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August 10, 2011

Expanded Horizons

Anonymastros

by Tommy Bennett

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Since July 1, the Astros are 9-23 and have been outscored 109-163. At the trade deadline, they traded away their two most recognizable offensive stars, Hunter Pence and Michael Bourn. Even before the deadline, Jeff Keppinger was sent packing. The Astros were probably the worst team in baseball before the deadline and were certainly that after it. The obscurity of the Houston lineup caused Larry Granillo to ask how the team would stack up against the Peanuts gang. That may be a stretch, but it seems fair enough to ask how they would stack up against a middling Triple-A team. Given how long Baseball Prospectus authors and our fellow travelers have been calling for rebuilding in the Bayou City, however, it seems unfair to criticize their current futility. Instead, let us provide this introduction to the new-look(-away) Astros.

Here is the team’s lineup (with batting lines) as it was written into Brad Mills’ scorecard on Monday night at Chase Field:

RF-L J.B. Schuck (13 PA, .273/.385/.273)
2B-R Jose Altuve (71 PA, .348/.371/.409)
CF-R Jason Bourgeois (158 PA, .315/.331/.392)
LF-R J.D. Martinez (34 PA, .281/.324/.625)
1B-R Matt Downs (145 PA, .244/.332/.472)
3B-B Jimmy Paredes (25 PA, .261/.320/.391)
SS-R Clint Barmes (333 PA, .253/.320/.393)
C-B Carlos Corporan (108 PA, .202/.245/.273)
P-R Wandy Rodriguez (47 PA, .133/.133/.133)

Of the nine players in the Astros lineup on Monday night, exactly one (Barmes) had the most plate appearances among Astros at his position. Barmes was also the oldest hitter in the lineup at age 32 (Rodriguez, the night’s starting pitcher, is older than him by two months). The next-oldest hitter was Bourgeois, who is 29.

Before this season, the number three hitter (Bourgeois) had 179 major-league plate appearances. Matt Downs, the first baseman, had 169. Shuck and Altuve, the one-two punch, along with Paredes and Martinez, all received their first major-league plate appearance in 2011. At least the catcher, Corporan, had faced major league pitching before: he had one plate appearance with the Brewers in 2009 (it resulted in a single). That means that the pitcher, Wandy Rodriguez, had more career plate appearances before this season than every member of the lineup except the shortstop, Barmes. You are forgiven for not knowing the names of the players in this lineup.

Part of the reason these hitters are so unknown is that few of them were big prospects. Even Altuve, the hero of the Up & In Podcast, was only a two-star prospect and a late entry to the Astros Top 11 (not, it’s important to note, an exclusive club). There were only two other members of the Top 11 in Monday’s lineup. The first was Paredes, who ranked #6, but about whom the best Kevin Goldstein would say was that he “could be an everyday second baseman.” The second was J.D. Martinez, who ranked #8, but who Kevin Goldstein said topped out as “a second-division starter or good extra bat on a championship-level team.” Schuck ranked at #17. None of these players qualified for the preseason top 101 list.

Needless to say, this is not the stuff that dreams—let alone pennants—are made of. The Astros have lost have lost five of their last 15 games and will lose plenty more. The offense is most likely very close to replacement level in the immediate term, but they won’t always be so young: Monday was an off day for Carlos Lee, who qualifies as one of the better hitters on the team after the departures of Bourn, Pence, and Keppinger. But for those tired of watching veteran retreads take the field in Houston, this new face is surely a welcome change.

How will the team fare? Monday’s game represents a sort of best-case scenario with Altuve and Martinez leading the way. The top of the first inning is illustrative: after Schuck grounded out to second, Altuve roped a line-drive double to left. Bourgeois’s speed got him to first on an error, and then Martinez hit an opposite-field home run to plate three runners. Later in the inning, Paredes reached on a single and was driven in by a Corporan double.

Altuve and Martinez both came around to score again in the second, each having singled. Altuve was driven in by a Downs double, Martinez by a Barmes single. That made the score 7-0 Astros (!).

Believe it or not, Altuve and Martinez both scored yet again in the sixth inning. Altuve singled to center and then moved to second on a wild pitch. After Bourgeois flied out to center, Martinez drew a walk. Matt Downs singled to put Altuve on third and Martinez on second before Paredes singled to drive in both of them (although Downs was out at third). That put the Astros up 9-0 [sic].

Altuve and Martinez did not come out of nowhere. Nor did their hot hitting this year begin with their first tastes of major league coffee. Altuve, who is just 21, hit .389/.426/.591 in 391 plate appearances between High-A and Double-A this year. Martinez, who is 23, was hitting .338/.414/.546 in 370 plate appearances at Double-A before his call-up.

Even if this is the high-water mark of what these guys can do, is anyone going to complain about a 3-for-5 or 2-for-4 night? And isn’t losing with cheap youngsters who have the chance to stick with the team during the rebuilding years preferable to watching mid-level veterans escalate their salaries through the arbitration process? The only thing worse than rooting for a losing team is rooting for a losing team with no hope. The past 12 months have given fans of both the Pirates and the Royals, both long-struggling franchises themselves, some hope for the future. So even if the Astros finish in last place (as they are undoubtedly bound to), this season marks an unmistakable turning point in the history of the Astros franchise.

Dedicated Astros fans already knew who Martinez and (especially) Altuve were before this season started. Casual Astros fans are soon to be won over. For the rest of you tuning in on MLB.tv (you think this team could be nationally broadcast?), don’t get down on the Astros for having a lineup of hitters you’ve never heard of. It’s probably the best thing that’s happened to them in years.

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