Today we begin our team-by-team outlooks from the bottom of the barrel. The 2011 Houston Astros were the result of win-now trades, which gutted the farm system, and trading their remaining talent to re-stockpile the minors. The rebuilding has begun to take place with new ownership and their hiring of new GM Jeff Luhnow. Winning this year will not be their goal, but a lot can be accomplished.
On the hitter's side, they have lost three of their four best players: Michael Bourn, Hunter Pence, and Clint Barmes. Carlos Lee is the only thing close to an impact bat left on the roster, so any success will be achieved through contact and defense. One position that looks to improve greatly is catcher. Last year, Humberto Quintero, J.R. Towles, and Carlos Corporan combined for a slashline of .211/.257/.293, absolutely awful even for catchers. With the return of Jason Castro and the signing of Chris Snyder, a nice platoon is formed and they should be able to put up average numbers.
With Pence and Bourn gone, the outfield is wide open, but with plenty of candidates to find time. The only player assured to start is Lee, but his position will likely be determined by others. If Brett Wallace does not show signs of improvement, Lee could start at 1B and leave the OF to three of many names: J.D. Martinez, Brian Bogusevic, Jordan Schafer, Jason Bourgeois, Jack Cust, J.B. Shuck, and possibly Fernando Martinez. The Martinezes have the most potential of the group, while Schafer, Bourgeois, Shuck, and F. Martinez have the ability to play CF.
The infield is fairly stable, aside from the Wallace/Lee situation. Jose Altuve should start at second base, with Matt Downs behind him in case Altuve's 2% walk rate does not rise. Jed Lowrie takes over for Barmes at shortstop. If Lowrie can stay healthy, which is a HUGE if, he should be able to replace Barmes' 3 WAR from last year. Third base sees Chris Johnson get another shot, who could be in a make-or-break year at age 27. His horrible plate discipline and defense will be backed up by Downs and Jimmy Paredes.
The starting rotation will likely be the "strength" of the team, at least on Opening Day. Bud Norris is the closest thing to an ace of the staff, which is nice considering he is yet to hit arbitration. He cut his walk rate by a significant chunk while maintaining a very good K rate. After him come two veterans who could be gone by August: Wandy Rodriguez and Brett Myers. Rodriguez is the only Astros player with a guaranteed contract for 2013, so he is very likely to go. Both he and Myers should provide inning-eating, average production. The remaining 2 spots should go to J.A. Happ and 21-year-old Jordan Lyles, with Henry Sosa, Lucas Harrell, and minor-league invitee Zach Duke as other possibilities. The Astros bullpen took a hit with the trade of closer Melancon to Boston for Lowrie. Wilton Lopez is the only reliable arm left, and Brandon Lyon is the other experienced arm. After that, it's a collection of cheap arms, and any positive production is a bonus.
The 2012 Astros will look much like the last two years, giving young guys playing time and trading away veteran expiring contracts. They do not have a Pence, Bourn, Berkman, or Oswalt to trade, but any salary they can clear will jumpstart their movement back towards respectability. The rest of the NL Central should be able to take advantage of them one more year before Houston heads to the AL West. I think avoiding 100 losses, while letting go of some salary, would be a great season for Houston.