Big League Stew - MLB

We all have questions about the 2011 season and Alex Remington luckily has some answers. Like he did last season, The Stew's resident stats guru will address baseball's big questions as opening day approaches.

The Situation: It's been a difficult five years since the Astros were crowned National League champs in 2005. Jeff Bagwell retired that offseason, and the team has gone 391-418 in his absence. They were a powerhouse for about a decade beginning in the mid-'90s, winning the division four times in five years under Larry Dierker, but they haven't finished first in the NL Central since Dierker retired after the 2001 season.

Though Houston did win the wild card in 2004 and 2005, it has finished below .500 in three of the last four years. The team just locked up one of its best players, Wandy Rodriguez(notes), to a three-year, $34 million contract, but it's hard to imagine that the team will be able to contend for the playoffs at any point during the length of the deal.

As Fangraphs' Jack Moore writes:

"The odds are long that the Astros will get anything of real value for their money or years."

The Astros were 76-86 last year, but they may have actually gotten lucky — according to their Pythagorean Won-Loss record, based on the fact that they scored 118 fewer runs than they allowed, they should have only won 68 games. (In fairness, they've beaten their Pythagorean record by at least six games in each of the last three seasons.) Moreover, there isn't much hope on the immediate horizon, as the team has one of the worst farm systems in baseball (26th according to Baseball America, 27th according to Keith Law). That's despite the fact that they sold off two of their most popular players in 2010, Lance Berkman(notes) and Roy Oswalt(notes), so the team will likely be even more underpowered in 2011.

The Question: How many games will the Astros win in 2011?

The Analysis: In the words of analyst Dan Szymborski, creator of the ZiPS projection system, the Astros' 2011 "will be ugly in Houston." Of the players predicted to make up the Astros' 25-man roster, Szymborski only sees four players likely to achieve production above league average: hitters Hunter Pence(notes) and Carlos Lee(notes), and starting pitchers Wandy Rodriguez and Brett Myers(notes). Lee is also projected to be defensively poor, with a projected OBP of just .319, so he's hardly a star.

The Astros really haven't done much to upgrade their lineup this offseason. They acquired Clint Barmes(notes) from the Rockies, signed Bill Hall(notes) and Ryan Rowland-Smith(notes) as free agents, and picked up Aneury Rodriguez in the Rule 5 draft: that's two utility men and two fifth starters. The thing is, utility men and back-of-the-rotation starters are the last thing this team needs; they already have a lot of those, and some of them have unfortunately been forced into major roles. What they need is players capable of producing above the league average, and they have very few players on the roster or in the minor leagues who fit that description.

Everyone else on the roster is returning from last year. The most important additions came not this offseason but last year, midseason: They acquired first baseman Brett Wallace(notes) and starting pitcher J.A. Happ(notes) by trade, and called up rookie third baseman Chris Johnson(notes), who was one of their best hitters after coming up in June. But Wallace had a disappointing half-season, and ZiPS sees him as a below-average hitter in 2011. As Fangraphs' Eno Sarris notes, Wallace and Johnson are both projected to have below-average power and plate discipline in 2011. They might develop into good players some day, but it probably won't be this year.

Rodriguez, Brett Myers and Hunter Pence are legitimately above-average major leaguers, but on another team, they'd be complimentary players, instead of the only stars. They're about the only players capable of preventing this team from losing 100 games — other than the entire lineup of the Pittsburgh Pirates. The Astros' saving grace just might be the relative weakness of their division. But that may change in 2011. The Astros were one of four teams in the NL Central to finish below .500, but the Brewers and Cubs both made major upgrades to their rotation, adding Zack Greinke(notes) and Matt Garza(notes), respectively, and the Reds and Cardinals have enough top-shelf talent to remain near the top of the division.

Thankfully, the Astros are scheduled to play 18 games against the Pirates this year, against whom they have a .700 winning percentage in 30 games over the last two seasons. But that dominance won't necessarily last forever. The Astros don't have a single player as good as Pirate center fielder Andrew McCutchen(notes), and they might not have anyone as good as third baseman Pedro Alvarez(notes), either. After years of Pirate dominance of the NL Central cellar, the race for the bottom might finally be competitive in 2011.

The Forecast for 2011: The Astros have had a tough time since saving grace has been their weak division. But their competitors have gotten better while they've gotten decidedly worse, even though their farm system is incrementally better than it was a few years ago. The road back to relevance is a long slog: They'll need to invest in amateur and international talent, and hope that Drayton McLane can find a buyer for the team with deeper pockets and less desire to meddle with the front office. The last few years, the Astros have been mediocre but never truly terrible — they haven't lost 90 games since 2000, and haven't lost more than 90 since 1991, when they lost 97, tying a franchise record. Unless they can dominate their matchups with the Cubs and Brewers the way they already dominate the Pirates, they could break that record this year. I'm predicting a 64-98 record.

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Previously: How much will the Phillies miss Jayson Werth?

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