5 things that could make the 2012 season a successful one for the Astros

It has been almost seven years since the Astros made the playoffs. When they won the 2005 National League pennant, it was their sixth playoff appearance in nine years and solidified their place as one of baseball’s best-run franchises. They were competitive again in 2006, staying in contention until the final day of the regular season. They haven’t come close since.

Baseball is funny like that. Minor league systems are a team’s lifeblood, and when it’s cut off, tough times are around the corner. That’s true of big-market teams like the Yankees and Red Sox, but it’s especially true of teams like the Astros, who do not have the revenues to cover their mistakes in player development.

By the time teams know they’re in trouble, they’ll need at least three years to get back on the right path. In recent years, Astros general manager Ed Wade had the tough assignment of rebuilding the farm system while cutting the payroll and keeping the big league team as competitive as possible.

He appears to have steered the Astros back in the right direction at the minor league level, but the truth is there’s no way of knowing how good his four drafts were. He inherited a farm system ranked at or near the bottom and turned one ranked in the middle of the pack over to his successor. He did plenty of good work in other areas. He hired a bunch of new scouts and put new managers and instructors in place up and down the minor league food chain. He oversaw construction of a Dominican Republic academy and got draft picks signed quickly.

When new Astros owner Jim Crane fired Wade and hired Jeff Luhnow, he promised to give him the time and resources to rebuild the player development system from the ground up. He urged Luhnow, who’d spent eight years with the Cardinals, to use the Texas Rangers as a model for doing things right.

There’s absolutely no way of knowing when the Astros will be competitive again. They’re bringing a slew of young kids to camp, including their last four No. 1 draft picks. Still, they will have a major league team this season. The Astros do not expect to win the World Series, so what would constitute success for a team in a full rebuilding mold?

Let’s count ‘em up:

1. To have a bunch of young players take positive steps up the ladder. If Wade’s four No. 1 picks–catcher Jason Castro (2008), shortstop Jiovanni Mier (2009), second baseman Delino DeShields (2010) and outfielder George Springer (2011)–all have good seasons, it would be a huge boost for the timetable.

2. To get productive seasons from center fielder Jordan Schafer and shortstop Jed Lowrie.  They were once highly regarded prospects with the Braves and Red Sox. Now they’re getting a fresh start in Houston. There’s no question they have talent, but so far have been unable to stay healthy or make the necessary adjustments every player must make. If just one of them ends up being a contributor over the next few years, it would be significant.

3. Luhnow’s most attractive trade assets are Wandy Rodriguez and Brett Myers. If he can get a single prospect for each of them by the trade dealine, he will have continued strengthening the organization.

4. Second baseman Jose Altuve, third baseman Jimmy Paredes and outfielder J.D. Martinez showed some nice spurts after being summoned to the big leagues last summer. If at least one of them could have a solid sophomore season, it would be hugely important for the future of the franchise.

5. Finally, getting third baseman Chris Johnson and first baseman Brett Wallace on the right track would be a pleasant surprise. Both were handed jobs when 2011 spring training opened, and both ended up being demoted to the minor leagues. At the moment, the Astros have no idea what they can expect from either of them. They’ll need to play their way onto the team in spring training.

To sum up: everything in 2012 is about developing young talent or acquiring more young talent. Young players don’t come with guarantees, and far from the days when Craig Biggio and Jeff Bagwell were two of baseball’s rock-solid producers, the Astros really don’t know how much talent they have in their system. If nothing else, the 2012 season is about them assessing what they have and what they still need to add.

If they get a bunch of positive answers, if they position themselves to win in, say, 2013 or 2014, they’ll consider 2012 a smashing success.

4 Comments

Great article Mr Justice. I think both JD & Altuve will both be solid in 2012.

It’s time to turn the page on Brett Wallace. He has a nice swing, but hits with absolutely no authority. And there’s no need to get into his defensive play.
Jeff Luhnow seems like a good hire. I like his background and style. But his first move (Melancon) was amateur hour. Why trade a low cost effective reliever under team control for a couple of lukewarm players. I can’t imagine any other GM making that move. I know. One good reliever doesn’t make a difference when you have the worst team in baseball. What Luhnow/the Astros should have done was further establish Melancon as a quality closer and then move him for a greater return later this season or next. Luhnow could have done better. Should have done better.
Schafer, even more obvious than Wallace, is a bust. Wade didn’t get much for Michael Bourn, did he? (At least Hunter Pence returned some potential value.)
Lowrie could be an average shortstop, best case scenario. The team’s best plan for this year is Lee at first, Paredes at third and Martinez, Bourgeois and Bogusevic in the outfield. This lineup gives them the best combination of offense and defense and allows them to determine what they really have. It is apparent what they have with Johnson and Wallace. Myers will need to pitch much better for any team to consider taking him in a trade. Wandy is the team’s best trade asset, even with his contract. Other than the Phillies and Giants, he would be an upgrade for any N.L. team as a third starter. Let’s hope Wandy continues to pitch well and the team at least has some options at the trade deadline. You didn’t mention Jordan Lyles. I’m not sold on his stuff at all. Do you think the Astros are? He wasn’t mowing down the PCL when the Astros called him up from OKC.

Richard is eloquent and incisive as usual. We have had this debate before, but I still cannot fathom giving acolades to Wade, who was a disaster in Philadelphia (Richard once said he was responsible for them winning the World’s Series, but I don’t think a single fan in Philadelphia would agree with him) and maintained a barely tolerable ethic with the Astros. Astros as contenders in the next few years? Not likely. Wandy Rodriquez as trade bait? Only if you are trolling with minnows. It takes some time to recover from total incompetence. Astros would do a lot better by naming Richard GM. At least they would get someone who makes decisions instead of fiddling around with what sounds good in the local newspaper. Now that Richard left the rag no one reads that either.

Loved your stuff with the Chronicle, love it now. One question about this last column: You insinuate that Houston is a small market. I do not think that is the case. Houston, much like Atlanta, is a gigantic, sprawling metropolis that struggles to convince people to fight the traffic to come downtown for a game. But the problem certainly isn’t market size, is it?

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