Tampa Bay-worthy youth movement
The kids are all right: Houston Astros suddenly the NL Central favorites in2011?
“The Houston Astros will win the NL Central in 2011. I'm calling it right now — Astros '11 division champs.” — ESPN baseball analyst Steve Berthiaume, September 20, 2010
C’mon, Steve. You know better than to record something like this for posterity. The only people in history more superstitious than baseball fans started the Spanish Inquisition.
After Mr. Berthiaume made that unsolicited prognostication, the Houston Astros Youth Auxiliary closed out the 2010 season with a 5-9 run more characteristic of the listless team that embarrassed themselves in April and May (17-34) than the electrifying bunch that buzz sawed their way through the National League after the All-Star break.
Although the Stros skidded to the finish line while dropping consecutive series to the bottom feeding Nationals and Pirates, the eventual NL Central Champion Cincinnati Reds, and the amusingly bad Chicago Cubs, the 2010 Astros may go down as one of the more interesting teams in the history of the franchise.
In 2010 Houston waved a fond goodbye to the last remnants of the 2005 World Series team when what’s left of Lance Berkman was shipped to the New York Yankees and ace Roy Oswalt was traded to the National League East Champion Philadelphia Phillies. To say that Oswalt has fared better in his new pinstripes than Berkman has would be an understatement.
Where Oswalt has a legitimate shot taking the mound in the World Series (and here’s hoping he gets there), Berkman — who was woefully ineffective with the Yankees even before a DL stint — won’t be doing much of anything to help the Bombers try to claim pennant No. 28, unless he turns into an Aaron Boone pinch hitter. Somewhere George Steinbrenner is looking down and wondering who that slow guy is that ate Big Puma.
The Oswalt and Berkman trades slashed somewhere around $16 million off the Astros’ payroll. It’s no secret that Uncle Drayton may finally sell the team since his son has no interest in owning a Major League Baseball team. Let’s assume for a minute that McLane does find a buyer. The 'Stros have $40 million tied up in talent signed through 2011; just over half in player salaries and the rest invested in frozen burritos to feed Carlos Lee.
That leaves a lot of room for some shrewd offseason pickups and maybe a mid-season trade to compensate for injuries.
If there is new ownership in 2011, hopefully they will acknowledge that Ed Wade — who at one time appeared to be playing checkers while the rest of the league was busy hooking up with the prom queen — has put in place a talented group of young players a lá Tampa Bay that is positioned to contend for years to come in perennially mediocre National League Central. This team doesn’t need a lot of work.
The emergence of third baseman Chris Johnson (.308, eight home runs, 52 RBI) who took over for Pedro Feliz at the end of June was more than a little surprising, and — we can hope — is a harbinger of things to come. He joins Jeff Keppinger (.288, six home runs, 59 RBI) who finally seems to have second base all locked up, and former Red Sox farm hand Angel Sanchez (because Boston clearly doesn’t need a shortstop) who batted a respectable .277 while splitting time with wobbly rookie Tommy Manzella.
With speedster Michael Bourn (52 stolen bases; second in the majors) and Hunter Pence (who lead the Astros with 25 dingers) cruising around the outfield, the Astros might consider permanently relocating Carlos Lee (.246, 24 HRs, 89 RBI) to first, opening left field to a potential off season pickup that will hopefully add some pop to a lineup that finished 28th in runs scored
All eyes will be on Lee who has two years and $38 million left on his albatross of a contract. In 2010, the usually consistent slugger batted under .300 for the first time since 2006 when he notched a .286 average with the Milwaukee Brewers.
Much less of concern is the Astros’ starting rotation, even without the masterful Oswalt. The 2011 Astros can expect to trot out some combination of Brett Myers, Wandy Rodriguez, J.A. Happ, and Bud Norris.
Lefty Happ, in particular, has been a revelation since coming over from the Phillies in the Oswalt deal. The Astros would be wise to shore up the back end of the rotation with mid-level veteran hurler. Even though reliever Wilton Lopez was overused, he, Matt Lindstom, closer Brandon Lyon, and newcomer Mark Melancon (part of the Berkman trade) should spare fans from too much late-iinning drama next summer.
It’s amazing, really. The Astros started the season 0-8. After two months they were 17 games below .500. When Berthiaume made his predication a couple of weeks ago, the ‘Stros had climbed to five games below break even. Even thought they finished 10 below and ceded third place to the unmighty Milwaukee Brewers, Brad Mills’ team has put the rest of the National League Central on notice.
Barring some sort of severe backslide, the roof at Minute Maid might be open next October.