Manager Brad Mills is in a tough spot. He took over a team that was going to get a lot worse before it got better. He has been around to see all the before mentioned veterans traded. Is it fair to say he should be on the hotseat going in to his 3rd season? Perhaps not, but he has not done much to make executives think he is a good manager on a bad team. That is probably the hardest thing to prove when your team is going nowhere. I think Mills needs to manage an improved team to stick around beyond 2012. Especially with the new ownership and the "new start" they will get in 2013 once they officially move to the AL West.
Starting SS Clint Barmes signed as a free agent with the Pittsburgh Pirates. They traded closer Mark Melancon to the Red Sox in exchange for their new starting SS Jed Lowrie. They signed veteran RHP Livan Hernandez as well as a handful of journeymen players such as Jack Cust, Brian Bixler, Travis Buck, Zach Duke and Chris Snyder with hopes that they can fill in holes. The key to the Astros is the continued development of their younger players. I think they are better than the 2011 version, but just in the sense that I don't see them losing 106 games in 2012.
Snyder will help in the development of starting catcher Jason Castro, who missed the whole 2011 season. I see them platooning at the beginning of the season with Castro taking the full time job as the season progresses. It is still a strong possibility that the Astros move a couple of veterans before the seaaon starts. Not necessarily to load up the farm system with prospects, but more to take a look at talent they may deem ready for the big leagues. For example, if they are finally able to move LHP Wandy Rodriguez, it can open up a starting rotation spot for RHP Kyle Weiland. Similarly, if they traded OF Carlos Lee, it would clear LF for either Fernando Martinez, Brian Bogusevic or Jason Bourgeois. They hope RHP Brandon Lyon has a good spring which would allow the Astros to move him even though they would have to pay his contract.
1B Brett Wallace and 3B Chris Johnson need to have better offensive seasons in 2012. Johnson burst on the scene in 2010, hitting .308, 11, 52 in 94 games. His numbers dropped in 2011, .251, 7, 42 in 107 games. Wallace is entering his 2nd full season and will be the starting 1B for the Astros. He hit .259, 5, 29 in 115 games last season. Lowrie will be at SS and Jose Altuve will be the starting 2B. Altuve will not be expected to be a big time hitter, but that puts more pressure on the rest of the infield to hit. Cust should be capable of hitting 20+ HR which should help. Getting a full season out of Jordan Schafer should help and having Lee in LF should produce some runs. Fernando Martinez, JD Martinez, Bogusevic and Bourgeois should all get a chance to stand out.
The top of the starting pitching staff has a decent veteran presence with Rodriguez at the top. JA Happ has to become the pitcher the Astros were getting when they traded for him. Bud Norris could become the team's ace by seasons end. Livan Hernandez should make the team, if for no other reason, to allow Weiland or Jordan Lyles to start the season in AAA. Lyles is also an option to relieve for Houston, in a bullpen that really has little to offer. The move to make veteran starting pitcher Brett Myers to closer, which he did briefly for the Philadelphia Phillies, scratches some heads. This could help a lot or hurt the team some. If Myers struggles, the team will be compromising his ability to eat innings as a starter. Lance Pendelton's role is expected to be more important this year. Paul Clemens could be an option to start out in the back of the bullpen. They took former Binghamton Mets RHP Rhiner Cruz in the Rule 5 draft, so he is almost guaranteed a spot. Lyon will probably be the 8th inning set-up man.
Overall, the Astros could show some improvement this season if some of their younger players such as Wallace, Johnson, Castro, Happ, Schafer and Lowrie all emerge as the young talent the Astros think they are. Vegas gives them a 64 as the over/under number and I take the over. Not by much though, I predict 66-96, last place in their last season in the NL Central. That record is ten games better than their 56-106 record of 2011. I guess I am saying this is an improved team.