No team is undergoing as much of a drastic change on and off the field as the Astros, who are under the leadership of a new owner and general manager entering 2012 and will be competing in their 51st and final season in the National League. The Astros, in the midst of a major rebuilding project, will be moving to the American League in 2013, which was a stipulation of the team being sold to a group led by Houston businessman Jim Crane. New management remains committed to building through player development, which means the Astros will suffer at the major league level for the time being. Coming off a club-record 106-loss season, the Astros aren't in position to contend in their final year in the NL Central. They'll spend much of the 2012 season getting a longer look at the bevy of rookies who made their debuts a year earlier, while pushing an improving list of prospects through the minor league system. Led by veterans Wandy Rodriguez and Brett Myers, the Astros' pitching staff is actually not as bad as you would think for a team that lost so many games. But there are question marks all over the diamond. Still, the Astros have promising young players to keep an eye on, including third baseman Jimmy Paredes, second baseman Jose Altuve, shortstop Jed Lowrie and outfielder J.D. Martinez. And don't forget catcher Jason Castro, a former first-round pick who missed all of last season with a serious knee injury. The Astros are digging themselves out of a huge hole, but they appear to be on the right track and hope to continue to lay the foundation toward competing in the AL within the next three or four years. There's nowhere to go but up.
The Astros shopped veterans Rodriguez and Myers in the offseason, but they return to anchor the staff. Bud Norris has settled in nicely as the No. 2 starter and has the stuff to lead the rotation, so 2012 could be a breakout season for him. The previously steady J.A. Happ is back and hoping his nightmarish 2011 is behind him, and he can take solace in the fact he pitched well in the last month of the season. Rookie Jordan Lyles pitched at 20 years old in the rotation for half of last year and figures to be battling for a spot with Kyle Weiland and Lucas Harrell. Weiland came over from Boston in the trade of Mark Melancon, and Harrell was claimed off waivers from the White Sox last year.
The Astros traded Melancon, their closer, in December to the Red Sox, but there is no shortage of arms in the Astros bullpen. The veteran starter Myers, is now the closer. Plus, veteran Brandon Lyon, who missed the final four months of last season following major arm surgery, will be back and healthy for 2012 and will be the primary setup man. The durable Wilton Lopez will be back to eat up innings at the back of the bullpen, and hard-throwing David Carpenter, fresh off a strong rookie campaign, is capable of getting big outs late in games. Fernando Rodriguez was a huge bright spot in 2011 after being a non-roster invitee to spring camp. The Astros drafted flame-throwing Rhiner Cruz in the Rule 5 Draft in December and will have to keep him on the 25-man roster all season or risk losing him.
With Clint Barmes leaving in free agency, the Astros addressed their need at shortstop by making a trade with the Red Sox for Lowrie, who will be the starter in 2012. Lowrie, 27, has played a part-time role with the Red Sox since 2008, appearing in a career-high 88 games last season and hitting .252. He's a career .214 hitter with a .293 on-base percentage as a left-handed hitter and a .326 hitter with a .385 on-base percentage from the right side. The 5'7" Altuve returns as the starter at second base after hitting .276 with two homers and 12 RBIs in his major league debut last year. The jury is still out on whether Altuve can hit at the big league level, but he's certainly fun to watch.
When the Astros traded Hunter Pence last year, they called up one of their top prospects, Martinez, and put him in left field, moving Carlos Lee to first base, where he performed pretty well. Lee wound up leading the team in homers and RBIs and appears to be the starter at first entering 2012. That being said, Brett Wallace - the team's starter at first in 2011 - could push for playing time later in the season if he proves himself at Triple-A. At third, another Opening Day starter from 2011, Chris Johnson, is trying to hit his way back into the lineup after a disappointing season. Paredes, an athletic switch-hitter who can be an adventure defensively, will begin the season in the minors, but will certainly be back in Houston before the summer is over. Paredes looked good at the plate last year hitting .286 in 168 at-bats.
The big question is whether Lee returns to left field after being moved to first base midseason last year. Martinez took over in left field after the Astros traded away Pence and Michael Bourn and put up some pretty solid numbers while displaying a good arm. Jordan Schafer, acquired from the Braves in the Bourn deal, is the man in center. There are several options in right field, including a platoon of Brian Bogusevic and J.B. Shuck. Bogusevic needs to show he can hit left-handed pitching to get more at-bats. Martinez will wind up in right if Lee returns to the outfield.
Castro is expected to be ready for Opening Day despite suffering an injury setback in the offseason. Castro, who missed all of last season after undergoing major surgery on his right knee, missed the beginning of spring training after undergoing surgery in December to remove the sesamoid bone in his left foot. Castro hit .205 with two homers and eight RBIs in 195 at-bats in his major league debut in 2010. The Astros signed veteran Chris Snyder as insurance for Castro.
Matt Downs was one of the best bench players in baseball last year. Downs, who can play third, second and first base and has even dabbled in the outfield, batted .276 with 10 homers and 41 RBIs in only 199 at-bats in 2011. He had 15 pinch-hit RBIs, which led the majors, and he led baseball with a .462 on-base percentage as a pinch-hitter. Snyder is a solid backup catcher with a strong arm and handles the pitching staff well. Shuck, a left-handed hitter, got his feet wet in the majors last year and showed some promise.
This will be a new era in Houston baseball with Crane taking over as owner and chairman and Jeff Luhnow replacing Ed Wade as general manager. The man in charge of the day-to-day operations on the field, manager Brad Mills, returns for his third season. Mills hasn't had much to work with in the last two years as the team rebuilds, but he's in the final year of his contract (with a club option for 2013) and is coming off a club-record 106-loss season. Mills will be again depending on young players at several key positions, which will make winning difficult. Mills could be a very capable manager, but whether he gets an opportunity to show it in Houston remains to be seen.
As they enter their final year in the National League, the Astros remain years away from contending. The club is in full-blown rebuild mode and is betting its future on an increasingly improving minor league system, as well as taking advantage of having the No. 1 pick in this year's draft. The road to contention will be a long one, but the Astros have added nearly two dozen young players while trading away veterans in the last few years and appear to be on the right track. Astros fans will have to be patient and enjoy watching the young kids get their feet wet in the major leagues.
CF Jordan Schafer (L)
A former top prospect in the Braves system, Schafer has all the tools to be a dynamic lead-off hitter.
2B Jose Altuve (R)
He has hit at every level in the minor leagues, but can he do it in the majors?
LF J.D. Martinez (R)
The organization's Minor League Player of the Year in 2010 had an impressive debut when called up.
1B Carlos Lee (R)
In the final year of his six-year, $100-million contract, the slugger remains a proven run producer.
RF Brian Bogusevic (L)
The team's former first-round pick as a pitcher finally showed some potential as a hitter last year.
3B Chris Johnson (R)
After hitting .308 in 2010, he slumped to .251 last season with 97 Ks in 378 ABs.
SS Jed Lowrie (S)
He'll be the starter after coming from Boston, but can he hit consistently from the left side?
C Jason Castro (L)
The jury remains out on the former first-round pick after he lost all of 2011 with a major knee injury.
INF Matt Downs (R)
Averaged a homer every 19.9 at-bats and led the majors with 15 pinch-hit RBIs.
INF Angel Sanchez (R)
Career highs in runs (35), doubles (10), HRs (1), RBIs (28), walks (27) and stolen bases (3).
C Chris Snyder (R)
The eight-year veteran is good defensively and hit .271 in limited action with Pittsburgh last season.
LH Wandy Rodriguez
Went 11-11 with a 3.49 ERA in 30 starts to reach double-digit wins for the fourth time in his career.
RH Bud Norris
In his second full season in majors, went 6-11 with a 3.77 ERA and led club with 176 strikeouts.
LH J.A. Happ
Went 2-1 with a 2.43 ERA in final six starts after posting a 6.26 ERA in his first 22 starts.
RH Jordan Lyles
Went 2-7 with a 5.02 ERA before being moved to bullpen to limit innings.
RH Lucas Harrell
Long-time White Sox farmhand has made just five major league starts.
RH Kyle Weiland
The 24-year-old progressed nicely through the Red Sox system and appears poised to break out at the major league level.
RH Brett Myers (Closer)
Led the club in starts and innings pitched, going 7-14 with a 4.46 ERA, including 4-1 in last five starts. Has spent just one season in the bullpen, which was 2007 in Philadelphia, and he had 21 saves.
RH Brandon Lyon
Veteran began 2011 as Astros closer and went 4-for-8 in save chances before arm injury ended season.
RH Wilton Lopez
Made a career-high 73 appearances in 2011 and went 2-6 with 2.79 ERA, including 1.98 ERA in final 17 games.
RH David Carpenter
Appeared in 34 games in his major league debut after beginning year at Double-A and posted a 2.93 ERA.
RH Fernando Rodriguez
Had a 2-3 mark with a 3.96 ERA in 47 games, striking out 57 hitters in 52.1 innings.
LH Wesley Wright
Appeared in 21 games in three separate stints; allowed one single in 26 AB against lefties.
RH Rhiner Cruz
The 25-year-old Dominican has never pitched above the Double-A level.