This series will evaluate one team per day, starting on Jan. 23, and ending on Feb. 22 (the first game of spring training). It is based on last season's performance, the offseason changes since then and the author's outlook for the team in 2013. Please keep in mind that rosters can, and will, change before Opening Day. We started in the American League East, worked across to the National League, tackled the Central divisions, and now jump to the AL West, going in alphabetical order. Next up, the Houston Astros.
2012 finish: 55-107 (6th place, NL Central)
Left-handed pitcher Erik Bedard, right-handed pitcher Jose Veras, RHP Phil Humber, RHP Alex White, RHP John Ely, RHP Brad Peacock, outfielder Rick Ankiel, designated hitter Carlos Pena, firstbaseman Chris Carter and catcher Max Stassi
LHP Rob Rasmussen, LHP Fernando Abad, RHP Wilton Lopez, RHP Fernando Rodriguez, OF Jordan Schaefer, shortstop Jed Lowrie and C Chris Snyder
Why they will improve this year
Because they could play with blindfolds on and win 56 games. In all seriousness, the Astros have decimated their roster and have an overall payroll equal to some individual player salaries. There is a method to the madness, and I think we'll start seeing glimpses of the process working in 2013.
The infield is loaded with former top prospects like Matt Dominguez at third base, Brett Wallace at first base and Tyler Greene at shortstop. A young rotation has some surprising pieces with very high potential. And Justin Maxwell in center field could do some damage if he cuts down on strikeouts.
Astros fans can presume that they'll get a good effort from Jose Altuve, but some help from the corner outfielders would go a long way in 2013. And while the bullpen struggled last year, they've added Veras to the closer's role in order to attempt stabilizing the later innings.
Even with the likelihood of a last-place finish in their first season in the American League, the Astros are on the right track. I think they will improve from being the worst-hitting team in baseball a year ago and at least give fans a few reasons to show up to the ball park. When their large crop of top-flight Triple-A talent gets the call, that reason to show will be multiplied.
Why they will regress this year
Besides Altuve, the Astros have zero star power. Their most famous (and highest-paid) player on the payroll is Wandy Rodriguez, who's now in Pittsburgh! And though "star power," whatever that means, doesn't equal wins, it does mean that the roster is young, anonymous, and inexperienced. Unless guys like Dominguez, Wallace and Jason Castro break out, south of 60 wins is very possible again.
The offense should improve a little bit, especially after recently adding Carter, but how is a middle of the order with two legitimate power threats going to intimidate anyone? Especially when Pena also hits around .200 every year with a million strikeouts, making the power almost worthless?
I like the starting rotation, but it's still not nearly ready. Bud Norris may be traded before the season starts, which would slide Humber to the number three spot. Any team with him in the top three of their rotation is asking for a long, long season.
Even if Lucas Harrell and Jordan Lyles build off their 2012 seasons, you're talking about two No. 4 starters right now, at best. What I'm most worried about it the Astros' bullpen, which seems to be in shambles. After posting a cumulative 4.46 ERA and league-leading .274 batting average against in 2012, will the addition of Veras be enough to help stabilize the 'pen? I don't think so.
The outlook for 2013
It's not saying much, but I do expect the Astros to improve slightly. Given that they went on a Wal-Mart shopping spree this winter to bring in cheap prospects and dump anyone who was making seven figures, that's not really a negative assessment. Every player in that clubhouse needs to recognize that 2013 is a rebuilding year, and that their goal should be to improve their individual all-around games.
Unfortunately, it means that 2013 will be another very frustrating season for the Astros faithful. On the bright side, diehard fans have a couple guys to really look forward to. If Greene hadn't fumbled away a spot in St. Louis, he might be on the path to stardom right now, and Maxwell has as much athleticism as anyone in the outfield.
Lyles, Jarred Cosart and Dallas Keuchel all should have a spot in the rotation, if only to keep fans ecstatic about the rotation's future. Cosart and Lyles, could especially have surprisingly productive years for a pair of 23-year-olds. The revolving door of exciting young starters (don't forget about Ely, White and Peacock in Triple-A) will be extremely fun to track.
So, will it be painful to watch? Yes. Will the 'Stros end up on the wrong side of the scoreboard more often than not? Yes. Will it be like watching a Triple-A team play most of the time? Yes. Will it be boring, then? Absolutely not. Keep an eye on some of the young talents in Houston, because that alone is worth the ride.
It's the opinion of this writer that the Astros do not lose 100 games again, finishing with an eight-game improvement over 2012 and starting the very slow climb from the cellar back to contention. It's a last-place finish in 2013, but it could be paving the way to contention in a few short years when top prospects like Jonathan Singleton, Carlos Correa and George Springer join the club.
Potential changes before Opening Day
As previously mentioned, the Astros might look into trading Norris for prospects. And with the recent announcement of Cardinals' ace Chris Carpenter missing the 2013 season, St. Louis would be a great trading partner. Even getting one high-potential hitter who has been struggling in Double-A would be worth it for the Astros.
Ken Rosenthal reported on FOXSports.com (h/t MLBTradeRumors.com) that, because of Norris' low ($3 million in 2013, highest-paid member of the 40-man roster) salary and contact status (under team control until 2015) he is an attractive option on the last-second pitching market for the Cardinals, as well as San Diego and Baltimore.
Biggest surprise: Cosart.
Biggest disappointment: Pena.
Bold prediction: Altuve hits .315, steals 40 bags.
1. Altuve, 2B
2. Fernando Martinez, RF
3. Carter, LF
4. Pena, DH
5. Wallace, 1B
6. Maxwell, CF
7. Castro, C
8. Greene, SS
9. Dominguez, 3B
1. Harrell, RHP
2. Norris, RHP
3. Lyles, RHP
4. Bedard, LHP
5. Humber, RHP
Projected finish: 63-99, 5th place
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You can follow Jeremy on Twitter @Jamblinman.