A baseball scale of best to worst might start with a young, powerful Babe Ruth as the top and an actual baby with a child's souvenir bat at the bottom. The 2011 Astros would fall somewhere around 'toddler.' They took steps all by themselves, fell down only occasionally, and didn't soil their pants too often. Despite that, they were the worst team in baseball that season by a wide margin. In fact, they were the worst team since the 2005 Kansas City Royals also lost 106. Not good enough. So, last season the Astros one-upped them by losing 107. Everything's bigger in Texas.
How bad were last year's Astros? Tied in the top of the 11th inning in an Aug. 6 game against Washington, Nationals catcher Kurt Suzuki bunted down the first base line to advance the runner from first to second base. That set in motion a series of events I will now describe. You will think I made them up. I did not.
1. The pitcher and the first baseman run to field the ball. They collide.
2. The first baseman recovers and goes to retrieve the ball whereupon he almost collides with the third baseman.
3. To avoid a collision, the third baseman puts his arms up and leaps over the first baseman like a small child pretending to be superman.
4. The first baseman fields the ball.
5. The first baseman throws the ball down the first base line.
6. The ball is retrieved by the right fielder. By this point, the runner, who had hoped to safely reach second base, is rounding third. It's coup de grace time, so…
7. The right fielder heaves the ball over the catcher's head.
8. The runner scores.
9. The Astros lose. (I'm not making this up. Pinky swear.)
Ralph Kiner once asked Branch Rickey for a raise. Rickey famously told him, "We finished last with you, we can finish last without you." That statement could fairly apply to any member of the 2012 Houston Astros. But what about the 2013 Astros?
Not surprisingly, much isn't expected of them either. Baseball Prospectus's conservative PECOTA projection system forecasts a 99-loss season, while Dan Szymborski's ZIPs system sees 105 losses. Both have Houston as the worst team in baseball. Everywhere you look the Astros are projected, prognosticated, and predicted to end up in last place, dead last, dead dead last, and dead dead where the deadest dead die dead deaths last.
Everyone is forecasting doom, but I'd bet a lot of someone else's money that many of the people making the guesses couldn't name half the players on the Astros roster*. It brings up two questions. First, can they really be that bad? To correctly answer that question we have to ask the second, one made famous by Jerry Seinfeld, namely: who are these people?
* To be clear, PECOTA and ZIPs can name every single Astro on the roster.
Let's find out.
Projected Starting Lineup (from MLB Depth Charts)
1. SS Tyler Greene
Previous Organizations: St. Louis
Notes: A former first round pick of the Cardinals in 2005, Greene came to the Astros for the steep price of a player to be named later or cash. (Not both. Never both.) He's an acceptable shortstop, if a bit below average defensively. His bat can be described as not very good, which is how I'm now describing it. His saving grace as a hitter has nothing to do with him and everything to do with the generally lousy state of hitting from his fellow shortstops, which makes him look better by comparison. He did manage 11 homers in just over 300 plate appearances last season, though when pitchers figure out that he walked just eight more times than he homered, the power numbers might drop a bit.
2. 2B Jose Altuve
Previous Organizations: none
Notes: Altuve is the shining star in the darkest night that is the Astros major league franchise. Which is to say he's not bad. He's a fine contact hitter who plays an above average second base, but he's limited by one thing. Stand up. Now look down. That's how tall Altuve is. His Lilliputian size limits any power potential, but on the plus side, until Major League Baseball removes the one-All-Star-per-team requirement, he's going to rack up quite a resume. In two decades there may be an Altuve-for-Hall-of-Fame movement based solely on the fact that he made the All Star team twenty consecutive seasons.
3. DH Carlos Peña
Previous Organizations: Texas, Oakland, Detroit, Boston, New York, Chicago Cubs, Tampa Bay
Notes: Pena hasn't hit over .225 in three seasons. This wouldn't be a problem if he were slugging .500, but last year he slugged .354. He hasn't been a good player since 2009 with Tampa, and at 35 years old, there's no reason to expect him to be one this season. On the plus side, few players look as majestic as Pena when striking out, so that's something.
4. LF Chris Carter
Previous Organizations: Chicago White Sox, Arizona, Oakland
Notes: The prototypical power hitter, Carter is big, strong, and looks like he should be in the middle of the lineup. He should be, but in Triple A. Carter has just over 300 decent plate appearances in the majors, so maybe that's not quite fair. (Then again, at 26 he's past the age most prospects start to hit, so maybe it is fair.) So far, the holes in his swing have been like holes on a public golf course. They're impossible to find if you're not so good, but if you're a professional of the highest level, it's no problem.
5. 1B Brett Wallace
Previous Organizations: Cardinals, A's, Blue Jays
Notes: The possessor of one of the greatest baseball nicknames since the late 1800s, "The Walrus" is another failed prospect. In the minor leagues Wallace could get on base and hit for power. In the majors, well, it's harder. He's still only 26, but there aren't many more years you can put "still only" in front of his age. Add in the fact that Wallace's nickname stems from -- besides a resemblance to his last name -- his defensive ability, and you can see why Houston is his fourth organization.
6. CF Justin Maxwell
Previous Organizations: Washington, New York Yankees
Notes: Maxwell was selected off waivers from the Yankees, but rather than work out a trade, the Yankees just handed him over. That's not to say he can't play. He hit 18 homers last year as a center fielder. If that sounds like a player who could give Altuve a run for his All Star spot, well, maybe. But that's only if he doesn't get hurt, something he's managed to do with the frequency of Sideshow Bob in a field of rakes.
7. C Jason Castro
Previous Organizations: none
Notes: The Astros' first-round pick from the 2008 draft, Castro has played well when he's played. Like Maxwell, he's battled injuries, missing all of 2011 when he tore his ACL. He's young enough his power might come around and he could be an above-average catcher. Or he could get eaten by wolves. Let's hope it's the first one.
8. RF Fernando Martinez (vs RHP)
Previous Organizations: New York Mets
Notes: A failed prospect (sensing a theme here?) from the Mets organization, Martinez is just 24, but already suffers from arthritis in his knees. The speed that was once his calling card is gone and though there is still some speed left in his bat, he's now a platoon player in an outfield corner.
9. 3B Matt Dominguez
Previous Organizations: Miami
Notes: The Marlins first round pick in 2007, Dominguez still has some upside despite faltering at Triple-A over the last few seasons. His performance in the majors last season was fluky but he's just 23 so he could turn into something useful. Like a major league-quality third baseman. Or a merman. You scoff, but which one do you think Houston fans are more likely to go see play third base?
Projected Starting Rotation (from MLB Depth Charts)
1. RHP Bud Norris
Previous Organizations: none
Notes: Rather than throw a collection of average innings, Norris throws a few great innings and follows up with a few putrid ones. The end result is something approaching average, though there is probably more potential for greatness than there is for being cut mid-season. This, by the way, makes Norris the ace of the staff.
2. RHP Lucas Harrell
Previous Organizations: White Sox
Notes: Harrell started 32 games last year and threw almost 200 innings. So that was nice. He doesn't strike batters out, but he walks hitters like he does. (That, by the way, is not good.) He does throw a nifty sinker that generates lots of ground balls. That can work but the Astros were 27th at turning batted balls into outs last season. They could improve but remember, their first baseman is nicknamed The Walrus.
3. RHP Jordan Lyles
Previous Organizations: none
Notes: According to Baseball Prospectus, one of Lyles' comparables is Zack Greinke, of the $147 million contract. Another is Michael Bowden. So, you know. Maybe? Probably not though.
4. RHP Phil Humber
Previous Organizations: New York Mets, Minnesota, Kansas City, Chicago White Sox
Notes: You may remember Humber as the guy who threw a perfect game for the White Sox last year. What you might not remember is his ERA afterwards was 7.39, and batters put up better than a .900 OPS against him. The White Sox cut him. He's probably not that bad, but even if he's two runs better…
5 LHP Erik Bedard
Previous Organizations: Baltimore, Seattle, Boston, Pittsburgh
Notes: There was a time Bedard would have been… well, actually you can probably say that for this whole team. This is what happens when you inherit an old, over-priced, team and tear it down. Just about everyone in the starting lineup with the exception of Altuve used to be a highly touted prospect, and just about everyone in the starting lineup with the exception of Altuve isn't anymore.
Maybe the Astros will catch lightning in their bare hands with a few of these guys. Even if they do, though, they won't catch a team full of lightning. It just doesn't strike often enough. (Also, too painful.) Like the Astros teams of the last two seasons, the 2013 Astros will do a whole lot of losing. Whether we know who they are or not.