The Astros aren't as bad as the doomsayers said they would be, and they've done it with pitching.
Houston is under new management and building from the ground up. They entered the season with a bunch of kids, washed-up prospects, also rans, has beens and Carlos Lee on the roster. But right now, they are 21-23 entering a series with the Dodgers, and in a pretty solid third place in the NL Central. Not bad for a team that was being labeled the worst team ever by the baseball punditocracy.
It's still to early for this season to be called a complete success, and this isn't a team that is playoff bound. But the Astros have outperformed teams picked to be way better than them in their own division, and that's an achievement even at this early juncture.
What's been fun about it is the way they are doing it.
Bud Norris has figured out how to pitch with the big boys after two years of being startlingly mediocre. Even though it's not a contract year, Norris entered this year in not in a position to be bad; if he was going to have any hope of scoring any kind of real pay raise in arbitration this offseason, he needed to show he was legit.
Norris' outings in May have been comical to say the least:
Four wins. Four starts. One earned run total. That's good for a microscopic 0.35 ERA over that span. Overall, his ERA has dropped from 4.58 entering the month to 3.14 now.
That's unreal, but Norris isn't the only one.
Wandy Rodriguez is showing that he can be a front-of-the-rotation pitcher. Rodriguez was never a bad pitcher, but a maddeningly inconsistent one, but he's putting together a year that harkens back to 2009, with a better K/BB ratio and a lower WHIP to boot so far.
Also, Lucas Harrell has put two and two together to be serviceable after showing very little in the White Sox system for several years, and J.A. Happ is a decent third starter who isn't getting torched as much as he was last year.
Ed Wade may have deserved to be fired for handing up a few dumb contracts, but he wasn't the worlds worst general manager. Several of the players performing well right now were his acquisitions. They may not have been the smartest moves (he got taken in the Pence trade, but robbed the Yankees for Lance Berkman, which in turn allowed Jeff Luhnow to commit the heist of the year with the Red Sox in the offseason.)
A big part of the success that is now starting to get some press? The bullpen has been phenomenal. Brett Myers and Wilton Lopez are among the most potent setup-closer combos in the league right now, and having lefty Wesley Wright (2.19 ERA) and the often maligned Brandon Lyon (1.65 ERA, 1.04 WHIP) ahead of them is something to brag about.
Fernando Rodriguez, Rhiner Cruz and Fernando Abad are all serviceable arms who are having good years for what they are. David Carpenter has closer-type stuff once he reins himself in. He has yet to demonstrate that he can hit corners, rather throwing off the plate then getting hit when he has to come out over it.
The only troubling part of the pitching staff this season has been the fifth starter spot, and not because Houston has gotten almost nothing out of it. Two prospects that are supposed to be almost there - Kyle Weiland and Jordan Lyles - have been mediocre at best in the fifth spot. Both are guys the Astros have put some piece of the team's future in, and for them to be as consistently mediocre as they have been is a little troubling.
The good thing? Trades last year helped close the gap a tad on the pitching front. Jarred Cosart and Dallas Keuchel are not far from the majors, and Keuchel (who is putting up adequate numbers in Triple A Oklahoma City right now) may even be ready for an audition at the pro level.
There's something to be said for the improvement. Call it luck, or whatever you will, but Houston is much better than they were last year. There is, at last, hope again at Minute Maid Park.
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