In a 2012 preview written in February, baseball writer Jayson Stark asked an anonymous National League executive to name any position player on the Houston Astros other than first baseman/outfielder Carlos Lee. According to Stark, the executive couldn’t name a single one. To be fair, there’s a competition for just about every position on this team in spring training.
The Action: New owner Jim Crane hired a new general manager, Jeff Luhnow, who didn’t do much in the off-season. Luhnow traded reliever Mark Melancon to the Red Sox for infielder Jed Lowrie and pitcher Kyle Weiland, who has looked good in spring and is in the running for a spot in the starting rotation. Luhnow signed only two free agents: outfielder Jack Cust — whose hole-filled bat and lack of glove are better suited to playing in the American League — and catcher Chris Snyder.
It’s A Lock: It was a bit of a shocker, but one of the first things manager Brad Mills decided was to take starter Brett Myers and declare him the team’s closer. They figure to be one of the biggest losing teams in all of baseball — after all, they went 56-106 in 2011 — but they don’t have anyone else for the role other than the often-injured Brandon Lyon.
Hedge Your Bets: There are many reasons to doubt this team. How will this lineup perform? What can Brad Mills extract from this squad? Who are these guys?!
The success of Wandy Rodriguez, Bud Norris, J.A. Happ and Livan Hernandez will depend largely on a factor common to each pitching staff: namely, run support. They’re not expected to get much of that with a lineup featuring Cust, Lowrie, Jose Altuve, Brian Bogusevic, Brett Wallace and Chris Johnson. Lee will once again be the source of most of the power, unless the club trades his huge salary at some point in the season.
Jason Castro will be behind the plate after missing last season due to leg problems. He’s not likely to contribute much with the bat, and neither are Snyder nor Humberto Quintero.
The Payoff: The MLB futures betting has Houston at the very bottom of the pack; even the sad-sack Mets and Mariners have a better shot of winning something, anything, than the “Last-stros.” If they do get out of the gate quickly, their lack of depth and dearth of talent will ensure any momentum they build will quickly stop, resulting in another season of humility.
UPDATE: After this preview was posted, the Astros traded Quintero and speedy utility outfielder Jason Bourgeois to the Kansas City Royals for minor-league lefthander Kevin Chapman and a player to be named later. The Royals obtained the 32-year-old Quintero after their own starting catcher, Salvador Perez (recently signed to a five-year deal) had surgery on his left knee and is expected to be out until at least June 15.