Philadelphia, PA – It wasn't all that long ago.
But to followers of the Houston Astros, it must really seem like it.
Only seven full seasons have come and gone since 2004, when a star-laden Houston team - trotting out names like Bagwell, Biggio, Berkman, Oswalt, Clemens and Pettitte - pushed the St. Louis Cardinals to seven games in a classic National League Championship Series.
And it was only a year later that those same Astros - with largely the same personnel carrying the bulk of the load - pushed past the Cardinals in the NLCS and made the first World Series appearance in franchise history against the Chicago White Sox.
The big names have either faded or moved on since the inglorious end of a four-game Series sweep, leaving only one player - left-handed Opening Day starter Wandy Rodriguez - still in the fold for a franchise whose days are suddenly numbered in the National League.
The Astros will head to American League West in 2013 as part of a major-league realignment that'll leave both leagues with 15 teams. Their second-to-last run through the NL was hardly worth memory, featuring only 56 wins in 162 games and leaving little optimism for a significant 2012 uptick.
The general springtime tone toward Houston as it prepares for the final go- round is somber.
In his 2012 season preview, Drew Silva of NBC Sports answered his own question on the Astros' imminent fortunes with "The short answer here: ugly. Really, really ugly."
The critiques don't change much in other places, with some placing blame for the current struggles on a past ownership/front office regime - Drayton McLane sold the club in the offseason and general manager Ed Wade was dismissed - too reluctant to let go of its successful past.
Saddled with a thankless on-field leadership job is veteran baseball man Brad Mills, who enters his third season with Houston after taking over for Cecil Cooper.
Mills' 2010 club was fourth in the six-team NL Central with 76 wins, but plunged to sixth and dropped 20 games in year two - finishing 40 in back of eventual division winner Milwaukee and 34 behind second-place St. Louis, the World Series winners.
Still, the 55-year-old University of Arizona product is trying to see the good things.
"Right now you have to be happy with the way guys are going about their business," he said. "One of the surprises, so far, is how well our defense has played. Our defense has done a very good job. Our defense was such a liability at times last year and I guess the guys you can tell they worked a lot during the offseason. You just take those bits and pieces and go on from there."
Below we take a capsule look at the 2012 edition of the Astros, with a personnel evaluation and prognosis included therein:
2011 FINISH (56-106) - Sixth Place (NL Central)
KEY OFFSEASON ADDITIONS: C Chris Snyder, IF Jed Lowrie, SP Kyle Weiland
KEY OFFSEASON SUBTRACTIONS: RP Mark Melancon, SS Clint Barmes
PROJECTED LINEUP: CF Jordan Schafer, SS Jed Lowrie, LF J.D. Martinez, 1B Carlos Lee, RF Brian Bogusevic, 3B Chris Johnson, 2B Jose Altuve, C Jason Castro
PROJECTED ROTATION: LHP Wandy Rodriguez, RHP Bud Norris, LHP J.A. Happ, RHP Livan Hernandez, RHP Jordan Lyles
PROJECTED CLOSER: RHP Brett Myers
MANAGER: Brad Mills
WHERE DOES THE NEW DIRECTION LEAD?
The Astros have gone all-in on the statistical analysis made big-screen famous by Brad Pitt, hiring former St. Louis executive Jeff Luhnow to replace the fired Wade. Luhnow, 45, spent eight years with the Cardinals, who made three World Series appearances and won two trophies during his stay. He ran the Cardinals' amateur and player development departments since 2006, which seems an ideal strength for a team chock full of youth and above .500 only since 2006. The Cardinals drafted 24 future major leaguers in the 2005-07 drafts, the best number in baseball. Houston, meanwhile, drafted four in that same time span. Of his start in St. Louis, Luhnow, who has an MBA from Northwestern, said, "They gave me a chance of a lifetime to come into the organization and really take a look at, top to bottom how we were doing things and make recommendations. Every time I made a recommendation, they would put me in charge of an area. I quickly realized, if I'm going to have an impact, I've got to get out in the field. I've got to get out in the development and scouting side. I've got to figure out the international side of the equation."
WHO'LL BE LEFT AT THE END?
With a new regime comes a new emphasis on housecleaning, especially when the immediate expectations are based on a 56-win season. The Astros have a handful of swollen salary figures still on the roster - they've committed $37.5 million to Carlos Lee, Brett Myers and Brandon Lyon - and probably won't hesitate to deal one or more if a large-walleted contender comes calling during the season. A precedent to unload perceived assets based on production was set in the spring, when offseason free-agent acquisitions Zach Duke (Arizona) and Jack Cust (Philadelphia) were released after poor starts. Duke had been an all-star in Pittsburgh in 2009 and Cust hit 84 home runs between 2007-09. Rodriguez, the team's best pitcher, is signed through 2013 with a club option for 2014, so he'll more than likely still be an Astro in the American League.
WHEN DO MORE KIDS COME UP?
The Astros' spring training complex was breathless with feedback on several young prospects not even expected to begin April with the big-league club. A first-round pick out of high school in 2008, Jordan Lyles was rushed into the rotation by late May last season and ultimately pitched 94 innings in 20 appearances, striking out 67 and walking just 26. His 2012 incarnation could be 6-foot-3, 180-pound righty Jarred Cosart, who came over in the 2011 deal that sent Hunter Pence to Philadelphia. Cosart was 9-5 in Single-A with the Phillies in 2009-10, then went 10-10 while splitting time between Single-A and Double-A last season, allowing 131 hits in 144 1/3 innings with a 4.12 ERA. Of the Texas-born Cosart in a spring training notebook, the Houston Chronicle said, "A spectacular arm that has had spring training abuzz. He's likely headed back to Class AA, but the local product will be home soon."
X-FACTOR: BRETT MYERS
The Jacksonville, Fla. native was an enigma in his time with Philadelphia, which included stretches of competence - double-digits wins each season from 2003 to 2006 and again in 2008 - along with prolonged debate over whether he'd be better used as a closer (21 saves in 2007). He grew up and adopted a workhorse mindset upon signing with the Astros in 2010 and won 21 games in two seasons while tossing 439 2/3 innings over 67 starts - an average of 6.5 innings per start. More change comes in 2012 when he heads back to the bullpen to replace ex-closer Mark Melancon, who was dealt to Boston for infielder Jed Lowrie and pitcher Kyle Weiland after securing 20 saves in 2011. To some, he's misplaced in a closer's role with an $11 million salary, but the move allows Houston to evaluate another starting prospect and could lessen the number of blown saves from last season's 25. "I was kind of going out into the ocean, and all I knew how to do was dog paddle, because it's been a while," Myers said. "But I don't think it will be too tough. It's pitching. It's about getting up every day and seeing how my body can handle it. All I can do is prepare for it and work for it."
While only the hardest of the hardcore fans will recognize more than a few of the names on Houston's every day lineup, the new personnel in the front office are confident the process will ultimately succeed. And if the St. Louis track record is at all indicative, Luhnow may be the right man for the job. That said, when your biggest run-producer (Carlos Lee) had 18 homers and your three-hole hitter (J.D. Martinez) has precisely 208 at-bats in the majors, it's probably best not to expect too much. Add in the fact that their closer hasn't tossed a pitch in that role in five seasons and their division includes the returning World Series champions, and only a marginal improvement from last season's win total seems likely.