Wait ’til next year: Houston Astros
While so much of our day-to-day attention in this space is devoted to the teams still battling for playoff spots, we feel as though it’s only fitting to acknowledge the teams that have been mathematically eliminated from contention, giving them a brief sendoff that should suffice until Hot Stove season. Thus, the Wait Till Next year series.
Current record: 48-99 (.327, 6th in the NL Central)
Mathematically eliminated: August 31
What worked in 2012: The Astros came into their first season under new owner Jim Crane and new general manager Jeff Luhnow — and their last season in the National League — finally committed to a rebuilding plan that had long been forestalled under previous owner Drayton McLane and former GM Ed Wade. Despite Houston’s obvious weaknesses, it held its own through the first quarter of the season, going 22-23 through May 25 before reality set in. Amid two months of constant losing — including a dis-Astros (sorry) 4-34 record from June 28 through August 9 — Luhnow managed to unload all of his high-salaried veterans, namely Carlos Lee, Brett Myers, Wandy Rodriguez, Brandon Lyon and J.A. Happ, and acquired a handful of young players who helped replenish the farm system and provided some warm bodies to fill out the current roster. He also scored a big hit — and surprised most observers — by drafting 17-year-old shortstop Carlos Correia with the first pick in the amateur draft instead of going for the “safe” pick of righty Mark Appel; the decision left him enough bonus money to ink supplemental first round pick Lance McCullers (a righty pitcher) and fourth round pick Rio Ruiz (a third baseman) as well.
Meanwhile, at least some of the team’s youngsters demonstrated that they have a place in the club’s near future. In the lineup, second baseman Jose Altuve (.291/.340/.394), shortstop Jed Lowrie (.253/.341/.451 before getting injured), first baseman Brett Wallace (.262/.330/.432), catcher Jason Castro (.265/.349/.376) and outfielder Justin Maxwell (.240/.311/.476 with a team-high 16 homers) showed the most promise. On the mound, righty Lucas Harrell (3.86 ERA, 6.4 K/9) staked out a spot in the rotation.
What didn’t work in 2012: The Astros’ offense is currently either last or second-to-last in the slash stats (.238/.303/.370) and runs per game (3.63) despite the promise shown by the aforementioned players, in part because over 1,700 plate appearances have gone to hitters with sub-.300 on-base percentages. Meanwhile, the team has allowed 5.03 runs per game (15th in the league), with Bud Norris (4.93 ERA, 1.3 HR/9) backsliding after a solid 2011, and former top pitching prospect Jordan Lyles (5.40 ERA) getting knocked around considerably; that both are expected to be mainstays of future rotations shows you that the team has a ways to go.
Overall outlook: With a franchise-worst record a likelihood — last year’s team lost 106 games, so this team would have to go at least 9-6 to avoid that — there’s nowhere for the Astros go to but up, and it’s going to take them a few years to get there. This isn’t a team that’s going to contend anytime soon, and it will be awhile before they reap the dividends from their strong draft. Fortunately, the groundwork laid by the Astros this season should make the coming years easier, and Luhnow’s outside-the-box thinking has offered hope that the team’s path forward will be one worth watching.