ESPN analysts and sabermetricians have already written the script for the 2011 baseball season. And sadly, the Astros will sink to the bottom of the division. The national consensus is that the Astros traded any manifestation of hope for 2011 at last year’s deadline. But I believe this Astros team can compete in 2011.
A lot of the Astros success—or failure—depends on one man. This man won’t take the field, and no, he’s not the one writing the checks or making the trades.
The fate of the 2011 season largely hinges on Mike Barnett, the Astros new hitting coach, and the same man that took this very awkward photograph.
Two weeks after Jeff Bagwell stepped down as hitting coach, Barnett was hired to take over. Barnett doesn’t have the luxury of having Sean Berry as a predecessor; no, with Jeff Bagwell as his predecessor, he has some lofty shoes to fill.
As interim hitting coach last year, Bagwell helped the Astros improve their team BA from .238 to .259, and the team saw a spike in OBP and OPS under Bagwell’s reign—from .296 to .311 and .643 to .691 respectively. The reason I bring up these stats is because Houston had a winning baseball team with the improvements at the plate that occurred with Bagwell at the helm. Though no one outside of Houston seemed to notice the improved play, the Astros went 40-32 with Bagwell in the dugout.
If the transition from Bagwell to Barnett is smooth, and that’s a huge if, then I see no reason why the Astros can’t continue to play winning ball. If the lineup can just put up runs for an underrated rotation as it did under Bagwell, then a division with no clear-cut favorite isn't out of the cards.
Barnett will have his hands full this season, there’s no doubt about that. Barnett will coach a lineup that has more questions than answers. The Astros projected lineup features three players with less than a year under their belt. Jason Castro and Brett Wallace will likely struggle in their first full year in the majors, as they did in their brief showing last year. Barnett will need to keep their confidence high through what could be a long season for these players. In baseball, confidence can plummet for all types of players—veterans, all-stars, utility players, and especially young rookies.
Chris Johnson, another youngster who burst on to the scene last year, will be expected to anchor the offense. Johnson did have a spectacular year in 2010, but he played in just 94 games. Barnett needs to make sure Johnson avoids the sophomore slump; especially now that teams have his tendencies and preferences on tape.
Barnett also has the responsibility of turning around Carlos Lee. Not literally, of coarse. Barnett probably can't do that. I’m not asking for 35 home runs, or even a .300 average from El Caballo. But Lee can't hit a dismal .246 again if the Astros have any shot at competing. At this point in his career, the Astros just need good situational hitting from Lee, something that once made him a staple in any lineup. They need El Caballo to be productive and drive in runs when such opportunities arise.
Barnett also has the challenge of bringing back the 2009 version of Michael Bourn. Bourn saw a considerable dip in both BA and OBP in 2010 despite the offensive surge under Bagwell. Bourn’s speed is an asset, but not when he can’t get on base. If Bourn wants to be productive atop the lineup, Barnett needs to help him continue his improvement at the plate.
Barnett has helped teams in the past, too. The 2003 Blue Jays ranked 2nd in the AL in runs, batting average and hits under Barnett’s reign, and 5th in homeruns, too.
This team can win. It’s just going to depend a lot on Mike Barnett.