2011 - Season Recap
by Bob Hulsey
It all went downhill from there as the Astros fell 20 games below the previous year's pace to a franchise-worst 56-106 record, the first time in their 50-year history that the ballclub lost 100 games or more.
There was turmoil off the field and torture on it as the attempted sale of the franchise from Drayton McLane to a group led by Houston businessman Jim Crane dragged on for seven months, causing General Manager Ed Wade to trade his two most popular players for prospects and leaving most to question who was really in charge.
Previously, the Astros played better after trading away Roy Oswalt and Lance Berkman but manager Brad Mills was unable to perform miracles twice when Houston shipped off outfielders Hunter Pence and Michael Bourn at the trade deadline. The Astros were terrible before the trades and just as terrible afterwards.
Statistically, Houston was slightly improved over 2010 on offense under new hitting coach Mike Barnett but the pitching ERA dropped by over half a run. Pitching coach Brad Arnsberg was fired in mid-season and the staff was left in the inexperienced hands of assistant Doug Brocail.
The three former Phillies in the Houston rotation all had poor performances. Myers (7-14, 4.46 ERA), J.A. Happ (6-15, 5.35) and Nelson Figueroa (0-3, 8.69) experienced major drop-offs from the previous year while Wandy Rodriguez (11-11, 3.49) had largely the same campaign as usual despite a new contract and being dogged by trade rumors. Bud Norris (6-11, 3.77) actually improved although he had a difficult time translating that into victories.
Indeed, translating effort into victories was a year-long problem for the whole team. Getting run production, quality starting pitching and effective relief to all show up on the same night was a rare sight. All it took was for one of the three to fail and the Astros were doomed to another loss.
As the year wore on, Wade began making room for more rookies. One of the first new faces was 20-year-old prospect Jordan Lyles, who made his debut on May 31st in Chicago. Lyles threw seven shutout innings but did not get the win after his own error led to a meltdown in the eighth. For one of the rare times all year, the offense and the bullpen combined to win the game in the ninth but Lyles would go on to a 2-8 rookie campaign and a 5.36 ERA.
Rule V draftee Aneury Rodriguez had a similar tale. The 23-year-old Dominican, who had been claimed from Tampa Bay in the winter, started out in relief but tossed five shutout innings in his first big league start against Cincinnati on May 4th. After he left, the Astros lost. Rodriguez (1-6, 5.27) would get seven more starts before spending the rest of the season back in the bullpen.
Later in the year, Henry Sosa, acquired in a mid-season trade from San Francisco for infielder Jeff Keppinger, was called up for his debut. The 26-year-old righthander crafted a 3-5 record with a 5.23 ERA in ten starts.
The bullpen saw a flurry of pitchers come and go all year. After Lyon (3-3, 11.48, 4 saves) hid an injury then had mid-season surgery, Mark Melancon (8-4, 2.78, 20) took over and did an admirable job as the closer.
Wilton Lopez (2-6, 2.79), Enerio Del Rosario (0-3, 4.58), Fernando Rodriguez (2-3, 3.96) and lefthander Sergio Escalona (2-1, 2.93) were the most frequent choices out of the pen but it seemed at times that Mills was playing Russian Roulette every time he walked out to the mound, unsure whether the next pitcher he would bring in was the one that would explode on him. As befitting a 100-loss team, Houston led the league in blown saves (25) with just as many of those as they had saves (25).
Incidentally, for the trivia lovers, all three pitching Rodriguezes did appear in the same game. The first occurrence was June 24th in a loss against Tampa Bay, Wandy started and allowed all five runs before Fernando worked two innings and Aneury tossed the final frame. It was the first time in big league history that three hurlers with the same surname pitched for one team.
The Astros were dealt an early blow when catcher Jason Castro injured his knee in a spring training game and was lost for the season. That put Humberto Quintero (.240 average, 2 homers, 25 RBIs) back into the starter's role and gave J.R. Towles (.184, 3, 11) one last chance to capture the old promise he had begun his career with. While both got off to hot starts, by year's end their numbers looked similar to their career norms and Towles spent most of the year back in the minors.
In a year of turmoil, every other position ended the season with someone else as the "regular" at that position different than the one that started there.
Wade was tasked to add more power to the lineup while, again, shedding payroll. To that end, he traded disappointing pitcher Felipe Paulino to Colorado for shortstop Clint Barmes and signed free agent Bill Hall to play second base. Barmes (.244, 12, 39) missed the first month with a broken hand, giving Angel Sanchez (.240, 1, 28) another tryout at short. Hall (.224, 2, 13) struck out at an alarming rate and was waived two months into the season. Keppinger (.307, 4, 20) took over at second until his trade in mid-July.
Brett Wallace (.259, 5, 29) hit over .300 early on, causing fans to believe the young first baseman had turned a corner but, as each month produced poorer results, Wallace was eventually sent down to AAA while left fielder Carlos Lee took over at first.
Lee (.275, 18, 94) started slowly but he showed an enthusiasm that was sometimes lacking in prior years and adapted to first base surprisingly well. Saddled with two more years of Lee's enormous contract, he rarely had a day off and led the team both in homers and RBIs.
Chris Johnson (.251, 7, 42) had a drop-off from his rookie numbers that seemingly everyone expected but his lack of walks and decreased power made him too much a liability. Like Wallace, he spent much of the final two months in the minors or on the bench.
Hunter Pence (.308, 11, 62) and Michael Bourn (.303, 1, 32) both had above-average years at the plate. Rumors began to circulate that both would be available in July for prospects. Then news leaked out that the Astros would need to slash their payroll down to $60 million for 2012, cutting the legs out from Wade's bargaining position as other GMs realized this was a salary dump of two star players in their primes.
Pence went first, returning four prospects from Philadelphia who was desperate for some righthanded power. Three of those could become future stars but Houston fans will need to wait a few years before they'll be able to see for themselves. The next day, Bourn was dealt to Atlanta for three pitchers and outfielder Jordan Schafer. The hurlers were not the top prospects the Astros coveted but each had at least some potential to reach the majors.
With those deals, Wade called up three players who had impressive years at AA Corpus Christi and each took over a new position in Houston. 5-7 Jose Altuve (.276, 2, 12), a 21-year-old from Venezuela, began the year at the A-level and hit well enough to keep earning promotions. J.D. Martinez (.274, 6, 35) took over in left field for Lee and took over for Pence in the third spot in the lineup. He busted out with 28 RBIs for the month of August before cooling off in September.
Jimmy Paredes (.286, 2, 18), a 22-year-old switch-hitter, took over at third base and surprised with his ability to make contact and extend rallies.
Joining Martinez in the outfield were Jason Bourgeois (.294, 1, 16) and Brian Bogusevic (.287, 4, 15) who had both seen considerable bench time before the trades. Schafer (.245, 1, 6), who came over in the Atlanta deal, also saw time in center.
Two veterans did most of their damage off the bench. Infielder Matt Downs (.276, 10, 41) made the most of his opportunities, showing power and a knack for clutch pinch-hits (15-for-43 with three HRs). Outfielder Jason Michaels (.199, 2, 10) slumped from the previous year.
All the changes made by the stumbling, self-abusing Astros on the field was mirrored by the quagmire that became the sale process off of it. The process started orderly enough when McLane tasked a firm led by Steve Greenberg to field offers back in November. Before long, one suitor emerged as the clear highest bidder and McLane entered into exclusive negotiations with Crane, someone who came close to buying the Astros in 2008 but had reportedly backed out late before the sale had become public. Some thought it was odd the McLane would trust Crane again but then McLane had 680,000,000 reasons to give Crane a second chance.
On May 16th, a press conference was held to announce Crane's group was the new owners, pending approval of the other MLB owners. That turned out to be a major obstacle. Almost immediately, stories surfaced about past complaints regarding Crane's shipping businesses. In August, a vote on the sale was taken off the agenda. The reason given was that the owners were still uncomfortable with Crane's offer and needed more time to study it.
Behind the scenes, another scenario was building. Commissioner Bud Selig was using the sale vote to pressure Crane into agreeing to switch the Astros to the American League. McLane and Crane both denied this was an issue but it eventually came out that Selig was blackmailing Crane to force the league switch. Crane knew if he refused, he'd never have another chance to own a major league franchise.
The problem was there was no real benefit to the Astros to switch, even though some pitched the idea that a rivalry with the Texas Rangers would boost attendance. There were also a lot of negatives to switching, one of which being the disapproval of much of the fan base. An online poll by the Houston Chronicle revealed 3/4ths of fans hated the idea with 1/3rd willing to boycott the Astros.
Berkman, fresh off winning a Worlds Championship with the St. Louis Cardinals after being rebuffed by Wade about a possible return to Houston the previous winter, echoed the sentiments of many fans when he called the league switch "a travesty".
Seeing his options limited, Crane agreed to switch leagues but only if he received compensation for doing so. Eventually, the sale price was dropped from $680 million to $615 million with $35 million sent to McLane from MLB to thank him for giving back $65 million on the final price.
The sale was approved on November 17th in Milwaukee. While Selig, McLane and Crane all made happy talk afterwards and the media kissed their rings, many Astros fans were in no mood to be placated.
Perhaps ignored in the swirl of negativity, the team Crane purchased was in a terrible situation, both on and off the field. With very little talent in the farm system or at the big league level and much of the new organization leveraged with debt, there appeared to be no quick fixes available and a highly disgruntled fan base seemed unwilling to give the new ownership much of a honeymoon to figure things out.
Major changes were likely but would they do anything more than dig the franchise into an even deeper pit?
6th Place, NL Central
Audio: To be added later.
Nov 10, 2010 - Signed Fernando Rodriguez (P) as a free agent
Nov 11, 2010 - Signed Carlos Corporan (C) as a free agent
Nov 18, 2010 - Traded Felipe Paulino (P) to COL-N for Clint Barmes (IF)
Dec 10, 2010 - Signed Ryan Rowland-Smith (P) as a free agent
Dec 17, 2010 - Signed Bill Hall (IF) as a free agent
Dec 23, 2010 - Traded Matt Lindstrom (P) to COL-N for two minor leaguers.
Jan 10, 2011 - Traded Albert Cartwright (IF) to PHI-N for Sergio Escalona (P)
Mar 8, 2011 - Signed Robinson Cancel (C) as a free agent
Mar 27, 2011 - Traded PTBNL to TAM-A for Joe Inglett (IF)
May 28, 2011 - Waived Joe Inglett (IF)
Jun 3, 2011 - Waived Bill Hall (IF)
Jun 29, 2011 - Claimed Luis Durango (OF) from SD-N on waivers
Jul 8, 2011 - Claimed Lucas Harrell (P) from CHI-A on waivers
Jul 19, 2011 - Traded Jeff Keppinger (IF) to SF-N for Henry Sosa (P) and Jason Stoffel (P)
Jul 29. 2011 - Traded Hunter Pence (OF) to PHI-N for Jarred Cosart (P), Jonathan Singleton (IF), Josh Zeid (P) and Domingo Santana (OF)
Jul 31, 2011 - Traded Micahel Bourn (OF) to ATL-N for Jordan Schafer (OF), Juan Abreu (P), Paul Clemens (P) and Brett Oberholtzer (P)
Aug 11, 2011 - Waived Tommy Manzella (IF). Claimed by ARI-N
Aug 19, 2011 - Waived Nelson Figueroa (P)
Aug 30, 2011 - Waived Jeff Fulchino (P). Claimed by SD-N