The move to the American League West means a lot of things for the Astros. One that a lot of people might overlook is pitching. With the DH, many opposing lineups can hit 1-9, which means that a weak bullpen or back of the rotation is going to get exposed.
Not good news for a team that finished 2012 with the worst record in baseball.
When it comes to pitching in Houston, there aren’t many sure things. This is a team where Lucas Harrell is the ace, after all. His 2.8 WAR in 2012 led the team, and it was thanks in large part to his ability to induce ground balls (57.2% GB) and reduce home runs (9.7% HR/FB).
Behind Harrell, the only sure things in the rotation are Jordan Lyles and Bud Norris.
Perhaps the best comparison is the Seattle Mariners, who finished dead last in the AL West in 2012. Harrell’s 2.8 WAR would have been good enough for second on their rotation. Norris’ 1.5 would have been third, and Lyles’ 0.8 would have tied him with Jason Vargas and Hisashi Iwakuma for fourth. Not that the Mariners are the benchmark for success, but the Astros’ three pitchers match up well with the Mariners’ rotation, with one exception:
Houston doesn’t have a Felix Hernandez. With a 3.20 xFIP and 8.65 Ks per 9 IP, Hernandez is the definition of an ace, and that’s something every team needs. Especially a team that wants to compete in the AL West.
Unfortunately, there are no aces laying around the Astros organization. At least not right now. And even though this is a team building for the long run, if they hope to remain the least bit competitive this season, they’ve got to think long and hard about signing a free agent who can slot into the rotation above Harrell, Lyles, and Norris. Someone who can miss bats and help the youngsters along.
A rebuilding team certainly isn’t going to sacrifice a first-round draft pick to sign a free agent, but there are some high risk/reward guys on the market, and one I really like is Francisco Liriano. For those of you who don’t remember, Liriano dominated for the Twins in 2005 and 06 before needing Tommy John surgery. He’s shown flashes of brilliance since then – posting 6.0 WAR in 2010 – but has struggled with his consistency.
This is exactly the kind of guy that Houston can take a flyer on. You’re not going to expect a 6.0 WAR in the AL West, but if he can stay healthy, he can certainly lead a young rotation. And he should be fairly affordable. For my money, he should be Houston’s #1 free agent target this winter.
The fifth starter spot could go to just about anyone: Dallas Keuchel showed some nice things in his cup of coffee despite underwhelming numbers overall. Personally, I like Jose Cisnero, who struck out 9.61 per 9 innings in Corpus Christi, and who allowed just 0.58 HR/9. Rudy Owens or Paul Clemens could also be called on to eat innings.
By the end of the summer, I fully expect Jared Cosart to join the big league club. But I think you let Keuchel, Cisnero, Owens, and Clemens battle it out in Spring Training to be the fifth starter. Of course, you could also work the waiver line, the Rule 5 draft, minor league signees, and non-roster invites. Anything to shore up the back end of the rotation.
But none of it means anything unless you can get someone who can slot into the front end.
LHP Francisco Liriano
RHP Lucas Harrell
RHP Bud Norris
RHP Jordan Lyles
LHP Rudy Owens
I like the idea of the Astros spending money on a DH, and Mike Napoli is – in my opinion – the perfect guy for this team. He’s a veteran presence, he can fill in at 1B if Wallace or Dominguez struggles or at C if Castro gets injured, he knows AL West hitters, and he swings a big bat.
If that signing comes true, my predictions then become:
C Jason Castro (L)
1B Brett Wallace (L)
2B Jose Altuve (R)
3B Matt Dominguez (R)
SS Jed Lowrie (S)
LF Fernando Martinez (L)
CF Justin Maxwell (R)
RF Brad Snyder (L)
DH Mike Napoli (R)
Bench: Jake Elmore, Tyler Greene, Brandon Barnes, Che-Hsuan Lin
Now, that’s not a team that’s going to give the Angels and Rangers a run for their money. But it’s a respectable lineup that can go in and win a couple of games while the prospects develop.
Next, we’ll talk about pitching.
There is no doubt in my mind that Fernando Martinez and Justin Maxwell will begin the 2013 season as starting outfielders.
Martinez, claimed on waivers from the Mets prior to the 2012 season, was a former top prospect whose development had been hampered by injuries. He had 90 good games in Oklahoma City last season, and even earned 107 wRC+ in his time in the big leagues. Houston may be the only place where he can continue his development on the field at the big league level, and they could certainly use his .477 Slugging Percentage in the lineup. For my money, he can start at either corner outfield spot for Houston.
Maxwell is a different story. He strikes out way too much, but after he began to receive regular playing time with Jordan Schafer on the DL, he looked a lot more comfortable at the plate. His defense was the real story, and he managed to scrape together 2.3 fWAR and 107 wRC+. I’d slot him into center field and challenge someone to try and take it away from him.
The question then must become: Who plays alongside them?
Brandon Barnes was abysmal in his 43 games in Houston (.232 wOBA!? .061 ISO!?). Che-Hsuan Lin, a waiver claim from Boston, shows promise and has a nice low strikeout rate, but nothing immediately leaps off the page at me. Forget J.D. Martinez and his .686 OPS.
A look around the system does show some interesting prospects, however.
Most of the good ones aren’t quite ready. Andrew Aplin had a 187 wRC+ in low-A ball with an extremely lucky BABIP; Preston Tucker put together 165 right alongside him. Speaking of BABIP, 2011 first-rounder George Springer had a .404 on his way to a .955 OPS in Lancaster. Along with his 28 stolen bases and an 11.2% walk rate, it’s not hard to see him as the leadoff man of the future. But that’s the future.
Maybe the two most-intriguing outfield prospects are Domingo Santana and Telvin Nash. Both are power-first guys who are mashing so far. Santana, received as the PTBNL in the Hunter Pence trade from Philadelphia, went 302/385/536 in Lancaster – and he’s just 20 years old. Even with Lancaster’s reputation for power hitting, a .385 OBP looks mighty nice, even if it was aided by a .397 BABIP. Sure, he may strike out 28.2% of the time, but he’s improving: It’s actually his first full season where he struck out less than 30% of the time.
Nash, on the other hand, strikes out more than forty percent of the time – now that’s a problem! Still, it’s really hard not to lick your lips at a .270 ISO, even if it is in Lancaster.
I wouldn’t be surprised to see Santana begin the year repeating high-A ball, but no doubt both these guys will be plugging away in Corpus Christi before July, along with Springer. It could be a glimpse of the future.
There’s also Brandon Meredith, who had 143 wRC+ in Lexington this year, and who should begin 2013 in Lancaster. Meredith’s peripherals look great: 11.2 BB%, 23.2 K%, 278/377/506 line in Lexington.
None of that helps the major league team right now, however.
When I look at possibilities for the Houston club, three names jump to my eye: Marc Krauss, Jimmy Paredes, and Jake Goebbert.
Paredes is an intriguing player – he’s been tried at third and second base, and is transitioning to the outfield, where he seems to be doing a little less damage, defensively. He went 318/348/477 in Oklahoma City last year, but I think he needs to repeat the level to further develop into an outfielder. Something tells me, though, that he might not have the chance, and that his learning curve may take place in the majors.
Krauss came over last year from Arizona in the Chris Johnson trade. He was raking in AA-ball for the D-backs, and in just 7 games in Corpus Christi. His call-up to Oklahoma City didn’t go as well (123/203/123 in 22 games), but don’t be surprised if you see him hanging around Spring Training.
Goebbert seems like he’s been in the Astros system a long time. He’s bounced back and forth between AA and AAA the last couple of seasons, and hasn’t been able to make the adjustment to AAA pitching. Still, his .872 OPS in the Texas League in 2012 is hard to ignore.
Personally, I can see Paredes nailing down the right field spot in spring, with Martinez in left and Maxwell in center. Lin will almost certainly hang around as the 4th/5th outfielder, and barring any sort of a Rule 5 draftee or a low-risk free agent signing, I think Barnes hangs around as a late-inning defensive replacement.
LF Fernando Martinez
CF Justin Maxwell
RF Jimmy Paredes
Bench: Che-Hsuan Lin, Brandon Barnes
By claiming Jake Elmore off waivers from the Diamondbacks, the Astros front office added an intriguing piece to the mix for the 2013 version of the infield. Essentially a middle infielder, he’s also spent time at the corners. He’s shown some pop in the minors, though it didn’t translate in his brief stint in the majors in 2012.
If the season were to begin today, the Astros’ infield would probably project as Brett Wallace at first and Jose Altuve at second, with Jed Lowrie probably manning shortstop while Matt Dominguez handles third. Tyler Greene could also handle shortstop, moving Lowrie to third.
Marwin Gonzalez, Elmore, Scott Moore, and Brandon Laird would duke it out for the utility jobs.
Gonzalez has the ability to play almost any position on the field, but a .093 ISO and just a 66 wRC+ isn’t going to help him make much of a case to play in the big leagues.
Wallace remains the only actual option at first base to begin the season, but Mike Hessman did have a good year in Oklahoma City (.813 OPS despite .244 BABIP), aided by a nice hefty slugging percentage (35 HR, .281 ISO, .512 SLG). I can’t imagine he’d be anything but a stopgap in case Wallace gets hurt, however.
Wallace needs to produce now, because Jonathan Singleton is coming. The 21-year-old lefty was blocked by Ryan Howard in Philadelphia before coming to Houston in the Hunter Pence trade, but Wallace is no Ryan Howard. Singleton hit 284/396/497 in Corpus Christi this year, and figures to be knocking on the door by the end of 2013. If Wallace doesn’t produce, expect Singleton to make his case.
With the need for a Designated Hitter, I wouldn’t be surprised to see a free agent first baseman come into camp to challenge Wallace, with the booby prize being the DH spot. A lot of guys fit the profile, not least of them being Lance Berkman and Adam LaRoche. Mike Napoli, mentioned in the Catcher segment, can also play first base.
A prospect to keep your eye on is Jean Batista. The 20-year-old switch-hitter out of the Dominican Republic hit 321/345/531 in 51 games for Greeneville this year, earning a call-up to Lexington. I expect he’ll start the season in Lancaster, where his power numbers should be off the charts. He’s played all over the field already, too, which is a good sign.
There’s no question Altuve is a lock at second. There’s really no one he needs to worry about for the 2013 season.
The upside at second is that former first-rounder Delino DeShields, Jr. is progressing nicely. He repeated a level, and is still learning to play middle infield, but he went a solid 298/401/436 in Lexington, and spent some time in Lancaster, as well.
Lowrie is the best offensive player on the Astros. There are only two questions: 1) Will he play shortstop or third base? and 2) How long will he stay healthy? Lowrie has shown an exceptionally-frustrating inability to stay on the field, but he did manage to post a 2.1 WAR in 2012, while playing a career-high 97 games.
Personally, I think he projects at shortstop, with Dominguez at third, so I’m keeping him here in my projections.
Greene filled in admirably for Lowrie after being traded from the Cardinals. Though his 246/278/460 line in Houston might make him attractive to another team looking for middle infield help, it makes more sense to me to keep him as a utility man, especially given Lowrie’s propensity for injuries.
Also hanging around is Jonathan Villar, a piece of the Roy Oswalt trade. The 21-year-old went 260/336/394 while repeating AA ball. Nothing to write home about, but time is still on his side.
Other guys I like are former first-rounder Jiovanni Mier and Nolan Fontana. Mier repeated Lancaster last season, going 292/396/409. We’ll see how he does in Corpus Christi this year, but it’s at least encouraging.
Fontana, the 2012 2nd rounder out of the University of Florida, will likely take Mier’s place in Lancaster after going 225/464/338 at Lexington. Yes, you read that line correctly. He had nearly twice as many walks (65) as hits (34). Intriguing, to say the least.
I think Dominguez projects as the starting third baseman in 2013; his 111 OPS+ and 0.5 WAR in 31 games in 2012 is too enticing to pass up.
Outside of Lowrie, no other Major League-ready third basemen pass the “sniff test,” though Scott Moore tore the cover off the ball in AAA, and put up some decent numbers in the big leagues, which may shorten the leash. But Moore is already 28 years old and Dominguez, a former first round pick by the Marlins acquired in the Carlos Lee trade, has a ton of upside. I can’t imagine he won’t be given the chance to fail.
One prospect to keep your eye on is Matt Duffy. At 23, he was too old to be playing in Lexington, but his 280/387/447 line there is impressive nonetheless. A 20th rounder in the 2011 draft out of the University of Tennessee, his 16 home runs tied him for 8th in the Sally League. He may start in Lancaster or maybe even Corpus Christi this season, and cutting down his errors is going to be paramount. But he should be interesting to watch.
Darwin Rivera and Rio Ruiz are others to keep your eyes on.
1B: Brett Wallace
2B: Jose Altuve
SS: Jed Lowrie
3B: Matt Dominguez
Bench: Tyler Greene, Jake Elmore
The Astros are going to be rumored to be in on a lot of reclamation projects – for instance, a report surfaced this week that they had discussed the possibility of adding Hideki Matsui to be the DH. This probably isn’t the last such rumor we’ll hear – guys like Berkman, Jason Giambi, Lyle Overbay, Andruw Jones, Eric Hinske, and Aubrey Huff figure to have their tires kicked to come in as veteran presences and to help swing the bat and anchor the lineup.
More likely, in my opinion, is seeing a couple of minor league signings or non-roster invites to Spring Training. Don’t be surprised if you see guys like Orlando Hudson, Jason Bartlett, or Cesar Izturis lurking around the compound in March, trying to catch on. In fact, there’s a possibility one of these guys could catch on, holding down shortstop and letting Lowrie DH, where he’s less likely to get injured.
I’ll be taking some time this offseason to look at the Astros’ rebuilding efforts as they make the move into the AL West (upside: I’ll be able to see them take on the Angels a few times a year!)
I’m going to break things down by positions, starting with the catchers.
Jason Castro is, undoubtedly, the Astros’ starting catcher in 2013 and beyond. The former first-round pick had a decent enough year, but yet again struggled with injury.
Chris Snyder’s option was declined, making him a free agent. Snyder hit just 176/295/308 over 76 games behind the dish, so letting him go wasn’t a difficult decision.
But the question now becomes: Who is going to back up Castro?
Ordinarily, a backup catcher is someone who plays a good defense and who can handle a pitching staff, when called on to do so. It’s not a position where major league teams put a ton of money. In the Astros’ case, however, there is a very real chance that their backup catcher will need to fill in for Castro for an extended period at some point, given his history of injuries.
Replacing Snyder’s -0.2 fWAR isn’t a problem. Carlos Corporan could handle that duty by himself, having provided 0.5 fWAR in just 27 games at the big league level. Another option already in the system is Landon Powell, who has big league experience, and who hit a respectable 251/353/377 in Oklahoma City this year.
Carlos Perez (part of the 10-player deal), M.P. Cokinos, and Tyler Heineman are all interesting, but at least a year away in all cases.
So if Corporan and/or Powell can’t be “the guy,” the Astros and GM Jeff Luhnow will need to look to trades or free agency. Trading pieces away to get a backup catcher – even one who can be called upon to start in an emergency – probably isn’t an option, so a free agent signing seems likely.
Guys like Russell Martin and A.J. Pierzynski – or even, probably, Dioner Navarro – are going to demand the starting position over Castro, so it’s unlikely Luhnow will go that direction.
That leaves, basically, two options: Mike Napoli, and everyone else.
The reason Mike Napoli stands alone in this group is because he is a slugger. And because, well, he isn’t a very good catcher. Why might that be a good thing, you ask? Well, the Astros are moving into the American League, and have an immediate need for a Designated Hitter. By signing Napoli, they can kill two birds with one stone: A middle-of-the-lineup slugger at DH, and a backup catcher in case Castro goes down to injury.
In a “down” year, Napoli still managed 2 fWAR, better than Castro and Corporan combined (despite being unlucky with BABIP). He popped 24 home runs, thanks in part to a 0.97 GB/FB ratio (though he’s progressively hit more ground balls with each passing season), which will play well in Minute Maid Park. Add to that the fact that he’s played his entire career in the AL West with the Angels and the Rangers, so he knows the rest of the division.
Add it all together and it seems like a winner.
My prediction for 2013’s catching duo is Castro and Napoli.
One prospect to keep an eye on, mentioned above, is Tyler Heineman. Heineman’s a switch-hitting catcher from Los Angeles Windward High School, who walked on at UCLA, and was named All-Pac 12. The Astros took him in the 8th round and he finished the season as the leading hitter in the New York-Penn League with a .358 average.
Considering he’s actually a defense-first catcher, this is very intriguing. I imagine he’ll start the season in Lancaster, and will probably show his face in Corpus Christi at some point in 2013. Keep an eye on him.
The Astros aren’t likely to be Napoli’s only suitor. Even after signing David Ross to complement Ryan Lavarnway behind the dish, and with Jarrod Saltalamacchia hanging around their roster, the Red Sox are rumored to be in on Napoli.
Now, aside from the obvious truth that rumors are rumors and not fact, even if the Red Sox aren’t interested, other teams will be. Some may even be more attractive to Napoli than staying in the AL West as primarily a Designated Hitter.
So what do the Astros do then? Well, if it’s a team like the Red Sox, it’s possible a trade could be worked out for Saltalamacchia, but that could complicate things with Castro. Though Salty could DH and play some first base, he’s young enough and has enough value that I find it unlikely he’d want to hassle with the situation in Houston.
The current crop of free agents includes Rod Barajas, Henry Blanco, Gerald Laird, Miguel Olivo, Ronny Paulino, Humberto Quintero, Brian Schneider, Kelly Shoppach, Matt Treanor, and Yorvit Torrealba.