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September 8, 2011

Kiss'Em Goodbye

The Houston Astros

by Ben Lindbergh, Kevin Goldstein and ESPN Insider

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Kiss 'Em Goodbye is a series focusing on MLB teams as their postseason dreams fade -- whether in September (or before), the League Division Series, League Championship Series or World Series. It combines a broad overview from Baseball Prospectus, a front office take from former MLB GM Jim Bowden, a best- and worst-case scenario ZiPS projection for 2012 from Dan Szymborski, and Kevin Goldstein's farm system overview.

First up: the Houston Astros, who were the first team mathematically eliminated this year. It's time to kiss 'em goodbye.

Baseball Prospectus' Take
Signs of hope: 
Ten Astros have made their major-league debuts this season, and while some of that fresh growth will need to be pruned in subsequent seasons, enough promising players took root to suggest that the ’Stros might be starting to assemble a core they could build on, a feat Ed Wade already achieved once in Philadelphia. Top starting prospect Jordan Lyles held his own in Houston at age 20, Yankees offcast Mark Melancon earned saves despite a conspicuous lack of closer experience, second baseman Jose Altuve flirted with .400 in the minors and quickly became a fan favorite after his promotion, left fielder J.D. Martinez slugged at Double-A and didn’t crater after bypassing Triple-A, and third baseman Jimmy Paredes impressively (though perhaps unsustainably) outperformed his Corpus Chrisi showing after relieving Chris Johnson of his duties. One benefit of having few sure things is that the Astros aren’t burdened by many financial commitments beyond 2012—with only one season remaining on his six-year, $100 million contract, it’s finally safe to start the Carlos Lee free agency countdown clock. Finally, the Astros have underperformed their third-order record by almost eight wins, the largest margin of any team, which suggests that they could have some better luck in store even without much immediate help on the way.

Signs of disaster: The Astros weren’t remotely good at anything, ranking in the bottom five in baseball in offense (.248 True Average), defense (.697 Defensive Efficiency), Fielding Independent Pitching (4.31), and Base Running Runs (-8.4 BRR). That’s not surprising, given that the team was almost entirely devoid of above-average players, let alone stars. Houston’s most productive player, Hunter Pence, was worth just 2.7 WARP to them, among the 20 worst team-topping performances since 1950—and now he’s playing right field for the Phillies. Off the field, owner Drayton McLane called a press conference to announce the sale of the team to Jim Crane on May 16, but doubts about Crane soon surfaced, and the deal is still awaiting MLB approval. Hands-off ownership can aid a rebuilding movement, but ownership uncertainty rarely makes anything easier.

Signs you can ignore: Almost any stats accrued by a player with more than a few years of major-league experience. After years of pretending they could continue to compete with the aging nucleus of the 2005 pennant-winning team intact, the Astros committed to a full remodeling, extending the effort they initiated when they flipped Roy Oswalt, Lance Berkman, and Pedro Feliz to contenders in 2010 by selling high on Pence, Michael Bourn, and Jeff Keppinger this season. Unloading Brett Myers and Wandy Rodriguez would have made trading season even sweeter, but any object over 30 on the roster isn’t tied down tightly and won’t be part of the next competitive Astros team, so both players could be moved in the coming months. -- Ben Lindbergh, Baseball Prospectus

Bowden's Bold Move
The Astros' decision to be sellers for the second consecutive summer turned out well for them, as they got some promising prospects for Pence and Bourn. Houston shouldn't stop there. GM Ed Wade should continue trade discussions regarding Wandy Rodriguez, his best starting pitcher, and stick with his long-term plan that is geared towards success in 2014 or 2015. Rodriguez, 32, has won at least 10 games for three straight years while averaging 8 strikeouts per 9. His ERA has never been above 3.60 during that span. Rodriguez has $10 million due in 20012, $13 million due in 2013 and another club option for $13 million in 2014 that can be bought out for $2.5 million.

The Astros will have to wait this market out until C.J. Wilson and Mark Buehrle, the best lefties on the free agent market, have signed. Once that happens, the Astros can shop Rodriguez to the teams that missed the boat on Wilson and Buehrle. Here are some clubs that could have interest: Red Sox, Blue Jays, Orioles, Royals, Nationals, Marlins, Mets, Reds and Rockies.

The Astros' offseason bold move should be to continue the trading spree that started last July with Oswalt and Berkman and continued this summer with Pence and Bourn. -- Jim Bowden


Hopes and Fears

Best-case scenario ZiPS projection: 80-82

The Astros are simply too light on major league talent to be a serious competitor. Jose Altuve, one of the few things to go right, doesn't have a great deal of offensive upside, and none of Carlos Lee, Brett Wallace, or J.D. Martinez have good odds of being the solid middle-of-the order hitter they need to have a competent offense. There's a decent chance the team can cobble together a good bullpen, but only Wandy Rodriguez and Bud Norris have good odds of being league-average starters in 2011. Jordan Lyles still has a bright future, but to expect to see it in 2012 is speculative.

Worst-case scenario: 54-108
The Astros this year can claim a little bad luck, playing well under their Pythagorean record, but the 2011 Astros had the benefit of 205 games from Hunter Pence and Michael Bourn. This situation is more likely to get worse than better given that the team's very unlikely to make significant additions in the offseason and these projections assume the Astros keep Wandy Rodriguez. -- Dan Szymborski, Baseball Think Factory

Organizational Future
The Astros entered the year as one of the worst systems in baseball, despite dumping Lance Berkman and Roy Oswalt at last year's trade deadline, as they got little in return. Despite the pleasant surprises of Altuve and Martinez, the system was still well towards the bottom at mid-season when the Astros dumped again, only this time they added some very real prospects. In the Hunter Pence deal alone, right-hander Jarred Cosart and first baseman Jonathan Singleton became the top pitching and offensive prospect in the system, while pitchers Paul Clemens and Brett Oberholtzer, acquired from Atlanta as part of the Michael Bourn deal, provide some much-needed depth. There is still plenty of work to be done in the Astros system, but those fresh faces, as well as a solid 2011 draft headed by first-round pick George Springer, finally has things moving in the right direction. -- Kevin Goldstein, Baseball Prospectus

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

Ben Lindbergh is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Ben's other articles. You can contact Ben by clicking here
Kevin Goldstein is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Kevin's other articles. You can contact Kevin by clicking here

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