To try and figure out where you're going, it always helps to look at where you've been. Sage advice for important, life-changing events like deciding whether to get married (again), pondering a career change, scrawling lyrics to "Here I Go Again" by Whitesnake, or writing a preview of your local baseball team's 2011 season.
So as I sit down to try to accurately predict what will transpire this baseball season for the Houston hometown nine, I think back to 2010. There's a small handful of precious gifts from last year that are decent kindling for trying to talk myself into the Astros' relevance in 2011 — Chris Johnson's second half of the season (11 homeruns, 52 RBI), Brett Myers's whole season (at least six innings pitched in all but one start) and Brett Wallace's pants (includes a label that says "No family-size tents were harmed in the making of these pants") are three such examples.
And underneath the 76-86 record in 2011 and the gloom-and-doom predictions by computers (Baseball Prospectus forecasts the Astros to have literally a zero percent chance of making the World Series) and actual humans (odds makers have the Astros as a 25/1 shot just to win the Central), the seeds of something good have been planted.
Whether it's because of soon-to-be seller apathy or because it's the right thing to do, Drayton McLane seemingly has stepped aside and let his baseball people start to actually build a conventional baseball organization by signing draft picks, trading overpaid veterans and playing the youngsters. The result is a core nucleus of guys who like each other and love to play baseball. (And before you roll your eyes, you'd be surprised and appalled by how many players see their vocation as a chore.)
Chris Johnson is one of the faces of this new group of Astros. He was given the starting third-base job midway through last season when the Astros realized that Pedro Feliz, their starting third-baseman up to that point, had indeed been clinically dead since February. (Feliz has since been mummified and is on display at Citizens Bank Park in Philadelphia.)
I asked Johnson on my radio show, which airs on 1560 The Game, about this core group of young guys who have been given the keys to the team: "We're really close," said Johnson. "Last year we decided we were all going to move to Houston and work out together in the off-season. We hang out together after all of the games in spring training. This is a close-knit group."
A group that will get a chance to grow up together this season, for better or worse.
Ultimately, faith in the Astros comes back to overcoming the thoughts of acres of empty seats at Minute Maid Park, the overall ineptitude of the offense, and Carlos Lee cashing seven-figure checks each month to waddle around left field like one of those drunk fans in the fake sumo outfits who fight each other during NBA halftime. (Note: This will not be the last Carlos Lee joke that gets made in this piece. If you're related to Carlos Lee, you've been warned.)
By most subjective measurements, interest in the Astros has not been this low in some time. My subjective measurements include the aforementioned empty seats from pretty much June on, as well as the complete lack of phone calls, e-mails and tweets regarding the Astros during spring training — literally, a complete lack — to my sports talk show. As in, I received zero calls, tweets or e-mails about the Astros during spring training, unless I specifically had a guest on who was discussing the team. So if you're keeping track, in my world, which revolves a thousand percent around sports, no one wants to voluntarily talk about the Astros. Cruel summer, indeed.
But as you read this preview, perhaps along the way, who knows? Maybe you'll actually become interested in the Astros. Maybe the newness the players are feeling rubs off on you. Maybe.
Before we get to determining how to assess the 2011 Astros on the field, we must address the 800-pound gorilla in the room, because by this summer it may be the only reason to talk regularly about them...
Of course, I'm referring to Drayton McLane's attempt to sell the franchise. In the off-season, McLane hired an investment banking firm to explore possibilities, and within about a month of that story, he was in full on "Uncle Drayton" mode telling the media about "20 to 25 conversations he had conducted" with potential buyers. Without having any text of those conversations, considering the roughly $800 million asking price that McLane reportedly is asking, I am going to assume the average length of all 20 to 25 conversations was around 32 seconds. That includes opening pleasantries and Drayton firing his fake six-shooters at the end of the conversation.
One way to make the Astros relevant would be to turn the sale of the ball club into a reality television show. Whether it's channeling Celebrity Apprentice and making the various ownership candidates perform tasks like coming up with the newest Sheriff Blaylock's nacho plate, or the Bachelor format with Drayton keeping candidates around by giving them Biggio bobbleheads instead of roses, this needs to happen. In short, I would watch Survivor: Drayton.
I suppose eBay is another option, but my fear is that Drayton doesn't really read the Feedback sections that closely. How else do you explain the Carlos Lee signing? I would hate to wind up with a bad owner because Drayton didn't go see that the guy had several "F minus minus! You suck!!!" comments from the time he went on a ceramic zoo animal-buying binge back in 2008.
So yeah, investment bank is probably the way to go. The most recent ownership rumors center around local businessman Jim Crane and the possibility that he might be the one. Whatever the case, thankfully, before selling the team, Drayton made sure he left us all with a gargantuan parting gift in right field...
"Okay, but there is NOTHING like a really big television."
I believe Elaine Benes put it best on Seinfeld when she and Jerry and the gang purchased a big-screen television for their friend "The Drake" (Love the Drake!). There really is nothing like a big television! If nothing else, Astros fans have a brand-new, high-definition scoreboard to look forward to. Three years in the making, the scoreboard is 54 feet high and 124 feet wide, along with ribbon boards, and it's the largest video board in the Major Leagues to feature a 1080i display format.
So now you get to see...
45 Carlos Lee
1st — Grounded into double play
3rd — Struck out looking
5th — Struck out swinging
7th — Grounded into double play
...in high definition, which is only slightly less repulsive than watching Kiss Cam in high definition. Because that's what we all need to see — high-definition video of two suburban parents in Andy Pettitte jerseys mauling each other in Section 302.
Broadcaster Jim Deshaies called the new video control center "the ultimate man cave." To his point, if the Astros are looking for a promotion during the dog days of August, I would like to propose "Man Cave Sunday." With the biggest high-definition television in the city of Houston, the hard part (ya know...procuring and installing a nice TV) is actually done. Add in some reclining seats, just for one day. Have some inning-by-inning contests for control of the remote (which, no doubt, looks like the inside of the cockpit of a 747). Men must have at least one hand down the front of their pants at all times. That's mandatory and nonnegotiable. If you get up to go to the bathroom, you have to bring reading material.
Astros President of Business Operations Pam Gardner called the unveiling a "momentous occasion." I couldn't agree more. In fact, I remember back when I got out of college in the early '90s, and I was making a little bit of money, my first big purchase was a big-screen television. This was back when a 60-inch television immediately became the biggest piece of furniture in your living room and if you ever decided to move, you needed three friends to help you move it. Also, the smaller your place, the more gaudy and ridiculous it looked. I had a small place, so therefore it looked gaudy and ridiculous. Unless you were 24 years old, in which case it was awesome. The reasons I bought that television were about 20 percent for the viewing experience and 80 percent to hear my friends tell me how cool it was. Regardless of age, people love to hear the tinge of jealousy in their friends' voices when they marvel at their material possessions.
My point is, I like to think that somewhere deep down inside Drayton McLane, there is a small, "materialistic 24-year-old phone system salesman" part of him as he shows off that new high-definition scoreboard to his rich friends, and when they talk about how awesome it is he just nods his head smugly.
So if an ownership change and a really big TV aren't enough to interest you in the Astros, we always have the old standby...
When in doubt, wager.
I understand that some of you out there are not all that fired up about the Astros, and you probably feel a little guilty about it. You grew up in Houston, and the 'stros have always been your team. You remember back to the days when your dad brought you to the ballpark to see Cesar Cedeno and Jose Cruz work their magic in the spacious outfield of the Astrodome. You owned one of those Technicolor-vomit rainbow jerseys, perhaps a Craig Reynolds joint, and you can barely muster the gumption to buy your kid a brick-colored Michael Bourn shirt.
Admit it. It kills you a little bit that you couldn't give a rat's ass about how the Astros finish the season. Well, what would you say if I told you that I have a foolproof way for you to care about each and every game this season, and possibly double your investment in the process? Would that be of interest to you?
Well, allow me to introduce you to a friend of mine I call the "Season Total Win Wager!"
(By the way, if you think that my proposal of wagering on the season sounds a little too much like your neighbor who does Amway trying to talk you into attending an introductory meeting to become part of their downline, just know that similarities do exist. Participation in either one, gambling or Amway, usually starts with a combination of peer pressure and/or desperation for income, and the forecasts for future earnings through either one are typically wildly inaccurate, if not fabricated.)
The win total posted in Las Vegas (because the only way you can place a sports wager in 2011 is to physically go to Las Vegas and place it in person at a betting window) for your Houston Astros is a robust 71 1/2. Let me say that how you define "interest in the Astros" is entirely up to you. If you're a lifelong fan, I understand the difficulty in choosing to bet the Astros will come in under that total; it's one thing to show up at Minute Maid Park angry that your team stinks, but it's another thing altogether actually to root against them (even for investment purposes).
In short, I get using an "Over 71.5 wins" wager as a reason to stay interested in the Astros. The season-total wager is like the "sexy nurse outfit" or "couple's massage" that puts the motor in a married couple's sex life. Sometimes you need to prime the pump. (It's nothing to be ashamed of!)
However, it is my job to warn you of a few things before you fire on "Astros OVER 71 1/2 wins":
(Geek warning: I promise this will be the only part of this preview that remotely smacks of "baseball geek" because I am not one. But this stat damn near threw me for a loop — a "Shawn Chacon going upside Ed Wade's head" kind of loop.)
There is a statistic on baseball-reference.com called "Pythagorean Win Total" for each team. I won't bore you with the calculation formula, but just know that it essentially takes a team's overall run differential and spits out the 162-game win-loss record that the team SHOULD have based on that metric. So if a team's PWT is two wins lower than its actual record, then that team theoretically overachieved by two games.
In 2010, most teams finished within three wins or less of their PWT. Some underachieved, some overachieved. A couple teams (Oakland and Arizona) underachieved by four games, while one team (St. Louis) underachieved by five games. One team had a bigger delta than everyone else — the Houston Astros. The Astros' PWT was 68. On the field, they won 76 games.
So as shitty as last season felt, the Astros actually defied the odds and overachieved by eight wins.
Whether it speaks to Brad Mills's ability to manage, the team's being exceptional in close games, or just dumb luck, the Astros' variation from their actual total to what the stat geeks say they "should have had" in 2010 was about twice that of the next closest team's variation.
In short, buyer beware on that whole "59-52 over the last 111 games of 2010" thing.
Keep in mind the following fun Astros payroll facts:
1. Other than the very expensive waters under the bridge that is Carlos Lee ($19 million) and the team's top two starting pitchers (Brett Myers and Wandy Rodriguez), there is not a single Astro that the team is willingly paying more than $5.25 million. (The team was forced to pay Hunter Pence $6.9 million in arbitration.)
2. Wandy Rodriguez is the only player that the team is contractually obligated to in any material way beyond 2012.
3. The payroll, for the second straight season, continues to go down, not up.
So they've got their top two starting pitchers locked in for multiple years at the going rate, a $19 million reminder of fiscal (and caloric) excess gone awry in left field, and the rest of the roster is a bunch of cheap, (mostly) young guys. This is a team that is clearly looking to stay fiscally nimble.
My point is, the Astros are targeting 2013 as their next window of competitiveness. They moved two franchise icons (Lance Berkman and Roy Oswalt) last season at the trade deadline, so go ahead and assume that there are zero scraps in their scrapbook when it comes to moving Brett Myers or Wandy Rodriguez if it's going to make them more competitive long-term (and less expensive in the short term). They'll do it in a second.
Catcher of the future Jason Castro went down with a knee injury before the season and will likely miss the entire year. Despite the fact that Castro barely hit .200 in virtually half a 2010 season, the injury is actually considered significant for the Astros' 2011 chances. (Bonus: We get at least one more season of J.R. Towles's reactions to striking out; nobody has perfected slamming the bat into the ground quite like J.R. He could do an instructional DVD.) Add in starting shortstop Clint Barmes going down with a broken hand for the first month or so, and it's starting to feel like one of those years.
There is a better-than-even-money chance that Carlos Lee accidentally walks to the plate accidentally wearing a lobster bib around his neck this season. Right now, he is your cleanup hitter. Keep that in mind.
So if you invest in the over, do so with caution. Honestly, I'll digest all of the warning signs and still fire on "Over 71 1/2" based on my faith in Brad Mills and pitching coach Brad Arnsberg. And yes, going to the park rooting for them to lose would suck. (And no, I can't go the season without wagering on their win total. Sorry.)
While I'm at it, here are some bonus "win total" wagers for you enterprising future degenerates out there:
1. Texas UNDER 87 wins and San Francisco UNDER 88 wins: I did a little research, and since 2003, every playoff team not named the Yankees, Red Sox or Phillies (teams that can and do just fix whatever they want to quickly and expensively) went backwards in win totals the following season by an average of nine wins per season (none fewer than five wins). If you need to pick one, take the Giants — getting all the way to the mountaintop always breeds complacency (the root cause of most divorces in this country, by the way), and there is a decent chance Tim Lincecum could fail a drug test before the All-Star break.
2. Kansas City UNDER 69 wins: Because if the old adage is that "Nobody ever got rich betting on the Kansas City Royals to win games," then that would mean that somebody had to have gotten rich by betting on them to lose games. It's simple physics, really. Let's be that somebody!
3. Milwaukee OVER 85 wins: Also a bit of an "opposite Kansas City" play, since this past off-season the Brewers pilfered starting pitcher Zack Greinke, the Royals' only player that you would have been able to pick out of a lineup with the "Goes to Japan" version of the Bad News Bears. (Thankfully, we don't have to pick Tim Lincecum out of that lineup because he's a dead ringer for a post-puberty Kelly Leak.) In a National League Central where the Cardinals have lost Adam Wainwright for the season, the Reds are bound to come back to the pack, and the other three teams are the Astros, Cubs and Pirates, the Brewers at +190 to win the division isn't a bad prop bet.
By the way, my non-Astro predictions for the MLB season:
AL East: Boston
AL Central: Minnesota
AL West: Oakland
Wild Card: New York Yankees
NL East: Philadelphia
NL Central: Milwaukee
NL West: Colorado
Wild Card: San Francisco
World Series: Philadelphia over Boston in six games
Conclusion — Best-case Astros scenario
Star Wars geeks will remember the end of The Empire Strikes Back. (Hey, stay with me on this one. I just used "Pythagorean Win Total" a few paragraphs ago, so Star Wars references inherently will not be the dorkiest thing in this preview.)
For those who got laid before the age of 22, Empire was a transitional movie between the first Star Wars release in 1977 and Return of the Jedi in 1983. It spawned new storylines from the blockbuster first movie, but left a bunch of open storylines at the end. When the credits rolled, Han Solo was frozen in carbonite and being taken off to God knows where by Boba Fett, the rebels were all homeless and Luke was five minutes removed from having his hand severed by the Dark Lord of the galaxy, who, oh by the way, happened to be his father. (In retrospect, that might have been a good day to tell Luke and Leia that they shouldn't be tongue kissing, just to get it all out of the way. For whatever reason, Obi Wan and Yoda decided to wait a couple more years to tell Luke, and then they put it on his plate to tell Leia. Wussies.)
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Basically, at the end of Empire, there was a lot of uncertainty and unresolved shit. And here's the thing — Empire was my favorite of all the Star Wars movies. Because you felt like it was at least going somewhere.
I think that's the best-case scenario for the Astros. The season will end and Carlos Lee will be frozen in carbonite (if we're lucky), Jason Castro will be fully rehabbed from his knee with his arm around Brad Mills as they watch the rest of the rebel fleet fly around inside Minute Maid Park. (With droids C-3Pence-0 and R2-Humberto-2 looking on.)
And there will be hope for 2012 and beyond. That's my prediction for the season. Seventy-seven wins, renewal and hope.
Just please, no Ewoks in 2012.