darin Erstad isn’t really good enough to take over here.  If the Astros expect to win, Berkman has to play 150 games and he’s at the age where that gets harder and harder to do.

Kaz Matsui returns – a glove man who really doesn’t do much to keep the offense going.  At this point, the Astros need to keep him because I don’t think Jeff Keppinger is going to do any better.

Miguel Tejada played a surprisingly solid shortstop, and kicked in with 199 hits and 46 doubles.  He’s NOT a top flight hitter, but he’s been as dependable for hits as anyone and remains above average for the league and his position.  He’s gone, though, to be replaced by rookie Tommy Manzella.  Manzella hit .289 at Round Rock last year, but isn’t going to hit as well as Tejada.  He MIGHT be 20 runs better defensively, but he may well hit about .260 with a little power, which will be about 30 runs worse offensively.

Geoff Blum had a rough season, to say the least.  He was below average offensively (.247, 10 homers – 4.2 runs per 27 outs) and he cost his team another 21 runs defensively at third base.  Enter Pedro Feliz, who had a monster season defensively and will be no worse a hitter.

On the whole, I see this group being about 40 runs better defensively, but lose 30 runs offensively.

Outfield:

Offensively, this is a strong unit.  Carlos Lee in left remains a potent power source.  Hunter Pence in right field has power, patience, speed, and provides good defense.  Michael Bourn is a burner who gets on base, steals what he can, and can cover ground in center.

Defensively, Lee needs to be a DH – costing his team about 32 runs in left.  He’s no longer mobile enough to cover any ground and he’s reaching the age where his bat might start to slip.  Jason Michaels returns to play the late innings for Lee.

Prospects:

Looking over AAA Round Rock, other than Tommy Manzello, you have Chris Johnson.  He’s a third baseman taken in the 4th round in 2006 out of Stetson.  Right now, he looks like he’d hit as well as Geoff Blum and if he fields better might be a better option for 2010.  At 25, Johnson has to step up now.  Among pitchers, Bud Norris already got the call in 2009, as did Bazardo and Sam Gervacio, who might get a second chance some time in 2010.  Gervacio showed power and control in AAA (58Ks, 21 Ws in 52.1 innings).

The best pitcher at AA Corpus Christi was Polin Trinidad, who walked just ten batters in 82.2 innings and earned a promotion to AAA mid-season.  He’s still a year away, but I’d rather see him than, say, Brian Moehler.  Drew Locke hit .338 with 20 homers there – but it’s taken a while for the former Dodger draft pick to get his career moving.  He must be a brutal fielder.  Catcher Jason Castro, the 2008 1st round pick, moved up to AA in 2009 and continues to hit for a decent average (.293) and work the count.  He could make the roster in 2010, for sure he’ll be on the Astros in 2011.

Pitchers in Lancaster (A+) got slapped around a lot there, but a few stood out.  Leandro Cespedes, Shane Wolf, and Fernando Abad all had decent control and strikeout numbers and are young enough to contribute a couple of years from now.  I especially liked Abad, who walked only eight in 82.2 innings.  He could be a future closer.  Because hitting is so easy there, you have to take stats with a grain of salt, but catcher Koby Clemens hit .345 with power – probably the best of the lot.

2008 1a pick Jordan Lyles pitched well at Lexington in the SAL – 167Ks just 38 walks in 144.2 innings.  Still a teenager, he’ll be in Lancaster and probably Corpus Christi soon enough.  2007 pick Collin Delome (5th round) has a lot of different skills, but needs to step up his batting average.  He looks like Brady Anderson, only in AA.  Meanwhile, top pick in 2006, Maxwell Sapp has yet to hit above. 241 in the minors and with two other catchers ahead of him, is not on the prospect lists anymore.

Forecast:

I don’t see the Astros being competitive in the NL Central.  I see them struggling to score runs – about 610 runs this season – and despite the improved defense, still giving up about 725 runs.  There are just too many holes to patch, and after two years of very lucky won-loss records, the system says no more than 67 wins and playing the under.