The Houston Astros are in rebuilding mode as they transition to the American League, a combination that could result in a long 2013 season for Astros fans.
If none of the names that follow in this post look familiar, don't be alarmed. Of all the players in Astros camp this spring, a grand total of two were on the team's 2011 Opening Day roster: Bud Norris and Brett Wallace. Their payroll is currently estimated at around $25 million, $5 million of which is owed to Pittsburgh Pirates pitcher Wandy Rodriguez.
Manager: Bo Porter (1st year)
2012 record: 55-107, 6th in NL Central
SB Nation blog: Crawfish Boxes
First series vs. Tigers: May 2-5 @ Minute Maid Park
First, a disclaimer: the Astros' Spring Training roster is one giant battle for positioning and playing time. There may be inaccuracies in here depending on what changes in the next 24 hours, let alone two weeks. So, instead of going through the lineup like I have in previous posts, we're just going to talk about each position.
Second baseman Jose Altuve might be the only player who knows his destiny. He will hit either leadoff or second in the order on most days, depending on whether shortstop Tyler Greene decides to hit at an acceptable major league level. Marwin Gonzalez is also a candidate to play short, but will likely hit lower in the order when he's in the lineup. Gonzalez looks to be the better defender, while neither guy has shown much with the bat so far. Matt Dominguez will likely be the team's starting third baseman after a strong September. Brandon Laird is another non-roster invitee making his case for a roster spot with strong spring numbers, but probably will be cut in favor of a 40-man roster player like Nate Freiman.
Carlos Pena and Brett Wallace will play the majority of games at first base, but Chris Carter will also see time there throughout the year. Carter has been playing left field more often as Spring Training goes on in hopes of getting his bat into the lineup on a more consistent basis. After hitting 16 home runs in just 260 plate appearances last year, it's not unreasonable to expect 25-30 home runs this season from the right-handed slugger.
Justin Maxwell will likely be the team's everyday centerfielder. His overall stats weren't great last season, but he had an .892 OPS against left-handed pitching. Rick Ankiel has been hitting the cover off the ball as a non-roster invitee this spring and will probably make the team. Corner outfielders Fernando Martinez and Brandon Barnes are also likely to make the team.
Behind the plate, Jason Castro and Carlos Corporan have both been hitting well. Castro has four home runs in 11 games this spring, while Corporan is hitting a respectable .333/.364/.429 in 10 games. Expect Castro to handle the bulk of the catching duties after playing in 87 games last year, especially if he continues to hit for power.
The only two set starters in the Astros rotation at the moment are Lucas Harrell and Bud Norris, both of whom turned in excellent performances in their most recent Spring Training starts. Norris was 7-13 with a 4.65 ERA last year, but had the most ridiculous home-road splits you've ever seen. He was 4-1 with a 1.71 ERA at Minute Maid Park last season. Harrell, who has the higher ceiling of the two, was 11-11 with a 3.76 ERA/3.75 FIP/3.89 xFIP in 193 2/3 innings in 2012. Expect one of these two to be the Opening Day starter, unless the St. Louis Cardinals scoop one of them up beforehand.
Philip Humber was picked up off of waivers from the Chicago White Sox this offseason and has flourished in Spring Training, allowing just two runs and nine baserunners in 14 innings. He was 4-5 with a 7.39 ERA in 24 appearances after pitching a perfect game against the Seattle Mariners on April 21st last season.
Erik Bedard is yet another non-roster invitee who is playing well in Astros camp, but in limited action due to injury. He looked sharp yesterday against the Toronto Blue Jays, striking out five hitters in three shutout innings out of the bullpen. I think Bedard is a bit of a longshot to make the roster, but could make the team if the Astros believe either Alex White or Jordan Lyles need a bit more seasoning in the minors.
Lyles' spring numbers are awful -- we're talking a 19.13 ERA in 8 innings awful -- but has reportedly only been featuring his fastball in order to work on his command. The good news? He has only walked one hitter so far. Still, I get the feeling that Astros fans would like to see a bit more from the 22 year old righty in his last few outings before the regular season begins.
White, one of the minor leaguers that the Cleveland Indians traded away in exchange for Ubaldo Jimenez, hasn't been much better than Lyles so far in camp. He was 2-9 with a 5.51 ERA in 98 innings for the Colorado Rockies last year.
The Astros' bullpen had the fifth-worst ERA in baseball last season and probably won't be that much better this year. Jose Veras is their closer, so scoop him up late in your fantasy draft and laugh at all the people who drafted someone like Huston Street 10 rounds ago.
Spring Training storylines
Every Astros Spring Training game that I have watched has featured a heavy dose of discussion about Bo Porter's influence on this ballclub. Announcers have raved about how the Astros are playing the game "the right way." Porter himself has referred to his approach as a "process," one that includes sound fundamentals and aggressive baserunning. Whether this approach is enough to overcome the talent deficit that the 'Stros will be facing on most days remains to be seen, but it's making for a solid foundation for this young team to build upon.
Player to watch: Chris Carter
If you were a fan of former Tigers outfielder Marcus Thames, then you better pay attention to Carter in 2013.
Like Thames, Carter hit for quite a bit of power in limited action in 2012, hitting 16 home runs in only 67 games for the Oakland A's. The Astros traded away shortstop Jed Lowrie for Carter in hopes that his power won't fade away with more playing time. At age 26, Carter is entering the prime of his career, and the Astros are looking to get his bat into the lineup in any way possible.
If everything goes right, the Astros could probably be competitive in the NL Central. Unfortunately, they play in the AL West now. Between the lack of big league talent on their roster and playing in arguably the toughest division in baseball, 2013 could get ugly in Houston. They seem to be doing everything right from an organizational standpoint as they transition to the American League, but it will be a few years before their talent level catches up with their new divisional opponents.