December 12th, 2012
In April, the Astros make their big move from the NL Central to the AL West. Except for Astros fans, most view the change as a footnote to the 2013 MLB schedule. I see this as a change that can have a profound effect on the competitive landscape in the AL. Houston is not just a “typical” team. In 2012 they were baseball’s worst team at 55 wins. Given the mindset of their general manager, Jeff Luhnow, entering his second year in the job, I would expect the Astros to get worse before they get better. Jeff has been keenly aware of need to deal his bonafide major league contributors to acquire young talent. The goal is not to always have the best players you can assemble, but rather to have enough good players in a window of time to contend for the postseason or a championship. When a 55-win team has a player (or two) that has value to another team, the only sensible move is to deal the player for future prospects—like the Wandy Rodriguez trade in the middle of last season. This translates into a weaker major league roster and less wins today, in exchange for the promise of more wins tomorrow. The talent gap between the Astros and the rest of baseball is already huge and expected to grow in the short term. For perspective on Houston’s deficiencies last season, they logged a .654 OPS against left-handed pitching, while the Cardinals and the Yankees pounded an .835 OPS and an .802 OPS, respectively. This season their offense should be buoyed somewhat by the addition of a designated hitter, but they will also play more of their games in pitcher friendly parks in the AL West.
The net result—the 2013 Astros will be playing against tougher competition in the AL West (and against the AL in general), and they should be a somewhat inferior team to the one that won 55 games in 2012. Combine that likelihood with the unbalanced schedule against two playoff teams—Texas and Oakland—and a playoff contender, the Angels, and the prospects for the 2013 Astros is bearish. If they 110 to 115 games, they will sprinkle their losses around the AL Central and AL East, but they will deliver them in bulk to the AL West. They will play 72 games against the A’s, Rangers, Angels and Mariners—18 against each. The net result could be 4 or 6 additional wins each for the four AL West teams, based on the difference between playing the Astros versus a broad mix of AL teams. These additional wins could deliver three teams from the AL West into the playoffs.
Houston’s transition to the AL has serious implications for the AL East. With the win totals for the top three AL West teams likely to rise, the AL East may be sending only the division winner to the postseason. Historically, two AL East teams would be among the four AL clubs in the playoffs. With last year’s expanded wild card, AL East teams had visions of three clubs making the postseason. That seems far less likely today because Houston will give more gifts to the AL West. The offseason has a long way to go, but by April, we may be picking the A’s, Angels and Rangers as playoff favorites, while cautioning the AL East that winning the division may be the only path to October.