Ah yes, here we are…the first edition of the End of Season Post-Mortem series. If you're new here (which about 90% of our reader base is in comparison to last year), here's a brief explanation: after a team is eliminated from the playoffs, we're going to put their season under a microscope and look at just what the hell went wrong, what went right, and so on and so forth. The goal is to post these the day after a team is eliminated, but this Astros piece is coming out a couple days later. It's all good. Also, for the first ten teams eliminated, we're going to post a series called "Hope for the Hopeless", which is going to be an expanded version of the "What Went Right" portion of the Post-Mortem series pieces.
Anyway, here we are…the Houston Astros. Pretty much everyone expected this to be a rebuilding year for the Astros, but did anyone think they'd be 50 games under .500 at the beginning of September? There truly is nowhere to go but up for here in this organization, and they're taking some steps forward for the future…but next year might be even uglier than 2012.
What Went Right: Jeff Luhnow accomplished his goal of obliterating Houston's payroll, that's for sure. In September, the only players left on Houston's roster making seven figures for the season are closer Francisco Cordero (acquired in the massive deal with Toronto) and shortstop Jed Lowrie (in his first year of arbitration). Next year, the team has a whopping $5.5 million in guaranteed money committed…with $5 million of that going to Wandy Rodriguez, who was dealt to the Pirates. They aren't even in line for massive arbitration raises, with a whopping four players eligible next year (Lowrie, Bud Norris, and relievers Wilton Lopez and Wesley Wright).
I should probably talk about something on the field in this category. Well, Jed Lowrie has been one of the best shortstops in the National League with the bat this year after coming over in the offseason from Boston for Mark Melancon. Jose Altuve has played like a potential franchise second baseman, though the 22-year old's glove still needs a lot of work. Justin Maxwell has shown some great power (but little else). Jason Castro is having a pretty solid year and could live up to a little bit of the hype surrounding him. Lucas Harrell has been a pretty good starter, and not just "for the Astros" – his year has been solid overall.
What Went Wrong: Well, the Astros just don't have a ton of talent overall. Youngster Jordan Lyles, the team's most promising pitching prospect coming into the year, has struggled in the majors for a second straight season and could probably use a *full* season at AAA. After Rodriguez and JA Happ were dealt in July, their replacements were…not good past Harrell. The bullpen has been mediocre to terrible past Wilton Lopez. Jordan Schafer and JD Martinez have combined for 757 plate appearances in the outfield, and neither player has a wOBA cracking the .300 mark. The team is abysmal defensively. But quite frankly, you knew this already.
Most Surprising Player: That would be the 27-year old Lucas Harrell, a long-time minor leaguer in the White Sox organization that got some spot starts in the majors in 2010 and 2011. The Astros picked him up on a waiver claim last July, and this year, Harrell has made 27 starts and with a 3.81 ERA, mainly in part due to a 56.9% groundball rate. With a 6.31 strikeout rate and a 3.32 walk rate, he's likely not going to pitch this well for the foreseeable future, but hey, it's worked out well for them this year. Also, Harrell is a little old to be some sort of franchise cornerstone, and might actually get spun off in a trade, potentially this offseason, if a team is willing to deal a decent prospect or two to continue to boost that once dreadful Houston farm system.
Most Disappointing Player: Everyone else? I don't think we can call Jordan Schafer a disappointment anymore, because he's been really, really awful during his major league career. Former elite Mets prospect Fernando Martinez has a .233 OBP in 23 games in the majors this year, but he at least has a .214 ISO. Outfielder JD Martinez has taken a step back across the board after a breakout 2011 campaign, albeit in a small sample of just 226 plate appearances. On the mound, Jordan Lyles continued to struggle due to an affinity with the home run, and a hideous defense and bullpen doing him no favors at all. Dallas Keuchel has walked more hitters than he's struck out, but based on his strikeout numbers over the past season and a half, that could have been reasonably expected.
Prospects Up: Houston's likely top prospect, Jonathan Singleton, destroyed the Texas League at age 20 this year. Singleton, acquired in the Hunter Pence deal from the Phillies last year, has homered 21 times and walked 88 times in 130 games. He might end up in the majors at some point next season. 2011 first round pick George Springer was awesome in 106 games for high-A Lancaster before earning a promotion to AA Corpus Christi for the final month of the year, where he's struggled a bit. In 106 games before the promotion, Springer had 22 homers and 28 steals to go along with a .315 batting average and a .398 OBP. Springer also added 18 doubles and ten triples in the offense-happy Cal League, but struck out a ton. Delino DeShields Jr repeated low-A Lexington this year, and increased his stats across the board. He just turned 20 in August, so he's not too old for the level either. The positive aspects of his game have translated to Lancaster as well.
Prospects Down: Jarred Cosart, also acquired in the Pence trade, has struggled a bit this year, and might end up in the bullpen. The 22-year old has walked 51 batters in 114 2/3 inning between AA and AAA, but has done well at keeping the ball on the ground and in the park. However, his ace potential seems to have been a little overly lauded in the past year plus. Paul Clemens, acquired in last summer's Michael Bourn trade, got destroyed in 20 starts in the PCL, and has held his own while still struggling a bit since being demoted to Corpus Christi. Top overall pick from June Carlos Correa was thrown right into the fire in the GCL and struggled a ton, but has made improvements in Greeneville of the Appy League. He's still just 17, so don't make anything of his early struggles. Lance McCullers, the team's supplemental pick that got a ton of money, performed well in the GCL, but struggled in the Appy League. Again, make nothing of it…he's just 18.
The Future: Here's the thing about the Astros: they're not building for 2013. They probably aren't even building for 2015. But the team has a plan in place, and that's more than you could say about the path of Ed Wade during his horrible reign as GM. This team isn't going to be good next year. Jeff Luhnow has a ton of money to play with, but he's not going to make a splash and sign a big free agent like Josh Hamilton. I'd expect more middle of the road, stopgap options on one or two year deals to fill holes as opposed to franchise changers. But at least he knows what the hell he's doing.