The Reds take on the Houston Astros (7-12, $60.6 million) in a three-game series, Friday (7:10), Saturday (4:10) and Sunday (1:10) at GABP. The Astros had an off day yesterday, after playing in Milwaukee, where they lost two of three.

In 2012, the Astros are a team in radical transition. They have a new owner, a new saber-oriented GM and the team will join Albert Pujols and Josh Hamilton in the AL West division next year. Not only are they no longer the team of Berkman, Biggio, Bagwell and Oswalt, the Astros are not even the team of Hunter Pence and Michael Bourn. Beside Carlos Lee, who now plays 1B, how many other ‘Stros can you name?

AUGUST ANGUISH

The Reds (9-10, $76 million) were 9-6 against the Astros last year, as Houston was losing a league-high 106 games. But Minute Maid Park was the setting for the series that haunts Reds fans most from 2011. On August 1, the Astros had just completed trades that sent their few established stars to other teams, leaving a roster full of AA and AAA players. The Reds were 6.5 games out of first place and flush with unwarranted optimism based on a three-game sweep of the Giants, and stared hungrily at the opportunity presented by six-games against the lowly Astros and Cubs, and desperately needing to sweep.

Instead, on August 1, the Reds lost the first game of the series in extra-innings to the Astros. Paul Janish missed a game-changing two-run Crawford Box homer by a foot. On August 3, the worn-out bullpen blew a late two-run lead. Instead of surging to catch the Cardinals and Brewers, the Reds lost the series, signaling the end of any realistic chance to return to the playoffs. Bleh.

With payback in mind, here is your Redleg Nation preview of this weekend’s series with the Astros:

PROBABLE STARTING PITCHERS

  • Fri: Wandy Rodriguez (1-2, 1.42 ERA) vs. Mike Leake (0-2, 6.50 ERA)
  • Sat: Lucas Harrell (1-1, 3.97 ERA) vs. Johnny Cueto (2-0, 1.78 ERA)
  • Sun: Bud Norris (1-1, 5.84 ERA) vs. Mat Latos (1-2, 5.64 ERA)

Wandy Rodriguez moves up a day in the rotation to pitch tonight. He has become an elite left-handed pitcher in the NL. Since 2009, his 3.28 ERA ranks second among NL left-handed starters, only behind Clayton Kershaw (2.60). Don’t be surprised if Dusty Baker gives Jay Bruce the night off. Bruce has posted an OPS [OPS = OBP+SLG] of .077 vs. Wandy in 26 plate appearances. Joey Votto has held his own (OPS: 832), as have Ryan Ludwick (.806) and Chris Heisey (1.319).

It will be interesting (in a mind-boggling, terrifying way) to see if Baker opts to start Willie Harris, based on Harris’ record against Rodriguez. Sample size: three AB, in 2008.

The Astros claimed right-handed Lucas Harrell off the waiver wire from the Chicago White Sox last year. The 26-year old has thrown 64 innings in the major leagues over three seasons, with disappointing results. His low K/9 and high BB/9 are not strong indicators of future success. Harrell won his first start this year against the Colorado Rockies, but has had a rough go of it since then.

Bud Norris is regarded by many as the future ace of the Astros’ staff. Although his W/L record didn’t reflect it, Norris had an outstanding 2011, with an ERA of 3.77 and K/BB of 2.51. The Reds, however, had their way with Norris last year, as the right-hander gave up 17(!) hits and 5 BB in 7.2 IP. He has two quality starts in 2012 and beat the Washington Nationals. Norris surrendered seven earned runs to the Brewers on Tuesday night.

STARTING POSITION PLAYERS AND LIKELY LINEUP

1.  Jordan Schafer (L) – CF
2.  Jose Altuve (R) – 2B
3.  J.D. Martinez (R) – LF
4.  Carlos Lee (R) – 1B
5.  Jed Lowrie (S) – SS
6.  Brian Bogusevic (L) – RF
7.  Chris Johnson (R) – 3B
8.  Jason Castro (L) – C

The Astros do have some exciting young position players.

Starting LF, Julio Daniel (J.D.) Martinez (24) is a rising star in the Astros franchise. Raised by his Cuban-American parents in Miami, FL and growing up a Florida Marlins fan, it’s extra-noteworthy that he hit the first home run in the Marlins new ballpark on April 13. Martinez made the jump from AA last July when the Astros traded Hunter Pence to the Phillies and he wasted little time setting an Astros record by driving in 28 runs in August, including four in the final game of that fateful series against the Reds. Martinez is now hitting .313/.432/.507 with 3 HRs and 18 RBI.

Astros 2B Jose Altuve (21) is fast and can play. The Astros official roster lists him as 5’5″ tall. And, he’s one of the hottest hitters in the game. Wednesday, he went 4-5 with 3 runs scored and an RBI hitting out of the second spot in the lineup. He’s hitting .377/.429/.551 with a HR, 8 RBI, 12 runs scored and 4 stolen bases.

(Yes, batting averages can begin with the number “3”)

While Jordan Schafer’s driving judgment may be questionable, the 25-year-old center fielder has provided a … spark to the Astros offense. Dude sports a smokin’ OBP (.354) and has hit a career-high 2 home runs. Jordan’s been blazing places other than in his car, having stolen 6 bases in 8 attempts, and he’s reached base safely in the first 19 games of the season. He’ll have an affinity for the grass of GABP unless the dizziness he recently suffered from a collision at second base becomes chronic.

Carlos Lee is in the final season of a 6-year, $100 million contract. The 35-year old from Panama has shown steady decline at the plate, hitting only 18 home runs in 2011. His nickname is el caballo which means “the horse” in Spanish. And en los pastos means “out to pasture.”

BULLPEN

The Astros traded their young closer, Mark Melancon, to the Boston Red Sox. The Astros bullpen is now led by veteran Brett Myers (RHP), who converted from his role as a starter to the team’s closer. Myers has been effective in his limited opportunities thus far. The Reds hit Myers pretty well last year, particularly in GABP. The 31-year-old right hander is widely rumored to be on the trading block.

Wilton Lopez (RHP) usually pitches the eighth inning and is the most consistent and capable arm in the Astros bullpen. He has yet to walk a batter this year. Second-year player David Carpenter (RHP) is considered their talented closer of the future. Brandon Lyon (RHP) remains. Unduly scaring Dusty Baker away from batting Joey Votto and Jay Bruce back-to-back is one Wesley Wright (LHP).

ADDITIONS TO THE ROSTER

  • Jed Lowrie – The Astros traded closer Mark Melancon to the Boston Red Sox for SS Lowrie. Melancon has struggled in Boston and has already been demoted to their AAA team.
  • J.D. Martinez – In July, Martinez was called up from AAA to replace Hunter Pence, who was traded to the Phillies for four prospects
  • Jordan Schafer – In July, the Astros traded CF Michael Bourn to the Atlanta Braves for Schafer and three pitching prospects.

UPDATES (from this morning)

The Astros placed their backup SS Marwin Gonzalez on paternity leave. The Astros called up Brian Bixler as utility IF. Bixler (from Sandusky, OH) has previously played a bit with the Pirates, Nationals and Astros. He has a little pop and a little speed, but will play behind Jed Lowrie and Jose Altuve in this series.

The Astros put starting pitcher Kyle Weiland on the 15-day DL with shoulder bursitis. Weiland’s status is the reason that Wandy Rodriguez moved up a day in the rotation. Fernando Abad has been called up to take Weiland’s place on the pitching staff. He’s a situational lefty who will probably spend the series facing Joey Votto and Jay Bruce. Abad made the Astros Opening Day lineup but had been optioned back to AAA Oklahoma City.