Big Ass MLB Preview 2012 – Houston Astros

Last season: 56-106 (6th in NL Central, 40 GB)

2011 Playoffs: Did not qualify

Josh says: Our language, the American English one, is utterly debased.  It happens to language, getting all messed up.  Yet the way we speak now is more vulgar and less meaningful than at any time in our Republic’s history.  Overcome by stimuli, we say that the cat is AWESOME (i.e. inspiring fear and trembling in the presence of greatness); we say the guacamole was EPIC (and thus deserves an versified celebration from our best poets); the most recent “Star Wars” re-re-release was the WORST THING EVER (which could be true).

So the words I use might be somewhat devoid in power, but I do not exaggerate from even Internet dictionary definitions when I say the Houston Astros are going to be abysmal, awful, no-good, roadkilled-skunk-in-the-July-Texan-sun-stinking bad this year.

Knowing that the Astros are going to be real bad without actually knowing a bit of offseason news pertaining to that team, I planned on talking about the one time I went to Houston and missed my exit and drove 15 miles before I realized I’d passed like six Best Buy signs and it was probably time to turn around.  Then I would conflate that experience with the stereotypical outsider’s view of Houston’s sprawly driving culture which presumably leads to lots of human isolation and anonymity, and BAM, there’s your metaphor for the 2012 Astros roster, seeing as how you could drive into a Whataburger and get your fast food handed out to you in a paper sack by 25 pairs of hands and not realize they were actually a professional baseball club just volunteering there for the day to help out some Girl Scouts.

This is a team that, during Spring Training, just sent two Major League players named Jason Bourgeois and Humberto Quintero to the Royals in exchange for an A-ball prospect and the ever-present Player To Be Named Later.  Guys who were blocking their prospects(?) are going to be bench filler for the ROYALS, they’re so deep in the pit from years of Win One for the Aging Grocery Distributing Billionaire mode, and exacerbated by the GM reign of Not Afraid to Trade (to the Phillies) Ed Wade.

Instead of perpetuating stereotypes, however, I did due diligence and asked my friend who lived in Houston for a while about the place and she told me that among all the sprawliness there are  enclaves where the big, breezy, wrap-around Southern houses still exist, all clapboards and bright paint, and so not all is faceless consumer marketing.

In the spirit of finding a few analogous bright spots for this Astros season I opened up their roster and started clicking around.

Jordan Schafer? Heard of him, the starting center fielder, acquired from the Braves for Michael Bourn, right?  He should be good….when he gets that 2011 .242/.309/.315 line up, just a bit.  He’s only 25. Brett Wallace? He’s been the trade chip for a while now. And he….might break camp with the team.  Fernando Martinez was really valued by the Mets, and the Astros had to give up a lot of…..time faxing in paperwork to get him off the waiver wire.  Maybe Carlos Lee dieted over the offseason.

All right, so, in what is now, again, a pitching-oriented game, the ‘Stros have three decent-to-maybe-good starters in Wandy Rodriguez, Bud Norris and  J.A. Happ.  So it’s unlikely they’ll approach the depths of the 43-win ‘03 Tigers or the 40-win ‘62 Mets.

That’s all there is to say about the 2012 Houston Astros.

Worth watching: New owner Jim Crane realized that he was in Texas and he shouldn’t listen to Internet Advocates, because Houston’s going to wear their throwback Colt .45 uniforms a few times this year, complete with long-barrel six-shooter.  Hopefully they break out the rainbows, too.

Featured Image Credit: Pat Sullivan, Associated Press

Big Ass MLB Preview 2012 – Chicago Cubs

Last season: 71-91 (5th in NL Central, 25 GB)

2011 Playoffs: Did not qualify

Josh says: Cubs fans needn’t worry: 2012 will not be the year that their club makes the jump from “lovable” losers to another one of those boring, winning, self-satisfied Big City teams that fill the stands with baseball ignoramuses and their pink-hatted girlfriends (though they draw a lot from that crowd already–the Lakeview Real Estate Tycoons are Lee Elia’s New Fifteen Percent).

The Cubs are hoping Theo Epstein, their new President of Baseball Operations, can turn around 105 years of futility. (Photo: Associated Press)

The bargain-bin Astros will be the only buffer between the Cubs and the basement of the NL Central this season, and when Houston departs for the Junior Circuit next year the Cubs will splat right down the stairs and stay for at least a year.

It’s okay, though, because the Cubbies are rebuilding. If the Goat or the Black Cat or the Bartman have lost their mystical power over the North Siders, with Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer established in Wrigley’s cramped front office, the rest of the division should be frightened…in 2015.

Today, Alfonso Soriano’s $136 million Hopscotch Happening (now featuring sub-.300 OBPs!) continues in left through 2014, and maybe they’ll extend the middling Matt Garza, but Garza (or his agent) has a very high self-worth. Starlin Castro turns 22 this week, is under team control through 2017 and has a nice bat, but plays Hanley Ramirez-like defense.  David DeJesus will be usefully forgettable, and Marlon Byrd will get paid another $5 million to be an affordable center fielder who is great trade bait (says everyone) but who no GM ever seems to want.  Carlos Marmol will continue to impersonate a bourbon-laced Jackson Pollock in the final inning , and Kerry Wood must really like being able to walk to Second City openings from his Old Town pad, because he’s back to give the Cubs 50 decent innings and cause about 5.73 million “He COULD have been CLEMENS” sweats in fans.

Those are the guys that you might have heard about. Oh yeah, and remember when Geovanny Soto was Rookie of the Year? And Ryan Dempster is now a guy who throws 200 innings, instead of a guy who throws 200 good innings.  Reed Johnson will fill the Hustlin’ White Guy role.

Anthony Rizzo is one of Chicago's best prospects and could force his way into the lineup this season. (Photo: Matt Kartozian, U.S. Presswire)

There is no Sean Marshall, sent to Cincinnati for a maybe-back-end-of-the-rotation guy in Travis Wood, a decent second base prospect in Ronald Torreyes, and Dave Sappelt, one of those adorable fifth outfielder types who is actually the size and physique of you or me. The Pirouetting Kosuke Fukodome is gone. So too Carlos Zambrano, who has taken his crusade against Gatorade to Miami, and Aramis Ramirez made the drive up to Brat&BeerWorld for $36 million. But there’s reason for a Cubs fan to be excited going forward, even those who thought that Jim Hendry was a competent baseball executive.  While presumptive starting first baseman Bryan LaHair is your typical Hendry-era prospect (28, picked up on the cheap from another organization, was really great  in Iowa last year [see Jake Fox]), Hoyer brought along 22-year-old stud first base prospect Anthony Rizzo from the Padres in exchange for Tyler Cashner, who was merely a reliever. Reportedly, the team has also signed a couple of Cubans: the 19-year-old hitting prodigy Jorge Soler and a 21-year-old lefty called Gerardo Concepcion.

However, those hopes are still far away.  The truth remains that in a world where the division’s front offices are all about even–and the remainder of the Central is being run very well right now, every team a threat to turn into the small-market success that was the past decade’s Cardinals–Chicago’s absurd superiority in market size should have the Cubs thinking in dynastic terms.

Yet, this year (and next year, and maybe for three more, or another 104) the Cubs will persist in being the Cubs.

Worth watching: Wrigley has some of the hardest-assed ushers in the game. April, 35 degrees, home team down 12-4, most teams will let you into everything but the cushy, free-drinks seats. Not the Cubs. Fortunately, most of their ushers have been on Social Security since FDR introduced it. The Lady With the Oxygen Tank, God love her and I hope she’s still there, is usually on the first base side and is your best bet for getting into the front rows. Chris Volstad is an interesting reclamation project. If you want to get into the bleacher bums’ spirit and insist on a mixed drink (rather than being a grown-up and packing a flask), bring it in a sealable pop bottle. Even if the door people do see the broken seal and drop it in the can with a disapproving stare, you can pluck it right out, no problem, and still have a way to make Cubs Baseball bearable.

Featured Image Credit: Associated Press

Big Ass MLB Preview 2012 – Chicago White Sox

Last season: 79-83 (3rd in AL Central, 16 GB)

2011 Playoffs: Did not qualify

With Ozzie Guillen headed south to Miami, Robin Ventura gets the call to manage the White Sox in 2012. (Photo: Associated Press)

Josh says: There are people in this world who do not like surprises.  They want life to be predictable, habitual, controlled, and though life throws its curveballs, they still know that at 7:20 a.m., give or take 90 seconds, Smiling Mikey will be staring across the table as the bowl of Life cereal goes down the gullet.

For the poor Life-eating folks who are pro-White Sox, we’ll keep this preview in expected territory:  Any discussion of the South Siders in 2012 begins with one Kenny Williams, General Manager and all-around Surprise Maestro.  There isn’t another franchise in American pro sports where the GM has such a cult of “What in the Sam Hill is he doing next?” surrounding him, and now that Ozzie Guillen has left for Miami, Williams’ erraticism rules all at U.S. Cellular Field.  The whole appeal of Robin Ventura, according to the beat writers, is his gritty calm, getting noogied by Nolan Ryan notwithstanding.

Maybe Kenny will blow it up! Maybe we’ll go for it all!  The man let Jim Thome walk four balls at a time up to the goshdarned Twins for a paltry $1.5 million.  He claimed Alex Rios off waivers and traded for Jake Peavy, with middling success.  He gave up Daniel Hudson to rent Edwin Jackson.  And he won a World Series with a staff led by Jose Contreras.

This offseason was no more scrutable than others.  Carlos Quentin was sent to San Diego for a couple of maybe-but-no pitching prospects after Williams signed John Danks to a big extension as rumors swirled around Gavin Floyd, and after trading closer Sergio Santos, under team control through 2017,  for a No. 4 pitching prospect.

Williams, after the Santos trade: “It is the start of a rebuilding. And you guys know I have not used that word in 12 years. But it is the start of a rebuilding. Now, is it the start of falling-domino rebuilding? No. Absolutely not.”

Best, then, that expectations are tempered for the 2012 season.  Rebuilding without knocking over dominoes indicates a level of play close to last year, which shouldn’t be hard to maintain for a 79-win team that outperformed its run differential.  Paul Konerko can still hit. A.J. Pierzynski will likely still have an almost-league-average bat coupled with terrible defense behind the plate. Danks, Floyd (if he’s not traded), a healthy Peavy and youngster Chris Sale could form a decent rotation, and the bullpen is okay.  If everyone else does the same or a little better than last year, the Sox can win maybe 80 games if they’re lucky again,  thanks to a bad division.

But! Yet! However! This team could surprise.  In a good way, Life-eaters.  No, it’s not likely that they keep up with the Tigers; but with two Wild Card spots and a couple of injuries to any or all of the Red Sox, Yankees, Rays, Angels and Rangers, the White Sox might be sitting there to take advantage.  A playoff spot in 2012 would be a Big Surprise, and it would require Adam Dunn to be at least average, and certainly better than his .192/.292/.277 2011.  More Big Ifs for the Pale Hose include long-touted prospects Dayan Viciedo (right field) and Tyler Flowers (catcher) producing, utilityman Brent Lillibridge giving them a similar line to his .845 2011 OPS in more at-bats, and the double-play combo of Alexei Ramirez and Gordon Beckham reverting to their rookie years, when both were above-average hitters.

Then Kenny Williams lands a Huge Surprise at the deadline, and you can Put It On The Board, YES, the White Sox have another unlikely shot at the Series.

Worth watching: If you have MLB.TV access, White Sox color guy Hawk Harrelson is the Greek idol of homerdom.  No, he’s no Uecker or Scully, but he’s grumpy in a fun way and has catchphrases all the way to Kankakee.  Lots of people hate him, naturally.  If there is an Adam Dunn revival, The Cell is a home run hitter’s dream park; a vintage Dunn and age-defying Konerko would be one of the better 3-4’s in the American League.

Featured Image Credit: Associated Press