Can Astros Contend In 2011?

added 9/27/2010 by Pat Hajovsky

In recent years, for teams like the Astros, the "wait 'til next year" chant began a bit earlier in the season than anyone would like. For the Pirates, that usually starts on Opening Day, coming as they are through their 18th straight losing season. (To this, note that they’ve never had a winning season in the NL Central, which has only been around for 17 years. Wow.)

For the 2010 Astros, that chant legitimately started only a week after the Pirates, following the 0-8 start where the word "anemia" got a new video picture definition. Prior to the call-up of Jason Castro on June 22, and then the trade deadline deals, you could argue that the best Astros fans could hope for was "wait 'til 2011 (or 2012, or 2013)". But the influx of talent, and the emergence of a smarter and better Hunter Pence as a solid three hitter, brings the contention horizon J.A. Happily back to 2011.

A premature conclusion? I don't think so. Let's look at the state of the NL Central teams at the close of 2010:

Pittsburgh Pirates – When you're only All-Star representative is a middle reliever, I'm reminded of the Ray LaMontagne lyrics:

Oh, trouble trouble trouble trouble
Seems like every time I get back on my feet
She come around and knock me down again.

While they have some nice young players, since the point of this column is contention in 2011, let's skip over Pittsburgh.

Chicago Cubs – Tyler Colvin, assuming he recovers from the bat "javelin-catching" incident, appears set to be the hitter the Cubs have longed for in right field for some time. The problem is that they now have little else to fill out the 3-4-5 hitting slots. Derrek Lee is gone. Aramis Ramirez will be 33 and should be starting (continuing?) a decline, which Alfonso Soriano apparently started a few years ago. Starlin Castro is a decent table-setter at the top of the lineup, but picky ain't a word for someone with a .348 OBP. Add in a very uneven pitching staff, no matter what Carlos Zambrano smashes, and it's difficult to see contention in the Cubs' future next year.

(As an aside, don't you just see The Hulk whenever you think of Zambrano? Someone makes an error? "ZAMBRANO SMASH!!!" He's currently on a retreat where he can control the gamma radiation, but it's only a matter of time until General Ross or some peon infielder hacks him off, and then watch out! You won't like him when he’s angry.)

Milwaukee Brewers – Ryan Braun is signed through 2015, for a total contract price of $45 million. To Prince Fielder, entering his final year bound to the Brew Crew before entering free agency, $45 million will be a nice signing bonus. Fielder has been getting some grief this year for a supposed drop off in production, but while the BA and RBI are down, he will still post a .400+ OBP with over 30 home runs. With Braun and Fielder back for 2011, along with Corey Hart and Rickey Weeks supplying more pop, there's reason to put Milwaukee in the "contenders" category.

The problem for the Brewers is that the 2011 outlook stops cold right there. This team has a collection of below-average starting pitchers, beyond Yovani Gallardo, and without a bullpen to help. Unless the pitching staff is overhauled (read: a lot of money is spent to sign some front line starting pitching), 2009 will be the high water mark of the Prince Fielder Era, with an end date of October 2011 (possibly earlier).

St. Louis Cardinals – Always a contender with the big man at first base, and with Chris Carpenter and Adam Wainwright on the mound. But, honestly, apart from Matt Holliday, where is the help in this line-up? Holliday is signed through 2016, but his OBP of .387, Holliday's lowest since 2006, is a bit too many outs to protect Albert Pujols from being pitched around.

The Cardinals' fade from the division race in the second half is almost directly tied to the dealing away of Ryan Ludwick – a dependable third big bat. That's not to say that Colby Rasmus or Jon Jay won't fill that role, but it's difficult to see large amounts of run production now that Pujols and Holliday are in their 30's. Of course, with the top two pitchers in the division, this team will be in contention in 2011, but with the imminent departure of LaGenius, and the feuding he's had with some of the members of that team, it's not inconceivable that a decline in St. Louis is in the offing.

Cincinnati Reds – A very nice 2010 season has them putting the pieces together as some had been predicting for the last few years, and the Reds will definitely be a popular favorite to repeat in 2011. But how much should they actually be favored? Joey Votto is Pujols-ian in his projections, but Cesar Cedeno was considered Mays-ian and we know how that came out. Also, a quick look at the rest of that offense doesn't give one a lot of confidence. Jay Bruce and Drew Stubbs, even though both are under 26 years old, clock in with an OPS of .818 and .756, respectively. Scott Rolen, while having a nice bounce back year, is 35 and due to decline – either through injuries or performance or both.

In addition, the pitching staff is young. Guys like Mike Leake and Johnny Cueto have regressed to the norm as the season has worn on. With Dusty Baker in charge of the pitching mill, Reds fans better hope that fresh meat (Aroldis Chapman?) keeps getting fed into that grinder.

And, finally, the Houston Astros. The mustard seeds of optimism seemed to leap up in the second half of 2010. When compared to every other team in the division, the top three starters of Brett Myers, J.A. Happ and Wandy Rodriguez are only possibly matched by Carpenter, Wainwright and Jake Westbrook. The continued maturation of Happ and Bud Norris provide a solid reason for optimism while 2011 sees Rodriguez in a contract year. The middle-to-late relief is in need of improving, but Brandon Lyon has proven once again he can lock down the ninth inning if need be.

The Astros' offense is a work in progress, but improvement is clear to the eye. On June 22, the team projected to score a grand total of 551 runs for the year - a low not seen since 1968, the ultimate year of the pitcher. Since then, the Astros have been on a pace for 690 runs, a still not great but steadily improving number. By any projections, the offense should continue to improve as Brett Wallace, Chris Johnson and Tommy Manzella move along up their statistical curves, something that the return of Jeff Bagwell as the hitting coach can only enhance. Can Hunter Pence repeat or improve on his 2010 hitting performance? For the first time in my fanhood, I can say that I'm optimistic about the projection, due mostly to his improved approach at the plate.

Looking a little closer at Wallace, he has seemed lost at times, not knowing what to expect from the pitcher or able to deal with hard breaking stuff. One can easily understand this as the struggles of a young hitter adjusting to the big leagues. Lance Berkman had a similar struggle when he came up, and Daryle Ward was the stud projected to be the future of the Astros. Any objective observer, though, can see that smooth, Ernie Els-like swing and feel comfortable concluding that time is on Wallace's side.

Similarly, Jason Castro has had a mostly down experience at the major league plate in 2010. At every level, though, Castro started slow and then, after an adjustment period, success soon followed. Castro's job is made harder by being a catcher, arguably the toughest position to play in the bigs, and Castro has more than held his own (as evidenced by a 36% caught stealing percentage for fifth in the NL and a defensive range factor per nine innings above the league average). Again, time and talent will tell the tale, and there is no reason to be anything other than optimistic with him.

I would like to see some power added to the lineup, particularly at second base. But all the makings are there, both among the competition and with the team in place, for the Astros to legitimately market the 2011 season as the return to contention. Leaving us with a final question (wait for it – wait for it some more – just a little more – OK):

"Are you ready to be a champion??" (Ouch.)