Commentary

30Q: Houston Astros

Updated: March 2, 2011, 3:19 PM ET
By AJ Mass | ESPN.com

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Will this team be as bad as the 2010 Seattle Mariners?

Last season, the Seattle Mariners finished dead last in all of baseball nearly every offensive category, including an incredibly sad .298 on-base percentage, en route to a 101-loss season. Take away the herculean efforts of Felix Hernandez, and their team ERA soared to 4.28, dropping them from 10th to 25th overall. From a fantasy standpoint, the team was a barren wasteland.

There's a fear from some that the Houston Astros could be headed to that same fantasy desert in 2011. In fact, according to Baseball Prospectus' 2011 projected standings, the Astros will be the worst team in all of baseball, with 94 losses on their way to the National League Central cellar.

To be honest, at times, it certainly looked like the team had a one-way ticket to the basement last season. For the first two months, they didn't hit, managing only a .230 team batting average and scoring a major league low 155 runs. They also couldn't pitch, with a 4.60 ERA and a gaudy batting average against of .278.

With a record of 17-34 at the end of May, already 12.5 games out of first place, it's not hard to understand why the Houston Astros decided to begin the dismantling process. Over the next few months, the dominos began to fall. Houston got rid of nearly all of their older players.

They cut second baseman Kazuo Matsui (34) in May. They traded backup catcher Kevin Cash (32) in early July. As the trade deadline approached, ace Roy Oswalt (32) and long-time first baseman Lance Berkman (34) were sent packing. August saw third baseman Pedro Feliz' (35) brief tenure with the team come to an end.

Pop quiz, hotshot: What team had the most games with three or fewer extra-base hits last season? It was the Seattle Mariners, with 130. Second place? It was the Astros, with 125. Not only did the Astros not dig the longball, but they also didn't get any free passes. They tied with the Orioles for the most games with zero or one walks, with 52. In 28 of those games, the team struck out seven or more times (the sixth most such games since 1980) and went 5-23 in those contests.

Yet, in spite of all these failings, against all odds, this team actually seems to be headed in the right direction. Last year, it was the older players who were actually holding back this offense. Players aged 31-35, many of whom are not on the Houston 2011 roster, hit a combined .232 for the season. The rest of the roster hit a much more repsectable.254.

As these older pieces were slowly replaced by youth, the Astros actually started to turn things around. From June 1 on, their 59-52 record was tied for fifth-best in the National League. Yet, not content with that modicum of improvement, the renovations were not yet done.

The outfield returns almost intact, with a pair of likely 25-home run candidates in Hunter Pence and Carlos Lee surrounding 50-plus stolen base man Michael Bourn. Meanwhile, the infield still has that new car smell, as Chris Johnson returns to third base after a rookie season where he hit .308. At first base, perennial prospect Brett Wallace appears ready to win the job, and going 3-for-3 in his first spring action certainly is cause for optimism.

Up the middle, Jeff Keppinger needs foot surgery and Tommy Manzella showed he couldn't cut it in the bigs, so the team acquired a new double-play combo in Bill Hall and Clint Barmes. Hall's per-162 game average for his career is .250, 20 home runs and 70 RBIs. For Barmes, it's about the same, with a little less power. That's not Chase Utley and Jimmy Rollins, but it's not too shabby either.

Behind the plate, Jason Castro is not going to be an American Idol, as he'll be more valuable for his defense than his anemic stick, and likely splitting time with Humberto Quintero. But as long as the pitching staff -- anchored by Wandy Rodriguez, Brett Myers and J.A. Happ, who went a combined 20-8 from July on -- is comfortable with their receiver, then the Astros can afford one less bat in the lineup.

Now, there are only three Houston players in the ESPN Top 300 - Pence (50), Bourn (90) and Rodriguez (99), and only four others on the list at all. But to put that in perspective, the Baltimore Orioles and Oakland Athletics don't have a single player in the top 100. That may not be a forecast for a World Series title, but it also isn't what you'd expect from a team destined to lose close to 100 games and barely reach 500 runs on the year.

No, the Houston Astros aren't going to be the 2010 Seattle Mariners. In fact, if they get the solid pitching we expect, given their division, reaching the post-season seems to be a lot more realistic an end result than having a level of scoring futility that, before last season, hadn't been seen in the major leagues since the 1972 Montreal Expos.

AJ Mass is a fantasy baseball, football and college basketball analyst for ESPN.com. His book, "How Fantasy Sports Explains the World" will be released in August. You can e-mail him here.

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