The Astros look to have some chance of competing, more because of the mediocrity of the division then because they are filled with outstanding talent.¬† They've got decent pitching and solid defense, but could find themselves offensively challenged, especially if key man Lance Berkman fails to play at least 125 games.¬† Rookie manager Brad Mills looks to have his hands full as he takes over a team with a lot of big changes from last year.
2009 Regular Season Record: 74-88
The Astros hope that Lance Berkman's knee allows him to hit like he did in the past.
Rank: Fifth in the NL Central - 17 Games Back.
Home Park: Minute Maid Park
C - Kevin Cash* (Free Agent from Yankees)
3B - Pedro Feliz (Free Agent from Phillies)
OF - Cory Sullivan* (Free Agent from Mets)
RHP - Brett Myers (Free Agent from Phillies)
RHP - Brandon Lyon (Free Agent from Tigers)
RHP - Matt Lindstrom (Trade with Marlins)
Flight Clearance Revoked:
C - Chris Coste (Free Agent, signed with Mets)
IF - Aaron Boone (Retired)
SS - Miguel Tejada (Free Agent, signed with Orioles)
IF/OF - Darin Erstad (Free Agent, unsigned)
RHP - LaTroy Hawkins (Free Agent, signed with Brewers)
RHP - Jose Valverde (Free Agent, signed with Tigers)
RHP - Doug Brocail (Retired)
RHP - Mike Hampton (Free Agent, unsigned)
*Signed minor league contract.
Strengths:¬† Starting pitching, Defense
The addition of Brett Myers, despite his struggles of recent years, gives the Astros a tremendous boost pitching-wise.¬† Getting away from the high powered offenses of the east and moving to a park that is less hitter friendly should help his numbers, although run support will be a lot harder to come by.¬† That being said Myers will fulfill the role that Wandy Rodriguez used to fill before he evolved into a better pitcher, that of the inning eater.¬† Myers will get 200+ innings this year, plus a lot of personal attention as pitching coach Brad Arnsberg tries to help him find the magic that seems to have faded in recent years.
Myers will be the number three pitcher in a rotation that features Roy Oswalt as its ace, Wandy Rodriguez as a tough number two, and will be followed by promising youngster Bud Norris.¬† The fifth spot is up for grabs, but the upside belongs to rookie Felipe Paulino, a power pitcher who's ready, or almost ready for the big show.¬† If Paulino doesn't make it right out of Spring Training, his spot will likely be kept warm by journeyman Brian Moehler.
Provided Rodriguez pitches as well as he did last year, or close to it, and Norris at least maintains the level of success he had last year, the pitching looks to be at least on par with that of any other team in the division, and might actually be superior to much of it.¬† It will be the key to any success the Astros find this season.
Another big component will be the defense which looks to be greatly improved by the departure of Miguel Tejada who committed 21 errors last year -- almost 30% of the total errors for the team.¬† Even with Tejada, the team only committed 78 errors last year, behind only the Phillies (76) and the Pirates (73).¬† They'll have to retain that high degree of efficiency in order to compete as runs could be fairly hard to come by.
Weaknesses: Bullpen, Offense,¬† Age of the big bats.
The offseason was costly in terms of depth for the bullpen.¬† The loss of LaTroy Hawkins and Jose Valverde has not been made up for by the addition of Matt Lindstrom and Brandon Lyon.¬† Although both have effectively closed before neither has had the success, or experience in the role that their predecessors did.¬† They'll compete for the job, or possibly end up in a platoon type situation with one closing and the other acting as the key set up man.¬† Either way, late inning leads won't be as safe as they were last since Hawkins (2.13 - 63.1 innings) and Valverde (2.33 - 54 innings) were the two best relievers on the team.
The Astros struggled to score runs last year -- finishing 14th out of 16 NL teams in terms of runs scored.¬† That doesn't look to be greatly improved this year for a number of reasons -- and one of the biggest was Miguel Tejada's bat.¬† While Pedro Feliz will pick up some of the slack, especially when it comes to the power numbers, he can't hope to be the .300 plus hitter that Tejada was, or to provide as much protection for Lance Berkman in the order.
The tail end of the order after Hunter Pence looks to be extremely soft, no matter who ends up as J.R. Towles and Humberto Quintero, two light hitting catchers, are battling it out for the right to hit behind rookie Tommy Manzella. ¬†Manzella isn't exactly an uberprospect himself as he projects out to be a .270 hitter with little power even at his best.
But the light hitters aren't the team's big concern -- the big batters are.¬† With the exception of Hunter Pence, almost every single one of the team's power hitters is well into their 30s.¬† Coming into this season Lance Berkman is 34, Carlos Lee is 33 and Pedro Feliz is 34.¬† All are injury candidates and a step down in production wouldn't be a surprise for any of them.¬† Of particular concern is Berkman's knee, which he already has had surgery upon.
CF - Michael Bourn
2B - Kaz Matsui
LF - Carlos Lee
1B - Lance Berkman
RF - Hunter Pence
3B - Pedro Feliz
SS - Tommy Manzella
C - J.R. Towles
Matt Lindstrom/Brandon Lyon
One question that need answering:
Can the Astros hit enough to stay in the mix in the Central?¬† A lot here depends on the health of the center of the lineup and how productive they can be.¬† The pitching should be good enough to keep them in games, but it's the team's ability to hit which will allow them to make a run for .500.
With the exception of the Padres and Pirates there isn't another team that looks as offensively challenged as the Astros do.¬† Pitching and defense will only get you so far and then you stop, and that's exactly what will happen to the Astros this year.¬† The addition of Myers might be enough to add a few wins in the standings, but the Astros don't seem to have the tools to really compete -- even in this division.¬† I see them finishing in fifth, ahead of only the lowly Pirates, but with one or two key additions this team could aim a lot higher.