How did we ever let things get this bad? The Houston Astros are impressive. It is not that they have the major’s worst record (30-62, 19 games out of 1st place at the break). The story of the Astros goes beyond their record, and though observers did not expect Houston to contend for much of anything during 2011, their first 92 games have taught us a few lessons:
(1) The Astros Can’t Pitch. Coming into the season, the pitching staff was to be a potential bright spot for the Astros. In fact, it has been a disaster. Brett Myers is owed $15M after this season and sports a declining K rate and a near 5 ERA that accompanies his 88 MPH fastball. JA Happ is struggling to keep his walk rate under 5BB/9. Wandy Rodriguez could be considered a bright spot, sporting a K/9 above 7 and an xFIP of3.70 – however, his contract pays him $24M over the next two seasons, followed by a $2.5M buyout (or a 2014 Salary of $13M, his 35 year old season). Bud Norris is the lone exception to the horror show on the mound. Norris appears to have gotten a handle on the control problems that have plagued him prior to 2011 — he is 7th in the NL in strikeouts and his 3.42 FIP over 112 innings puts him squarely in the discussion of solid #2 starters in the NL. The bullpen is the worst in the NL by a wide margin.
(2) The Astros Can’t Field. Sample size issues temper any conclusive statements about individual defenders in a given year. However, the Astros as a team sit at the bottom of the NL, and that number doesn’t lie. Chris Johnson and Bill Hall also have track records that would suggest that the bad defense is real.
(3) The Astros Cupboard is Bare. What jumps out on this list of the Astros top 10 prospects? Aside from Jordan Lyles (already in the Houston rotation), nobody is close to the majors. In contrast to Kansas City, where reinforcements are starting to come ashore, Houston’s minor league farmhands appear unlikely to being arriving (never mind making an impact) until 2013 or beyond. A quick glance at the AAA Oklahoma City Redhawks roster could depress even the biggest fan – not a single regular carrying an OPS over .800.
(4) The Astros Contracts mean they won’t compete before 2014 at the earliest. Carlos Lee is owed $19M next year – and though Vernon Wells proved no contract is immovable, this is pretty close. Brett Myers is owed $15M after this season. Wandy Rodriguez is owed $26M over the next two years (including a buyout) and is struggling with an elbow injury (most likely due to the fact that he throws far and away the most curveballs in baseball). Probably the Astros only interesting trade chips would be Hunter Pence (two arbitration years left, though his BABIP of .389 has ensured to date that nobody talks about a declining walk rate, increasing strike rate, or power decline). Pence will clearly command a raise of the $6.9M awarded in last year’s arbitration hearing – affordable for contenders looking for a bat – but the Astros are far enough contending that moving him for 2014 pieces makes sense.
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