Brad Mills certainly had a tough time out of the gate last year. It got so bad early that long-time stars, Lance Berkman and Roy Oswalt, both asked to be traded. They got their wish and both got the playoff experiences they were hoping for. The Astros, meanwhile, didn't exactly roll over and play dead. After their funked out start, they came on strong and played very competitive baseball before fading a bit at the home stretch. Despite the team for sale, there is cause for modest hope that this team is in okay shape to field a competitive team.
First off, Mills seems to be a very good manager. The team finished eight games above its Pythagorean win-loss total based on its run differential. Mills seems to that rare mix of leader whose positive outlook is indefatigable and he seems to get the most out of his young players. He let young guys like Michael Bourn, Jeff Keppinger, Chris Johnson, Hunter Pence and Brett Wallace go out there and play everyday and all seemed more poised to become viable major league players. To be sure, there is still questions about whether Wallace will find himself and another player he let play, Tommy Manzella, seemed lost at times. But still, it's a promising starting point.
Pence and Keppinger had very fine seasons. Keppinger is a solid little player who walks more than he strike out, puts the ball in play and found a home at second base. His defense needs to improve but he looks like a guy who can live in the number two hole for many years to come. Pence almost became a star in 2010. He strikes out too much and walks too few at bats, but he had a solid season at the plate and let the team in homers, ribbies and runs scored.
After a disastrous move to sign Pedro Feliz, a move panned by everyone including this writer, the Astros didn't dwell on their mistake. Instead they moved Chris Johnson into the line up at third and he became their best hitter. His 123 OPS+ is a result of his slugging percentage and his batting average. He strikes out too much and he is far from patient at the plate with less than 20 walks. If he could be more selective and improve that category, he can be a star. He also needs to improve his defense which was far from stellar.
Wallace, obtained from the Blue Jays, was handed the first base job after Berkman left. He had some nice moments, but he too is a strikeout machine and shows little patience at the plate. He was a surprise in the field though and played more than adequately around that bag.
Michael Bourn's numbers are confusing. He steals a lot of bases and he is better than average at drawing a walk. But his batting average never got near being good enough to lead off and he does not drive the ball on a regular basis. He's a fantastic center fielder though with great defensive numbers. But he does need to pick up his average if he is going to be a viable lead off guy. And it wasn't a question of bad luck as he had a high BABIP.
The Astros have a pair of promising catchers in Quintero and Castro. Both did well on defense and threw out a good percentage of base stealers. But both finished with identical 59s in OPS+. Castro is only 23 and is one of their most highly touted young players. He should develop better with the stick and will probably the team's number one catcher before too long.
The Astros do need to figure out how long the Carlos Lee era lasts in Houston. Lee seems like a really old 34, is a terrible outfielder and his production was way down this past season. As the last remaining "star" of this team, he is a problem the Astros have to deal with. His offense has been overblown and he just isn't as good a player as people have thought. He still hits homers, but offers little else.
We'll have to deal with the pitching in another post as this one is getting long in the tooth. But Wandy Rodriguez is one of the most solid starters in baseball. Brett Myers stunned everyone with his success last year. The Astros need to figure out the rest among Norris, Figueroa, Wright and Happ. But there is enough there to give the Astros a chance to win three out of every five games.
There is mild optimism for this team. They have a good manager. They have young players that could develop into very good ones and they have a lovely ball park. In two years, they will also have a local television network like NESN and YES and that will improve their viability as well. Don't count the Astros out in 2011. They have little minor league depth, but they seem to be making the most out of what they do have.