added 7/5/2011 by Bob Hulsey
Tired of all the negativity surrounding the 2011 Astros? Well, let's keep our eyes on the prize. Let's take a glimpse into the future at whom the key players could be in 2014. Granted, my crystal ball is always a little hazy but you'll see why I can maintain some optimism despite the gloom:
C - Jason Castro (L, age 27 in 2014) - The 2008 first-rounder will come into his own. Being conservative, I'll project a .245 average with 11 homers and 60 RBIs although he's capable of far more. What you'll really love is that quick release he has for throwing out runners.
I doubt Humbert Quintero will still be around as a backup. The most likely catchers in the farm system who might work with Castro are Chris Wallace (R, age 26) and Ben Heath.
1B - Brett Wallace (L, age 28) - will be in the neighborhood of a .310 average with 18 homers and 90 RBIS. Wallace is a classic #3 hitter in a #5 hitter's body. Where he ultimately ends up hitting may depend on who else fits in the lineup.
2B - Jose Altuve (R, age 24) - The 5-7 Venezuelan has taken over the leadoff role with his high OBP and surprising power, causing comparisons to a young Joe Morgan. If another speedster gets into the lineup, perhaps he'll bat second but guys like him always makes pitchers edgy.
SS - Jonathan Villar (S, age 23) - To be honest, this is perhaps the shakiest place to project. It won't be Clint Barmes by then and it probably won't be Tommy Manzella. Jio Mier, the 2009 first-rounder, needs to get in gear if he's going to get this job. In my opinion, shortstop is the most likely position we will either add by trade or free agency. I have an idea about this I plan to share in a future column.
3B - Chris Johnson (R, age 29) - The jury is still out about Johnson's long-term prospects but he could still be hitting .250 with 15 homers or he could be doing much better or much worse. If he can't maintain his recent success and cut down on the strikeouts, this will be a grab-bag, like shortstop.
LF - J.D. Martinez (R, age 27) - A former 20th-round draft pick, Martinez inherits Carlos Lee's spot in left providing solid hitting with somewhat spotty defense. He has power, hits for high average and has middle-of-the order potential. One worry is that J.D. has chronically arthritic knees. Hopefully, they don't become like Jeff Bagwell's shoulder.
CF - George Springer (R, age 24) - Making his rookie season in the majors, the 2011 first-round pick is hitting sixth while he acclimates to big league pitching but he'll soon be expected to move up in the order as he matures.
RF - Hunter Pence (R, age 31) - A spry 31-year-old, Pence will assume the role of clubhouse leader and mentor as well as the cleanup hitter. He'll provide 25 homers and 120 RBIs hitting as he goes through his peak years.
Projecting a bench won't be easy but it would not surprise me to find versatile role players like Matt Downs and Jason Bourgeois still around. Or perhaps other guys will have those spots. Delino DeShields Jr. will be playing at AAA, awaiting a spot in the lineup to open up. Jay Austin is another who may be tough to keep on the farm.
Now for the pitchers:
SP1 - Jordan Lyles (R, age 23) will be looked to as either the #1 or #2 starter and should supply 12-15 wins if he continues to mature.
SP2 - Bud Norris (R, age 29) should be hitting his professional peak which also seems to be 12-15 win potential and possibly 20 if he improves his command and works deeper into games.
SP3 - J.A. Happ (L, age 31) will be approaching fish-or-cut-bait time in terms of free agency so it will be opportune for him to have a career year. Even though 2011 has grown steadily worse for Happ, I think he'll come back around over time.
SP4 - Aneury Rodriguez (R, age 26) ought to be coming into his own and we'll know by that time if the Rule V pick was a draft steal or just a gamble worth taking.
SP5 - Dallas Keuchel (L, age 26) is having a solid year in Corpus and ought to be ready by this time. There should be several others who could compete for this job, such as teammates Xavier Cedeno or Ross Seaton, Mike Foltynewicz, Tanner Bushue or someone not presently in the organization.
CL - Mark Melancon (R, age 29) has developed into an experienced closer by 2014 who is still well below the salary scale of the league's top closers although free agency is fast approaching.
RP1 - Wilton Lopez (R, age 30) will be in a similar situation as Melancon. He could still be a very good set-up man by that time. It's just so difficult to project relievers.
RP2 - David Carpenter (R, age 28) could have won the closer role or he could be one of those guys with a power arm who never quite puts it all together. It's too early to tell.
RP3 - Fernando Abad (L, age 28) could still be the go-to lefty in the pen if his trials as a starter don't pan out, similar to Wesley Wright. Unlike Wright, Abad has shown flashes both in winter ball and the majors of being a solid contributor. We'll know by then if he's made it.
No doubt there will be other spots won in the bullpen but it's hard to pinpoint who those might be, particularly since some starting rotation candidates may eventually be converted to the pen as they progress through the system.
Before we continue, let's notice who's not here. Carlos Lee and his hefty contract are long gone. Brandon Lyon has moved on. Michael Bourn will have probably priced himself out of the market while Brett Myers and Wandy Rodriguez were moved for younger players. It is likely that whomever we acquired when we lost Bourn, Myers and Wandy are filling roster spots in Houston in 2014 but there's no way to tell who or in what positions.
Make note also that there are no key players older then 31, meaning they will have a chance to be contenders with this core group for the rest of the decade.
Other than Hunter Pence, there's no large salaries on the payroll unless the new Astros management has gone after some free agents. A few will be getting close to their free agency deadlines so the general manager in 2014 will have some tough decisions to make.
Is the roster good enough to bring a title to Houston? Probably not with what you see now but if a few of these guys continue their development, a few free agents or trade acquisitions fill the most glaring holes and Houston finds a cohesive manager and coaching staff who can bring these players to their full potential, I see the Astros in the thick of the National League Central, which is where I hope they will still be playing by that time.
I don't mean to overlook a few power bats like Koby Clemens and Kody Hinze who, if they can be 20-30 HR players in the majors, will find a place in the lineup somewhere. By then, we may be eagerly awaiting the arrival of Ariel Ovando, the Dominican teen sensation the Astros paid a huge sum to sign last year much like we eagerly awaited Lyles this year.
There's a lot that can be different than these projections but you can see Houston's baseball famine ending in a couple of years if they can avoid crippling injuries and contractual missteps that seem to have plagued them since 2005. That will be the next step for Jim Crane - finding the people who can grow this nucleus into the sort of club that will put Houston back on the major league map.