2012 Preview: Houston Astros | Disciples of Uecker

Disciples of Uecker

We'd like to go to the Playoffs, that would be cool.

Over the next six weeks, I am going to devote my Thursday posts to the teams of the NL Central and their 2012 rosters.At best, I’ll be able to provide some projections on runs scored and runs allowed, and at worst, it’ll all be wrong. But, my goal is to focus on a few aspects of each team, and I want to treat each team at its strengths. So, each of these are meant to be considered a best-case scenario, or positive review of each team.

 

The Houston Astros probably are the most difficult 2012 NL Central team to write about. Frankly, it’s difficult to give a best case scenario of rebuilding ballclubs, simply because I’m not sure that the successful results of a rebuilding club can be measured on the field, during the season. For instance, think about the Milwaukee Brewers’ own rebuilding; certainly, there’s a strong core of players that really paid off for the Brewers, but that doesn’t necessarily make some of the difficult Ned Yost seasons any less painful in hindsight. Think about Ned Yost’s job in the first place — and he did a strong job with the Brewers during his tenure here: Yost was meant to play youngsters, give them as much of a chance to succeed as possible, and stick with ‘em. There were some tough seasons along the way for Rickie Weeks and Corey Hart, for instance, but one might argue that the organization’s effort to stick with those players allowed them to develop into their current roles as above average ballplayers.

So it goes for the 2012 Astros. While their trades of Michael Bourn and Hunter Pence provided an adrenaline shot to their farm system, the club is going to have a lot of young players on the field that are not necessarily representative of top prospect status. Yet, several of these players represent the Astros’ most recent attempts to rebuild their organization, and now it’s time for the club to stick with those youngsters. In that regard, much like some of the Ned Yost Brewers teams, the Astros’ success in 2012 will not necessarily be measured in overall wins and losses, but their ability to compete through some stretches of the season and their ability to stick with their youngsters when the grind of 162 hits them.

YOUTH
The Astros’ current depth chart at MLB.com looks extremely fresh. In fact, if you’re like me, you probably had to do some double takes and double check that you had the names right — the Astros will be fielding a squad of brand new MLB players in 2012.

In their pitching rotation, Kyle Weiland and Jordan Lyles are both 25 or younger (Lyles is just old enough to drink), providing the Astros some rotational depth behind grizzled veterans Wandy Rodriguez, Brett Myers, and J.A. Happ. Lyles was the Astros’ top prospect in 2011 (according to BaseballAmerica), and Weiland hopped to Houston as a part of the Jed Lowrie trade.

In the field, the Astros boast Brett Wallace, Jimmy Paredes, J.D. Martinez, Jason Castro, Jordan Schafer, and Jose Altuve as players at 25-years of age or younger. Schafer and Wallace are the clear veterans of the bunch, both with more than 500 career plate appearances in the MLB. Otherwise, if this group starts in the field on opening day, many in this group will have their first shot at their first full MLB season.

Frankly, I don’t know how you can be a baseball fan and not pull for this group of youngsters, in some cases cast off from other organizations. According to BaseballAmerica, for instance, Paredes, Martinez, and Altuve were in instructional ball as late as 2010. They cracked the majors last year, and now they’re each listed as the top depth option at their respective positions. Add in Lowrie, Chris Johnson, J.B. Shuck, and Brian Bogusevic (who are by no means old), and you have a group of young, fresh players ready to create their fate.

CARLOS LEE
There was a time when the Milwaukee Brewers offered Carlos Lee one of the largest contracts in franchise history, leaving Brewers fans to wonder why he turned them down. When Carlos Lee signed with the Houston Astros for $100 million before the 2007 season, most scoffed at the amount of the contract.

One can argue whether Lee’s moderate contact/power batting profile was worth $100 million in the first place, but as he enters the last year of his contract, he’s delivered notably consistent performances for the Astros. Appearing in nearly 750 games over five seasons, Lee batted .286/.338/.486 over 3142 plate appearances for the Astros. His right-handed bat serves the Astros’ batting order as Wandy Rodriguez’s left arm serves their rotation: quietly and consistently.

After the Astros traded away Hunter Pence and Michael Bourn, Lee became their best bat, and therein rests another problem for the Astros. While it’s great to have such consistency from a player such as Lee, it’s problematic for the club as a whole if your best bat plays at a corner and bats .286/.338/.486. While Lee’s batting line is certainly above average, given his cost and position, he’s handcuffing the Astros at the same time that he’s helping them.

2007-2011: 3142 PA, 352 R, 504 RBI; 820 H, 128 HR, 282 K/227 BB, .286/.338/.486 (118 OPS+)
2002-2006: 3288 PA, 472 R, 522 RBI; 842 H, 157 HR, 402 K/281 BB, .286/.347/.508 (119 OPS+)

As Lee enters his final contract year with the Astros, he presents quite an odd scenario to the club, and baseball labor overall. While Lee’s performance in Houston makes him one of the rare big-money free agents to match their previous production, one continues to wonder about the price Houston paid in the first place.

REPLACEMENT VALUE PROBLEM OF THE DAY
(If you’re running a ballclub and you think you can get 150 games a season and production at 20% above league average, over five seasons, what do you pay for the convenience of having that production AND not having to worry about finding replacement players? Remember that teams are rarely able to use one replacement player per MLB player that is being replaced, meaning that the cost of replacement players is not always minimal. So, what do you pay a guy like Carlos Lee that pretty much guarantees that you won’t have to string together two or three extra outfielders or transactions each year, for five years?)

WANDY RODRIGUEZ
Everyone reading this might scoff, but Wandy Rodriguez is one of the National League’s “sneaky aces.” Yes, I said it. You can laugh all you like, but I didn’t say “ACE.” A “sneaky ace,” it would seem, is a pitcher that doesn’t have overwhelming stuff and never seems to be the best pitcher on any given day; a “sneaky ace,” despite all that, ends up producing a better than average season, posting surprising production.

#30 in 2008 NL (0.38 FIPratio)
#11 in 2009 NL (0.37 FIPratio)
#41 in 2010 NL (0.29 FIPratio)
#22 in 2011 NL (1.05 FIPratio)

Over the last four years, I kept National League pitching rankings based on runs prevented. Throughout that timeframe, not only did Rodriguez consistently perform as a #3 pitcher or better, he frequently performed as a #2 pitcher or better.

This is the mark of a “sneaky ace” — after the dust clears, even though he doesn’t blow your mind with his stuff or perceived performance, he ends up pitching better than a lot of pitchers with better stuff or upside.

In 2011, Rodriguez was the anti-Greinke. After three consecutive seasons with FIPratios between 0.29 and 0.38 (strong, above average performances), Rodriguez’s home runs and walks increased in a perfect storm. Of course, his strike outs also decreased, resulting in an ugly 1.05 FIPratio. This should have resulted in a notably below average season, but Rodriguez prevailed, allowing approximately 12 fewer runs than one might have expected. Not bad! (By the way, that Rodriguez accomplished this while pitching in front of one of the least efficient defenses in the league should truly help convince people that defensive efficiency is not evenly distributed among pitchers on a particular team).

Fielding Independent Pitching punishes some pitchers, pitchers that limit the damage while failing to strike out batters. It will be interesting to see if Wandy Rodriguez morphs into one of these battlers, as his strike out rate declines and his walk and home run rates increase.

CONTACT PROFILES
One thing that jumps out at me while reviewing the Astros’ roster is the rather extreme contact profiles that their youngsters compiled thus far. Now, obviously these players have careers that are so short, we would not necessarily draw conclusions from these contact profiles, but they do help to explain some of the Astros’ recent run scoring woes.

Wallace (537 PA): 141 K / 44 BB / 7 HR
Shafer (532 PA): 133 K / 55 BB / 4 HR
Altuve (234 PA): 29 K / 5 BB / 2 HR
Martinez (226 PA): 48 K / 13 BB / 6 HR (!!!)
Castro (217 PA): 41 K / 22 BB / 2 HR
Paredes (179 PA): 47 K / 9 BB / 2 HR

This group of youngsters, in their MLB plate appearances to date, constitute a bizarre set of batting results. On the one hand, most of the players strike out at higher than average rates (we might claim that to be true for everyone except Altuve), but many of the players do not walk or hit home runs along with those strike outs. As a result, Martinez, Castro, and Paredes bat the ball in play at average rates, although their distribution between strike outs, walks, and home runs is highly skewed. Martinez’s home run rate is the most exciting of the group, but otherwise, the Astros’ youngsters have their work cut out for them: if they are not going to hit home runs at strong ratios, they need to cut down on the strike outs and embrace contact-oriented batting approaches.

That’s the payoff with batting approaches: strike outs are not always bad batting results, if players that strike out frequently are doing so because their approach also yields high power. In the absence of those power numbers, the strike outs have to decrease.

JED LOWRIE: STARTER
Even though he turns 28 this spring, Jed Lowrie is one of the Astros’ elder statesmen, both in terms of his previous MLB service time, and his age. Despite playing parts of four seasons in the MLB with the Boston Red Sox, Lowrie boasts fewer than 950 plate appearances. The flexible infielder has a clear opportunity to succeed in Houston, and a great chance at full playing time.

Lowrie is an example of a moderate-contact, moderate-power batter. Although he only hit 19 home runs in 920 MLB PA, nearly 40% of his 204 hits went for extra bases. Furthermore, Lowrie presents a solid discipline profile, walking 89 times in his career, against 173 strike outs. Lowrie’s approach, overall, is one of balance, as he bats the ball in play around an average rate and typically does a good job balancing his strike outs and walks.

Given more playing time, however, Lowrie could exhibit more extreme contact habits. For instance, during his 341 PA in 2011, he struck out 60 times, against 20 walks and 6 home runs. He also netted more than 300 PA in 2008, when he struck out 68 times, against 35 walks and 2 home runs.

It’s difficult to determine how Lowrie will respond to the potential full-time gig he has waiting for him in Houston. There will be a whole host of new park factors awaiting Lowrie, and although Houston’s park encourages more left-handed home runs, it does not enhance overall run scoring as Fenway does. On the whole, Lowrie can boast a rather even hand with the strike outs, a solid penchant for walking, and maybe receive a power boost in Houston.

One thing is certain: even if he continues to bat at a slightly below average ratio, while doing okay with the leather, he has a good chance to anchor the Astros’ batting order as one of their more balanced and experienced (and promising) bats.

BREAKOUT: BUD NORRIS
You probably think this is gratuitous, but Bud Norris is one of my favorite pitchers, so it’s only right that I profile him here. The big right-hander throws HARD — in 2011, his rising fastball averaged better than 92.5 MPH. As if that wasn’t impressive enough, the kid threw a slider at more than 86 MPH, meaning that 88% of his deliveries clocked in at better than 86 MPH. All things considered, he’s a pretty hard-thrower, and excepting his occasional change up, it’s all fastball/slider, all the time.

As far as results are concerned, Norris produced his highest innings pitched total of his young career in 2011. He was slightly unlucky, allowing approximately 5 more runs than one might expect, and he also allowed 15 unearned runs overall. Even though his strike out rate declined, he also limited walks, and maintained his home run rate (which is high).

This might seem obvious to you, but, if Norris can keep that walk rate at his 2011 levels, and get that slider and fastball combo to strike out more batters, he has a strong chance to lead the Astros’ rotation. Of course, add to that equation the fact that his defense owes him one, and well, now let’s call it break out time.

BEST CASE SCENARIO:
Let’s give it to the Astros, first and foremost, for putting a young team out on the field while they’re rebuilding their franchise. This is their chance to let these guys put it all together and learn how to play together for a full season. Realistically, I am sure that everyone has the Astros’ penciled into the last place spot in the NL Central, biding time until their American League move.

While the division is wide open in the 2012 NL Central, I’m not going to say that the Astros are going to compete. However, let’s see those youngsters put together some competitive stretches, where they cause some trouble for the Cardinals, Brewers, and Reds.

If Bud Norris puts it together and Wandy Rodrtiguez does his thing (and Happ and Myers aren’t the worst pitchers in the league), the Astros have a good chance of improving their pitching performance. Furthermore, if J.D. Martinez’s contact profile evens out a bit, and Jed Lowrie adds a stronger bat to their order, the club can easily score more runs than they did in 2011. Carlos Lee has been steady throughout his tenure in Houston, with only one bad season to his name; any chance that he puts together a contract year means even better things for the Astros’ offense.

Let’s call the best-case scenario Astros troublemakers in the NL Central. An extremely young team that gets hot for stretches, but ultimately fades as they collectively face their first 162 together.

SOURCES:
Baseball-Reference. Sports-Reference, LLC., 2000-2011.
FanGraphs.
Houston Astros official page @ MLB.com
Houston Astros Top 10 Prospects. BaseballAmerica.com. 1999-2011.
“Bud Norris.” TexasLeaguers. Trip Somers, 2009-2012.
Bernie Pleskoff. “Red Sox, Astros both improve with trade.” MLB.com, December 15, 2011.

All sources accessed February 16, 2012.

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