While joining the American League West might not necessarily help matters, the club is confident that its continuously evolving farm system will. After a dismal 2012 campaign, general manager Jeff Luhnow again attempted to improve the franchise by trading away established Major Leaguers for young talent.
In his latest such move, Luhnow sent starting shortstop Jed Lowrie and reliever Fernando Rodriguez to new divisional foe Oakland in exchange for power-hitting first baseman Chris Carter and a pair of prospects -- right-hander Brad Peacock and catcher Max Stassi.
Carter brings some much-needed power to the Astros lineup, while Peacock (No. 10) and Stassi (No. 16) immediately jump onto the Astros' list of top prospects.
"When you trade big league talent like Lowrie and Hernandez, it's tough," said director of player development Quinton McCracken. "But we brought in some great guys that can help us now and in the future, so we feel really good about those acquisitions."
Peacock is also just one of a handful of Astros prospects who could get a chance to make an impact at the Major League level as soon as this season. Other prospects who figure to don an Astros uniform sooner rather than later include fellow right-hander and top pitching prospect Jarred Cosart, shortstop Jonathan Villar and possibly even first baseman Jonathan Singleton, who will serve a 50-game suspension to start the season after testing positive for marijuana, his second failed drug test.
"We're really excited about our system right now," McCracken said. "I can't wait to get these guys back out there in Spring Training, put some bats in their hands and let them have at it. We're very pleased with what we've got."
Top 20 prospects
After Singleton, the Astros' next highest prospect is shortstop Carlos Correa, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2012 First-Year Player Draft. Correa, 18, is still a few years away from the big leagues, but the Astros also have two other shortstops -- Nolan Fontana (No. 11) and Villar (No. 12) -- in the pipeline.
And while none of the three are quite ready to immediately replace Lowrie, the overall organizational depth at the position certainly made it easier to pull the trigger on the trade.
Aside from the trio of shortstops, the Astros' top prospects list is littered with right-handed pitching. Along with Cosart (No. 4) and Peacock (No. 10), Houston has seven other righties -- Lance McCullers (No. 5), Mike Foltynewicz (No. 7), Nick Tropeano (No. 9), Vincent Velasquez (No. 14), Asher Wojciechowski (No. 15), Kevin Comer (No. 17) and Joe Musgrove (No. 19) -- all at various stages of development in its Top 20.
Offensively, outfielder George Springer (No. 3) is coming off a big season at the plate for Class A Lancaster, and second baseman Delino DeShields (No. 6) will look to continue tearing up the basepaths after recording a combined 101 steals last season between Lancaster and Class A Lexington.
Under the Radar
It's tough to say Ariel Ovando is an "under the radar" prospect. After all, in 2010 -- at the age of 16 -- he was signed to a then-team-record bonus of $2.6 million and the club immediately compared him to the likes of Cliff Floyd, Fred McGriff and Darryl Strawberry in its corresponding press release. However, he hit just .235 in 44 games at Rookie League Greeneville in 2011, and was sent back to Greeneville in '12 where he hit .287 in 59 games. At the very least, it'll be worth keeping an eye on Ovando this season to see if he builds on last season's success.
A more obvious sleeper candidate is right-handed pitcher Aaron West, who could end up being one of the steals of the 2012 Draft. West fell to the 17th round last year, likely in part because of his 2010 surgery while pitching for the University of Washington to repair frayed cartilage in his pitching elbow. He had a disastrous season the following year, but bounced back with a solid enough '12 campaign to garner a mid-round selection. West dazzled at short-season Tri-City, going 6-2 with a 2.04 ERA in 12 starts and should see more opportunities this season.
Hitter of the Year
Correa and DeShields should both have solid years at the plate, but Springer will have a lot to prove after his big season at Lancaster. The No. 11 overall pick in the 2011 Draft, Springer hit .316 with 10 triples, 22 homers and 82 RBIs at Lancaster, but just .219 in 22 games after being promoted to Double-A Corpus Christi. Look for the all-around talent to prove his numbers at Lancaster weren't simply a result of the hitter-friendly environment.
Pitcher of the Year
With Cosart likely to spend a decent chunk of time in the big leagues this season, Foltynewicz gets the nod here. The Astros' 2010 first-round pick complements a blistering fastball that touches 98 mph with a decent curve and a sinking changeup. He went 14-4 with a 3.14 ERA with Class A Lexington last season en route to being named the South Atlantic League's Most Outstanding Pitcher.