Originally posted on isportsweb.com  |  Last updated 3/1/12

The 2011 version of the Houston Astros finished dead last. Not just in the NL Central, but in all of baseball. Their 56-106 record was 7 full wins less than the next worst team (Minnesota). To say that there is reason for optimism in 2012 would be misleading.

Jose Altuve

If nothing else, the Astros did give fans a peak at the future. Brian Bogusevic, J.D. Martinez, Jose Altuve, Jimmy Paredes, and Jordan Lyles all spent a bunch of time with the big club and showed plenty of upside. They’ll get a full year to show what they can do this time around.

The Astros made a potentially nice move in the offseason. They shipped closer Mark Melancon back to Boston for Jed Lowrie, who is slated to play every day at shortstop. And don’t forget that they also brought Jordan Schafer over from the Braves in the Michael Bourn deal late last year to see if he can regenerate his once promising career.

[2012 MLB Preview Central]

When a team is down and out it’s always nice to check in on the farm system to see what’s coming. And then you realize that system is ranked 27th and you quickly throw in the towel on any hope for 2012.

3 Up                                                                     

Best Case Scenario for 2012

The only real hope here is that the five 2nd-year players are legit and can eventually transition the Astros out of the MLB basement. The likely scenario is that Houston will once again be baseball’s worst team. Carlos Lee is the only “star” (former?) on the roster, unless Wandy Rodriguez falls into that category. And when the aging Lee is the best thing going, that is about as big of a preseason death blow as you can get.

Most Important Astros

Wandy Rodriguez has the ability to dominate the opposition. This year, more than ever, the Astros need him to do that. He quietly put together a good season in 2011. Going 11-11 on a 56-win team is no easy task. The 3.49 ERA that he posted was the 2nd-best number of his career. The reason he is so important is because the Astros need him at maximum value when the trade deadline rolls around. Dealing Rodriguez now is critical. At 33, he is not getting any younger and Houston will need to get some good prospects into the system asap. Trading Rodriguez in 2012 is a must. The same argument can be made for Carlos Lee. If he can show in the season’s first 4 months that he can still crush a baseball, Houston should be able to ship him off to an AL team for some usable parts. At this point in the rebuilding process for Houston, it’s all about the prospects.

Potential Breakout Players

Really any of the 5 rookies from last year could bust out but I am really intrigued by Jose Altuve. At 5’5’’ and 155 pounds, he is one of the smallest players in baseball, but he can flat-out rake. He hit .276 in 221 at-bats for the Astros last year and will parlay that into the starting 2nd base gig in 2012. In parts of 5 minor league seasons, he was a virtual on-base machine. He left the minors with a .387 overall on-base %, and it wasn’t because the little guy was drawing an insane amount of walks either. He hit .327 in his minor league career and even belted 15 homers in 2010, the same year that he swiped 42 bases. Also look for Jordan Lyles to take the next step in his development. He came up as a 20-year old last year and started 15 games with mixed results. At 6’4’’, 210 lbs, he has the body to be a front-of-the-rotation starter. In the minors, he was nearly a strikeout/inning pitcher. Lyles has big upside.

3 Down

Worst Case Scenario

J.A. Happ

To go down from a 56-win season would be extremely difficult but I suppose it’s possible. Last place in the NL Central seems very likely. No one should be surprised if that happens again. But a true worst-case scenario would be if they can’t trade Lee and Rodriguez and the 2nd year players take backward steps.

Areas of Concern

The starting rotation was already weak and then Manager Brad Mills yanked Brett Myers out to become the closer. So now, instead of getting 200 innings from a true veteran, they’ll get about 60 innings and 25 saves. For a team that gave up nearly 800 runs in 2011 (most in the NL), this particular move seems a bit reckless. The Astros will go to the hill with Rodriguez, Bud Norris, J.A. Happ, Lyles, and perhaps Kyle Weiland. There is some potential there but the road promises to be a rocky one.

Who Needs to Bounce Back From a Down 2011

Jed Lowrie had an up and down run with Boston that included sporadic playing time and injury issues. The Astros are counting on him to be a centerpiece of their team moving forward. Lowrie seemingly has the ability to hit 15-20 homers and carry an average in the neighborhood of .300. If he can do that, Houston will have officially ripped off the Red Sox, a team without a shortstop. J.A. Happ was a massive disappointment in 2011 after showing so much promise in ’10 after coming over from Philly. In 13 starts with the Astros in 2010 he was 5-4 with a 3.75 ERA and 1.32 WHIP. In ’11, he went 6-15 with a 5.35 ERA and 1.54 WHIP. One more year like that and he’ll be fast-tracking his way right out of the big leagues. Houston needs reliable innings from Happ in a bad way for 2012 to not be a total meltdown.

Follow me on Twitter @isportsJoe

This article first appeared on isportsweb.com and was syndicated with permission.

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