Sure, but that's like everything else in baseball, there is always the possibility of the unexpected. Heck we almost had a three way tie yesterday which would of meant one team was going to be playing baseball in four different cities in four days. How likely are the Astros to pull of a Padre like turnaround in 2011 is probably the better question.
There are a lot of similarities to be drawn from the Padres 2009 season and the Astros current season. The aces of both teams were traded at the trading deadline, and who by the way also happen to be good buddies. Both teams made changes at hitting coach position mid-season, in an effort to spark a weak offense. And finally both managers come from American League teams in which they had won a World Series ring with. It is fairly easy to look at the two teams and compare them. It's only natural for the seeds of contention to be planted in the minds of Astros fan.
There are however some differences between the two teams. For one the Padres pitching strength is not the starting rotation. In 2009 the Padres starters finish in the lower half of the league in ERA, FIP and xFIP. To remedy the issue the Padres traded Jake Peavy, who had largely been below average for them, acquiring among others Clayton Richard who has been about average this year. They signed Jon Garland in the offseason. Pitching in Petco Park he has been a slightly above average pitcher for them this year. With the emergence of Mat Latos this has helped push the starting pitching into the top half of the league. The rotation still finished outside the top ten but with how dominate the bullpen has been that's been good enough.
The real strength for the Padres pitching staff has been the bullpen, which finished top five in both FIP and xFIP in 2009. Largely untouched they've gone absolutely nuts this year finishing number one in all three categories. The combination of the rotations improvement and the continued dominance of the bullpen is the reason for the pitching staff going from average to a top three pitching staff, in the league.
The fact that the Padres competed for a postseason spot without an ace caliber pitcher bodes well for the Astros whose starting pitching is already considered top ten, but lacks an ace.
This year Brett Myers has provided similar value to Latos who has been the Padres most productive starting pitcher this year. Bud Norris and Felipe Paulino develop into near average or above average pitchers the rotation would get that much better. Nelson Figueroa being brought back would provide some insurance for one or the other.. Then there's always the possibility Wade makes another Myers like signing in the offseason, improving further an already solid rotation, but that would be like trying to catch lightning in a bottle twice.
Then there's Jordan Lyles who I'm hesitant to throw into the conversation but I'm going to, because he deserves mentioning. Pinning the Astros hopes on a 20 year old rookie to make the postseason would be unwise, and risky. What we saw from him in Triple-A at the end of this year indicates he still needs a little more time in the minors to develop. If he is called up mid-season or makes the rotation out of Spring Training with the hope of competing, his health will be at risk. More than likely he's going to be on some sort of innings count that doesn't exceed around 180 innings. Going over that, putting stress on his young arm, while competing for a postseason spot could have a negative effect on his health.
The bullpen for the Astros has been below average this year, however it does have some depth and Ed Wade has made a habit of finding productive relievers off the scrap heap. The bullpens struggles, especially recently, has been well documented. Matt Lindstrom has suddenly lost it, and Jeff Fulchino has had a down year after a very good year last year. Throw in several of the other below average relievers and you can see why the bullpen has struggled.
The bullpen however does look to improve next year, with the emergence of Wilton Lopez and the return of young studs Alberto Arias, and Sammy Gervacio. The closer position looks to be set with Brandon Lyon who while not as dominate as you would like, has proven he can get the job done. Throw in the performances of newcomers Mark Melancon and Fernando Abad who have impressed in their short time with the team, you can see why there is hope for the bullpen. Of course the Astros bullpen is not as dominate as the Padres bullpen, but if the rotation is pitching at a high level and the bullpen shores up some of it's issues, we could see a top five pitching staff.
Offensively the Astros are in the same exact position this year as the Padres were in 2009 in regards to weighted on base average (wOBA), finishing second to last in that category. The Padres aren't better this year offensively either, they are ranked higher than three other teams, but actually have a lower wOBA this year than in 2009. The only above average hitter on the team is Adrian Gonzalez, who has taken a small step backwards. Their biggest offensive acquisition this past offseason was Chris Denorfia who they signed to a Minor League contract. He's been about average offensively, but is a better offensive option than both Tony Gwynn Jr. and Scott Hairston. In an effort to improve the offense the Padres acquired Miguel Tejada and Ryan Ludwick at the trade deadline. It's been a bit of a push as Tejada has been about average offensively, and Ryan Ludwick has failed to produce anything remotely average.
There's a point to be made here. If the Astros are competing next year would you be willing to part with some of the prospects in the Minor League system. To acquire Miguel Tejada and Ryan Ludwick the Padres gave up three young arms in the minors. Think Tanner Buschue, Dallas Kuechel, and Pat Urckfitz maybe even someone like Tom Shirley or Jose Perdomo. That's quite a bit of pitching depth gone from the minor league system for an aging shortstop and a outfielder heading out of his prime years. The price for a true impact player is going to be much more steep. Even then, as the Padres demonstrated there is no guarantee to make the playoffs, let alone compete for a championship.
Unlike the Padres the Astros do not have an elite hitter, and only have two above average hitters in Hunter Pence and Chris Johnson. Entering the prime of his career Pence is expected to improve upon his numbers, but we've been saying that for the last couple of years as he's failed to reproduce the production from his rookie season. Johnson's future as a hitter has been well debated, so his production for next year is largely a question mark. The rest offense is in need of some serious improving especially at three positions: shortstop, left field and first base positions. I know what you're saying:
Left field and first base??? But we have El Caballo and The Walrus!
Something that probably only interests me is that The Walrus in Spanish is La Morsa.
Brett Wallace hasn't proven anything other than he's got some serious frequent flier miles, and Carlos Lee has posted the lowest OPS of his career. Not ideal production for positions that are expected to produce at a high level. Statistically Lee is due for a bounce back next year and Wallace should continue to develop as a hitter, but those aren't a given and will remain question marks until the Astros are well into the season next year. There are viable free agents to replace one or both players on the market, but that means Drayton McLane is going to have to write a really big check, and risks sending the organization backwards a step.
Shortstop on the other hand is not a position that can be upgraded through the free agent market. There is the possibility of trading for a viable shortstop or even picking one up in the Rule 5 draft. But trading is going to cost good prospects, and finding a productive Rule 5 shortstop is rare.
The easiest way to improve the offense would be to open the checkbook and sign a big name, but even then this teams offense is most likely still below average next season. The best way to improve the offense is probably going to be patience. A lot of the hope for competing next year rides on the improvements of the offense, which is a lot to ask of such a young core. There is potential with guys like Jason Castro, and Wallace, and the possibility of a bounce back year from Lee.
That brings us to the biggest reason for the Padres turn around, defense. To accomplish this they first traded Kevin Kouzmanoff, who is a good defensive third baseman, for Scott Hairston and back up outfielder Aaron Cunningham, both of whom are good defensively. This allowed them to move to Chase Headley, who had a negative defensive value in left field, to third base where he's been one of the better defensive third baseman in the league. They also signed Jerry Hairston in the offseason and he's provided above average defense at both second base and shortstop, taking away time from FJM favorite David Ecksten and Everth Cabrera, who were both below average in 2009. Combined these moves allowed the Padres to correct some of the deficiencies in the defense, taking the defense from a below average defense in 2009 to a top five defense this year.
The Astros sit in the same position the Padres did in 2009 in regards to defense, and a case can be made that the Astros are actually worse than the Padres were in 2009. To improve the defense, they would have to make some changes in left field, second base, and third base. Tommy Manzella and Matt Downs would have to play shortstop and second base respectively. Even then Manzella is going to have to improve his defense at short which has been below average this year. Downs has shown positive value defensively at second base, however 329 innings is a small sample size and it's no guarantee he'd be better than Angel Sanchez. , in his limited time at second base has been below average. My guess though is that Sanchez at least would be an average defensive second baseman.
There are not a whole lot of options to play in place of Chris Johnson, his defense should improve though as he gains experience. Besides the front office already tried to sign a defensive first veteran to play third base and got burned. I imagine this time around the front office would be hesitant to try it again, not to mention the fact that it would be a very unpopular move amongst fans. In left field Jason Bourgeois or Brian Bogusevic would have to take over, with the possibility of a platoon for offensive reasons. At first base Wallace is going to provide more defensive value, meaning Carlos is the odd man out. As much as I like the setup, the biggest problem is the displacement of both Lee and Jeff Keppinger, making this scenario very unlikely.
The reality is Lee is going to be playing a position next year, whether that's first base or left field is going to largely depend on who the Astros bring in the offseason, and how well Wallace does in Spring Training. Moving Lee to first base does improve the defense, but in it's current state reduces the offensive potential of the the team. At second base Keppinger could possibly improve his defense given regular playing time, finally having a position to call his own. Aside from center field, right field, and catcher there are question marks at every other position defensively.
If the Astros are going to pull off a turn around and compete like the Padres did this year, they're going to have to go about it a different way. The pitching is solid, but needs to improve especially in the bullpen. The weak free agent market and the cost to sign or trade for an impact player doesn't really bode well for improving this teams offense. With the focus on the restocking of the farm system and development of young players, the Astros throwing their hat into a bidding war seems unlikely. Maybe there's another Myers like signing on the free agent market, but I wouldn't bank on it. The defense would be the easiest to improve, but displacing Lee and Keppinger is something management is unlikely to do. Besides improving the defense doesn't mean a team is going to compete, just ask the Seattle Mariners how that worked out.
Is it likely the Astros can compete next year? At this point, no.
There are just to many things that have to go right and some big improvements will need to be made. A bounce back from Lee would be required. It doesn't really matter where they plug Lee in he's going to have to rebound and put up the kind of numbers typical of either position. The young players will either need to continue their development and start taking steps forward to fulfill their potential. Continued production of those that have produced this year will also be required. If anyone of them falters that's just more production this young roster will have to pick up. That's a lot to ask of team who has about a fifth of its roster coming off a rookie season. A lot has to go right, but as the Padres have proven the possibility is there.
Can the Astros compete next year? Yes. Yes they can.