2013 Astros Will Be A Pennant Race Factor

The aftermath of the Astros gutting and pending 2013 disaster won’t simply affect their organization. In a positive sense, they’re getting rid of their moderate-to-highly paid players and bringing volume into their farm system, plus they’re at the top of the MLB draft and will be so for the foreseeable future. In a negative sense, they’ve all but conceded any and all pretense of fielding a legitimate big league team.

Unlike Michael Kay’s ridiculous, uninformed, petty and vindictive “prediction” that the 2012 Mets were going to lose well over 100 games, I can say without rancor or bias that the 2013 Astros are, at best, a 55 win team. It’s probably going to be fewer than that. Let’s look at why this is the case and why a horrendous club will play so great a role is the 2013 playoff chase.

Their division and status as a target

Two teams from the AL West, the Athletics and the Rangers, made the playoffs last season. A third, the Angels, significantly underachieved but still won 89 games. The fourth team, the Mariners, has improved. Because they’re going to play 19 games each against all of these clubs, the Astros and their opponents will enter each series knowing the Astros will be lucky to win a game.

Other clubs are going to go all out to beat the Astros. The games won’t take on the tenacity of Yankees-Red Sox, Reds-Cardinals or Dodgers-Giants, but they’ll entail opposing managers treating them as such because they’re games they have to win. Losing to the Astros this season will be tantamount to a fundamental gaffe such as failing to touch a base, getting caught leaving too soon on a sacrifice fly, not having the proper reliever warming up or hitters batting out of order. It’s inexcusable.

The rest of the American League

For the Yankees, Blue Jays, Rays, White Sox and Royals, the Astros are a problem. With the strength of the AL West teams, three from the division might make the playoffs based strictly on the extra few victories they’ll accumulate by beating up on the Astros.

Let’s say the Red Sox are out of contention by August and the Yankees are hovering around a playoff spot. On the weekend of August 16th the Yankees are playing the Red Sox while the Angels playing the Astros. The Red Sox won’t have a personal stake in the outcome, but nothing would please them more than hurting the Yankees. The Angels will have what amounts to a sparring session while the Yankees and Red Sox are staging a typical four hour wrestling match regardless of their positions in the standings.

Having a team on the schedule for 19 games and realistically penciling in 13-15 wins goes a long way in bolstering one’s win total and assisting a playoff run.

Job savers and game changers

The Mariners 2013 offense is more potent with the additions of Kendrys Morales and Mike Morse. Their pitching will be affected by the decision to move in the fences at Safeco Field. They were 75-87 last season and GM Jack Zduriencik and manager Eric Wedge are both in the final year of their contracts. Zduriencik’s job is on the line. Would a perceived “improvement” of rising to, say, 84-78 be enough to convince ownership that the Mariners are on the right track and that Zduriencik and Wedge deserve at least one more season? If the Astros weren’t in the AL West, the Mariners would probably be around a 75 win team again. With the Astros there, the Mariners should be over .500. This could potentially save the jobs of their GM and manager.

The Angels’ manager Mike Scioscia’s job is also in jeopardy if the high-priced group plays in a similar lackluster fashion as they did last season. In spite of insistence to the contrary, GM Jerry Dipoto and Scioscia are not on the same page. Owner Arte Moreno wasn’t happy with anyone in his organization after splurging for Albert Pujols and C.J. Wilson and missing the playoffs. This past winter he spent even more money on Josh Hamilton and kept his management team in place. None of that changes the fact that this current configuration is not a Scioscia team that, in the past, relied on deep starting pitching and bullpen. The starters gobbled innings; they had a proven closer and set-up men; they embodied solid fundamentals, inside baseball strategies, speed and defense. Apart from Mike Trout and Erick Aybar, this team is plodding. They rely on power, power, power with a shaky starting rotation. Could the Astros’ presence give the Angels with the extra 4-5 wins they wouldn’t get otherwise? A number of wins that last season would’ve vaulted them into the playoffs despite the dysfunction?

On the other coast, the Yankees have gotten worse this winter, not better. They’re relying on ancient veterans and reclamation projects, pinching pennies and have a manager, Joe Girardi, on the final year of his contract. If they don’t make the playoffs, someone is on the chopping block. History has proven that Brian Cashman is now the Teflon GM. It won’t be Girardi’s fault, but hypothetically if the Yankees miss the playoffs, he could be gone and it would be in large part due to the Astros getting beaten so consistently by other playoff contenders who have the advantage of 13 more games against them than the Yankees do.

The Astros will get worse as the season moves along

You wouldn’t think it possible for them to get worse with a projected payroll of $25 million and open admission from GM Jeff Luhnow that they’re going to be awful. In response to the criticism for his latest deal in sending Jed Lowrie to the A’s, Luhnow said:

“We’re not going to do something to improve a few games in 2013 that comes at the expense of our ability to compete over the long haul.”

In other words, “We’re going to be as bad or worse than we’ve been in the past two years when we lost 107 and 106 games.”

In a sense, he’s right on all counts. What’s the difference to the Astros if they win 65 or 50 games? But there’s something untoward about a team not even putting forth the affectation of caring whether they win or lose—in fact, trying to lose to get a higher draft position.

The remaining big league-caliber players they have will be traded as well. They’re already willing to listen to offers on their best pitcher and highest paid player, Bud Norris. He’s going to be dealt at some point. The other mediocre veterans they have will be available at mid-season. Carlos Pena still has power and a good glove at first base. Strikeouts and under .200 batting average aside, a contender will take him for their stretch run. Jose Veras is the Astros’ closer and if he’s pitching well is a veteran bullpen asset for the second half. Wesley Wright is a lefty specialist and every team needs more than one lefty specialist in the playoffs.

Luhnow has shown total indifference to trading his players. He’ll send them to division rivals or anywhere that he can get the most in exchange. Pena, Veras, Wright can help the Angels, Rangers, Yankees, White Sox—anyone to win that extra game or two to take a playoff spot.

The Astros are a Triple A team now and will be a Double A team by July. They can talk about the future all they want, but the present has consequences for the rest of baseball.

Expect complaints from teams like the Yankees that it’s not fair. Opposing franchises will say that the Astros should have to field a reasonably competitive big league team. Eventually, something might be done about this strategy with MLB forcing teams to provide a competent product. There’s not much MLB can do right now, but they could try to install a payroll floor in the future, something the Players Association and most other owners would agree to.

In 2013, though, it won’t change the reality or the outcome. As a direct result of the Astros switching leagues, people will save or lose their jobs because of it.

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