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Johnson and Norris Offer Brief Respite for Purpura's Shattered Legacy as GM

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Chris Johnson and Bud Norris represent two key cogs for the Astros' immediate future

Bud Norris showed glimmers in 2010, and has plenty of raw talent, but he is far from the finished article. (Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images)
Bud Norris showed glimmers in 2010, and has plenty of raw talent, but he is far from the finished article. (Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images)
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Now that Wandy Rodriguez is secured for at least another three seasons, maybe even four, the Astros' focus shifts from the external to the internal. With no more fresh blood coming in, Brad Mills will have to make the best of what he has already got, and at the forefront of this will be coaxing as much as he can from a small core of young players; Chris Johnson, Brett Wallace, Jason Castro and Bud Norris

I could have easily included J.A. Happ in the list, as he only has seven more major league starts than Norris, but he is 28. Castro has received plenty of fanfare as the first draft pick in 2008 as well as being Ed Wade and Bobby Heck's first pick to reach the majors, while any mention of Brett Wallace would invariably turn this column into a dissertation length thesis. Fernando Abad is 25 and Mark Melancon 26, but their roles in the organisation are uncertain at this point. 

Anyway, let me take you back four years.

Tim Purpura's reign as GM is rated about as highly as the Astros' logo, or at least according to Jim Caple, who not only seems to enjoy bashing the team's logo, but also makes a moronic reference to that Apollo-13 quote, the one drives Houston residents crazy.

In retrospect none of Purpura's moves were real howlers, it was just that every transaction he made seemed to defy logic. There was the trade for Jason Jennings, signing Woody Williams before the Padres had to decide whether to offer him arbitration or not, guaranteeing them one of Houston's draft picks, the no-trade clauses thrown about like confetti, and there was the phone conversation with a GM where he replied "duly noted" and hung up the phone. 

When you criticise the three drafts with Purpura at the helm (2005, 2006 and 2007) it is worth mentioning that with the exception of Hunter Pence and Chad Qualls, Hunsicker's last few drafts were scarcely better. In fact, as someone pointed out to me this week, the player with the highest career WAR drafted by the Astros since 2001 is....Ben Zobrist (8.2). The guy we traded along with Mitch Talbot as spare parts to Tampa Bay for Aubrey Huff in 2006. Richard Justice still delights in harping on about Drayton McLane's ham-fisted nature, plainly evident from their failure to sign Cincinnati's Drew Stubbs when the Astros originally drafted him in 2003. 

But it is those three drafts that really do represent the tip of the iceberg when it came to Purpura's blunders and mistakes. Brian Bogusevic was the first round pick in 2005 and he was drafted as a pitcher, only to make the majors in 2010 after being converted to a hitter. Max Sapp is lucky to be alive after suffering a bout of viral meningitis. As for 2007, the Astros lost their first two picks for signing Carlos Lee and Williams, and then failed to agree terms to their third and fourth rounders (Derek Dietrich and Brett Eibner) when they demanded first and second round slot money (both were subsequently picked in the second round of the 2010 draft). Colin DeLome, who is currently at AAA and likely to stay there, was the highest pick to sign, taken 171st overall, while the only other real player of note is Brian Pellegrini, mostly because of his ridiculous Twitter handle - Big Pelly Style

But two names now stand out of the 2006 draft: Chris Johnson and Bud Norris. 

They may not strike fear into the heart of opponents (except Norris and the Cardinals, but that is a story for another day).  They may not be superstars or get much coverage outside of Houston, but it is plain for all to see that they will play a vital role in determining the Astros' short-to-medium term future. 

A breakout season by Norris in 2011 could upgrade the Astros' rotation from good to very good, and Johnson could be a cog in a lineup desperate for all the help it can get.

If I had to pick one sleeper candidate on the team for 2011 it would be Norris. He's hungry, he's raw, and he's got Brad Arnsberg as his pitching coach. His comments in this Caller-Times article seem to be sending out all the correct signals to the fanbase. Even with some huge command issues (he walked an average of 4.51 batters every nine innings), he still put up a respectable season for a 25 year old. 

But as Brad Mills suggested, he has been rushed up sooner than the Astros might have liked (even though he was drafted as a college pitcher), and walks were a problem for him every step in the minors. "A guy like Bud zoomed through the minor leagues, he really didn't get a chance to do a lot of developing," Mills said. "So some of that still needs to happen, there's no doubt. 

Still, Dan Szymborski's ZIPS predictions for 2011 do not suggest that Norris will improve much from his 4.92 ERA in 2010, pegging him for a 4.41 ERA in 149 innings, with a pretty similar BB/9 rate that he had last year. Command of his fastball will be essential to future success, and once Arnsberg has that nailed down he can possibly move Norris to encorporating a 2-seam fastball to go with it, and then he can get round to tinkering with Norris' changeup. Arnsberg loves his changeups. 

No-one will ask Norris to be star, but he could be a difference maker in that rotation. With Myers, Rodriguez and Happ in there for now, and a range of fifth starters in the mix, the Astros might have one of the better NL rotations in 2011, despite national press 'inklings'. 

Meanwhile we move onto the Astros' Club Rookie of the Year in 2010, and a recent Hardball Talk article was particularly scathing of Johnson's chances of remaining at the same level or even improving in the future. Without any qualification the author states, "I don't see Johnson as a long-term regular." Figures.

Johnson's .387 BABIP might have had a lot to do with the success he had with the bat in 94 games, and his glove could do with a lot of work at the hot-corner, but I wouldn't write him off yet. His strikeout percentage was a shade too high, and his walk-rate a little low, but this says more about where he was hitting in the lineup last year and what sort of approach you should have in the number seven slot than his ability.

When you have Humberto Quintero hitting behind you (and the pitcher behind him by extension) the last thing that you should be thinking about is getting on base so Q can drive you in from first. It is more than likely Johnson will be batting fifth or sixth to start the season, depending on where Mills wants newcomers Clint Barmes and Bill Hall, and a full season at #5 should give us more of an indication at Johnson's ceiling. 

While Norris and Johnson might easily tank and have lousy years, and a lot of people think the entire roster might slide that way in 2011, they may also exceed expectations. .500 is never impossible with a team that has a solid rotation, as the Padres proved last year. With a little luck and improvement across the board from Johnson and Norris this team might play more like the team of June, July and August than April and May. 

But even solid stints in Astro pinstripes for the pair won't be enough to rescue Purpura's damned soul from baseball purgatory. For now anyway. 

Images by eflon used in background images under a Creative Commons license. Thank you.