Houston Astros: They won’t be worse

Pete Runnels

Pete Runnels won batting titles in 1960 and 1962 for the Red Sox playing two different primary positions -- second base in 1960 and first base in 1962. He hit. 300 for five straight seasons for the Red Sox, before being traded to the Houston Colt 45s, for whom he hit .253 in 1963 and .196 in 51 at-bats in 1964 before being released. Retired with a .291 career average.

I feel like I’m knocking on heaven’s door: Given the Astros’ 106-loss 2011, anyone resembling a prospect (J.D. Martinez, Jordan Lyles, Jimmy Paredes, Jose Altuve) and several who didn’t (J.B. Shuck, Henry Sosa, Juan Abreu, ) made their major-league debuts last year. But the Astros restocked with return from their trade-offs. Pitcher Paul Clemens, even at 6-foot-4, would have had to stand on his tippy toes to see the starting rotation in Atlanta; with the Astros as part of the Michael Bourn trade, he could be in Houston this summer, though don’t expect much unless his control (167 walks in 389 innings) improves. Jonathan Singleton will take longer to arrive but deliver more when he does. An outfielder/first baseman, Singleton has yet to play above Class A, but demonstrated power and patience — until he became an Astro. Singleton walked only 14 times and fanned 40 after the Hunter Pence trade, but that’s more likely a product of environment and not philosophy. Singleton finished the year in hitter-happy Lancaster, Calif. (team ERA: 5.96), and he wasn’t taking many pitches.

What is this man doing here? Livan Hernandez hasn’t allowed fewer hits than innings pitched since the Washington Nationals were the Montreal Expos, and yet last year’s 175.1 innings were his career-low. Mediocre pitching, obviously, is still in demand. Only once in the last six years has Hernandez’s ERA been less than 4.47, only twice in the last eight years has he pitched for teams with winning records. Sounds like he’ll fit right in with the 2012 Astros. Don’t despair Astros’ fans, because there is a good side: Livan can still hit. He has a career .222 average, 10 homers and 50 extra-base hits. High-scoring games all around when he pitches.

What he said: Astros GM Jeff Luhnow, in texting an apology for saying the Texas Rangers spend money like “drunken sailors” in the international market: “Not saying it’s a bad strategy but one that many teams can’t afford.” What he meant: “Look how well giving Carlos Lee $100 million over six years worked out for us.” 

Outlook: The Astros were the last to know how bad things were last year, which made 2011 a jolt. It shouldn’t have been. The Astros, who have been 79 games under .500 for the last five years, have been building on it for years.

They’ll be better this year, if only because it’s hard to be worse. But they’re still a long way from the team that won four division titles in five years (1997-2001) and finished first or second 12 times in 13 years (1994-2006), the longest period of sustained success in the franchise’s history (OK, the only one).

The Astros’ roster is still a mess, thanks to fired general manager Ed Wade, who did more good work for his previous team — the Phillies — than he did the Astros in his tenure there (shockingly enough, Wade is working for the Phillies again. Conspiracy theorists everywhere can step up to bat with a 2-0 count in their favor).

After pitchers Bud Norris and Wandy Rodriguez, there’s not much of plus value, and the Astros may someday stop flirting with the idea of trading Wandy and act on it.

The best of the position players are either flawed, hurt or overpaid, or in the case of Carlos Lee, often all three.

Jose Altuve, 21, might be a good second baseman, if he would take more pitches — he walked just 138 times in five minor-league seasons, even though he’s Joe Morgan’s height (his ego, presumably, is several sizes smaller). That’s one season of walks for Morgan.

Jed Lowrie might be a good shortstop if he could stay healthy for more than 88 games; first baseman Brett Wallace might be the player he was projected to be if he could hit more than .259; outfielder Fernando Martinez might be the player the Mets thought he would be if his knee wasn’t arthritic; Jason Castro might be the catcher the Astros thought he could be, but he’s coming off kneee surgery.

Jimmy Paredes and J.D. Martinez, two of 2011’s call-ups, might be decent players, but they’re more likely to go the way of 2010 call-up Chris Johnson, who fell from .308 to .251 last year, mostly because of a lack of discipline. Johnson has walked 31 times while faning 188; Paredes and Martinez combined for similar ratios last year, walking 22 times and fanning 95.

Astros fans better have patience, because the hitters will have none.

Team song: Tom Petty: You Wreck Me

Dedicated to fired GM Ed Wade

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