2012 is important for the Astros to sift through all the recently-added players from 2011’s trades and callups from the minors. The 2012 season will be a pretty bleak season for fans at Minute Maid Park. — 2012 Houston Astros Forecast from the 2012 Pirates Prospects Annual.
When I wrote those words in December 2011, I knew things were going to be ugly for the Astros in 2012. But…wow. Things are really, really bad for the Astros. After trading away their last veteran, Wandy Rodriguez to the Pirates, the Astros are now stripped bare. They have Francisco Cordero making the remainder of his $4.5M salary set this year by the Blue Jays. After that, the next highest salary is $1.5M by Ben Francisco (also obtained from the Blue Jays) and the $1.1M salary of Jed Lowrie. The rest of the players on the 25-man roster all each make less than $1M.
The Astros started the 2012 season with a $60.8M payroll. If the season started today, their payroll would be around $18.1M, not counting offset money sent in the Rodriguez deal.
Once Jim Crane took over ownership of the team from Drayton McLane last year and hired stat-minded GM Jeff Luhnow, it signified that the old McLane-Ed Wade days of never saying surrender were over. The rotten husk must be removed down to the core and rebuilt from the ground up. The rebuild actually did start last year under Ed Wade, as he traded away Hunter Pence to the Phillies for a great return (Jonathan Singleton, Jarred Cosart, Domingo Santana, Josh Zeid) and Michael Bourn to the Braves for a not-so-great return (Jordan Schafer, Brett Oberholtzer, Paul Clemens, Juan Abreu). Jeff Luhnow has continued it this month by dealing Carlos Lee, Brandon Lyon, Brett Myers, and Wandy Rodriguez. However, none of the prospects obtained within the 17 players received by Houston in the July 2012 flurry of trades are forecast to be front end talent. Perhaps by my biased view, the best player Houston received this month was Robbie Grossman, and even he does not seem to be more than “solid regular”.
When Neal Huntington took over the Pirates in November 2007, a rival executive was quoted as saying it would probably take 5-7 years to rebuild the Pirates, due to the lack of impact talent at the major level and the barren farm system left behind by previous GM’s. Here we sit after 4 bad seasons record-wise under Huntington’s tenure and sure enough…in the 5th year the Pirates are good and contending.
But the Pirates in November 2007 had a rising multi-tool star in Andrew McCutchen. A few months later in June 2008, the Pirates drafted a “can’t miss” college power prospect in Pedro Alvarez 2nd overall. The Astros have neither of those things on the horizon. Jonathan Singleton is a fantastic 1B prospect and is excelling at age 20 in AA, but his profile seems to be one of moderate power and high on-base percentage, not the masher one usually associates with 1B. George Springer could be a masher and he plays CF, but his high strikeout rate is alarming at AA and doesn’t portend future success. The Pirates got lucky when they dealt Octavio Dotel for James McDonald (Andrew Lambo is a bust at this point). The Astros will need to score on one of those types of trades, too.
The Astros did have a great draft in June 2012, as the drafted Carlos Correa first overall and signed him for well below the $7.2M slot price ($4.8M). As a result, they went over slot to get Lance McCullers, Jr. and Rio Ruiz, too. For the same value of the $7.2M 1st round slot price, the Astros got 3 high-end players instead of one. However, all three of them are high schoolers and most likely 4 years away from the majors, at least.
The Astros are in the midst of sifting through their talent on hand to determine who, if any, will be cornerstones of the franchise for the next 5+ years. The only possible player the Astros may think of extending after the season could be 2B Jose Altuve, even though he is a midgety 5′-4″. The fans have really taken to him and his ability to hit for contact, so perhaps some type of Jose Tabata-contract could be in order.
A major difference between Houston and Pittsburgh’s situations, though, is market size. The Houston market is much larger than Pittsburgh and can easily support an $85+M payroll for sustained periods of time. Under Luhnow, it will probably be a methodical build, but the Astros should be able to augment the talent with free agents more freely than the Pirates were able to during their rebuild. I don’t think it will be until 2014 that the Singleton/Springer/Cosart/Grossman group will arrive in earnest and there will be growing pains with them as there were with the Alvarez/McCutchen/Walker group for the Pirates.
Further complicating things for the Astros is their impending move to the very tough AL West with the powerhouses of the Texas Rangers and Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, the Oakland A’s primed to relocate to a bigger market, and the deep pocketed ownership of the Mariners. It will be rough sledding and the Astros fans will probably stay away for a while, but it’s not likely that the Astros will compete until 2016.