(Before we go any further, I believe I should get some credit for avoiding the way-too-easy “Houston, we have a problem” line. Done to death)
Let’s head back to June 27th. The Houston Astros have just blanked the Padres for their 4th win in the last 5 games. While clearly headed for another losing season, the organization’s fourth consecutive, the team has out-performed expectations from the spring. The ‘Stros stood at 32-43, way ahead of last year’s 56 win pace. They weren’t even the worst team in their own division. Following? Ok, now let’s fast forward to this past weekend. With Sunday’s 5-3 loss against the Brewers, the Houston Astros are now 38-78, losers of 35 of the last 41.
How did this slightly less-than-mediocre team become possibly one of the worst ever? Well, my knowledge of baseball has taught me that in order to win, you must score runs, and Houston simply does not do that. In those 41 games, just 13 times did the team score more than 3 runs. The Yankees recently just went more than 40 games in a row scoring more than 3. In roughly a month and a half, the Astros got shut out 5 times, which would translate to 20 such times over a full season. They rank in the bottom five in the league in just about every single offensive category, and have scored 10 or more runs just 3 times this entire season, or once every 38 games. Their best hitter, Carlos Lee, is no longer with Houston of course, leaving Jose Altuve, who did make his first All-Star Game in his first full season this year, to handle most of the “hitting” aspect of games. Former Red Sox Great Jed Lowrie, the team’s highest paid player at a whopping $1.15 million, might miss the rest of the season with a sprained ankle.
Clearly the Astros struggle to do anything offensively, but it’s not exactly like their sterling record of 40 games under .500 is only because of a lack of run support. Right now, both the team leaders in ERA and saves play for other teams, as Wandy Rodriguez got shipped off to Pittsburgh, and Brett Myers to the White Sox. The staff ranks 27th in ERA, 29th in WHIP, and 27th in batting average against. Even though the Astros play in a bandbox down the lines when at home, their numbers away from Minute Maid Park are horrendous. A horrific 1.61 WHIP accompanies an equally as startling 5.89 ERA. But when you consider that the team is a whopping 11-46 (!!!!!) on the road this year, those stats start to make more sense. Right now, the ace of the staff is probably Lucas Harrell, who has pitched much better as 2012 has progressed, but even his ERA is just an inch below four. The bullpen has been a huge problem for Houston, but I’m sure you could have guessed that by this point. The team has only registered 21 saves on the season, and all but two of them left for Chicago when Brett Myers departed. Brandon Lyon, who after Myers was sent packing, was the only reliever with more than a few years of major league experience that had pitched well, was dealt to the Blue Jays.
Clearly, this is a team in a rebuilding mode based on the amount of veteran salary they have dumped (Lee, Rodriguez, Myers, Lyon) and the 1998 Florida Marlins-level of youth on this team. More than a third of the active roster made their major league debut since the start of the 2011 season, and no one on the squad was in the major leagues before 2004. Thanks to injuries and trades, there is no player on the 25-man roster right now that was with the team Opening Day 2011. Yes, you read that right. The Astros have gone through a systematical and quick roster overhaul in not even two full seasons. The immediate outlook for the team is not very strong, and is not aided by their upcoming move to the AL West in 2013, a division in which 3 teams might make the postseason this year.
Worry not, Houston faithful, as you must be patient. New owner Jim Crane and new GM Jeff Luhnow seem very committed to re-building a contender in Houston. While it might be tough for ‘Stros fans to see the team ship off most of its veteran talent for players that won’t see the major for a few years, it is a necessary step for smaller market teams. For the past 5 summers, I’ve worked for the Tri-City ValleyCats of the New York-Penn League, the short-season Single A affiliate of the Astros. This summer, I’m working as a broadcaster for the team, so I get a great chance to see up close and in person what kind of talent is in the organization. The team has the best winning percentage in all of Minor League Baseball, so even though these players are, at the very least, 2 years away from the Bigs, there are very encouraging signs. The team just had 7 players selected for the league’s All-Star game, and two of those players just got promoted the other day. 26 former ValleyCats have made the majors, including 8 on the current roster, and I’d expect that number to grow a lot in the next few years. I’m no scout, but I think there are potentially 5-7 Major League Players on this team, headed by 2nd round pick in 2010 RHP Vince Velasquez and 2012 3rd rounder RHP Brady Rodgers.
The Astros have great offensive potential in AA Corpus Christi. Jonathan Singleton, who played in this year’s Futures Game, is currently leading the team with 17 homers and 72 RBI. Singleton is one of the best prospects at first base in all of the minors and is quickly ascending towards the majors. Outfielder George Springer just got called up to Corpus Christi from High-A Lancaster where he was tearing the cover off the ball. Springer, Houston’s first rounder in 2011 out of UConn, was hitting .316 with 22 home runs and 82 runs knocked in. Jarred Cosart is the top pitching prospect for the Astros, despite getting roughed up in his time at AAA Oklahoma City so far (Granted, its been only two appearances). Him and Singleton were both acquired by Houston in the Hunter Pence-to-Philly deal. The righty compiled a 3.52 ERA in 15 starts for Corpus Christi before receiving a promotion. Brett Wallace, who is with the Astros now, was a first rounder in 2008 and is also a big-time potential guy at first base. Wallace, who has made three trips to the majors, is still only 25 and has hit almost as many home runs in 75 at-bats in the Majors in 2012 than he did in 336 last year. This is where the move to the AL can potentially help Houston, because typically with two power guys at the same position like Wallace and Singleton, one might need to learn a new position. The league switch can potentially let the ‘Stros put one at DH while that player learns how to play in the outfield or third. Least we not forget, the organization picked up 13 players through all the trades they have made to dump salary this year. While none of them are really considered top tier, let’s remember the major league team is currently 40 games under .500.
By all accounts, the Astros really hit a home run with this year’s draft, in which they took 17-year old Puerto Rican shortstop Carlos Correa 1st overall. It might be some time until Correa sees Houston, but should be a stud when he gets there. The organization bottomed-out from a talent perspective in 2011, when they had the worst winning percentage in the major and minors combined amongst all 30 MLB teams. They got moving in the right direction with this year’s draft, and will likely need to back that up with 3-4 more while the 2012 signings (hopefully for Houston) progress through their system. The biggest highlight over the next few years for Houston fans might be Craig Biggio’s induction into the Hall of Fame next summer. Name recognition might not be the Astros’ strong suit over the next couple of years, but by 2016, the team should be competitive in the NL Central. Between now and then, however, the least the team can do for their fans is wear those 90’s jerseys they wore the other night way more often. The “Killer B’s” era that gave us those jerseys might be long gone, but any time you can find a reason to think of Randy Johnson’s mullet flowing in his half-year of dominance for the Astros in 1998, you are obligated to do so.