Catching up with the Houston Astros: Crawfish Boxes

This off-season The Nats Blog will be holding weekly interviews with blogs from all thirty teams. One site a week leading up to the start of the 2011 season. This week I spoke with David Coleman from Crawfish Boxes, one of the top Houston Astros blogs on the net, to talk about the expectations for a team at a crossroads.

TNB: Do you believe Carlos Lee will bounce back after a disappointing 2010?

Crawfish Boxes: It’s a qualified probably. Lee has been pretty consistent in his career and saw a pretty dramatic dip in his BABiP last season. As more of a pure contact hitter (he doesn’t walk and doesn’t strike out), Lee’s average is pretty heavily tied to his BABiP. But, his line drive percentage also plummeted last season. For him to bounce back, he’s going to need to start hitting more line drives and show that the decline was more about luck and less about aging.

TNB: What do you make of Brett Myers, Wandy Rodriquez, and J.A. Happ at the top of your rotation? Do you believe they are one of the more underrated top 3 in baseball?

Crawfish Boxes: I wouldn’t say they’re underrated. I think they’re individually pretty accurately rated. None of those three is a true No. 1 starter, but they’re all pretty consistent. Myers pitches to contact a lot more now than in Philly, so his numbers are more dependent on the defense behind him. Wandy has a pretty good strikeout rate, but his inconsistency keeps him from being a true ace. Happ has shown flashes of being a solid starter, but hasn’t put together a full season yet. And I think that’s the prevailing national view on them too.

But, as a group, I think they’re probably expected to regress a little too much from last year’s team. If anything, the defense of the 2011 Astros will be better with Bill Hall at second and Clint Barmes at shortstop. With decent defense behind them, they’re probably a middle-of-the-pack Top 3 in the National League.

TNB: Is this the year people really start to take notice of Bud Norris?

Crawfish Boxes: That depends on whether he’s going to start against St. Louis 32 times. Norris has always owned the Cardinals, but struggled to get through six innings against everyone else. At least, that’s how he started the season. He was able to finish a little stronger, going deeper into games in the second half of the season.

He’s still got a problem in his pitching repertoire. He only throws a fastball, a slider and a change. That’s not a problem for some pitchers, but it makes it harder for him to get through a lineup two and three times. Hopefully, he’ll learn to mix in the change a little more this season to keep hitters off-balance. If he does that, he might make a mini-leap.

TNB: Hunter Pence has been eerily consistent with his stats by hitting 25 home runs each of the last three years and batted .282 in each of the last two. What should we expect from him in 2011?

Crawfish Boxes: Every year, Astros fans expect Pence to take his game to the next level. Every year, he puts up a season consistently like the year before. If he avoids another slow start to the season, Pence could get to 30 home runs. He also ran more selectively last season. If that continues, he might get to 20 steals.

Of course, Pence is also in his “prime.” As consistently as he’s performed, there’s always the possibility that he explodes for a career year. With his strikeout rate and fairly low walk rate, Pence may not hit much over .300 in a career year, but .300 with 30+ home runs and 20+ steals will probably get him invited to the All-Star game.

TNB: How do you see the 2011 Houston Astros performing?

Crawfish Boxes: Even in these heady days of spring, I’m still only “cautiously optimistic” about the Astros chances in 2011. So much has to go correctly for the Astros to win 85 games. I probably see them finishing closer to 75 wins. Of course, with the Cardinals suffering some injuries to the pitching staff and the Cubs being the Cubs, the NL Central could be more winnable than in the past.

To do that, they’d need Brett Wallace, Jason Castro and Chris Johnson to all have huge years, Carlos Lee to be productive and hit more than .240, Bill Hall and Clint Barmes to combine for about 35 home runs and Michael Bourn to hit more like he did in 2009. The pitching is good but not great, so they’ll need the offense to step up significantly from last year. Realistically, only one of the young guys will step up and the middle infield won’t provide nearly as much pop as GM Ed Wade hopes.

To me, this season is more about evaluating the young players, not wins and losses. I’m much more excited about that than the probable fifth place finish they’re headed for in the Central.