The Houston Astros were the worst team in baseball in 2011. They lost 106 games, finished 40 games behind the Brewers in the National League Central and traded away two thirds of their outfield. However, things aren’t pointing completely south for the Astros. In November, Jim Crane was unanimously approved by MLB as the new owner of the Astros, effectively completing the sale of the team from previous owner Drayton McLane. Crane cleaned house quickly and fired GM Ed Wade, who did an abysmal job during his four years at the helm. Jeff Luhnow, who has an extensive background in amateur scouting and oversaw the Cardinals’ drafts since 2005, was chosen to lead the rebuilding charge in Houston. He will be tasked with rebuilding a farm system that was in shambles before Michael Bourn and Hunter Pence were traded.
The Astros pitching staff was not good last season. It ranked 27th in the MLB in team ERA (4.51) and 29th in home run rate (1.18 HR/9). Also for what it’s worth, the team was dead last in saves, with just 25 as a team. The 2012 season is important for the Astros pitching staff for two reasons. The first is that some of the team’s young pitchers need to continue to develop and show the ability to contribute at the major league level. Since the Astros don’t have many good prospects, they need to reap the benefits from the few that they do have. The second reason is that the Astros have a few pitchers at the major league level who are making a lot of money and could be traded at some point during the season. The salary relief would probably go a long way for the Astros as they continue to rebuild and it’s safe to say that the team’s brass is hoping that these veteran pitchers in question get off to great starts so they can be moved.
Wandy Rodriguez, the ace of the Astros staff, is a prime trade candidate. Rodriguez broke out in 2009, when he went 14-12 with a 3.02 ERA and an 8.45 K/9 ratio in 205.2 innings over 33 starts. After following that up with another solid season in 2010, Rodriguez was given a 3-year $34 million dollar extension in January of 2011. The deal bought out Wandy’s last year of arbitration and first two years of free agency. Rodriguez put up a solid 3.49 ERA in 2011, but his peripherals were a little concerning. Despite a career low in BABIP against, (.289), Rodriguez allowed 25 home runs last season (HR/9 of 1.18), which was the most he has given up in any season. In addition, his strikeout ratio (7.82 K/9) was the lowest it has been in four years, while his walk ratio (3.25 BB/9) was the highest it has been in that span.
Rodriguez’s contract extension is one of the several puzzling moves made by former GM Ed Wade. Why would the Astros, who had already committed to rebuilding after trading away Roy Oswalt and Lance Berkman the previous season, give out $34 million to someone like Rodriguez? Don’t get me wrong, Rodriguez is a very solid pitcher, but he is no more than a 2 or 3 starter on a championship team. The only reason he currently has the title of ace is because of the caliber of the team he plays for. Last season, the Astros tried trading Rodriguez, but teams were scared away by his contract. The Astros hold a $13 million team option for Rodriguez for the 2014 season. However, it becomes a player option of Rodriguez is traded. Since 2014 will be Wandy’s age 35 season, that stipulation has been a major roadblock for the Astros in terms of trading away their best pitcher. All the Astros can hope is that Rodriguez gets off to a great start this season and that some team is desperate enough for pitching at the deadline that they will agree to take on Wandy and his contract.
Brett Myers is another Astros starter who is both a veteran and a prime trade candidate. Myers was one of the best bargains in baseball in 2010, when he had a 14-8 record with a 3.14 ERA in 223.2 innings over 33 starts, while making just $3.1 million (according to baseball reference). He pitched at least six innings in his first 32 starts of the season, before lasting 5 2/3 against the Reds in his last appearance of the year. Myers posted a career best home run ratio (0.8 HR/9), as well as a career low 3.56 FIP and was worth 4 WAR. However, as shrewd as Ed Wade’s initial signing of Myers was, the extension bestowed upon the right-hander was questionable at best. In August 2010, Myers was handed a two-year $21 million extension with an option for a third year which would bring the total value of the pact to $28 million.
Initially, the contract Myers received seemed like fair value. However, if one were to dig a little deeper, they would find some alarming signs. The first is that Myers’ fastball velocity has steadily declined since 2007, when he averaged 92.6 MPH on the pitch. In 2010, Myers’ average fastball was just 89.3 MPH. But the most obvious aberration during 2010 for Myers was infrequency with which he gave up home runs. Myers gave up 29 home runs in 190 innings (1.37 HR/9) in 2008, which was his last full season spent in the rotation before 2010. Injuries plagued Myers in 2009 although in 70.2 innings over 18 games (10 starts) in that season, Myers gave up 18 home runs (2.29 HR/9). We can give Myers a mulligan for 2009 due to his hip problems, but throughout his career he has shown a penchant for giving up home runs. 2011 was no different, as Myers gave up 31 home runs in 216 innings (1.29 HR/9) and returned to mediocrity. He posted a 4.46 ERA and 4.26 FIP, while watching both his strikeouts and average fastball velocity decline.
Myers is due $11 million in 2012. Although hindsight is 20/20, it was rather predictable that Myers’ contract would blow up in the face of the Astros. First, regardless of whether the contract was fair, it was a puzzling move since Houston had just traded away Berkman, who was the face of its franchise. Next, Minute Maid Park is known to be hitter friendly. So why give a homer prone pitcher posting fluky numbers with declining fastball velocity $21 million? I don’t get it. Granted, there is value in going out there and being durable, which Myers certainly has been over the past two seasons. The Astros will certainly look to deal Myers at some point during this season. The question remains: will teams see Myers as a liability due to the amount of home runs he gives up, or will they look at him as someone capable of eating innings at the back of the rotation during the stretch run? If a team views him as the latter, than the Astros will be thrilled to dump Myers and save some money.
J.A. Happ burst onto the scene in 2009 with the Phillies, when he went 12-4 with a 2.94 ERA in 35 games (23 starts) and finished second in the National League Rookie of the year voting. However, Happ’s low strikeout rate (6.45 K/9) and 4.33 FIP indicated that the same sort of success might not be in store for the lefthander. In 2010, Happ spent some time on the disabled list and only made 3 starts with the Phillies before getting traded to the Astros as part of the trade for Roy Oswalt. In 13 starts with the Astros, Happ went 5-4 with a 3.75 ERA in 72 innings. While he improved on his strikeout rate in 2010 (7.21 K/9), Happ’s walk rate also increased and he finished the season at 4.84 BB/9. It seemed as if Happ was a ticking time bomb waiting to explode, which is exactly what happened last season.
Happ broke camp as a member of the Astros rotation, but pitched poorly from the outset of the season. Overall, he finished the year with a 6-15 record and 5.35 ERA and a 4.69 FIP in 156.1 innings over 28 starts. He was demoted down to AAA for a few weeks in August due to his ineffectiveness. Although his strikeout rate increased (7.71 K/9), Happ’s walk rate remained static (4.78 BB/9) and his home run rate spiked (1.21 HR/9).
The Astros need Happ to have a rebound year in 2012 and provide stability at the back end of their rotation. However, if Happ continues to walk people at an alarmingly high rate and be homer prone, it would be a surprise to see him have a successful season.
In a year filled with disappointments, Bud Norris was one of the few bright spots for the Astros. Norris, who was once ranked as the Astros #2 prospect by Baseball America, made his debut with the team in 2009 and made 10 starts down the stretch. 2010 was Norris’ first full season in the big leagues and he had mixed results. While he had an excellent strikeout ratio (9.25 K/9), Norris went just 9-10 with a 4.92 ERA in 153.2 innings over 27 starts, while walking too many people (4.51 BB/9).
Norris entered Spring Training last season as a candidate primed for a breakout year. He did not disappoint. Despite his 6-11 record, Norris had a very good strikeout rate (8.52 K/9), cut his walk rate significantly from 2010 (3.39 down from 4.51 BB/9) and had a solid 3.77 ERA in 186 innings over 31 starts. Although his strikeout rate decreased, Norris still ranked ninth among National League starters in the category.
Norris is an interesting piece of the Astros roster because he is still young (he turns 27 next month) and cheap – he will not be eligible for arbitration until next offseason. However, by the time the Astros are ready to contend, Norris will neither be young nor cheap. If Norris has another great season in 2012, it would make sense for the Astros to trade him. His case would be similar to that of Gio Gonzalez, except for the fact that Norris is right handed. The Nationals gave away the farm for Gonzalez and it would not be crazy to think that another team would be willing to do the same for Norris. Trading Norris would help to add talent to a farm system that is lacking impact players.
Before I touch on the bullpen and a couple of the Astros prospects, there are two veterans who received spring training invites who are worth mentioning. Their names are Livan Hernandez and Zach Duke.
Hernandez, who has seemingly been around forever, is one of the best innings eaters around in the big leagues today. Before last season, when he pitched 175.1 innings, Hernandez had pitched at least 180 innings in eleven consecutive seasons. Hernandez was not great last year, but he did post a 3.66 ERA in 211.2 innings in 2010. Livan will provide great value to the Astros if he can assume an inning eating role at the back end of the rotation. If he is having a good year, maybe Houston will be able to flip him for a C prospect to a contending team.
Zach Duke never turned into the stud I thought he would become when I was in eighth grade. Coming into the 2005 season, Duke was ranked as the Pirates #1 prospect and the #34 prospect in all of baseball by Baseball America. Duke’s scouting report on the site said, “he doesn’t have the pure stuff of a No. 1 starter, but his curveball and smarts give him the look of a sold No. 2.” Duke was called up in early July of 2005 and finished the year 8-2 with a 1.81 ERA in 84.2 innings over 14 starts. Despite being in the rotation for just half a season, Duke placed fifth in the National League Rookie of the Year voting.
Now that I’m done being nostalgic, I can say that Duke has been nothing better than mediocre throughout his major league career. He has only really had one solid season aside from his rookie year, which was in 2010 when Duke made the All Star team. Last year, his first with the Diamondbacks, Duke did not make his first start of the season until May 28th, due to injury problems. He remained in the rotation through July 10th, making nine starts and posting an ERA of 5.47 while proving to be very hittable and not striking anyone out. Duke was subsequently banished to the bullpen, where he made sporadic appearances throughout the rest of the season.
Much like Hernandez, Duke could be a nice midseason trade chip for the Astros if he produces in the first half. However, the odds of Duke garnering much in return as well as his overall chances for success are pretty low.
The Astros relief corps this season will be comprised mostly of pitchers with limited big league experience. Brandon Lyon, the veteran of the group, will probably enter the season as the closer if he is healthy. Lyon was inexplicably handed a 3-year $15 million contract before the 2010 season. He pitched well in his first year in Houston, with a 3.12 ERA and 20 saves over 79 appearances. Lyon only appeared in 15 games last season due to a number of injuries. While Lyon’s $5.5 million salary next season is a hefty sum for a pitcher who is miscast as a closer, the Astros shouldn’t have a hard time finding a trade partner for Lyon assuming he is healthy.
There are a few of the Astros young pitchers worth mentioning. First is Jarred Cosart, who was acquired from the Phillies in the Hunter Pence trade. Every scouting report I have read on Cosart says that he does not perform nearly as well as one would expect based on the quality of his stuff. For someone who routinely hits in the upper 90s with his fastball and has the potential for two plus off-speed pitches, it is somewhat concerning that Cosart struck out only 101 hitters in 144.1 innings (6.3 K/9). Luckily for Cosart and the Astros, he is only 21 (22 in May) with plenty of time to develop.
Brett Oberholtzer is a finesse left hander who was acquired from the Braves in the Michael Bourn trade. While Oberholtzer does not offer as much projectability as some of the Astros other minor leaguers, he represents a solid depth option should the Astros need to call on a young pitcher at some point during the season. Oberholtzer will start the year at AAA and expect to see him at some point during the summer
The last person I want to touch on is Jordan Lyles, the Astros top prospect from a year ago. Lyles made his major league debut on May 31st against the Cubs and pitched well. However, it was downhill from there and Lyles finished the year with a 2-8 record and a 5.38 ERA in 20 games (15 starts). Lyles struggled to strike people out (6.41 K/9) and was homer prone (1.34 HR/9), which begs the question of why Lyles was not sent back down to AAA for more seasoning. Maybe the Astros brass wanted Lyles to experience some growing pains in the major leagues. I don’t know. What I do know is that Lyles had roughly half a season of AAA experience before his promotion and was way over his head pitching in the big leagues at 20 years old.
It is not often that a large portion of a team’s success can be predicated on whether they are able to trade certain players away. If the Astros are able to trade away some of their expensive veteran pitchers and save money, it will be a successful year for Houston. The Astros have 100/1 odds of winning the World Series according to Bovada and will most likely both finish in last place and lose 100 games this season. Therefore, there is no reason for the Astros to hang on to its expensive group of veterans. Houston will have a successful 2012 in the pitching department if two things happen. The first is if the Astros are able to clear a bunch of payroll by trading its expensive pitchers. The second is if guys like Cosart, Lyles and Norris continue to improve and cement their status as quality young pitchers. In part two we’ll take a look at the Astros group of young hitters and their chances for success in 2012.