It was not so long ago that the Houston Astros were considered one of baseball's best organizations. They made the playoffs six times in nine years from 1997-2005, capturing four NL Central titles and culminating this terrific stretch with the first pennant in franchise history in '05. Led by the "Killer B's" of Jeff Bagwell, Craig Biggio, and Lance Berkman (originally Derek Bell), they were a well-respected franchise.
A poorly-run farm system and big contracts to the likes of Carlos Lee unfortunately led to the Astros' demise in the late 2000s, and longtime owner Drayton McLane decided to sell the team in 2011 as the team dropped a franchise record 106 games. McLane sold the team to businessman Jim Crane for $680 million. Desiring an even number of teams in each league, MLB gave Crane a $70 million discount if he would agree to move the Astros to the AL by the start of the 2013 season. Crane agreed, and the Astros hit a new low last year in its final NL season with 107 losses, one of baseball's worst pitching staffs (4.9 runs per game, 117 ERA-), and likely its absolute worst offense (3.6 runs per game, 83 wRC+). They went 8-46 in July and August, and also did this one time:
Step aside, Babe and Lou. This might be the finest moment in baseball history. Ask Grant Brisbee about it.
The Astros made even more cuts entering this season, and they project to be one of the worst teams baseball has ever seen. They entered 2013 with a $26.105 million payroll, a number that's even smaller when current Pirate Wandy Rodriguez's $5 million deal is factored out. Starter Bud Norris is their highest-paid player otherwise at $3 million, and the team has already discussed trading him away during the season, as they have done with numerous other contracts in the past couple years (Rodriguez, Lee, Berkman, Jed Lowrie, Hunter Pence, and Roy Oswalt. Eat your heart out, 2000s Pittsburgh Pirates.) They are determined to hit rock-bottom in their rebuilding process--no team has ever had three straight #1 draft picks, but the Astros might become the first.
So what exactly is out there facing the Yankees tonight in the Bronx?
Thus far, the Astros are 7-15, a record worse than all teams aside from the 6-19 Marlins mess in Miami, which is truly a remarkable disaster. The offense has actually been better than expected. Their team triple slash of .249/.308/.403 with a 97 wRC+ ranks right in the middle of all 30 teams. Diminutive second baseman Jose Altuve might be a league-low 5'6" (still towering over Tanya), but he's continued his All-Star form from last year. He's currently fourth in the AL in hits (33), and his .327/.375/.426 triple slash with a 121 wRC+ that ranks eighth among all second baseman. Switch-hitting shortstop Marwin Gonzalez has surprised in a part-time role, hitting .300/.344/.517 with a 138 wRC+ in 20 games (including a 27th-batter single to ruin Yu Darvish's perfect game attempt.) Chris Carter and Rick Ankiel are tied for the team lead with five homers, although Carter is the only one actually drawing walks in addition to the power at the plate.
Ankiel is the Astros' poster boy for their biggest problem at the dish: strikeouts. They struck out 1,365 times last year, a pace of 8.4 per game, but this year, they have taken their whiffs to another level. The Astros have 248 strikeouts in just 25 games, a nigh-10 strikeout per game pace that currently exceeds the pace of the all-time leaders, the 2010 Diamonbacks (9.4 K/game, and 1,529 overall). It's a long way to 162, but it is an alarming rate. Carter leads the club with 43 strikeouts, but Ankiel has 29 in just 50 plate apperances (Carter has 100 PAs). He homered on Opening Night in a surprising victory over the cross-state rival Rangers, then whiffed in an incredible 12 of 13 plate appearances afterwards. Watch to see if veterans Andy Pettitte and Hiroki Kuroda take advantage of Houston's strikeout tendencies in the next few games.
While the Astros' offense has actually been okay early on despite the strikeouts, their pitching has been absolutely atrocious. The 5.51 team ERA and 5.12 team FIP are the worst in baseball by far. Even taking hitter-friendly Minute Maid Park (formerly good ol' Enron Field) into consideration, the weighted ERA- is 140 and FIP- is 132. Rates including a 1.63 WHIP, 6.3 K/9, and 3.96 BB/9 aren't doing them any favors, either. The Yankees face the Astros' best starter by ERA and ERA- thus far tonight, Lucas Harrell, whose numbers have only been a little worse than league-average (his 142 FIP- suggests he's been overachieving, too).
The Yankees should be ashamed if they do not beat up on the Astros' starters for the next days, Philip Humber and Eric Bedard. Humber was a perfect-game pitcher only a year ago, but he has been horrible since then. His 203 ERA- is somehow matched by the lefty Bedard, who some now forget was once traded for Orioles star Adam Jones. The bullpen's closer is former Yankee flameout Jose Veras, which should say a lot about the rest of the 'pen. Of their primary relievers, only lefty Wesley Wright has been above league-average, and he has a 4.25 BB/9 ratio.
It will take a couple years for the Astros to dig out of their hole, but players like Altuve and Gonzalez show promise. Crane also hired bright minds like former Baseball Prospectus writers Kevin Goldstein and Mike Fast to work for them, too. 2011-13 might be the Astros' version of the Yankees' 1990-92, which led to the rise of a shy player with bottle cap glasses, a pitcher who looked like a twig, and some #6 overall draft pick that turned out pretty well for the Yanks (among others).
The Astros might be great someday soon, but for now, the Yankees must pound them, even with the ragtag group on the field at the moment. They might drop a game to Houston since baseball's weird like that, but they cannot drop a home series to this team. They are 4-2 against the Mariners and 3-16 against everyone else (the Rangers, Red Sox, Angels, Indians, and Athletics).
Do not be the Mariners. Repeat: do not be the Mariners.