After clinging to respectability the last four seasons, the Astros finally bottomed out in 2011.
At 56-106, Houston had its worst season ever and lost 100 games for the first time. It took a total team effort, with the Astros ranking 13th in the National League in scoring (despite playing in a hitter's park), 16th and last in runs allowed and 15th in both defensive efficiency and fielding percentage.
The club's disintegration has several obvious causes, such as a decline in Opening Day payroll from $103 million (eighth in MLB) as recently as 2009 to $71 million (20th) in 2011. The franchise is in limbo this offseason as it awaits the finalizing of a sale from Drayton McLane to Jim Crane for $680 million, which also includes a 60 percent share in the Houston Regional Sports Network. MLB continues to look into Crane's past and is trying to nudge the team into the American League.
The most obvious reason for Houston's collapse is its failures in scouting and player development. Once a pace-setter in Venezuela, the Astros now hang their Latin program's hat on Jose Altuve, a 5-foot-7 scrapper who led the minors in batting but made little impact in his big league debut. Altuve was one of four players who went from instructional league in 2010 to the majors in 2011, along with righthander David Carpenter, outfielder J.D. Martinez and third baseman Jimmy Paredes.
Martinez is a rare draft success for Houston, which had a brutal run from 2005-07. Just four players from those three drafts have reached the majors, ranking worst in MLB. Only one player has provided long-term big league value: 2006 sixth-rounder Bud Norris.
Bobby Heck took over as scouting director in 2008 and the organization has made progress, but it has been slow. The organization's emphasis on athleticism and raw tools still could pay dividends, but Heck's drafts have produced only four big leaguers so far: Jason Castro, Jordan Lyles, Martinez and J.B. Shuck. How much of an impact they'll make remains to be seen.
With the big league club foundering and the upper levels of the system still thin, Houston traded two of its most marketable commodities in July for five members of its current Top 10. Hunter Pence went to the Phillies for four minor leaguers, including first baseman/left fielder Jonathan Singleton (No. 1), righthander Jared Cosart (No. 2) and outfielder Domingo Santana (No. 6). Righthander Paul Clemens (No. 5) and lefty Brett Oberholtzer (No. 7) arrived in a four-player package from the Braves for Michael Bourn.
The added depth should allow the Astros to slow down the development of young prospects such as shortstop Jonathan Villar, second baseman Delino DeShields Jr. and righthander Mike Foltynewicz Several players could repeat levels after looking overmatched in 2011, when Houston's affiliates combined for an MLB-worst .409 winning percentage in the minors. Due to their poor drafts and foreign presence, the Astros have finished 30th in organization winning percentage in three of the last four years, and they ranked 29th in 2010.
As one veteran scout put it, "When you have one bad draft, it takes two good ones to make up for it." So Heck and the Astros are digging out of a deep, deep hole.