Youth will be served for Astros in 2012

Youth will be served for Astros in 2012

HOUSTON -- The more than one dozen Astros players who got their feet wet while making their Major League debuts in 2011 will play key roles for the club in 2012. How quickly they develop will determine if the club can take a step forward.

"From a team standpoint, it's going to take time," Astros general manager Ed Wade said. "We would love to see it happen sooner rather than later."

Coming off the club's first 100-loss season, the Astros' chances of escaping last place in the National League Central will hinge on the development of, among others, third baseman Jimmy Paredes, second baseman Jose Altuve and left fielder J.D. Martinez -- three rookies who started the final two months after being called up from Double-A Corpus Christi.

The Astros were among the worst teams in baseball in run production, even with veteran Carlos Lee approaching the century mark once again. Earlier this year, Astros manager Brad Mills said catcher Jason Castro will be one of the team's key players next year.

Castro was pegged to be the starting catcher in 2011 before he tore up his knee in Spring Training and wound up missing the entire season.

More than anything else, Houston's success in 2012 might hinge on a pitching rotation that was up and down in 2011. The returns of Brett Myers, Wandy Rodriguez, Bud Norris and J.A. Happ at the top of the rotation give the Astros four pitchers capable of forming a solid core. Jordan Lyles and Henry Sosa will push for starts, too.

Another key to the Astros' fortunes will be the bullpen, where a bevy of young arms made their debuts this year. Houston's staff likes what it has in youngsters Juan Abreu, Xavier Cedeno, David Carpenter and Fernando Rodriguez, but the Astros must do a better job of closing out games after being among the worst in baseball in converted saves.

The Astros stripped down their payroll -- trading Jeff Keppinger, Hunter Pence and Michael Bourn -- at the Trade Deadline as the team awaited a transfer of ownership to a group led by Jim Crane from Drayton McLane. Of course, with the deal having yet been approved by Major League Baseball, it remains to be seen how the unsettled ownership situation affects the club's plans this winter.

The club doesn't figure to be a big player in free agency, so the young players will again be the focus.

Catcher: Castro, the team's first-round pick in 2008, was going to be the starter in 2011 before he tore up his knee in Spring Training and had season-ending surgery. Castro is expected to be healthy and finally take over as starting catcher, with steady Humberto Quintero returning to back him up after getting the bulk of the starts this year.

First base: Lee made the move to first base from left field after the club brought up Martinez following the trade of Pence, and El Caballo performed quite well. He'll be in the last year of his six-year, $100 million next season and will occupy first base, which means Brett Wallace will have to wait.

Second base: Pint-sized Altuve played second base for the final two months of the 2011 season and, as of now, figures to be the starter next year. Altuve is a polished defensive player, who put up gaudy numbers in the Minor Leagues, but he doesn't hit for power and doesn't draw many walks.

Third base: Paredes, who was called up on Aug. 1, will return at third base, unless the Astros decide to switch him back to the middle of the infield and give Chris Johnson another crack at third base. Paredes showed some promise with the bat, but he was a little unsteady at times on defense. Still, the Astros love his athletic ability.

Shortstop: Clint Barmes is a free agent, so his return is up in the air. The Astros like what he brings to the table, especially on a young team, and would like to keep him, but Barmes will probably try to test the free-agent waters. The Astros could decide to move Paredes to shortstop if Barmes doesn't return, or try to identify another starter in the Minors or through free agency.

Left field: Martinez was called up when Pence was traded and was plugged into left field, replacing Lee (who was moved to first). All that Martinez did was drive in 28 runs in August and establish himself as a dangerous hitter in the third spot in the order. The sky appears to be the limit.

Center field: With Bourn out of the picture, center field remains up for grabs. Jordan Schafer, who came from Atlanta in the Bourn trade, will be in the mix, along with veteran Jason Bourgeois. The Astros drafted a center fielder -- George Springer -- with their top pick in the 2011 Draft, but he's a year away at the earliest.

Right field: Brian Bogusevic, J.B. Shuck and Bourgeois split most of the starts in right field after Pence was traded, and all three figure to be in the mix next year. The Astros also had the versatile Matt Downs step in and get some starts in right field at the end of the year. The job is wide open for 2012.

Starting pitching: Barring a trade, the rotation should return intact: Myers, Rodriguez, Norris, Happ and Sosa, who joined the rotation when Lyles was sent to the Minors to limit his innings. There will be some battles for jobs, but there is no shortage of viable candidates.

Relief pitching: The Astros featured a young and inexperienced bullpen in 2011, and it showed. They have promising arms in rookies Abreu, Carpenter, Cedeno and Rodriguez, while Wilton Lopez and Mark Melancon will be back to anchor the back of the bullpen. Melancon pitched well in his first season as closer, but Brandon Lyon should return after missing nearly all of 2011 with an arm injury.

Bench: The Astros have one of the best bench players in baseball in Matt Downs, who was a huge force. Unless he wins a starting job, they'll welcome him back in the same role. Bourgeois is a solid bench player in the outfield if he doesn't start, and the Astros likely won't bring free-agent outfielder Jason Michaels back. Quintero will slide back into the backup catching role when Castro returns from his knee injury.

Brian McTaggart is reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog, Tag's Lines. Follow @brianmctaggart on Twitter. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.