HOUSTON -- There's a new man in charge of the Astros' rebuilding project, with general manager Jeff Luhnow entering 2012 tasked with the assignment of returning the team to contention after a club-record 106 losses last season.
While the Major League team appears to be a few years away from making noise in the playoff chase, Luhnow's cupboard isn't empty. The Astros' ever-improving Minor League system began to produce some fruit last year when players like J.D. Martinez, Jose Altuve, Jimmy Paredes, Jordan Lyles and David Carpenter made their big league debuts and showed some promise.
The Astros' final season in the National League will be important in their rebuilding process. While the young players who got their feet wet in 2011 will need to continue to develop, the Astros will likely depend upon even more new faces in 2012.
As you would expect with a team with so much uncertainty, there are question marks all over the diamond. The challenge for the Astros and Luhnow will be to try to continue to find the right players to answer those questions.
So, as you ring in a new year, here are a few key questions facing the Astros in 2012:
10. Is Jordan Schafer the man in center field?
Schafer didn't get off to a good start with the Astros after coming over in a midseason trade with the Braves. He was injured when he joined the club and batted only .245 with a .314 on-base percentage in a limited role when healthy. Still, he's athletic and runs very well, and the club remains committed to him next year, or at least until 2011 first-round Draft pick George Springer reaches the Major Leagues. Schafer, 25, has plenty he needs to show Luhnow as he enters his first full season with the Astros.
9. What is the status of Brett Wallace and Chris Johnson?
Opening Day starters in 2011, Wallace and Johnson will come to spring camp fighting for a spot on the roster. Johnson, the starting third baseman last year, couldn't overcome his slow start and wound up in the Minors, and Wallace, the starting first baseman, started hot and cooled as the season progressed and went to Triple-A with Johnson. Paredes is now the starter at third, but Johnson could put himself in the mix with a good spring. Wallace is behind Carlos Lee at first but could find his way back in the lineup if the Astros decide to move Lee back to left field and put Martinez in right.
8. Who is going to hold down right field?
Brian Bogusevic, a left-handed hitter, got most of the starts in right field in the second half of last year and finally showed some potential, hitting .287 with four homers and 15 RBIs in 164 at-bats. Bogusevic is appealing because of his athleticism and his ability to hit the long ball on occasion, but he batted just .154 against left-handed pitching. Jason Bourgeois had a terrific 2011 season and saw some action in right and figures to be in the mix at all three outfield spots. There's a chance the Astros could move Lee to left field and push Martinez to right, but that's a long shot.
7. Is Jordan Lyles ready for the Major Leagues?
Lyles was the Astros' top prospect when he made his debut in 2011 at the age of 20. He made 15 starts and was 2-7 with a 5.02 ERA before the Astros decided to option him to Triple-A Oklahoma City in an effort to limit his innings. It wouldn't be surprising to see Lyles begin the year back in the Minors considering his age and the fact the Astros have plenty of options to fill out the bottom of their rotation. There's no reason to rush Lyles at this point of his career on a team that's rebuilding.
6. What can we expect from Lee in the final year of his contract?
Say what you will about Lee, but he's still a solid run-producer at age 35. The burly slugger smacked 18 homers and drove in a team-high 94 runs last year while making the move to first base in the second half of the season. Lee is entering the final year of his six-year, $100 million deal and has averaged 101 RBIs in the first five years of the deal, though his production has slipped the last two seasons. He'll be the oldest, highest-paid and most-accomplished offensive hitter on the team in 2012, so he'll continue to work under a microscope.
5. Who will pitch at the bottom of the rotation?
Barring a trade, the Astros will begin the season with Wandy Rodriguez, Bud Norris, Brett Myers and J.A. Happ at the top of the rotation. That's not a bad place to start, especially if Myers pitches like he did in the second half last year and Happ gets things together. Beyond that, there's no shortage of candidates to compete for the final spot, or perhaps the final two spots if there's a trade. The group includes Lyles, Lucas Harrell, Henry Sosa and Kyle Weiland, who was acquired from the Red Sox in the Mark Melancon trade.
4. Who will be the closer?
Melancon did a nice job at closer for the final four months of the 2011 season after veteran Brandon Lyon went down with an arm injury, but the Astros dealt him to the Red Sox and opened up some questions about who will be pitching the ninth inning in 2012. Lyon should return healthy and appears to be the front-runner for the job, but Rule 5 draftee Rhiner Cruz and second-year reliever Carpenter have the stuff to close at some point. Lyon is in the final year of his three-year deal and remains the best option, if healthy.
3. Can Martinez, Paredes and Altuve handle a full season in the Majors?
As the torch was passed from veterans to rookies last year, Martinez, Paredes and Altuve rose to the top of the Astros' class of 20 rookies that made their debuts in 2011. Martinez started in left, Paredes at third base and Altuve at second and had mixed results, but each showed promise. Martinez was named the team's Rookie of the Year. The Astros remain committed to all three entering 2012 and have no reason not to give them a long leash to prove they are capable Major League hitters.
2. What kind of an impact will Jed Lowrie have in his first season in Houston?
The Astros acquired Lowrie, 27, from the Red Sox to be their starting shortstop in 2012 and hope this will be a breakout year for the former first-round Draft pick. The biggest challenge for Lowrie will be remaining healthy. He never played in more than 88 games in his four years with the Red Sox. Lowrie doesn't possess great range at shortstop, but his strength is his ability to hit left-handed pitching. He's a career .326 hitter with a .385 on-base percentage against left-handers but against right-handers is just a .214 hitter with a .293 on-base percentage.
1. Will catcher Jason Castro be healthy to start the season?
Castro, who underwent surgery Dec. 9 to remove the sesamoid bone in his left foot, said he believes he'll be able to be in the starting lineup on Opening Day in 2012 for the first time in his career. The projected recovery time from Castro's injury is three months, which would put him back on the field in the middle of Spring Training. After missing all of the 2011 season because of major knee surgery, the team's No. 1 pick in 2008 was already going to be handled with care in 2012. How much of a workload he can handle remains to be seen.