PAnews.com, Port Arthur, Texas

March 20, 2013

ON THE ASTROS: A plan is forming

David Coleman
The Port Arthur News

HOUSTON — On Tuesday night, Peter Gammon became the latest, if not the most respected, member of the national media to decry the travesty that will be the 2013 Astros.

A quick summary: Gammons is angry about the Astros payroll and bottomed-out roster because it flaunts the revenue sharing plan, will give Houston the top overall draft pick for multiple years in a row and mean there could be three playoff teams from the American League West thanks to their new punching bag.

It's a common theme based around the idea that Houston will be historically bad in 2013. It's also wrong.

I'm not saying the 2013 Astros will make the playoffs. I'm not even saying they'll break .500. They may lose 100 games, they may get the top pick in the draft and you may not be able to watch any of their games on TV here in Southeast Texas. But, they'll be improved over last season because the plan that Astros general manager Jeff Luhnow plopped on Jim Crane's desk during his interview for the job is taking shape.

Legend has it this plan was 27 pages long and filled with a step-by-step guide to making the Astros relevant on the field. Luhnow is in Year Two of that plan and we can see his fingerprints showing up on this team already. Luhnow has done two things that hint at a plan for building this team.

The first is all moving downward.

Luhnow inherited a rotation that was older and yet inexperienced all at the same time last season. So, he started trading away pieces and moving guys around, bringing in only one of his own guys to the starting rotation party.

Lucas Harrell wasn't even supposed to be in the Astros rotation at this time last season, but ended it as the team's most effective pitcher. How did he do it? By generating a ton of ground balls.

From there, Luhnow and his eclectic but whip-smart front office have collected as many sinkerball pitchers as they can find. They traded for Alex White, who has a great sinker. They signed Erik Bedard, who has developed a good sinker after going through his injury issues in Seattle. They also traded for Brad Peacock from Oakland, who promptly went out and started working on his sinker.

Teams focusing on generating a ton of ground balls isn't anything new, but Luhnow didn't stop there. He also went out and shored up his infield defense. He added an elite defender with an iffy bat for third base in Matt Dominguez. He signed Carlos Pena, one of the league's best fielding first basemen, to play first some percentage of the time.

Marwin Gonzalez should be a capable defender at shortstop. Second baseman Jose Altuve, though the defensive metrics didn't like him last season, had a good reputation in the field during his minor league career.

Suddenly, the Astros mediocre pitching staff of no-names can be elevated by keeping the ball from ever elevating off a bat. With an infield defense that Hoovers up anything on the ground, the Astros can afford to play a defensive liability like Chris Carter in left field.

The 2012 Cleveland Indians tried that strategy to middling effect. Their extreme ground ball staff, headed by Justin Masterson and Derek Lowe, didn't move the needle on the Indians win total by much. However, the pitching aspect is just the first part of Luhnow's master plan.

Carter figures prominently into the second part and it's all got to do with power. The team Luhnow inherited after the 2011 season failed to hit at least 100 home runs for the first time since 1992, when Houston played in the cavernous confines of the Astrodome.

As bad as Houston was last season, would you believe Luhnow's Astros hit 51 more home runs than they had in 2011? With almost no contributions from guys like Carlos Lee? Luhnow wanted power and he got it any way he could. The 2013 Astros, according to multiple preseason projection systems like the Bill James model and the ZiPS model created by Dan Symborski, should hit even more home runs than they did last season.

In fact, the 2013 Astros should hit anywhere from 175-180 home runs. That would have put them on the cusp of MLB's top 10 last season. Teams can make the playoffs without hitting home runs, like the Cardinals, Braves and Reds proved, but, it's infinitely easier to slug your way there like the Baltimore Orioles did last season.

The beauty of what Luhnow did is that none of his players are projected to hit more than 28 home runs. He filled a team with guys who could hit 15-17 home runs given the right playing time. Everyone can hit with some pop, even if they don't all have the power of Giancarlo Stanton.

Compare that to the other teams picked at the bottom of the league again in 2013. The Marlins are projected to hit 119 home runs, even with Stanton's 40. The Twins? 140. The Cubs? 148.

Even the Seattle Mariners, who added sluggers like Michael Morse and Kendrys Morales, are only projected to hit 170 home runs. That'd be less than the Astros, if you're scoring at home.

Pitchers who keep the ball on the ground and hitters who knock it over the fence won't guarantee Houston any more wins this season. But, when one is added to the other, it gives a pretty clear picture of where the Astros front office is steering this team.

The Astros will be more competitive than people expect and surprise some national pundits like Gammons, but that's not what matters.

This season, it's all about that plan coming together.

David Coleman is a sports writer for the Port Arthur News. He can be e-mailed at dcoleman@panews.com