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Houston Astros 2011 Season Preview: 25-Man Roster Stock Watch

"For lo, the winter is past, the rain is over and gone;

the flowers appear on the earth;

the time of the singing of birds is come,

and the voice of the turtle is heard in our land."

-- Ernie Harwell via Song of Solomon

Hooray! It's Opening Day. Our long national nightmare is over. We can sweep away the mists of winter and revel in the fact that there is real, actual baseball to be played. No more spring warmups. No more wholesale lineup changes after the fifth inning.

Baseball is back.

This is the second straight week the Stock Watch has been pushed back. Never fear, TCBers, it'll be a regular staple on Wednesdays during the season. For this one, I wanted to look at the entire roster that's breaking camp with the team, but in a different way than we usually do.

Most of the time, I'm weighing performance from the past week to see how a player is doing or their chances of making the roster. This time, I'd like to look at each players potential for the upcoming season. That's not to say how a player will perform, but what chance do they have of being significantly better than they were last season, or of exceeding our expectations for their performance.

Feel free to quibble with my assessments. They are, after all, entirely subjective and subject to change at a moment's notice.

Hunter Pence, middling: The Astros pretty much know what they have in Pence. He's in his prime, so he could surprise with a big career season at any time, but his profile suggests more of a player who is consistently good but never great. Pence will put up his numbers, hit another 25-28 home runs with an average around .280 and may even get to 20 steals if he runs a bit smarter. That's why I think he's got a middle-of-the-road chance of beating our expectations. If that's what we expect, could he suddenly hit 35 home runs? Could he hit .300 with 100 RBIs?

Michael Bourn, low: I have a couple of reservations about Bourn heading into the upcoming season. First, the injuries seem to be creeping up on him. Yes, he's topped 600 plate appearances the past two seasons, but these nagging things popping up could hurt him in the long run. Plus, what would Bourn have to do to beat our expectations? Steal 100 bases? Score 150 runs with a .325 batting average? None of that seems very likely, which is why I ultimately think his potential this season is so low.

Carlos Lee, high: You read that right. Everything's relative and I think we're all too down on Carlos Lee. That's not to say we can't yell at him or throw the TV out the window when he can't even catch a simple pop up down the third base line (like he did against Boston). But, I think his year in 2010 and our general malaise towards him has lowered our expectations enough that a bounce back to form would be considered a huge win. 

Chris Johnson, low: Again, this isn't because CJ will do badly, but because our expectations are so high. As I looked at in this story last winter (and as many, many other writers here looked at too), Johnson had a super-high batting average on balls in play last season. That figures to fall somewhat in 2011, but since he's such a good fastball hitter, Johnson may not be as affected as the rest of the sabermetric community is predicting. His average will likely drop to .280 or so with a slight dip in his power, but Johnson will still be a good hitter. He just won't quite reach our expectations.

Clint Barmes, middling: It's hard to reach expectations from the disabled list. Which also makes it difficult to be on the 25-man roster, technically. So, you'll just have to wait for a writeup on Barmes...

Angel Sanchez, middling: There is nothing good or bad but thinking makes it so. If that's the case, does that mean Sanchez is neither good nor bad? The reasons he was available last summer are the same reasons that make him such an ordinary piece of the roster. He's a useful bench bat, but he's not good enough defensively to start all season. He'll be an adequate replacement for Barmes and may provide some better hitting in a backup role than the Astros got from Geoff Blum at the end, but that's hardly grounds for celebration.

Bill Hall, low: Coming off his best season in three years and switching to a new team, expectations of Hall have to be strained. Is he going to hit like he did last season? Maybe. The switch to the National League sometimes leads to performance spikes, but I don't anticipate that happening with Hall. I also think his extended range at second will turn out to be a hindrance when he starts butchering balls that he fields. I've only seen him a bit in spring training and I've already watched two bad plays by Hall. 

Brett Wallace, high: Here's where I diverge a bit from my stated intentions with these rankings. See, we Astros fans have higher expectations for Wallace than the rest of the country may. But, it's all the down scouting reports and negative feedback on him as a hitter that I really think he'll trump this season. If spring training is any indication (and it's not always a good one), Wallace's swing is better than it was last season. A .300 season at the plate could be the result, which would shock many baseball pundits around the nation.

Humberto Quintero, low: Maybe, just maybe, Q turns out to be the starting catcher the Astros need in 2011. Maybe his defense continues to improve, making him an elite catcher behind the plate. Maybe his offense ticks up a notch and he hits 10-15 home runs. The chances of that, though, are pretty slim.

J.R. Towles, low: Again, this is what Towles may do in relation to our fan expectations of him, not the team's. If that were the case, Towles might have an entirely different potential. We expect Towles to perform like he has in the minors, which would make his bat pretty potent.  I wonder if he's destined to have a career like another J.R. (House), where his bat is always decent but his defense doesn't let him keep a job.

Matt Downs, high: I really like the comparison between Downs and Billy Spiers. It's not perfect, since Downs hasn't shown an ability to play every day in the majors like Spiers did, but I do think he can be that guy to hold the team together through nagging injuries and the like. He also might hit enough to stay on the team once Barmes comes back from the disabled list, though I wouldn't hold my breath.

Joe Inglett, middling: What should we expect fro Inglett at this point? As a pinch hit specialist (basically), expectations don't really get too high. I can see him doing well in that role, but I'm not sure how well he'd need to do to justify the trade.

Jason Michaels, low: If Michaels goes out and hits 20 home runs, wouldn't we expect that? That's been his role for the past couple of seasons, a power bat off the bench who can make spot starts. Even if he won Carlos Lee's job in the event of a Wallace demotion, would we really be surprised by that? I don't see Michaels turning into a .300 hitting masher who anchors the lineup and I think that's what he'd have to do to exceed expectations for his role.

Jason Bourgeois, middling: I leaned towards giving him a "low" designation on this, but went the middle route instead. Bourg would have to take over for an injured Michael Bourn in a significant way to drastically increase expectations for him this season. If he does what he did last year (stealing bases, playing good defense off the bench), it's not going to be surprising, and would be the best-case scenario for a fifth outfielder.

Brett Myers, very, very low: I had heard of "contact hitters" before Brett Myers came into my life, but hadn't ever seen such a blatant "contact pitcher." Myers thrives on inducing ground balls and getting guys to hit the ball. That's how he was able to keep his ERA down last season, but it is incredibly hard to maintain a BABiP under .300 for a pitcher, much less for two consecutive seasons. Myers pitched like an ace in 2010 and would need to pitch like that again, which I just don't see happening. He won't be bad, but he won't be as good.

Wandy Rodriguez, lower still: That's what happens when you sign a big contract. Expectations get raised. Wandy probably won't pitch any better than he has the past few seasons, but he shouldn't be significantly worse. If he gets injured, though...let's not even think about that.

J.A. Happ, a smidge below high: No one really expects much of Happ. Yeah, he's in the rotation and he's in the top three, but is he a good pitcher? The advanced stats say he's been lucky, so he's got to fall back to earth some time. Why not on the team who was dumb enough to trade for him in the beginning? That's why I think Happ has an excellent shot at some serious potential this season. A 14-10 record with 150 strikeouts is in play.

Bud Norris, is he playing St. Louis?: Yes? Then he's going to exceed every expectation before roundhouse kicking you in the throat for ever doubting him. No? Then he's probably going to be the guy we saw at the end of last season. Solid if unspectacular. If his control gets a little better, he will be a very good pitcher, but I think the strikeout potential he's shown in the past will raise our expectations a little too high for Budly.

Nelson Figueroa, low: Can there be a negative rating on this list? (whispers) What, you say it's my story? I can do anything I want? Giddyup...

Nelson Figueroa, negative-high: That's about as low as you can go on this scale. If a 37-year old Nelson Figueroa exceeds expectations, wins double-digit games with an ERA in the low 3's and keeps a rotation spot all season, the national uproar would reach Bieber-like proportions. Which is exactly why it won't happen. Guys who have been around as long as Figgy don't suddenly flip a switch and become competent. He will be exposed this season. Let's just hope Jordan Lyles is pitching well when he is.

Brandon Lyon, FanGraphs-level low: Look, I'm as big a Lyon supporter as there is out there. I'll even defend his signing, even though I fundamentally disagree with spending money on a closer when you're trying to rebuild a team. Nevertheless, I don't think Lyon has a realistic shot at beating expectations this year, because those expectations have been raised to his performance level last season. That's our benchmark now, and I just don't see him doing better. Regressing a little, sure, but bettering his numbers? No way.

Wilton Lopez, fairly high: This is highly dependent on who you talk to. To clack, Lopez probably will meet, but not exceed expectations this season. To more casual fans, his ascension as closer in the event of a Lyon injury might be a big surprise. He is a bit dicey, though, as we just can't predict whether a guy who doesn't have an elite strikeout rate will continue to thrive late in games.

Mark Melancon, high: I should caveat this, because I bet enough people expect him to be good since he was in the Berkman trade. Still, Melancon is impressive and I think he could be an impact arm late in games as soon as this season. If he does that, he'll surprise quite a few Astros fans.

Enerio Del Rosario, may be highest on team: I really don't think fans have any expectations for the right-hander, even after he finished up a stellar spring. He's pitched well in the past, and could emerge as one of the top arms in a solid bullpen. 

Jeff Fulchino, low: I honestly have nothing much to say about Fulchino. He'll be better than last season, but I just don't see the potential for him to do much else.

Fernando Abad, low: When you're a situational lefty, what are the expectations, exactly? To do your job and not get lit up? I think Abad can do that. If he's called on to do it in pressure situations or gets big outs, is he really over-reaching or just doing what he's on the team to do? The only way I can think he might exceed our meager expectations for a southpaw is if he enters the rotation for some reason. 

Aneury Rodriguez, middling: This time next season, my rating of Aneury will be much different. (Which reminds me, what do we call him? I will NOT use A-Rod, based on principle. Calling him by his first name doesn't work the same as Wandy. So, what will it be?). He's automatically better than Brian Moehler back there with plenty of upside. I'm just not sure if he can do enough in limited work to impress. If he gets a chance to start and if he strings together some good strikeout numbers or keeps runs off the board, he'll definitely beat expectations right now.