So we’ll assume (safely enough) for the time being that Michael Young won’t be wearing brick red in 2011, that Carlos Lee will, and that the Astros’ squad as it stands is the group that will begin heading for warmer climes in Kissimmee next week. Houston enters spring training this year with likely lower expectations than this time a year ago, but with arguably a more interesting and exciting season ahead. In spite of their seemingly slim playoff chances, this will be a critical year in determining the future direction of the franchise.
Clint Barmes: Astros GM Ed Wade entered the off-season with a focus on upgrading the offense in the middle infield and adding another starting pitcher. To that end, his first move was trading Felipe Paulino to the Colorado Rockies for Clint Barmes. Many Houston fans have maligned this deal, likely based on the solid string of starts that Paulino put together early last year. But then he got hurt – again – and when he came back late in the year, he was fairly awful. Paulino is 27, out of options, and has yet to pitch more than 133 total innings in any professional season. (In contrast, Roy Oswalt pitched 129 innings for the Astros last year before he was traded, then went on to post another 82+ for Philadelphia.) While it’s possible that Felipe will eventually put it all together and Colorado will come up smelling like roses from this trade, reality is that Houston has several other less injury-prone, more reliable fifth starter options, so Paulino was expendable. With Clint Barmes, the club addressed their greatest weakness last season (shortstop), so I like this trade. It’s true that Barmes has only had one real standout season, but he’s a defensive improvement over Angel Sanchez, an offensive improvement over Tommy Manzella, and an all-around improvement over either one of them. Barmes may never be an All-Star, but Wade used an area of surplus to address an area of weakness, and he made the club stronger thereby, so I give him a thumbs up here.
Ryan Rowland-Smith: Wade’s second move this off-season was inking free agent lefty Ryan Rowland-Smith from Seattle. I don’t have a problem with this signing in and of itself, but as this ended up being the only starter Houston added, I’m a bit disappointed. Wade had earlier mentioned hoping to repeat the success of the Brett Myers deal from last winter, but no one will mistake this guy for Myers; it’s hard to get excited about a pitcher coming off of a 1-10 record with a 6.75 ERA. If the hyphenated wonder from Down Under turns in a year even equal to Brett Myers’ worst, Wade should be thrilled with this pickup. But, to be fair, Houston already had four starters’ spots locked up by the end of last season. Even after the Paulino/Barmes trade, they had Nelson Figueroa, Wesley Wright and Fernando Abad to compete for the #5 spot. Jordan Lyles will likely add himself to that conversation sooner or later, too. So adding one more name with big league experience to the list isn’t a bad idea, and Rowland-Smith’s numbers will almost certainly improve by his moving from the AL West to the NL Central. I still would have loved to see the Astros add Jon Garland (whom the Dodgers got on a bargain) instead, but Rowland-Smith is a low-risk signing, and if he turns out to be a dependable #5 to eat the innings until Lyles is ready to step up, then it’s a good move.
Bill Hall: Mixed feelings on this one. Like Barmes, Bill Hall has only had one real stand-out season. But he still managed to hit 18 homers for Boston last season in a part-time role, which would have ranked him #3 in Houston, and that was three times as many as Jeff Keppinger managed while playing full-time. On the other hand, Hall hit .247 to Keppinger’s .288, and Hall posted a 1.2 WAR to Kepp’s 2.5. Kepp also has an almost superhuman ability to avoid striking out, and he was Houston’s most consistent and arguably best hitter all season long. So while the HR numbers will certainly go up with Hall in the 2B1 role, and the Astros were sorely lacking in the power department last year, this is not an obvious overall improvement at the position. It could help strengthen the club overall if Keppinger is kept on in a bench role, as I think he’s one of the best utility men in baseball, but Ed Wade was reportedly trying to trade him after the Hall signing, until the news emerged that Keppinger needed surgery and would therefore miss the start of the season. I still expect they’ll try to move him after he’s healthy again, too, which I’m not thrilled about. But the bottom line is that they got Hall on a one-year deal, so it won’t hurt the team long-term, and it might end up helping them in the short-term. It could pay off, so it’s worth a shot.
Geoff Blum: Not long after the off-season began, Geoff Blum jumped ship for Arizona. You can’t really blame him, as he seemed genuinely heartbroken when the Astros declined his 2011 option and told him that they wouldn’t be bringing him back. It’s unfortunate that things had to happen like that, but baseball is a business, and Houston had a surplus of infielders by the end of 2010. With younger, cheaper options available, and with the later additions of Barmes and Hill, Blum no longer had a place on this team. He may be missed more in the clubhouse than on the field.
Felipe Paulino: Sent to Colorado in the Clint Barmes trade, already discussed above. He’s shown moments of brilliance overshadowed by repeated trouble with injuries and inconsistency. The Astros needed a starting shortstop, and none of the free agent options available this winter were particularly appealing, so Ed Wade made the move he had to make. With multiple other starting pitching options, Paulino’s departure shouldn’t hurt the club.
Matt Lindstrom: The bullpen was another area of surplus for Houston last year, and Lindstrom was arbitration eligible, so he also got shipped off to Colorado for prospects in a separate deal. Lindstrom never quite turned into the closer that Houston had hoped for when they acquired him last winter, and he ultimately wasn’t even one of their most dependable bullpen options, so sending him off for prospects and salary savings made sense.
Brian Moehler: Moehler was a surprisingly dependable fifth starter back in 2008 (Houston’s last winning season), but he’s become slightly less dependable each year since. Like Paulino and Blum, with multiple cheaper, healthier options available to the club, Mo’s spot in Houston has been filled. Still hoping he catches on somewhere else.
Tim Byrdak, Chris Sampson: Other relievers deemed replaceable by Astros management. Byrdak took a step backwards in 2010 after a solid 2009, and Sampson has been plagued by injuries. Sampson’s situation was particularly disappointing, as it seems that it was mishandled, but it was nice to hear this week that he’ll be joining Paulino and Lindstrom in Colorado. Byrdak signed on with the Mets, so his lefty specialist role will be filled in 2011 by Fernando Abad, Wesley Wright or Gustavo Chacin.
Wandy’s Extension: Another deal disappointingly lambasted by a majority of Astros fans, it seems. Wandy Rodriguez was arbitration eligible for the last time this winter, so instead of a one-year deal, Wade and Drayton McLane chose to lock him up for the next three years at $34 million, with an option for 2014. Critics have said that Houston overpaid for Wandy, or that this deal will retard the development of youngsters coming up, but reality is that Wandy has been one of the best lefty starters in the National League the last two years. If he was signed to another one-year deal and allowed to hit the open market after 2011, he would most likely have been the first- or second-best starter available and, given the always high demand for pitching, some team would have paid him crazy money (see: A.J. Burnett), leaving Houston with a big hole to fill. The Astros had
one of the best rotations in the league after the All-Star Break last year, and by locking up Wandy for a few years the same way they locked up Brett Myers, they’ve assured stability in the area most teams struggle hardest to fill. It’s an approach that worked well for San Francisco, allowing them to focus on improving other areas instead of constantly worrying about pitching, ultimately leading them to the World Series title. And if Houston had multiple pitching prospects knocking on the door of the majors, the criticism about blocking youngsters might have some validity, but they don’t. They have Jordan Lyles, and that’s it; Dallas Keuchel and others are at least a year or more away, and Lyles may be, too. (Remember, he’s only 20 and hasn’t pitched more than 159 innings yet.) Having this stability at the big league level gives the team time to evaluate their prospects more fully and allows them time to develop gradually, without risking injury by being rushed to the majors to fill an urgent need. It’s a smart move on Houston’s part, and Wade & McLane deserve to be commended for it.
Houston went into 2010 needing several things to go right in order for the team to be competitive, but it felt like there was a healthy chance because the NL Central looked like a relatively weak division. The season quickly went south when all three of the team’s best hitters (Berkman, Pence, Lee) along with their best pitcher (Rodriguez) from 2009 got off to slow starts simultaneously. Then Roy Oswalt requested a trade, and Berkman was traded too, and the team that ended 2010 in Houston looked completely different than the team that started the year there. It was the end of an era in Astros baseball, and the beginning of their first near-total rebuilding process in two decades.
The Reds surprised in 2010 and won the division, so they come into 2011 as the team to beat. St. Louis, Chicago and Milwaukee all made significant moves to try and improve themselves this winter, and suddenly the NL Central has gone from weak to strong. Looking at Houston’s moves in isolation, it seems that they should be improved in 2011 as well, but in comparison to the rest of the division, they’ve moved backwards. They had a non-losing month in June of last year, and three winning months in July through September, so they’ll be trying to build on that success if they can avoid the slow start this year that has become an Astros trademark. But realistically this team could finish anywhere from first to last.
If Brett Wallace and Jason Castro prove that they can hit at the major league level. If Chris Johnson doesn’t get sunk by the sophomore jinx. If Carlos Lee rebounds from an apparently unlucky 2010. If Hunter Pence can hit all year this year like he did after May last. If Clint Barmes and Bill Hall provide the offensive boost that they were picked up for. If the Astros’ rotation proves that their second half was not a fluke and they remain among the league’s best. If all of those things happen, this could be a very special year for Houston fans. But that’s a lot of “ifs.” It’s more likely for a mostly young club that 2012 or later will be their year. But regardless, the development of all these young guys will make 2011 a pivotal year in Astros history, much like 1991 was two decades before.
Pitchers and catchers report on Monday. It’s time for baseball. I can’t wait!