New horizons await Astros in move to AL West
Before '13 campaign, club aims to build around core through free agency
HOUSTON -- After playing their first 51 years in the National League, the Astros will embark on a brave new frontier when they move to the American League West in 2013. Houston will do it in style, with new uniforms and under the direction of rookie manager Bo Porter -- but how soon can the club compete? The Astros, coming off their only two 100-plus loss seasons in franchise history, will be longshots to contend next year in a division that includes the Texas Rangers, Oakland A's and Los Angeles Angels, but that doesn't mean the team won't expect to keep plowing ahead in its rebuilding efforts.
"We want to show progress and win a lot more games next year while continuing to keep our eye on the prize, which is getting to the point [where] we can do it year in and year out," Astros general manager Jeff Luhnow said.
The Astros obviously will be looking to improve in several areas next year and will be willing to spend some money -- the team is expected to earn $30 million in extra revenue from its new regional sports network -- on free agency, but don't expect them to go after big names.
"We're not going to compete for Josh Hamilton, but we can get some guys to come who fit our payroll, and we're certainly going to look at that," Luhnow said.
Houston remains committed to rebuilding through player development and the Draft, and several of its top prospects -- first baseman Jonathan Singleton and pitcher Jarred Cosart included -- could get their feet wet in the Major Leagues next year. The Astros also have several players currently on the roster who figure to again play key roles, including second baseman Jose Altuve, shortstop Jed Lowrie and pitchers Lucas Harrell, Bud Norris and Wilton Lopez.
"We like a lot of things we've seen [in 2012], but we do have a lot of holes," owner Jim Crane said.
The Astros will have a few a spots up for grabs in their rotation, as well as job auditions in Spring Training at third base and all of the outfield spots, assuming they don't sign free agents at those positions. The bullpen could be completely reworked for AL ball.
No matter the league in which the Astros are playing or the color of their uniforms, Luhnow expects the club to keep making progress in 2013.
"We feel that we're in a good position next year to take the core of those players that are here, add some players that are going to be coming up from the Minor Leagues and supplement that with some external players and be in position to be substantially more competitive next year," he said.
Position by position:
Catcher -- Jason Castro made enough strides offensively to get a crack at starting again, but the Astros would be wise to try to find another veteran to split time at the position like they did in 2012 with Chris Snyder.
First base -- With Carlos Lee out of the way, Brett Wallace got the bulk of the playing time at first over the final two months of season. He did a nice job, but will likely be forced to win the job again, considering top prospect Singleton will be in camp after a solid season at Double-A Corpus Christi.
Second base -- Altuve blossomed into an All-Star at the position and will return as the starter next year. Delino DeShields Jr., the Astros' Minor League Position Player of the Year, waits in the wings, but he won't be a factor in the Majors next year.
Third base -- After trading Chris Johnson to the D-backs in July, the position has been a revolving door. Matt Dominguez, acquired in the Lee trade with Miami, has the defensive skills to handle the job, but can he hit enough to keep the Astros from finding a replacement?
Shortstop -- As long as he's healthy, the Astros are in good hands with Lowrie, who remains under club control. He proved to be a steady defensive player and showed some much-needed pop. The question again with Lowrie will be his ability to stay healthy and remain on the field.
Left field -- J.D. Martinez began 2012 as the starter, but fizzled and wound up in the Minor Leagues. The Astros will probably give him another look, though it wouldn't be surprising for them to bring in a low-priced free agent to help shore up the position.
Center field -- The position is up for grabs, it appears. Jordan Schafer, the Opening Day starter, doesn't appear to be the answer, and Brian Bogusevic isn't either. Waiver-claim Justin Maxwell will be in the mix, but the position is being kept warm until 2011 first-round pick George Springer is ready. That probably won't be next year.
Right field -- Expect the Astros to try to find a starting right fielder on the free-agent market or through a trade. Bogusevic started at the spot in 2012, but he struggled at the plate all year. Jimmy Paredes hasn't proven he's ready for prime time yet.
Designated hitter -- For a team that doesn't have many home run threats in its offense, identifying a designated hitter will be important. If the Astros don't try to address the position in the offseason prior to their move to the AL, Wallace could get time at DH if Singleton wins the first-base job.
Starting rotation -- Norris figures to be back and looking to rebound from a disappointing season, and steady Harrell isn't going anywhere. The Astros probably saw enough from youngsters Jordan Lyles and Dallas Keuchel to give them another look, but they could use a proven innings eater.
Bullpen -- The only members of the bullpen who appear to be locks to return are strike-throwing machine Lopez and left-hander Wesley Wright. Every other job will be up for grabs, including closer. Lopez handled the job after Brett Myers was traded, but he's probably better suited in a setup role.