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Houston Astros 2011 Season Preview
The Houston Astros 2011 season will be defined by regression and promotion. Coming off a 76-86 record in 2010, the Astros would like to get back to .500 this season. However, they first have to figure out which part of last season will define them. Will it be the awfulness of the first two months, when they went 17-34 and started the season with an 0-8 record? Or will it be the 40-33 record they posted in the second half, outscoring opponents 304 to 299?
That’s the central question regarding regression. Was that second half just a regression to their true talent level or a reaction to a light schedule? Part of that second-half surge came from two key rookie promotions, as Jason Castro took over as the semi-regular catcher and Chris Johnson took over at third base in June. Johnson, who made the team out of spring training but was sent down in April, hit .315/.348/.510 in the second half. Of course, he also had a batting average on balls in play of .393 over that same stretch. While Johnson probably won’t see his numbers drop precipitously in 2011, he is due for some decline.
At the other end of the regression spectrum is left fielder Carlos Lee, who had a career-worst year at the plate. Lee hit .246/.291/.417 and regressed so much as a fielder that the Astros moved him to first base after Lance Berkman was traded to the New York Yankees. We’ll get to Lee’s ultimate position in 2011 in a minute, but an important question will be why he struggled so much in 2010. Was it due to slipping skills due to age, or his extremely low BABiP and batting average on line drives (.616)?
With all that, the biggest storyline to 2011 could be the promotion of heralded pitching prospect Jordan Lyles. The 20-year old reached Triple-A in 2010 and is the consensus top prospect in the Astros system. His innings were not necessarily controlled last season, but he only saw an increase of 14 innings over his 2009 total. His upside will depend on his fastball, which sat right around 90 MPH last season. He’s touched 95 before in the minors, but may be sacrificing speed for better control. As his control is big-league ready now, that might be an okay tradeoff for now. His curve and his change are both decent to good big league breaking pitches, but Lyles will have to show he can miss bats at the next level before he becomes a top of the rotation starter. He’s been invited to spring training and has an outside shot at winning the fifth starter’s job.
What about the rest of the team?
1B: Brett Wallace
2B: Bill Hall
3B: Chris Johnson
SS: Clint Barmes
LF: Carlos Lee
CF: Michael Bourn
RF: Hunter Pence
Almost all these positions are set. Hall was signed to a one-year, 3 million dollar deal with a mutual option for 2012. The Astros beat out the Dodgers among other teams to sign Hall in part because they promised him the starting second base job. That bumped Jeff Keppinger off the position and back into his comfortable role as the super-sub off the bench (once he recovers from offseason foot surgery). Barmes was picked up in a trade with the Colorado Rockies that sent out injury-prone starter Felipe Paulino. Barmes brings a better defensive reputation than sophomore Tommy Manzella, who started at the position last year. The 30-year old also brings more power, but comes from hitter-friendly Coors Field and should be expected to decline some at the plate.
The real question in this starting lineup is the left field/first base situation. The Astros moved Carlos Lee to first base at the end of last season and started him against left-handers. Wallace, who was a Top 100 prospect before coming over to the Astros as part of the Oswalt trade, has a ton of potential and a great track record in the minors. However, his extended look in the majors last season was not a pleasant one. Some have speculated that Wallace has a hole in his swing that was being exploited. If he fixes that and returns to his minor league form, Wallace should win the job and keep Lee in left field. If he does not, Lee will take first base and leave left field to Jason Michaels and a left-handed platoon partner like Brian Bogusevic or Jason Bourgeois.
LHP Wandy Rodriguez
RHP Brett Myers
LHP JA Happ
RHP Bud Norris
LHP Ryan Rowland-Smith
Closer: RHP Brandon Lyon
Pitching was one of the strengths of the Astros in 2010. Brett Myers had a bounce-back season after a couple of injury-plagued campaigns. The Astros signed him to a contract extension by the end of the season and he should have another good season in 2011. Rodriguez had a rocky start but finished 2010 strong after he bought into pitching coach Brad Arnsberg’s plan. Happ, acquired in the Oswalt trade, showed flashes of potential, but also got hit around some. He should provide some cheap stability in the middle of the rotation. Norris has a great fastball and a nice slider, but not much else. He’ll need to refine his repertoire a little and throw less pitches to last longer in games, but should be a respectable fourth starter. There are a few different candidates to win the fifth starter’s job, but my money is on the worst pitcher of 2010 in Rowland-Smith. Though he may have been the worst last season, he’s probably not the worst talent-wise and should get better just by pitching. Arnsberg should help immensely too, and should help Rowland-Smith beat out Rule 5 pick Aneury Rodriguez, Nelson Figueroa, Lyles and Fernando Abad.
The Astros are in a strange position. They are rebuilding and yet they have a bunch of players in their prime or over the age of 30. They should be in “win now” mode, but instead are locked into seeing how a bunch of first and second-year player will perform. Heading into next season, expectations can’t be very high. But, if the Astros continue playing like they did during the second half, a .500 record and a possible Wild Card spot may be in play.