Houston Astros

Right now, for the Houston Astros, itʼs all about baby steps.

​Sunday afternoon, the Astros beat the Toronto Blue Jays 6-1 on their home turf at Minute Maid Park. They lost the opener, but it was their third win in a four game series. Even more surprising: the Astros dismantled the Blue Jays with seemingly relative ease.

Itʼs been a rough season for Houston, who currently hold the third worst record in the major leagues, as opposed to their previous position in last place overall. But the last two series have been a narrative of improvement for the team, with the Astros finally showing some completeness to their game while winning both decisively.

The Blue Jays are something of a dark horse contender this season, but theyʼre one of the hottest teams in the sport right now. Theyʼre scrappy. Theyʼre hungry. They were perfectly capable of blowing out the shaky Astros.

And on Sunday they staggered out of Houston after being handed three losses in a row.

Hitting the ball well has evidently gotten easier for the Astros in recent weeks, and has finally been happening with some consistency.

This was an area of major concern for Houston; with both George Springer and Dexter Fowler on the disabled list, where the offense and runs were going to come from was a question that needed to be answered quickly.

In spite of their depleted lineup, somehow, the Astros have done a better-than-average job, with at least five runs in six of the last seven games. Even more impressive, this has happened without much help from the home run ball.

For the bulk of the season, Houston only ever seemed to score on homers. Lately, however, theyʼve switched up their strategy, forcing the ball to the other side of the field. This has produced results and helped save the bullpen.

The Astros can also largely thank their pitchers for their recent upswing. In the last week of play, Dallas Keuchel has been consistent, and managed to lower his ERA to under three. On eight hits, Scott Feldman gave up only one run Sunday. And Brett Oberholtzer, recently recalled from the minors, has had both of his starts in the last week end in wins, with an ERA of 3.29.

The final product for the team is still a really long way off. Theyʼre nowhere close to where they want to be, and arenʼt likely to start posting a stellar win percentage anytime soon. But games are beginning to come together for the struggling franchise, things are starting to make sense to the rosterʼs young players.

Theoretically, this trend should continue as time passes and experience is gained. The only place the Astros can go from here is up. Right?

  • A.J. Reed is having a pretty good year.

    The Houston Astrosʼ second round selection from this yearʼs Major League Baseball Draft was awarded the Golden Spikes Award, as per USA Baseball on Thursday. The honor, which is bestowed on the best amateur player in the country, is voted on by over 200 panel members, sponsored by the MLB Playersʼ Association and is actually in its thirty-seventh year of being awarded. Reed, a left-handed first baseman, was presented with the award on ESPNʼs program SportsCenter hours after USA Baseball made the announcement.

    Through 28 games with the Astros Class A Short Season affiliate, the Tri-City ValleyCats, Reed has been batting .311 with nine doubles, three home runs, 22 RBI and a .900 OPS.

    Hailing from the University of Kentucky, Reed acted as the Wildcatsʼ starting Friday night pitcher, and was 12-2 with a 2.09 ERA this year. This season, the lefty led all of Division I in homers (23), slugging percentage (.735), and OPS (1.211), while batting .336. He was second in total overall bases (164) and third in RBI (73). He is the first Golden Spikes Award winner in Wildcats history.

    No stranger to honors, earlier this year Reed also received the Dick Howser Award, and was named Collegiate Baseballʼs National Player of the Year, Baseball America College Player of the Year, Collegiate Baseball Newspaper National Player of the Year and Southeastern Conference Player of the Year. He was also named a first-team All-American by Collegiate Baseball, the NCBWA and Baseball America.

    Reed is in good company; winners of the Golden Spikes Award have had a great track record as of late. Since 2007, winners have included David Price, Buster Posey, Stephen Strasburg, Bryce Harper, Trevor Bauer, Mike Zunino and Kris Bryant.

    Clocking in at 6ʼ4” and 240 pounds, Reed beat out fellow finalists Michael Conforto of Oregon Sate and Aaron Nola of LSU.

When Sports Illustrated crowns a baseball franchise to be the World Champions of 2017, it’s going to be considered a bold prediction.

This is especially true when that team is the perennially cellar dweller like the Houston Astros, who currently sit at the very bottom of the American League West.

It’s no secret that the Astros are currently in the middle of a major rebuilding effort that is not limited to the players alone; the front office has undergone a major overhaul in the last three years, both in personnel and philosophy.

Expensive veterans have been traded, young, long-term prospects have been stockpiled and a lot of losing has taken place.

But an eye toward the future has kept the Astros moving in the right direction; general manager Jeff Luhnow deserves much of the credit for the team’s recent resurgence, through stressing player development and placing an unusually large emphasis on a complicated statistics system. The system, run by resident analytics expert and ex-blackjack dealer and NASA employee Sig Mejdal and his team, turns all known information about players and prospects into a single language, including but not limited to personality traits, player statistics, family background, medical history and body mechanics. The system then compares the current player to all past players in the system since 1997, in the hope there will be a correlation to help predict a player’s future. This results in a projection of the number of runs the franchise can expect from the player and how much the player will likely be paid.

In the 2014 MLB Draft, the Astros had the first pick for the third consecutive year in a row. Mejdalʼs system led the team to an unusual draft choice in Brady Aiken, a left- handed high school pitcher out of California. High school pitchers are easily the riskiest and most volatile prospects as their youth lends itself especially well to a short career either because of injury of lack of player development over time. But of the Astros four preferred choices, two of them, Aiken and Tyler Kolek, were high school pitchers. The team’s system indicated that Aiken, who likely wonʼt come into his prime until 25 or 26, was the best player of the entire 2014 draft crop. The adherence of the front office to the systemʼs choice is a testament to the teamʼs new philosophy: an enormous amount of weight is placed on what makes statistical sense in the teamʼs decision making process nowadays, rather than emotion or vanity.

Since the sale of the team to Jim Crane in 2011, and the installment of Luhnow, results are slowly trickling in. The teamʼs farm system, not long ago ranked at the bottom of the league, is now considered one of the best. This past May, the team went 15-14, their first winning month since September of 2010.

The numbers and the system are in place, but the Astros front office is hoping the results will continue to improve. If Luhnow and his team of analysts receive the desired outcome, this has the potential to be the most interesting instance of Revenge of the Nerds in the last thirty years.

We’re roughly 25 games into the Major League Baseball season and the two teams from the Lone Star State have experienced mixed results.

For the Texas Rangers, the record looks good but it seems as if the problems of old have returned. The batting is as good as ever, but pitching is where this team’s problems lie.

The Rangers rank 16th in the league with a 3.85 ERA so far this season. The only pitchers that seem to be on track are team ace Yu Darvish and Martin Perez. Both maintain earned run averages below two.

Darvish has picked up right where he left off last season, striking out tons of batters while allowing minimal damage.

As of right now, the Rangers are a half game ahead of Oakland in the American League West. To make matters worst, the Rangers have added Tanner Schepprers to their list of injuries in this young season..

If the Rangers hope to contend for a division title this season, the pitching must get better. Matt Harrison has come off the disabled list and the staff is whole again.

The Astros are a whole other matter. Last in the league in all major batting categories and 26th in earned run average, the Astros are once again seated comfortably in dead last in the American League.

The Astros have the exact opposite set of problems than the Rangers but the issues for Houston are to a much worse degree.

The Astros have scored only 80 runs this season, the second fewest in the MLB, while giving up 130 runs to opposing teams. This is perhaps the reasoning for the early arrival of highly touted minor league prospect George Springer.

Springer made his debut in Houston against the Royals last Wednesday. As a minor leaguer last season, Springer narrowly missed becoming the first player in 50 years to post a 40-40 season in the minors, posting 37 homers and 42 stolen bases.

So far, the only ray of light in the starting rotation has been the newly acquired Scott Feldman from the Rangers. Feldman has posted 1.69 ERA and a 2-1 record through four starts so far this season.

It looks though, despite glimpses of hope here and there, that the Astros are headed for another season in the division cellar. There will be a few more prospects called up throughout the year, names like Jonathan Singleton and Carlos Correa, but the Astros won’t make too much noise until 2015 or 2016. 

Spring is approaching, and with it comes the Major League Baseball season.

For the last several years, that statement has not brought very much excitement to fans of the Houston Astros.

The Astros, or “Lastros” as many Houston fans have come to know them, have posted at least 100 losses and finished in the division cellar each of the last three seasons.

This year, the Astros and their fan base have plenty of reason to be excited. The organization has slowly assembled the top ranked farm system in all of baseball.

When Jim Crane took over the organization in late 2011, the game plan was to cut payroll by trading big names like Hunter Pence, Lance Berkman, and Carlos Lee for young prospects – rebuilding from the ground up.

Unloading the team’s best talent certainly did the job. The Astros plummeted in the standings, earning high first round picks in the MLB Draft over the last few seasons.

Now, Houston is beginning to realize the fruits of its labor. Outfielder George Springer and shortstop Carlos Correa are widely regarded among the top prospects in all of major league baseball.

Springer has noticeable power and won’t stay in the minor leagues for too much longer. He posted a .303 average with a staggering 37 homeruns in 2013 for the Corpus Christi Hooks and Oklahoma City Redhawks, the Astros’ AA and AAA affiliates.

Springer will make Astros fans forget all about the loss of Hunter Pence in 2011. He’s the same type of player – tons of power when he makes contact with the ball, and plenty of speed around the bases to go along with it.

That said, few people are talking about starting pitcher Michael Foltynewicz of the Corpus Christi Hooks. Foltynewicz posted a sub three ERA in over one hundred innings last season in Corpus.

That seems typical for minor league players with decent talent, but what makes Foltynewicz so special is his fastball, which tops out at over 100 mph.

It’s clear that the Astros have talent everywhere, exceptional talent. To put the impact of it’s rebuilding process in perspective, here is a look at what Houston’s roster could look like within the next three years:

 

Starting Lineup:

1. 2B Jose Altuve – Current Astros second baseman

2. SS Carlos Correa – 2012 first overall selection

3. OF George Springer – 2011 11th overall selection

4. 1B Jonathan Singleton – Acquired from the Phillies in the Hunter Pence trade 

5. C Jason Castro – 2008 10th overall selection

6. 3B Matt Dominguez – 2007 12th overall selection

7. OF Delino DeShields – 2010 eighth overall selection

8. OF Domingo Santana – Acquired in the Hunter Pence trade

Pitching Rotation:

Mark Appel – 2013 first overall selection

Carlos Rondon – 2014 projected first overall selection

Michael Foltynewicz – 2010 19th overall selection

Jarred Cosart – 1.95 ERA in 10 games in 2013 

Brett Oberholtzer – Acquired in Michael Bourn trade

 

If all of these players took the field today, the average age of the Houston Astros would be 23.

Jim Crane and his front office have done an excellent job of keeping all of the young stars under contract with big signing bonuses and lucrative minor league deals.

General Manager Jeff Luhnow and Crane are waiting to bring all of the key players up together. Once that happens, Crane is expected to fork out a little more money for a few key free agents to put his club back into contention. 

Photo Credit: Shelby Tauber | Daily Texan Staff

The day after a national champion was crowned in Omaha, Longhorns right-hander Nathan Thornhill talks about hoping that he’s a part of the dogpile there this time next year.

Thornhill was selected in the 24th round of the 2013 MLB Draft by the Houston Astros, who gave him the biggest offer they could but it wasn’t enough to sign the 6-footer from Cedar Park. Instead, Thornhill wants to right the Texas ship after the Longhorns missed out on the postseason each of the last two years.

“One day, I’d be leaning toward signing and the next day I’d be leaning toward coming back. I could never really get any clarity on what was best for me,” Thornhill said. “The University of Texas has done a lot for me. They took a chance on me coming out of high school and gave me shot to fulfill my dreams. This decision was a great decision for me and it was also a decision that was made for a bigger cause and that cause is our school.”

Thornhill went 3-6 with a 2.21 ERA, striking out 60 and walking 15 in 85 1/3 innings last season. Thornhill has made 54 career appearances, including 26 starts, going 10-11 with a 2.83 ERA over the last three years and holding opposing hitters to a .238 batting average.

Other than the win-loss record, Thornhill put up good numbers in 2013 yet slipped in the draft. He was the last of four Longhorns picked this year, the others being closer Corey Knebel (1st round, Tigers), third baseman Erich Weiss (11th round, Pirates), and right fielder Mark Payton (16th round, Angels).

“I was a little surprised. I thought I was going to be drafted earlier,” Thornhill said. “There’s anxiety. There’s being nervous and there’s a little frustration because you’re wondering when it’s going to happen. When it finally happened, it was just excitement and relief. It was a great feeling.”

After spending most of his freshman year in the Texas bullpen, Thornhill was named the team’s ace before his sophomore season. He was a middle reliever by the end of that 2012 season before becoming the team’s No. 3 starter, behind sophomores Parker French and Dillon Peters, last year.

“We are thrilled to have Nathan back for the 2014 season,” pitching coach Skip Johnson said. “Having him back is a huge boost to our pitching staff, and we are excited to get going again this fall. We feel like this pitching staff will have a great mix of leadership, experience talent and dedication.”

All three – Thornhill, French and Peters – will return for the 2014 season, along with sophomore John Curtiss, who missed all of last year after undergoing Tommy John surgery on his right elbow. A spot in the Longhorns’ rotation isn’t guaranteed but, following a solid junior season, it’s hard to imagine Texas leaving Thornhill out.

“I’m not sure who is going to have what roles. I’ve been a starter and I’d like to continue on that path,” Thornhill said. “I’ve been pretty versatile as a pitcher. I’ve never thought that I can only do one thing.”

While the Longhorns return each of their three starting pitchers, they’ll have a new closer. While Weiss and Payton still mull the decision to sign or stay, Knebel has agreed to terms with the Tigers after saving 37 games in three years at Texas.

While Thornhill wants to be a starter, he wouldn’t mind being asked to be the team’s closer.

“I’d be honored that they would have that much faith in me,” Thornhill said. “That’d be a compliment to me, not so much to my ability but more to my mental toughness and the fact that I like to attack. I wouldn’t be mad about that. I’d be honored.”

Like Huston Street in 2002 and J. Brent Cox in 2005, David Berg closed out a national title-clinching win for UCLA on Tuesday night. The Bruins completed a sweep of Mississippi State to capture their first national championship in program history.

UCLA relied on its pitching and defense to win that title, hitting only .250 as a team in 2013 while posting a team ERA of 2.55. Texas, a team that is similarly built but was forced to watch the NCAA Tournament from home, hit .260 as a team this year while posting a 2.53 team ERA.

“It was cool to see a team with a similar style as us win it all because it shows we’re on the right track,” Thornhill said. “We’ve just got to get better at what we do.”

The Bruins won 49 games this season, 22 more than the Longhorns. Similar styles, different results. Thornhill is looking to change that next year.

“I can’t even say how great of a feeling that would be,” Thornhill said. “We have a tradition at Texas where winning it all is something that we want to do and something that’s kind of expected. Getting [to the College World Series] and you need to win when you get there. Doing that would be the icing on the cake.”

When I first saw that there was a column in the Texan concerning the Houston Astros, I knew I would be reading another piece that would call my beloved 9 a laughingstock and wonder why the old days have left us so suddenly. I was surprised, however, that the author, who purports to be a fan, left out the most important person within this entire process: General Manager Jeff Luhnow. 

I always hear people ask, “Why did we get rid of Hunter Pence/Wandy Rodriguez/so-and-so?” It’s simple: We were going to lose with them, so why not lose without them and build for the future? Luhnow recognized this and made the best of a horrible situation and picked up Carlos Correa, someone who could help compose one of the best middle infields in the game in the future. Luhnow also has the first overall pick again in this year’s draft, and it appears we could receive a franchise starter in Stanford’s Mark Appel. 

Yes, the Comcast Sports Net debacle is awful, and yes, the current product is awful (although I’d say the Marlins have it a lot worse), but the rational fan can see that there is a light at the end of this tunnel and that this light is something to look forward to. The rational fan can also see that Astros owner Jim Crane, unlike his predecessor Drayton McLane, can handle losing if it is coupled with building. It’s going to be rough, but good times are ahead, and I’m ready for them.

Joseph Cook, journalism sophomore

Photo Credit: Lex Rojas | Daily Texan Staff

The Astros have been in the process of taking a massive salary dump in the past few years, and now they are left with a steaming pile of shell-shocked would-be minor leaguers. Not exactly the formula for winning a pennant. Especially in the rejuvenated American League West, where Oakland has shown it has the pieces to give the Angels and Rangers a run for the division crown. Right now the Astros are easily the worst team in the major leagues, and it’s not even close. 

It doesn’t take much digging to figure out why this team is so terrible. The Astros’ opening day payroll for the entire roster was smaller than some individual players’ salaries in the league. There are five Astros who are signed to multi-million dollar deals for this season, and those five make a shade under $10 million combined. Houston has just five wins in 19 games, and there’s an argument to be made that it doesn’t even deserve that much. With the prices of stadium food now, a tray of hot dogs and a few soft drinks have just as much clout as the Astros. 

New owner Jim Crane has also made a strategic move in selling the team’s broadcast rights to Comcast SportsNet Houston, which sounds like something out of a “Terminator” film. If the strategy was to put the team on a network only a handful of subscribers can watch, then bravo Crane, you have successfully shrouded your team from the public eye. It might ultimately be the best thing for fans. There are only so many leads you can see slip away in the eighth and ninth innings before you start to cheer for the Rangers instead. 

But if you’re a true Astros fan, with fond memories of the Astrodome and those awesome jerseys from the ‘90s, you won’t give up that easy. 

There’s hope yet for the organization, but it won’t likely involve any current player or staff member. It’s never too early to be thinking about next year. Or, in the Houston Astros’ case, the year after next. Or maybe even after the next summer Olympics. It hasn’t been this depressing to be an Astros fan since we all figured out that Enron was about as viable an enterprise as a Nigerian email scam. No, you don’t have an uncle that is urgently trying to wire you $15 million for the small fee of all your personal information. And no, the Astros are not going to win the American League West any time soon, either. But I did hear about a 13-year-old kid from the Dominican Republic that may be able to help the Astros out in a few years. Just kidding, even with the services of seven studs, the Astros are doomed for mediocrity in the near and distant future.

Jose Altuve excluded, the team struggles to work against opposing pitchers’ pitch counts and is collectively striking out at a record pace. As a team, the Astros average nearly 10 strikeouts per game. Most of those whiffs came from Brett Wallace in the first few games of the year, but he was quickly sent back to Triple-A to fix that. A lot of the team’s impatience at the plate has to do with its overall inexperience. The average age is 27 on the team’s active roster. The bottom line is that the bulk of this year’s roster needs more experience, whether it’s down on the farm or with the big boys, even if that means getting roughed up from time-to-time.

So keep your heads up, Astros faithful, and try not to get your feelings hurt when someone makes fun of your team. It’s going to happen often, and unless you want to be that guy that changes his baseball allegiance every other year, you’re going to have to grow some tougher skin. Maybe you can even try out for the team if you really want to be a part of the rebuilding process. Although I won’t be able to watch the team play every night because I am being held hostage by Time Warner Cable, I will keep a close eye on the team’s progress in the coming years.

Useless division projections: American League West

The weather is getting warmer. The days are getting longer. Spring training is in full swing, and you can almost smell the freshly cut grass, hot dogs and peanuts of your local ballpark. The Rangers and Astros will kick off the season in just a few short weeks, and it is now time for a round of useless division predictions so we can all start getting our mind out of basketball mode and into its baseball preset.  If you saw the Orioles finishing in second place in the notorious American League East or the Oakland A’s winning the AL west, then these projections aren’t useless. As it stands, we never know what twists and turns will take place over the course of 162, but we’re going to try to look into the future and see where things will stand come October.

American League West:

Houston Astros, 5th place

Sorry, Astros fans. 2013 is going to be just as forgettable as the last couple years of baseball in H-Town. Coming off a miserable 55 win season, the path to relevance gets a bit harder with their transition to the American League West, home of a couple of the best teams in baseball and the DH. The Astros will begin the year with the lowest payroll in the league by far, and their current roster would have trouble competing in AAA, let alone the big leagues. But I am really excited to see the retro uniforms they’ll be rolling out this year. They’re going to be put to shame on the field while dressed to the nines.

Seattle Mariners, 4th place

Slowly but surely, they’re putting the pieces back together. Felix Hernandez will do Felix Hernandez things, but the putrid smell of the offense can still be smelled all the way from the East coast. Dustin Ackley and Jesus Montero should begin to take the next steps in their progression into impact players, and the additions of Michael Morse and Kendrys Morales will aid the cause. If the offense can hold up and the rotation can find someone to help out King Felix, the Mariners could be primed to make some noise in 2013.

Oakland A’s, 3rd place

I refuse to believe they can catch lighting in a bottle twice. Refuse. The 19-5 record they posted in July surely can’t be replicated again, and surely the amazingly young pitching staff can’t repeat their out of mind performance of 2012. A healthy season from Brett Anderson will help in their defense of the American League West title, as well as a full season from the Cuban outfielder Yoenis Cespedes. I don’t think they can repeat, but I also had them finishing last in the predictions last year. Who knows with Billy Beane’s group.

Texas Rangers, 2nd place

Following a rough offseason that saw almost nothing go according to plan, the Rangers have some doubters heading into the 2013 campaign for the rest time in awhile. The starting rotation led by Yu Darvish and Matt Harrison should be formidable, but Derek Holland and Alexi Ogando are going to have to have solid seasons if they want to reclaim the AL West title. Elvis Andrus, Adrian Beltre and the rest of the gang are going to have to make up for the loss of Josh Hamilton, and A.J. Pierzynski is going to have to replicate the solid season of 2012 he had with the White Sox in the heat of the summer. The Rangers have as good a chance as anyone, but they have some work to do.

Los Angeles Angels, 1st place

Sweet, sweet Déjà vu. Seems as though it was only a few short months ago I picked the Angels to win the American League West a season ago after a big offseason, only to watch them fall flat on their face coming out of the starting blocks. Josh Hamilton, Peter Bourjos and Mike Trout probably represent the most compete outfield in the big leagues, while Albert Pujols and Mark Trumbo hold down the corners of the infield. The starting rotation could be an Achilles heel after Jered Weaver and C.J. Wilson, but on paper, it looks like it should hold up. I’ve done this before and it didn’t pan out, we’ll see if 2013 is any better for the Angels.

Useless division projections: North League East

The weather is getting warmer. The days are getting longer. Spring training is in full swing, and you can almost smell the freshly cut grass, hot dogs and peanuts of your local ballpark. The Rangers and Astros will kick off the season in just a few short weeks, and it is now time for a round of useless division predictions so we can all start getting our mind out of basketball mode and into its baseball preset.  If you saw the Orioles finishing in second place in the notorious American League East or the Oakland A’s winning the AL west, then these projections aren’t useless. As it stands, we never know what twists and turns will take place over the course of 162, but we’re going to try to look into the future and see where things will stand come October.

National League East:

Miami Marlins, 5th place

Jeffrey Loria has a lot in common with Danny Ocean, he is a thief. He got a new stadium from the tax payers in Miami, and in return, promised higher payrolls and more competitiveness. The Marlins signed Jose Reyes, Mark Beurhle and Heath Bell a winter ago, and appeared to be the darling of the NL East. Then the plan started backfiring, and they traded Hanley Ramirez before the trade deadline. Then, the fire sale really started when they traded Reyes, Beurhle, and ace pitcher Josh Johnson to Toronto weeks after the season, completing his evil scheme, returning to an embarrassingly low payroll in a beautiful new ball park. Because Loria is a disgrace to Major League Baseball, I will not waste any more time writing about his team, and will pick them to finish dead last in the National League East when the season ends.

New York Mets, 4th place                                               

They’re heading in the right direction. Out of all the current rebuild jobs going on in the league right now, the Mets should see the fruit first. They dealt Cy Young winner R.A. Dickey to Toronto but got a massive haul of prospects in return. The big league team looks bare, lead by David Wright and only David Wright, but if the prospects pan out, they should be back and running in a few short years. The number one catching prospect in all of baseball, Travis D’Arnaud, who they got in the Dickey deal, should get his first chance at being an everyday catcher at some point in the season, and the hope in the Big Apple is that he is the first arrival of the rest of the cavalry. The rotation will be led by Jonathan Niese and Shawn Marcum, but the Mets don’t have enough to compete in what is arguably the best division in baseball.

Atlanta Braves, 3rd pace

The top three spots in this division could fall in any order. The addition of the Upton brothers, B.J. by free agency and Justin by trade, along with Jason Heyward in the outfield will make the Braves a formidable force at the plate. The rotation could have some more star power, but Tim Hudson, Kris Medlen and Mike Minor should provide the Braves a chance to win every five days. In another division, this team may be the one to beat.

Philadelphia Phillies, 2nd place

After a dismal 81-81 season in 2012, the Phillies finally look like they might be healthy enough to regain their throne atop the NL East. A healthy Roy Halladay would go a long way in making that happen, as well as a full season of Ryan Howard and Chase Utley. Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels, along with Halladay still represent one of the best rotations in all of baseball, but the name of the game for the Phills is health. If they can stay healthy and get a big year from left fielder Dominic Brown, no one will want to see these guys down the stretch.

Washington Nationals, 1st place

And with the blink of an eye, the Nationals went from the first pick overall to division winners and nearly National League champions. The Houston Astros are wondering why there isn’t a Stephen Strasburg or Bryce Harper in the consecutive years they have had the number one overall pick. The Nats are a power house, lead by Strasburg and Gio Gonzalz on the mound while NL rookie of the year Bryce Harper, Jayson Werth, Ryan Zimmerman and Adam Laroche lead the way offensively. They won 98 games in 2012 on their way to their first NL East title as the Nationals, and figure to only be better in 2013 when they don’t have an innings limit on super ace Stephen Strasburg.