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Houston Astros 2013 Preview

1:13 PM, Mar 26, 2013   |    comments
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Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - They won't win much, but they'll probably look good in new uniforms.

And though it probably does little to salve the angst in the front office's executive suite, the Houston Astros could scarcely get much worse than they've been the last two seasons.

A 56-win nightmare in 2011 was followed by just 55 wins last season, hardly the sort of farewell the 51-year-old franchise had in mind before leaving the National League's Central Division for new surroundings in the American League's West.

Problem is, it's not as if a change of scenery is a historic cure-all.

The last time a team swapped leagues and divisions was back in 1998, when the Milwaukee Brewers left the AL Central for its similarly named NL counterpart - and went from third in the former to fifth in the latter while winning 78 and 74 games, respectively.

Few expect the Astros to even approach those numbers in AL year one, but, for his sake, Houston general manager Jeff Luhnow at least expects stability under new manager Bo Porter.

"People know Bo is going to be here for a long time," he said. "He could be one of those guys who is an Astros manager for decades, not just years. The players knowing that this is the group that's going to be here. It begins to lay the foundation for stability, which is really what we're looking for."

Porter became the 17th manager in franchise history immediately after the end of last season, following the duo of Brad Mills, who'd begun the year in the dugout; and Tony DeFrancesco, who was 16-25 in 41 games after replacing Mills in August.

Porter spent the last two seasons as the third-base coach for the Washington Nationals, and, prior to that, had coaching stints with the Arizona Diamondbacks and Florida Marlins. His lone previous managing experience came with the Marlins' affiliate in the Single-A New York-Penn League, where he was 33-39 in one season at Jamestown (N.Y.).

A veteran of 89 games in the majors, Porter hit 113 minor-league home runs with 503 runs batted in and 236 stolen bases in 10 minor-league seasons. Seeking an immediate improvement in philosophy, he's gone through his initial spring training touting the methods of former NFL head coach Bill Parcells and ex-college sideline veteran Hayden Fry.

"One of the things we set out, and was a huge thing as an organization, was we needed to change the culture," Porter said. "Looking at where the organization had been the last few years, it was something that we set out and said, OK, how can we change the culture? How can we change these guys' mind-set?' In order to do that, the first thing you have to do is make everybody understand that things will never be the same."

Below we take a capsule look at the 2012 edition of the Astros, with a personnel evaluation and prognosis included therein:

2012 FINISH (55-107) - Sixth Place (NL Central)

KEY OFFSEASON ADDITIONS: RP Josh Fields, SP/RP Phil Humber, 1B Carlos Pena, SP Alex White

KEY OFFSEASON SUBTRACTIONS: RP Wilton Lopez

PROJECTED LINEUP: C Jason Castro, 1B Carlos Pena, 2B Jose Altuve, 3B Matt Dominguez, SS Tyler Greene, LF Chris Carter, CF Justin Maxwell, RF Fernando Martinez, DH Brett Wallace

PROJECTED ROTATION: RHP Bud Norris, RHP Lucas Harrell, RHP Jordan Lyles, RHP Philip Humber, LHP Erik Bedard

PROJECTED CLOSER: RHP Jose Veras

MANAGER: Bo Porter

CAN THE YOUNGSTERS CARRY THE LOAD?

The Astros were at or near the bottom of the majors in significant offensive categories - runs (30th), batting average (29th), on-base percentage (28th) and slugging percentage (29th) - all of which puts more pressure on a markedly young roster to maintain a semblance of competitiveness in 2013. Free agent Carlos Pena signed a one-year $2.9 million deal with $1.4 million in incentives after hitting .197 with 19 home runs for Tampa Bay last season, and he'll fill the role of veteran slugger occupied in 2012 by Carlos Lee. Among the kids, difference-making second baseman Jose Altuve, just 22 years old, is back after hitting .290, stealing 33 bases and compiling a .340 on-base percentage. Among the other would-be every-day players, only Justin Maxwell (.229, 18 HR, 53 RBI) played more than 100 games in a Houston uniform last season.

CAN JOSE VERAS HOLD A LEAD?

Based on the Astros' recent history, the more successful the 32-year-old is, the less of a tenure he'll have as Houston's ninth-inning savior. GM Luhnow traded Mark Melancon after he saved 20 games in 2011, then sent Brett Myers and Wilton Lopez away after they combined for 29 saves in 104 combined appearances last season. Those transactions netted Jed Lowrie, Kyle Weiland and Alex White and four minor-leaguers. Veras takes over the game-ending role after compiling only seven saves in 327 relief appearances over seven big- league seasons with five teams, most recently the Brewers in 2012. He has a career mark of 9.4 strikeouts and less than one HR allowed per nine innings, but 74 walks in 138 innings over the past two years are a concern.

WILL THE ASTROS BE HISTORICALLY BAD?

Only two teams in the 162-game era - the 1962 New York Mets (40) and 2003 Detroit Tigers (43) - failed to win at least 45 games. The Astros, by many accounts, could at least give that futility a run. With the familiar, if not always productive, collection of Lee, Wandy Rodriguez and Myers no longer in the fold, a new closer in the bullpen and a new manager in the dugout, the Houston has committed to rebuilding at historic levels. And while those sorts of projects occasionally result in brief stretches of David vs. Goliath glory, the six-month grind of the majors usually takes its toll on scrappy enthusiasm that's bereft of talent.

X-FACTOR: THE FIRST-YEAR MANAGER: He's got no track record as a manager, but what Porter does have is the aforementioned high-end mentors, some quality references from a former boss (Nationals manager Davey Johnson) and the sort of walking-into-a-burning building enthusiasm that ought to at least temporarily satisfy a success- starved fan base. "I think he's a perfect man for the job," Johnson said. "I think he's fully prepared to be an outstanding manager in the big leagues. He's very fundamentally sound in all aspects of the game and he's a great judge of talent. And I tell him it's great. You're in your hometown. It doesn't get any better than that. I wish him nothing but the best. I talked to him over the winter. I'm sure he's going to do a great job."

OUTLOOK

As if the Astros hadn't suffered enough with two straight seasons in the 50s and four straight with more losses than wins in the NL Central, the move to the AL West puts them amongst a group that saw three of four teams finish at least 16 games above .500 in 2012. Also, expect challenges in the DH-friendly league to a Houston pitching staff that was already second-to-last in the NL with a combined 4.57 ERA. Unless one of the young arms develops quickly and/or the lineup hits balls to the gaps and takes extra bases consistently, the idea of just a 100-loss season might seem like a holiday.

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