2013 Team Preview: Houston Astros

Scott Cunningham

Following an 107-loss, transaction-heavy 2012 season, what should we expect from Houston's ballclub?

Notable Numbers

7: Members of the Astros 2012 Opening Day roster who will be on the 2013 Opening Day roster (barring something strange happening between now and Opening Day). The list: Lucas Harrell, Bud Norris, Rhiner Cruz, Wesley Wright, Jason Castro, Jose Altuve, and Marwin Gonzalez. The Astros were extremely active with transaction mania last year and made several additional moves this offseason. Clearly, GM Jeff Luhnow and his front office are trying to cycle through as many players as possible to try to find some hidden gems as they wait on one of baseball's better farm systems to bear fruit. On one hand, it's good to see Luhnow being proactive after a 107-loss season; one the other, it's disappointing on some level that there still isn't much of a young core in the majors. Only Altuve looks to be a guy who is likely to be wearing an Astros uniform in five years.

30.83%: The average of the strikeout rates of Brett Wallace, Chris Carter, Carlos Pena, and Justin Maxwell in 2012. The foursome are the team's best hope for producing consistent power in 2013, but all come with questions as to whether they can make enough contact to stick around as productive everyday players. Throw in Fernando Martinez's 26.2% from last year and you have a lineup that could strike out 16 times against Felix Hernandez one night and bash five homers off of Blake Beavan the next. Carter in particular holds intrigue, as he should take well to the short left field porch in Houston and he boasts the strongest walk rate of the bunch, though his defensive ineptitude gives back some of those advantages.

Key Offseason Moves

Acquired 1B/"LF" Chris Carter, RHP Brad Peacock, and minor league C Max Stassi from Oakland for INF Jed Lowrie and RHP Fernando Rodriguez: Rodriguez immediately succumbed to Tommy John surgery, which further tilted a deal that already seemed to favor the Astros over their new AL West rival A's. Carter strikes out a ton and struggles mightily at first base, let alone the outfield, but he comes into a situation where he can play every day with no pressure and work on his deficiencies in the majors. Peacock should step into the rotation immediately, and his upside is something like Bud Norris 2.0. Stassi will open the year in Double-A; he's a strong defensive catcher with power to spare, but he's had trouble staying healthy. Speaking of struggling with health, the Astros lost the forever brittle Lowrie in the trade-he's an excellent offensive player for a middle infielder, but he's already at or past his prime and was an expendable player on a rebuilding team, especially for such a solid return.

Acquired RHP John Ely from Dodgers for minor league LHP Rob Rasmussen: Ely is exactly the sort of player a non-contending team like the Astros should target. He dominated Triple-A last year with a 165/36 K/BB ratio and 3.20 ERA, despite playing in a launching pad of a home park. He also has a decent FIP of 4.46 for his MLB career. Rasmussen is a small lefthander who is likely bound for a lefty specialist career, and getting an innings-eater like Ely in exchange for him was a nice under-the-radar move.

Acquired SP Alex White and minor league RHP Alex Gillingham from Rockies for RHP Wilton Lopez and a player to be named later: White owns a horrific 6.03 ERA and 5.86 FIP for his career, but there are some reasons for optimism. He had a 54.1% groundball rate last year, but he still allowed 1.19 homers per nine innings, which is the sort of thing that happens when you call Coors Field home. In fact, White's HR/FB rate is a stratospheric 18.9% for his career, a figure destined to come down a bit in Houston. White needs to find a better way to combat lefties, but he's just 24, and a breakthrough in that department could make him a mid-rotation starter. Like Carter, he should get a chance to work out the kinks at the major league level. Gillingham is a relatively inconsequential A-ball starter. Lopez is a very good reliever, but he's now in his arbitration years (making $1.76 million this season), and like Lowrie, the soon-to-be-30-year-old's progression wasn't likely to sync up with the Astros' ascension to contention. I'm not sure he couldn't have fetched a more reliable asset than White, though.

Signed RHP Jose Veras to 1-year, $2 million deal: The Astros took the money they saved in the Lopez trade and gave it to Veras, who is an effective pitcher from the exact opposite mold. Whereas Lopez is effective in a boring sort of way, throwing strikes and getting grounders, Veras works in the 93-95 mph range and throws a ton of curveballs (over 40% usage last year), piling up strikeouts when batters chase the pitch (26.3%) and walks when they don't (13.3%). He should be effective in the same manner this year, and it's likely that success will lead to trade interest in July.

Signed 1B Carlos Pena to 1-year, $2.9 million deal: Pena played in 160 games for Tampa Bay last year despite hitting just .197. He did manage a solid OBP (.330), but he only cranked 19 homers and slugged just .354, 56 points lower than the player I discuss directly below him. With Carter and Wallace around and Jonathan Singleton pushing toward Minute Maid's first base spot, Pena may struggle to find playing time, especially as the season progresses. He's certainly bounced back from bad seasons before, though, and a spring back to 2011 form, let alone that of 2007-09, would be a big boost to the Astros lineup and make Pena another nice midseason trade candidate.

Signed SS Ronny Cedeno to 1-year deal: This news just broke in the past 24 hours, and financial terms remain undisclosed, though the financial commitment is likely fairly minimal. Cedeno has been one of the worst regulars in baseball several times, but he turned in a nice 2012 on the Mets' bench, hitting .259/.332/.410 with a career-high 9.1% walk rate. He has increased his walks and decreased his strikeouts for three straight years, and he even posted a .151 Isolated Power last season. There's plenty of reason to remain skeptical of him, but he could provide Houston with league-average shortstop production if 2012 represents a real step forward.

Depth Chart

The Astros' depth chart reflects a number of the items already discussed-the team is very much in flux and has a lot of new faces. There are a number of players who will open the season in Triple-A and could be up very quickly if the MLB'ers falter. Infielder Jake Elmore, who hit .342/.442/.465 in Triple-A last year, is one name to keep an eye on, and RHP Jordan Lyles and OF J.D. Martinez could return to the team quickly if they get off to hot starts in Triple-A. Either White or Peacock will take the fifth starter slot to open the season, and Ely, Rudy Owens, Jose Cisnero, Brett Oberholtzer, Paul Clemens, and Jarred Cosart are all potential in-season rotation reinforcements. Outfielder Brandon Barnes looks likely to make the team following Martinez's demotion, and first overall Rule 5 pick Josh Fields should grab a relief spot -- he could quickly ascend to late-inning work.

Check out the 2013 Astros depth chart at MLB Depth Charts.

2013 Outlook: The Astros are obviously in rebuilding mode, though 2013 may be the point where the proper term shifts from "rebuilding" to "building." The veterans are pretty much gutted, the farm system looks strong, and now the team settles into a wait-and-see phase as their prized prospects start to creep closer to Houston. This is probably a better team than given credit for, as it's not hard to imagine a few players busting through and having strong rookie campaigns, in addition to continued maturation from Altuve, Carter, Harrell, and Norris. Personally, I'd be more surprised with the Astros losing 100 games than I'd be if they won 70. Depending how the season goes in terms of player development, 2013 could well be the last year that this team is considered one of baseball's worst.

Check out the Astros 2013 ZiPS projections at FanGraphs.

Bold Prediction: Carter hits 40 homers this season. Think about it: He swatted 16 in 260 plate appearances last season, which put him on a pace to hit 40 bombs in 650 trips. He's moving to a park that's much better-suited to a righthanded power bat, and he finally has an extended period of big league maturation (and, to a degree, success) under his belt. He'll have to make sure to stay in the lineup consistently despite the presence of Wallace, Pena, and perhaps even Singleton (down the stretch), but if the Astros run Carter out there every day and he doesn't lose his batting eye, he could even challenge for 50 bombs.

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