This is the first in a series of quick preview looks at the 6 teams that currently make up the National League Central.
1) Will the Astros be historically bad in 2012?
It’s not particularly a nice thing to say, but the Astros are almost certainly the least talented organization in major league baseball right now, not just at the major league level but combined with the minor leagues as well. That isn’t to say that they’ll necessarily end up with the very worst record in 2012, because a team like the Orioles that faces tougher top to bottom division competition could wind up snagging that “honor.” Still, it’s almost impossible to envision a situation where they’re not among the two or three worst teams, and if they trade off even limited assets like Carlos Lee, Wandy Rodriguez and Brett Myers sooner rather than later, they really could be historically bad. Not that this is necessarily a bad thing for the organization. They desperately need star players and, with the new CBA rules limiting teams ability to spend to aquire amateur talent, picking at the top of the draft really is the best way to land superstar talent now. A second straight #1 overall pick in 2013 should really be the team’s primary goal in 2012, and that means a whole lot of losing, no matter how hard that is on the fans.
2) Can the Astros find any players within the current on-hand talent to build around?
Because of years of stubborn refusal on the part of previous ownership to commit to a rebuilding project centered around acquiring young talent either in trade or through the draft, the Astros have precious little young talent. Starter Bud Norris is a solid #3 starter with perhaps the upside of a #2, but he’s already 26 and the team could perhaps best use him as a trade chip when his value is at its highest, since he’s likely to be leaving his prime by the time the team can contend. Beyond Norris, the team does have an interesting group of young players like Jordan Lyles, Jason Castro, Jose Altuve, and J.D. Martinez at the major league level, but none of them seem to be likely stars, other than perhaps Lyles, who does have #2 or #3 starter upside but a ways to go to reach it. The minor leagues have improved from dreadful to more middle of the pack with a few trades and renewed commitment to the draft, but the overall group is still more depth than surefire star talent. Players like Jarred Cozart, Jonathan Singleton and George Springer all possess upside, but don’t necessarily profile as the sort of stars you build a World Series winner around.
3) Will the new upper management team be given enough time to turn the franchise around?
The first order of business for new owner Jim Crane was to clean house in the front office and replace woefully over matched Ed Wade with former Cardinal vice president Jeff Luhnow in the general manager role. As was detailed above, Luhnow certainly has his work cut out for him, as the team not only lacks talent, but will also be moving to the tougher AL-West starting in 2013. There, they’ll have to take on the player development machine Rangers, the free spending Angels and two teams in Seattle and Oakland that have very good young talent to build around. On the plus side, Houston is a market that can easily support a 100+ million dollar payroll when contending, and they certainly should be able to afford to spend on a winner when they get around to building the framework for one. The biggest question is, can Luhnow and company avoid the pitfalls of trying to win too soon in the midst of rebuilding? Even if they can, can they survive the years of losing it’s going to take to get there? At the end of the day, this isn’t a very positive situation, but at least the new people at the top offer the first glimpse of light at the end of the tunnel for Astros fans in a quite a long time.