If pre-season Astros predictions by established baseball writers so far this year have sent you into a frenzied rage then look away now. In one of the most ludicrous things I have ever seen, a collective fan prediction published on FanGraphs came up with a 60-102 record for the Astros, eleven behind the Pirates and easily the worst in the majors.
Over the entire season, the offense was anemic at worst mediocre at best and still scored 3.7 runs a game, racking up 611, their worst total in a full season since 1992. Alex Cohn asked earlier this week how much of an impact Mike Barnett will have replacing Jeff Bagwell as hitting coach. The Astros saw a pretty big bump in a lot of offensive categories after the All-Star Break when Sean Berry was fired. Maybe the offense was bound to score more runs without the likes of Pedro Feliz and others dragging it down, and apart from Michael Bourn the entire lineup started the season poorly.
Considering the Astros scored 3.7 runs a game last season how can they score any less in 2011? The Seattle Mariners scored 513 runs last season, scoring 3.1 runs a game in one of the most shambolic offensive performances over a season, limping to 101 losses. But for a team that is collectively better than it was 12 months ago, it just does not make sense to expect they will score 100 runs less than they did last year.
Clint Barmes should comfortably eclipse the wOBA totals at shortstop over last year's total. Chris Johnson may have to be more patient if he is bumped up the order, as he was given license to be pretty aggressive by Brad Mills, due to the fact that he was hitting in the fifth (27 games), sixth (31) and seventh (31) positions for most of his starts.
This backlash against their offensive capability might be down to the lack of a legitimate cleanup hitter, since Pence, Lee and Johnson could be labelled free-swingers. It is dangerous to start acquiring guys assuming they are going to rebound, as Tim Purpura's signing of Preston Wilson in 2006 proved admirably.
Still, Barmes is a significant upgrade on Tommy Manzella and his UZR/150 was 14.9 last year although his home/road OPS splits are worrying (.793 at Coors, .618 away from it). Given Astros' shortstops combined for a bWAR of -2.8 (Manzella, Anderson Hernandez, Oswaldo Navarro and Angel Sanchez), average offense from Barmes and solid defense should be quite a significant addition from last year.
Even as he bounced around a lot with the Boston Red Sox, Bill Hall did enough things well to justify the time he was given, and his off-season comments would suggest he is more comfortable with being an everyday player rather than in a utility role, and he prefers holding down just one position. There might be a significant trade-off of walks to home runs, but Hall will bat lower down the order than Jeff Keppinger, who batted second in 98 of his 2010 starts, and will fulfill a different role in the lineup.
Will the lack of a big bopper affect the team in 2011? The Arizona Diamondbacks scored a lot of runs without any real standout, but they had far more patience and power throughout the lineup than the Astros are expected to have.
If you look at the guys who started the season a year ago and the starters Houston has now, there surely has to be cause for optimism. Manzella, Kaz Matsui and Feliz might have been one of the worst infield trios ever to appear in baseball. While due credit must be given to Ed Wade for replacing all three, he must also take some of the blame for putting them there in the first place.
Perhaps it would have been too easy to simply stick Carlos Lee at first base permanently and put an end to his left-field playing days, delivering us from the inevitable groans every time a ball is hit to left field, but Wade also deserves merit for getting his hands on a major league ready first baseman. Or maybe we should credit the Blue Jays for cutting their losses on a guy they knew was going south.
It remains to be seen whether the problems with Brett Wallace's swing mechanics can be easily fixed and we will get a clearer picture as the 2011 season rolls on.
There might not be any room for offensive spikes from any of the players, but an addition of 50 runs from last year's total of 611 would bring them at 661. In fact, if they were to average 4.1 runs a game over the entire season (which they did from the point of their first raft of callups on June 21st, they would clock in at 664.
In addition if they could drop 20 runs off their 2010 total of 729 runs allowed, it is not inconceivable given their propensity to beat their predicted pythagorean win loss records, that they could get within a whisker of .500 (80-82 is my pre-season prediction if anyone was wondering).
And I have not even mentioned the rotation. Teams with good rotations do not lose 102 games. They just don't. And the 2011 Astros won't.