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March 17, 2011

Prospectus Hit and Run

DisAstros in the Making

by Jay Jaffe

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Despite its lack of star power, the Astros' rotation is relatively solid for a team projected to lose 94 games in 2011. While Brett Myers is nobody's favorite personality, but he's coming off a surprisingly strong 2010 in which he tossed at least six innings in all but his final start. Wandy Rodriguez and Bud Norris both rebounded from awful beginnings to live up to their reputations as power pitchers who can miss bats. Even J.A. Happ posted a career-best strikeout rate after coming over from the Phillies in the Roy Oswalt trade. Unfortunately, the unit is backed by such a disastropiece of an offense that PECOTA has ticketed the team for a last-place finish in the NL Central, three games behind the Pirates.

Last year, the Astros scored just 611 runs, fewer than any other NL team save for the woeful Bucs. They hit a combined .247/.303/.362, with those last two figures representing league lows; once you adjust for their ballpark, their .246 True Average ranked as the league's worst. Having made no upgrades over the winter, they're projected to score a league-low 630 runs. Houston, we have several problems.

The 2010 Astros finished with 18 fewer homers than any other NL club, and 48 fewer walks, standings which owed plenty to the absence of Lance Berkman, who'd averaged 32 dingers and 101 free passes over the previous nine seasons. Slowed by injuries early in the year and then traded to the Yankees in late July, Berkman played in just 85 games, and his departure left the team without a single high-upside hitter.

According to our forecasts, no Astros position player is projected to have an on-base percentage higher than Hunter Pence's .323, a figure one point lower than last year's NL average. Pair that with a modest .451 slugging percentage, and you've got a right fielder who projects for a .280 True Average, three points lower than last year's major league average at the position—and this is for a 28-year-old, a player in the midst of his supposed peak years. Meanwhile, 35-year-old left fielder Carlos Lee, who hit a dreadful .246/.291/.417 last year, is projected for only a meager rebound (.269/.316/.444), with a .273 TAv, two points below last year's average for left fielders. It gets worse: the corpulent "slugger" is expected to be 13 runs below average on defense, and shoulder soreness is affecting Lee's throwing this spring. Good thing the Astros owe him only $37 million over the next two years.

Beyond Lee and Pence, the picture gets even more bleak. Center fielder and leadoff man Michael Bourn may rank among the game's fastest players, but his .252/.316/.330 projection tags him as a Juan Pierre clone with more walks but a lower batting average and contact woes. First baseman Brett Wallace, who hit just .222/.296/.319 upon being promoted from the minors to replace the departed Berkman, is forecast for a lowly .249/.310/.401 line. A former five-star prospect who has been traded three times since being drafted by the Cardinals in 2008, Wallace posted a hacktastic 50/5 strikeout-to-unintentional walk ratio as a rookie, confirming fears that the selectivity he showed at Arizona State had abandoned him.

Even one of the rare bright spots for the 2010 Astros offense is expected to plummet back to earth. Third baseman Chris Johnson hit .308/.337/.481 in 362 plate appearances as a 25-year-old rookie, light years beyond his .282/.321/.459 line in 682 Triple-A plate appearances from 2008-2010. His NL-best .387 BABIP is guaranteed to regress, and with a 91/13 K/UIBB ratio, he lacks the plate discipline to compensate. PECOTA foretells a grim .266/.299/.420 line.

Frighteningly enough, three other regulars also project to post sub-.300 OBPs: shortstop Clint Barmes, second baseman Bill Hall, and catcher Humberto Quintero. Barmes was acquired from the Rockies over the winter for live arm Felix Paulino, and the 32-year-old is still best known for breaking his collarbone while carrying a package of venison during his 2005 rookie season. Playing half his games at Coors Field, he's compiled a career line of .254/.300/.404. Coming down from altitude wil be quite a comedown; he's forecast for a .241/.289/.377 line. The free-swinging 31-year-old righty Hall snapped a three-year slump against righties last year, only to shift his ineptitude to southpaws; as bad as his .223/.289/.389 forecast looks, it's a dead ringer for his combined 2008-2010 line.

The 31-year-old Quintero is the presumptive starter behind the plate now that Jason Castro is out for the year with a torn ACL. A card-carrying member of the International Brotherhood of Backup Catchers, he's never gotten more than 276 plate appearances in a season for good reason: he's an abomination at the plate, with a career .232/.271/.322 line. In that light, his .235/.269/.331 forecast is the height of optimism. The true hope is that 27-year-old J.R. Towles, who faceplanted three years ago as a rookie (.137/.250/.253 in 171 PA), can seize the job. His .224/.309/.364 forecast would be a step up—and that's just pathetic.

It's not as though the Disastros can wait for the minor league cavalry to ride to the rescue, as none of their top hitting prospects have played above High-A ball. Just recently, Kevin Goldstein ranked the team's perpetually floundering minor-league system the majors' third worst, dismissing them in haiku form:

That's all you can get?
For Roy Oswalt and Berkman?
Old, bad, no help soon.

Ouch. No matter how good that rotation is, it's going to be a rough, low-scoring year for Astros fans.


A version of this story originally appeared on ESPN Insider Insider.

Jay Jaffe is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Jay's other articles. You can contact Jay by clicking here

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