Pitchers and catchers are due to report to spring training in the next few days, and already one thing is apparent: the Houston Astros will be an epic fail once again.
On Monday, the team pulled the trigger on a five-player deal — its first as a member of the American League — which saw shortstop Jed Lowrie and relief pitcher Fernando Rodriguez go to the division-rival Oakland Athletics for slugging first baseman Chris Carter, pitcher Brad Peacock and catching prospect Max Stassi.
Lowrie could cover all the infield positions, and his mediocre plate performance (.244 AVG, .331 OBP, but 16 HRs) is more than made up for by his defensive skills (only eight errors in 394 chances last season). But this is a team that went 55-107, the worst record in the major leagues in 2012, so the term “best” player is relative: to paraphrase Casey Stengel, no one on this sad-sack Astros club seems to be very good at playing this game. So they must risk being labeled as an “embarrassment” and start again, and one way to do that is to move a known commodity such as Lowrie and hope that the players coming back will eventually be equal or better.
Clearly this is a low-risk move for them. The Astros don’t have much else in the cupboard at either the major- or minor-league levels, so risking someone with the skills Lowrie has isn’t that big of a deal. What this also means is the Astros will field the least expensive roster in the major leagues. Currently they have five players under contract, and the two most well-known — right-handed starter Bud Norris ($3 million) and well-travelled left-handed first baseman/DH Carlos Pena ($2.9 million) are now the best of an excruciatingly bad lot.
The big winners in the Houston team’s move from the National League are the other four teams in the American League West division. On the surface, some might think it will be nice to have a meaningful interstate rivalry with the Texas Rangers, but frankly all this will really mean is those other four teams in the division get a fresh punching bag to beat on. The Seattle Mariners must be particularly happy to hand the “doormat” label to the incoming Astros.
Perhaps the other winner in this scenario is new manager Bo Porter, who is really in a no-lose situation. This is the first managerial position for the former outfielder and Houston resident, and he brings a wealth of experience as a bench coach and third-base coach for Arizona and Washington. While his lack of managerial experience at any level is a problem, it’s a perfect opportunity for Porter to learn on the job as the 2013 Astros are essentially a minor-league team anyway. Porter says his job will be to focus the team on playing fundamental baseball. When they win, he can take the credit, which he should then use selflessly to encourage the team; when they lose, as they surely will, it won’t be an unexpected circumstance.
It will be years before the Astros will be a contender, if ever. The best they can hope for is to be entertaining to the long-suffering fans at Minute Maid Park, and even that seems like too much to expect. Houston, you’ve got a problem.
UPDATE: Reader “BobHulseyTX” noted that Bud Norris is a right-handed starting pitcher, not a left-hander as was originally stated. The correction has been made, and we regret the error.