Catching stability could go a long way in 2012.
While it would be impossible to narrow the options down to one particular element that made the 2011 season so, ahem, difficult to stomach, there actually is one moment that could probably be identified as a turning point.
It occurred about a month before the season even started. During a spring game against the Tigers in Lakeland, Jason Castro’s foot landed awkwardly on first base, and a few days later, it was determined the ACL in his knee was torn. In that instant, his season was over.
I won’t be so dramatic as to say that taking Castro out of the equation was the only reason why the Astros lost 106 games last year. A lot of other things had to go wrong, and did. But the instability of the catching situation likely contributed mightily to why the season was over even before it even started. Losing Castro was bad enough. Going without Humberto Quintero for segments of the season as well just exacerbated the problem.
The Astros were forced to rely on their third- and fourth-string catchers to carry a lot of the load, and while the merry-go-round of catchers did an admirable job, the predicament behind the plate was a glaring issue that never really went away. If it’s true that the catcher controls the game and the psyche of a pitcher largely depends on his comfort level with his battery mate, then it’s not all that shocking that things fell apart for the Astros early and they never got on track.
I’ve been getting a lot of emails and tweets from fans asking “What should I be looking for from the team this year” and “Why should I believe in this team” and “Give me a reason to watch this team” and on and on and on.
I cannot predict how many games the Astros will win or lose. That’s not just my way of avoiding the questions. I truly do not know how this group will perform, mainly because so many of the players expected to make the Opening Day roster have very short Major League track records. I believe that Jose Altuve and J.D. Martinez are in a good position to build on their abbreviated rookie seasons last year, and all signs point to Bud Norris having the kind of year that a top-of-the-rotation starter should have.
Several other players have been impressive this spring, and while you cannot and should not draw too much from Spring Training performances, the offensive production has been encouraging.
The one very strong conviction I have, and the only prediction I’m really willing to make, is that I believe the stability of the catching situation will have a very positive impact on the pitching staff. I do not know how many more wins that will translate to. There’s no way to measure that element on a piece of paper. Even the nerdiest of stat geeks would be stumped to try to figure out how many points you can shave off a pitcher’s ERA simply because he has a smart, competent catcher behind the plate.
So while I cannot give you guarantees or proof to back up my prediction. I will say only that Castro and Chris Snyder are a very, very good catching tandem and much better than anything the Astros experimented with last year. I believe it will go a long way.
Five position players who have never before been on a Major League Opening Day roster are among the 25 players who are going to make the team out of Spring Training, and general manager Jeff Luhnow and manager Brad Mills wanted to make it a special occasion. So they called the five — Altuve, Brian Bogusevic, Castro, Marwin Gonzalez and Martinez — into Mills’ office and gave them to the good news all at once.
This announcement in no way gives any indication on how the rest of the roster will shake out. The team announced it as five position players who were informed they’re making the team. There are players who have never made an Opening Day roster who are still in the running to make this one. J.B. Shuck has never made an Opening Day roster, but the fact that he wasn’t in this group of five does not indicate he won’t make the team. Shuck is simply among a couple of outfielders still auditioning for a spot, and the outfield situation is still yet to be resolved.