The Sports Bros.
As the spring training games begin, it's time to believe in the Astros: Playoffswithin reach
The Major League Baseball season begins March 31. Opening Day is a national holiday. But the Spring Training games started today for the Stros.
Why wait with the Houston Astros talk?
It seems like a lot of Astros fans are unexcited about the 2011 season. Yes, the Stros have been mediocre for years. Yes, they fell 13-3 to the Atlanta Braves in their spring debut Monday. No, there haven't been any splashy free agent signings or big name trades for the team Drayton McLane is trying to sell.
And other Houston sports?
The Texans were a loser again. The Rockets are on outside looking in at the NBA playoffs where EVERYBODY makes the playoffs. The University of Houston lost its first and second string quarterbacks within minutes of each other last season en route to a no-bowl year. And several win projections are already forecasting that the Astros will finish dead last in the NL Central this year, below even the pathetic Pittsburgh Pirates.
We say forget about all that! Let's start with some hope. Bold claim coming: The Astros can win the National League Central. Think we're crazy? Let's persuade you.
Before we dive in, let's clarify a few things to put us on the same page:
1. We are going to assume the Astros stay healthy. No one accused this team of being deep, so there will be trouble if a starter goes down. Unless that starter happens to be in left field.
2. The NL Central is one of the weakest divisions in baseball. It may only take between 85-90 wins to win the division. We don't put juggernaut status on the Astros, but they can sneak into the playoffs. The Astros have to win the Central, though, because with a poor division, the NL Wild Card isn't coming out of this bunch of teams.
Now that that's settled, let the hopeful prognosticating begin!
- Michael Bourn, CF
- Clint Barmes, SS
- Hunter Pence, RF
- Carlos Lee, LF
- Chris Johnson, 3B
- Brett Wallace, 1B
- Bill Hall, 2B
- Jason Castro, C
- Wandy Rodriguez, P
The excitement in this lineup is that there are no easy outs. Not every hitter is a beast, but for years the Astros lineup has had (at least) four automatic outs at the bottom of the lineup. Bill Hall and Clint Barmes add pop to positions that haven't yielded home runs for the Astros in the past.
There are a couple concerns. There's a lack of speed after Michael Bourn. The Astros are going to need to fabricate some runs from time to time, and we just don’t see many base stealing threats. Pence has good speed, but isn't your conventional base stealer. Also, there's the lack of a pure No. 2 hitter.
Look for Astros manager Brad Mills to use many different lineup changes throughout the year. By the end of the year, you're guaranteed to see almost every player hit from the two hole (except Carlos Lee).
Project Pitching Rotation
- Wandy Rodriguez, LHP
- Brett Myers, RHP
- JA Happ, LHP
- Bud Norris, RHP
- Ryan Rowland-Smith, LHP
How can you not like that rotation? (David's note: If their last names were Halladay, Lee, Oswalt, Hamels!) I know there are no elite arms and Roy Oswalt will be sorely missed, but this is a young group of competitors. Wandy and Myers are recipients of new contract extensions and Happ is the prize (for the Astros) of the Oswalt trade.
What's really to love, though, is the competition for the fourth and fifth spots in the rotation. Norris looks like a virtual lock, but after him, you're looking at: Rowland-Smith, Rule 5 draftees Aneury Rodriguez and Lance Pendleton, veteran Nelson Figueroa and prospect Jordan Lyles (Fernando Abad has already been ruled out as rotation candidate).
It really is a luxury to have young pitching depth for once. Competition drives performance. All of these pitchers are battling for a spot and that drive can produce wins on the field.
Anchored by closer Brandon Lyon, the bullpen appears to be set up nicely. With Matt Lindstrom traded to the Rockies, there are now more defined roles for the members of the bullpen, giving a sense of stability day to day. Wilton Lopez was unhittable at times last year and finished with a very respectable 2.96 ERA. Mark Melancon and Jeff Fulchino have power arms that can get you strikeouts. Houston will also have reliable left-handed arms. Abad will be regular amongst the bullpen — and there's still an experienced Wesley Wright.
This year's team has balance. There's a healthy mix of veterans and young players. The Astros definitely want to turn the keys over to their young core of guys like Pence, Bourn, Johnson, Wallace, Norris, and Happ, but as we saw with the Texans secondary this past season, "baptism by fire" doesn't always produce results. These young Astros players battled in the second half of last season though, boosting the franchise to a not-too-embarrassing 76 wins.
The 2011 Astros are easily worth nine more wins. If you can't get even the slightest bit excited about this year's team, there is one nugget that will surely perk you up: At least Kaz Matsui is no longer on the payroll.