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MLB Handicapping: Astros Move to AL West
by - 2/20/2013

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Houston Astros Lucas Harrell

Fifteen years after the Milwaukee Brewers left the American League to join the NL Central, that division is losing a team back to the American League. The Houston Astros are heading to the AL West — arguably the toughest division in baseball right now. The move balances the numbers in the two leagues, but it also means that we never get a break from the horrors of interleague play — with odd numbers in both leagues there will always be at least one interleague series from now on. In the long term the move could be a good one for the Astros.  They get to build a rivalry with the Rangers, their travel is better, and fans will get to watch more road games that start later in the evening. The long term doesn’t matter for bettors, though. What we want to know is simple — what is this move going to mean now, and what can we expect from the Astros as a result? Let’s take a look:

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Payroll is laughable

Given the payroll the team has, it really doesn’t matter what division they are playing in — things are going to be tough no matter what. They have traded away every player that cost any real money with an eye to rebuilding for the future — or at least that’s what they say. It leaves them with a payroll of active players that will be in the neighborhood of $21 million dollars — less than more than a dozen players in the league make by themselves. Their biggest single payment will be to Wandy Rodriguez — a pitcher who doesn’t play for them anymore. Their fifth-highest paid player will be pitcher Phil Humber at $800,000. By contrast, the fifth-highest paid player on the free-spending Dodgers is Josh Beckett. He makes $15.75 million this year. The highest-paid player on the Astros is Bud Norris at just $3 million. The bat boy in L.A. makes about that much.

A low payroll doesn’t automatically eliminate a team — just ask the A’s last year. When a payroll is this ridiculously low, though, it’s very hard to contend. To pay players this little you are either made up of old guys with little left or youngsters with little experience. Die-hard fans of the team will point out that the Florida Marlins in 2008 had an opening day payroll of just $21.8 million, yet they went on to win 84 games. The difference is, though, that that team had Hanley Ramirez, Dan Uggla and Josh Willingham making minimum-level salaries. If there is that kind of talent on this team it will emerge as a surprise.

Legacy of lousiness

This team has averaged 106.5 losses in each of the last two years. The only team that has lost 106 or more games in three or more straight seasons is the expansion Mets. That’s a bright side I guess — this team has a very good chance to make history.

Brutal division

Even if this team had a chance to be reasonably competitive in the best of circumstances — which they don’t — they would be in trouble here. The divisional schedule for the Astros is going to be filled with horrors. The Angels are loaded with a strong rotation and power bats that never end. The Rangers have retooled and have a competitive new look without Hamilton. The A’s are out to prove that last year’s playoff appearance was no fluke, and they are good enough to be in the mix. The Mariners have invested heavily this offseason, and with some luck they could be contenders as well. There is no soft spot for the Astros, and there likely won’t be a series against a divisional opponent all year in which they are favored. Welcome to the AL!

Everything is new

We’ve seen in interleague play that it can take teams a while to get used to playing against new players and playing in new cities. For the Astros, everything will be new this year. They will have no history of scouting reports and experience to fall back on. They won’t know the quirks of the stadiums they visit. On top of that, they aren’t going to be versed in the use to the DH and the strategic changes that that causes. That could make a rough season even rougher — especially in the first half while they are finding their way. You could argue that the team will have a bit of an advantage when playing interleague games because of the familiarity they will have, but that’s hardly enough to plan a parade around.

New manager

Bo Porter, the new manager, is a high-energy guy, and he has had some good experience with the Nationals the last two years. It’s hard to get too excited about him, though. He is managing for the first time, and he has only six years of experience as a coach at the major league level. He’s in for a period of adjustment in his new role, and that certainly won’t be made any easier by what he has to work with. Connie Mack himself probably couldn’t do much with this roster, but Porter is another reason to believe that this team is on the fast track to 106 losses again.

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