2012 - Season Recap
by Bob Hulsey
If you thought it couldn't get any worse for Astros fans than 106 losses, think again. New owner Jim Crane signed Jeff Luhnow away from the St. Louis Cardinals to be his new General Manager. Luhnow brought in "decision scientists" to aid in player personnel decisions in non-traditional ways. Using sabermetric formulas to assist traditional scouting methods, Luhnow hoped to bring about similar success as Oakland and Tampa Bay - clubs that had learned to win big on lean budgets.
The Astros' road to recovery would be long, Luhnow warned, but it would be done in a way to hopefully sustain itself once it was built through better scouting, better drafting and smarter player acquisitions.
After his first Rule V draft which netted reliever Rhiner Cruz from the Mets and infielder Marwin Gonzalez from the Cubs via Boston, Luhnow won some credibility with his first trade - sending closer Mark Melancon to the Red Sox for shortstop Jed Lowrie and pitcher Kyle Weiland.
Lowrie (.244 batting average, 16 homers, 42 RBIs) provided power and a solid glove when healthy but, as has been his history, Lowrie missed two months with injuries and appeared in 97 games. Weiland won a spot in the rotation coming out of camp but started 0-3 before requiring surgery and was done for the year. Still, it was better value than what Melancon gave the BoSox.
Free agent acquisitions were another story. Cast-offs like Jack Cust and Livan Hernandez were signed who didn't make it out of spring training. The only significant signing was for catcher Chris Snyder (.176, 7, 24), a Houston native who disappointed both at the plate and in back of it.
Before camp began, starter Brett Myers was asked to return to the closer role he once held in Philadelphia. Myers said he would if his contract could be re-worked to change his bonus incentives to reflect relief goals rather than starter goals. This was done and the bullpen was reshaped.
Behind the managing of Brad Mills and some hot pitching, the Astros burst through April and May, cresting to a 22-23 record on May 25th with a 3-1 triumph in Los Angeles behind surprising starter Lucas Harrell. The sinkerballer had notched his fourth win while Bud Norris was 5-1 and veteran lefties J.A. Happ and Wandy Rodriguez each had four victories. Myers had 12 saves and an ERA under 2.00.
However, as miraculously as the 22-23 spring came, the summer drought of 2012 hit just as hard. After an eight-game losing skid, Houston won four of eight in June before suffering a no-hit perfect-game loss to Matt Cain in San Francisco on June 13th. There was something about Cain's overpowering performance that seemed to suck the life out of the Astros for the next two months.
From a 26-36 record on the date of Cain's gem, the Astros went 14-56 through the end of August. They set a big league futility record in July, going 3-24 during that disastrous month.
Finishing with the worst record in the majors for 2011 gave Luhnow a chance to select the first player in the 2012 June draft. The consensus choice was righthander Mark Appel of Stanford but he was represented by inflationary agent Scott Boras. The second option was a high school outfielder from Georgia.
This was the first year of a new collective bargaining agreement (the one which was the reason behind the demand that moved the Astros to the American League) which featured a new slotting system for draft bonuses. After Boras refused to agree to a lesser bonus for Appel than the CBA allowed, Luhnow drafted 17-year-old shortstop Carlos Correa of Puerto Rico with the first overall pick at significantly under the slotted amount.
Luhnow then used the savings to draft two other projected first rounders who fell to later rounds because of signability concerns, high school pitcher Lance McCullers Jr. and high school third baseman Rio Ruiz who were both inked well above slot but inside what was permitted by the new rules. Luhnow was able to sign his top 11 draft picks.
With that accomplished and the parent club beginning a decline for the ages, Luhnow set his attention to dismantling the remaining veteran contracts on the Astros payroll and bolstering the farm system.
The first to go was first baseman Carlos Lee (.287, 5, 29) who was traded to Los Angeles but Lee balked citing the limited no-trade clause on his contract so, a few days later, Lee was dealt to Miami instead for two minor leaguers, one of them third baseman Matt Dominguez (.284, 5, 16).
Next, Happ (7-9 won-loss, 4.83 ERA) and two relievers were traded to Toronto for five prospects, outfielder Ben Francisco (.247, 2, 5) and closer Francisco Cordero. Francisco was swapped to Tampa Bay two months later while the former All-Star Cordero (0-3, 19.80) proved his career was finished before being released.
The following day, Luhnow sent Myers (0-6, 3.52, 19 saves) to the White Sox for three minor leaguers and later shipped Wandy Rodriguez (7-9, 3.79) to Pittsburgh for three more prospects. Just before the trade deadline, third baseman Chris Johnson (.279, 8, 41) was dealt to Arizona for a pair of minor league outfielders.
All told, Luhnow traded ten major league players for 18 minor league players and a washed-up closer. He also shaved millions off the payroll. Luhnow said the deals were like adding another draft class to what had been largely a failing farm system.
But it left an already dispirited parent club in shambles. Fans, whether upset with losing baseball or the upcoming league switch, stayed away. The Astros still attracted two million fans in 2011 despite 106 losses. In 2012, they enticed just 1.6 million, ranking 28th in attendance among the 30 big league clubs. Television ratings also plummeted.
Luhnow filled the gaps with waiver claims and cast-offs. His best was one of the first. In early April, the Astros claimed a struggling outfielder named Justin Maxwell (.229, 18, 53) from the Yankees. The former Washington National led Houston in homers and was second in RBIs despite a low batting average and a club-leading 114 strikeouts. Among the other castaways were Scott Moore (.259, 9, 26), Brian Bixler (.193, 2, 7), Steve Pearce (.254, 0 , 8), Tyler Greene (.246, 7, 11), Fernando Martinez (.237, 6, 14) and Travis Buck (.216, 0, 6) along with pitchers Hector Ambriz (1-1, 4.19), Armando Galarraga (0-4, 6.75), Edgar Gonzalez (3-1, 5.04) and Chuckie Fick (0-1, 4.30).
The only constant on offense was Altuve (.290, 7, 37, 33 steals) who led the club in runs, hits, doubles, triples and stolen bases while becoming Houston's lone All-Star representative in their final National League season. The tiny second sacker was among the league leaders with 51 multi-hit games.
Catcher Jason Castro (.257, 6, 29) returned from a year of injury rehab to post improving numbers while sharing time behind the plate with Snyder and Carlos Corporan (.269, 4, 19). Brett Wallace (.253, 9, 24) eventually settled in at first base after the Lee trade and began to show better power despite a slimmer body.
It was in the outfield where the team truly struggled. J.D. Martinez (.241, 11, 55) started hot but fell into a slump and never fully recovered. He led the Astros in RBIs but had just nine after July 1st. Jordan Schafer (.211, 4, 23, 27 steals) showed early promise with his speed and defense but struck out too often (106 times in 313 at bats) and was waived after the season. Brian Bogusevic (.203, 7, 28) also was released.
On the mound, Lucas Harrell (11-11, 3.76) became the steadiest pitcher in the Astros rotation. The former waiver claim from the White Sox dazzled with his sinker and later displayed a surprising fastball. After that 5-1 start, Bud Norris (7-13, 4.65) had a frustrating summer of injuries and ineffectiveness, particularly on the road. Amazingly, he led all NL pitchers in home ERA (1.71).
Jordan Lyles (5-12, 5.09) also struggled but showed improvement late in the season. Lefthander Dallas Keuchel (3-8, 5.27) was called up in June and had an outstanding debut against the Rangers before scuffling through a typical Astro year.
After the veterans were purged from the bullpen in mid-season, "The Regulators" had left only Wilton Lopez (6-3, 2.17, 10 saves), Fernando Rodriguez (2-10, 5.37), Wesley Wright (2-2, 3.27), Fernando Abad (0-6, 5.09) and Cruz (1-1, 6.05) among those who began the season. Xavier Cedeno (0-1, 3.77) and Mickey Storey (0-1, 3.86) also showed promise.
Brad Mills seemed to lose control during the long losing streak and was fired on August 18th in what some described as a "mercy killing". It wasn't a fair test for him since he was brought in to a club that still had Lance Berkman, Roy Oswalt, Hunter Pence and some semblance of respectability before all his good players left one by one.
Tony DeFrancesco was promoted from AAA Oklahoma City to replace Mills and, after more losses in August, closed with a 15-15 mark during September and October. Still, it was not good enough to keep the job. Luhnow announced the hiring of Bo Porter, a third base coach with the Nationals, to be his first skipper of the new AL entrant.
Celebrating their 50th anniversary (actually, it was their 51st season), the Astros looked and played more like an expansion team than even the actual expansion 1962 Colt .45s. At times "big league" in name only, the Astros stumbled to a franchise-worst 55-107 record to complete their National League run as a 3999-4134 (.492) experience.
As Crane and Luhnow promised better days ahead, it was difficult to see who else might be coming along for the ride. Everyone from the bullpen coach to the traveling secretary to the broadcasters were either let go or stepped down. It was as if Crane had decided that his new American League franchise would be in no way connected to the National League one except by name.
6th Place, NL Central
To be added later.
Nov 3, 2011 - Claimed Brian Bixler (IF) from WAS-N on waivers
Nov 5, 2011 - Signed Travis Buck (OF) as a free agent
Nov 15, 2011 - Signed Scott Moore (IF) as a free agent
Dec 8, 2011 - Claimed Rhiner Cruz (P) from NY-N in Rule V draft
Dec 8, 2011 - Claimed Marco Duarte (P) from COL-N in Rule V draft then traded him to BOS-A for Marwin Gonzalez (IF) whom they had selected from CHI-N
Dec 14, 2011 - Traded Mark Melancon (P) to BOS-A for Jed Lowrie (IF) and Kyle Weiland (P)
Jan 11, 2012 - Claimed Fernando Martinez (OF) from NY-N on waivers
Jan 20, 2012 - Signed Chris Snyder (C) as a free agent
Mar 21, 2012 - Traded Humberto Quintero (C) and Jason Bourgeois (OF) to KC-A for minor leaguers Kevin Chapman (P) and D'Andre Toney (OF)
Apr 8, 2012 - Claimed Justin Maxwell (OF) from NY-A on waivers
May 18, 2012 - Sold contract of Henry Sosa (P) to Kia Tigers (Korea)
May 21, 2012 - Signed Armando Galarraga (P) as a free agent
Jun 21, 2012 - Signed Hector Ambriz (P) as a free agent
Jul 4, 2012 - Traded Carlos Lee (OF) to MIA-N for Matt Dominguez (IF) and Rob Rasmussen (P)
Jul 20, 2012 - Traded David Carpenter (P), J.A. Happ (P) and Brandon Lyon (P) to TOR-A for Francisco Cordero (P), Ben Francisco (OF), minor leaguers Asher Wojciechowski (P), Joe Musgrove (P), David Rollins (P), Carlos Perez (C) and Kevin Comer (P)
Jul 21, 2012 - Traded Brett Myers (P) to CHI-A for minor leaguers Matthew Heidenreich (P), Blair Walters (P) and Chris Devenski (P)
Jul 25, 2012 - Traded Wandy Rodriguez (P) to PIT-N for minor leaguers Paul Owens (P), Robbie Grossman (OF) and Colton Cain (P)
Jul 27, 2012 - Claimed Chuckie Fick (P) from STL-N on waivers
Jul 28, 2012 - Claimed Steve Pearce (OF) from BAL-A on waivers
Jul 29, 2012 - Traded Chris Johnson (IF) to ARI-N for minor leaguers Bobby Borchering (OF) and Marc Knauss (OF)
Aug 7, 2012 - Waived Juan Abreu (P). Claimed by TOR-A
Aug 9, 2012 - Traded PTBNL to STL-N for Tyler Greene (IF)
Aug 23, 2012 - Signed Edgar Gonzalez (P) as a free agent
Aug 27, 2012 - Traded Steve Pearce (OF) to NY-A for cash considerations
Aug 31, 2012 - Traded Ben Francisco (OF) to TAM-A for minor leaguer Theron Geith (P)
Sep 1, 2012 - Claimed Brandon Laird (IF) from NY-A on waivers
Sep 10, 2012 - Released Francisco Cordero (P)
Oct 4, 2012 - Released Brian Bixler (IF)
Oct 4, 2012 - Released Angel Sanchez (IF)
Oct 5, 2012 - Released Travis Buck (OF)