The Difference between Worst Team Ever and .500 Baseball

I did a quick look at the rosters for the playoff bound teams (focusing on OPS and ERA...I know, I know) trying to narrow down exactly why Houston was so terrible. Really, what's the difference between a 50 win team and a 80 win team? Here's my loose thoughts, position by position:

Catcher- a big area of weakness. Not only was the position virtually devoid of offensive production, the players not named Q weren't very efficient defenders either. Jason Castro's injury really dug this team an early hole. We learned that JR Towles is not a major league player. We already knew that Q was a stellar defensive catcher with limited offense. Corporan and Cancel were never expected to amount to much, and they lived up to that billing. Next season, the 'stros will be counting on Castro in a big way (again). Of course this is purely speculation, but had Castro been healthy and performed to his potential this season, he could have been the difference in 4 or 5 games. The median OPS for NL playoff team catchers was .784. It's highly unlikely that Castro can reach that mark, but anywhere over 700 would be acceptable, as long as that level of production is accompanied by above average defense. It's a total crapshoot in predicting how Castro will perform, given the serious injury, lack of major league sample size, and relatively short minor league career. Catcher remains a major concern for 2012.

1st Base- Brett Wallace disappointed in a pretty big way this season. It's too early to completely write him off, and his late season dead-center bomb was a thing of beauty, but in 2011, he certainly hurt more than he helped. 3 of the 4 NL playoff 1B's are likely future HOFers (Pujols, Fielder, Howard). Carlos Lee had a good 2nd half and will be back next year. While he won't match the numbers of the 3 players mentioned above, his production should be above average. And if he falters or is somehow miraculously traded, there are a few young players (Wallace, Hinze, Singleton) who could be ready to step in and claim the job long term. 1st appears solid for 2012.

2nd Base- I was a fan of the Bill Hall signing. I liked that he was a versatile fielder with a history of solid power. Needless to say, I was wrong and he didn't pan out. Had he been a success, the Astros could have won a few more games. The median OPS for NL playoff 2B was 748. While Jose Altuve's cold finish doesn't point to him reaching that level next year, long term I think that's about where he'll plateau. Matt Downs' emergence alleviates the pressure on multiple positions (2B, 3B, RF), so between Downs, Altuve, and Jimmy Paredes, 2B should not be a main area of concern for Houston next year.

Shortstop- Clint Barmes was a pleasant surprise. He provided superb defense and good power for his position. It would shock me if he wasn't brought back, as there aren't many other options, either on the farm or in free agency. Other than going with a low-ceiling player like Angel Sanchez or Vlad Sutil (ugh), or moving Jimmy Paredes over from 3rd, the astros will be forced to sign a veteran, and it may as well be a sure gloved veteran who won't break the bank. Other than Jimmy Rollins, the NL playoff teams fielded weak-hitting shortstops, so Barmes' 2011 #'s measure up well. Provided he is re-signed, this will not be an area of concern. If Houston doesn't re-sign Barmes and tries to fill the vacancy from within, things could get ugly.

3rd Base- 3B was a mixed bag for houston in 2011. CJ's collapse was mitigated by Downs' solid year and the pleasant surprise of Paredes' performance. It seems as if offense at 3B has degraded league-wide over the last few seasons. Median OPS for NL playoff teams was 721 in 2011. Between Johnson, Paredes, and Downs, that number seems achievable. While the youth adds uncertainty, 3B is not a major area of concern going into the offseason.

Right Field- After Hunter Pence was traded, Brian Bogusevic solidified himself as a major league player. His 805 OPS in less than full time duty is promising, especially when combined with his plu plus arm. While he won't measure up to the RF on this year's NL playoff teams (Upton, Hart, Pence, Berkman), he should be given a chance to show his true talent. If he falters, Jason Bourgeois and others should be able to adequately man the position.

Center Field- Along with catcher and shortstop, centerfield is among the chief offensive concerns going in to next season. Successful teams have strong players in this spot, and while Jordan Schafer has shown flashes of ability, his numbers were severely lacking. I'm sure he'll be given 1st crack at the job next season, and the team's offensive success will rely heavily on whether he, Shuck, or Bourgeois can be above average. CF is a major concern in 2012.

Left Field- JD Martinez showed he belonged. He's not going to be Matt Holliday or Ryan Braun, but he's probably already better than Raul Ibanez and Arizona's Parra. If he has a sophomore slump, it's possible that Carlos LEe could take over for him and have one of the young 1B called up. LF is not a major concern going into 2012.

Rotation- Of the 4 NL playoff teams (20 rotation members), only 3 starting pitchers total had ERA's over 4, and none had ERA's over 5. That's a stark contrast to Houston's 2011 rotation, which featured Wandy and Norris with ERA's under 4, Myers in the 4's, and everyone else over 5. Given the rhetoric coming out of the front office and the status of the 40 man roster and Rule 5 eligibles, it looks likely that at least 1 of Myers/Wandy will be traded this offseason. If both are kept, the rotation has a chance to be adequate even though it will still clearly lack a true ace. Norris is a good #3. Wandy is inarguably a #2 in the NL. Most teams would be happy with Myers at the #4. The group vying for the #5 spot shoudl produce at least 1 quality starter between Happ, Sosa, Lyles, Aneury, Harrell, etc. If the offense and bullpen were stronger, it might make sense to try and get over the hump and acquire a top of hte rotation starter. But that's not the case. Sosa and Lyles have potential to be very good, but a rotation of Norris, Happ, and 3 others (not including Wandy or Myers) would be just short of disastrous. The depth is there, and long term starting pitching may even be a strength, but the opening day starter for 2012 could be the worst in the majors.

Bullpen- Despite the fact that the bullpen was cause for many losses, there were some very positive signs. Wilton Lopez further cemented himself as a good setup man. Fernando Rodriguez, David Carpenter, Juan Abreu, Sergio Escalona, Wes WRight, Xavier Cedeno, and Enerio Del Rosario all had respectable performances in the big leagues. That amount of depth should make for an improved reliver corps. The main difference between Houston and winning teams, bullpen-wise, is at closer. While Melancon may end up being an adequate closer, at this point between him and Brandon Lyon, the position is not adequately filled. It doesn't make sense to bring in a proven closer at this stage, so Melancon will likely be counted on again, which is concerning.

Why was Houston SO terrible this year? My top 5 reasons:
1. Bad luck.
2. Castro's injury (lack of any offense at catcher). It casted a pall over the entire season.
3. Combined struggles of Wallace, Johnson, and Hall to start the year. They were counted on, and not at the bottom of the order.
4. Lack of an ace. Not having a guaranteed win every 5 days allowed for too many losing streaks to keep going.
5. Lack of an elite closer. Just look at the blown saves, etc. Ugh.

What are the biggest question marks next season?
1. Will Houston continue to be this unlucky? (Doubtful, but that doesn't mean they won't lose 100 games again.)
2. How will Castro perform? (Remains to be seen, but the AFL may provide some answers.)
3. Who will play SS? (If it's not Barmes, Astros' fans could be in for a long season.)
4. Who will man the rotation? (If Wandy isn't here, things could get ugly. (uglier?))
5. How will these young guys respond to a full season? (Castro, Wallace, Altuve, Paredes, Johnson, Bogusevic, Schafer, Martinez, Shuck, Sosa, Harrell, Lyles, Escalona, Carpenter, Cedeno, Del Rosario, and Abreu. That's a partial list of players expected to contribute next season who have yet to log a FULL major league season. Yikes.)

I'm thinking 68 wins next season. What say you? Why were the Astros so terrible this year (ifyou can narrow it down)? What are the most important things keeping them from being competitive next year? What are you expecting in 2012?
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