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September 17, 2010

Kiss'Em Goodbye

Houston Astros

by Steven Goldman, 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 of this season from Buster Olney, a take from Baseball Prospectus, a look toward an immediate 2011 move courtesy of Rumor Central and Kevin Goldstein's farm-system overview. You can find all the teams on one page by going here.

Now, it's time to kiss the Houston Astros goodbye.


The overview

The Astros opened the year by losing their first eight games, and the team's offense completely disappeared in the first four months of the season, as Lance Berkman and Carlos Lee struggled. By the middle of June, Houston was 19 games under .500, and the team's two signature stars, Berkman and Roy Oswalt, began indicating they were ready to leave the organization. Only two teams scored fewer runs than the Astros in the first half, and the Astros tied for dead last in home runs.

Since the trades of Oswalt and Berkman, though, Houston has played dramatically better. The organization committed to rebuilding around young players like Chris Johnson, and rival scouts have been greatly impressed with the energy level and improvement of the team under first-year manager Brad Mills. Astros GM Ed Wade believes the strong finish could carry over into 2011 because the same pitching staff that has fueled this turnaround will return virtually intact.

Realistically, though, Houston needs to find long-term solutions at second base and shortstop, and the Astros cannot follow up on their second-half success unless Lee can produce much better in the first half of next season. But with Berkman and Oswalt off the Houston payroll, the Astros are in a much more flexible position to address any needs. For years, advisors to Drayton McLane had told him that the club was in need of an overhaul, and for the first time, he listened—and the Astros already seem to be on the rise again.—Buster Olney, ESPN Insider


Baseball Prospectus' take

What went right: Since June 1, Houston's actually the second-best team in the NL Central—in that span it's only one game off the pace of the Reds. Hunter Pence recovered from a miserable start and Johnson became a young star at third base after Pedro Feliz faltered. It was the pitching that turned the Astros around, as the hurlers dropped just over a run per game (from 5.12 to 4.09) from June on. Wandy Rodriguez and Bud Norris (a 2.24 ERA and a 3.90 ERA from July to present, respectively) have been the most improved, J.A. Happ has been a solid addition, and Brett Myers has been solid throughout. They have also had good luck, playing about nine games above their projected record.

What went wrong: As noted above, they spent the first two months of their season on pace to lose 108 games. Even in the generally weak NL Central, that's not good. Younger players Tommy Manzella, Justin Towles and Jason Castro crashed on takeoff. The failure of the latter pair meant that Astros backstops have hit .222/.273/.315 this year.

The key number: $55.5 million. That's the amount of money Lee will be paid for 2010-12 despite hitting and fielding below replacement level this year. At .245/.286/.413, Lee isn't even hitting his weight, and his on-base percentage might not exceed his girth, either. Lee's declining skills and extra-large paycheck make his perhaps the most immovable contract in baseball, and he will continue to be an impediment to the Astros' rebuilding.

What won't happen again: The tradable vets are gone, so there will be no more restocking Houston's pantry with goods from other clubs' larders. Assuming that Wade cannot make a huge splash in what will be a fairly thin free agent market, further rebuilding efforts will have to come from within, and there's just not enough talent on hand to make it work. If its good luck fades, Houston's 2011 will more closely resemble the first two months of 2010 than the last four.—Steven Goldman, Baseball Prospectus


Rumor Central: 2011 options

Ready to take off: McLane had traditionally been slow to cut the cord with franchise cornerstones, but the trades of Berkman and Oswalt over the summer clearly signaled a change of course. Mills deserves some credit for what has become a strong finish, but that goodwill will evaporate quickly if the 'Stros have another slow start. Look for the Astros to try to avoid the question mark in the bullpen by giving Matt Lindstrom every chance to win the closer's job next spring.

Houston could use some extra offensive pop at shortstop and second base, so how about a play for Mark Ellis or Jose Lopez if their current teams pass on 2011 contract options? Berkman was hoping he could return to the Astros next season after a few months in New York, but that is looking unlikely due to the commitment to Brett Wallace.

Dollar signs: Yes, we know that Lee will take home $19 million next season. But there is some wiggle room financially now that the Astros have parted ways not only with Oswalt and Berkman, but Kaz Matsui and Feliz as well. Wade will have some extra money to spend, but a built-in excuse will be a notable attendance decline of 8.4 percent from last season.—Doug Mittler, ESPN Insider

Keep up with Rumor Central year-round here.


Organizational future

Right-hander Jordan Lyles doesn't turn 20 until October, but he already has a year of pitching at the upper levels under his belt, and will likely hit the big leagues before he can legally have a glass of champagne to celebrate. A supplemental first-round selection in 2008, Lyles has the maturity and command of a veteran, and while that has allowed him to move quickly there is still much debate as to whether that means a star-level ceiling. His fastball is just a tick above average in terms of velocity, and his curveball should be good enough to keep hitters off balance in the majors. His rapid rise has been impressive. Still, most scouts think he's a good middle-rotation starter as opposed to an All-Star—but even pitchers like that are worth eight figures annually on the open market.—Kevin Goldstein, Baseball Prospectus

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

Steven Goldman is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Steven's other articles. You can contact Steven 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

Related Content:  Houston Astros,  Rebuilding

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