Regular Articles

Regular Season Record: 82-80

2nd in NL Central – 1.5 games behind the Cardinals

Home Park: Minute Maid Park

Now Believing the Buzz:
Carlos Lee (OF) – Free Agency (Texas Rangers)
Woody Williams (SP) – Free Agency (San Diego Padres)
Jason Jennings (SP) – Trade (ColoradoRockies)
Miguel Asencio (RP) – Trade (Colorado Rockies)
Mark Loretta (IF) – Free Agency (Boston Red Sox)
Richard Hidalgo (OF) – Free Agency (Washington Nationals)
Brian Moehler (RP) – Minor League Free Agency (Florida Marlins)

Buzzed off:
Roger Clemens (SP) – Free Agency (Not signed yet)
Andy Pettitte (SP) – Free Agency (New York Yankees)
Russ Springer (RP) – Free Agency (St. Louis Cardinals)
Taylor Buchholz (SP) – Trade (Colorado Rockies)
Jason Hirsh (SP) – Trade (Colorado Rockies)
Willy Taveras (OF) – Trade (Colorado Rockies)
Aubrey Huff (IF/OF) – Free Agency (Baltimore Orioles)

Special Thanks to:
Jeff Bagwell (1B) – Retired

The Skinny: By declining the option on Jeff Bagwell’s contract, the Astros got rid of $18 million weighing heavily on their payroll. General Manager Tim Purpura was finally able to spend some money and address Houston’s biggest need: bolstering the offense. The Astros did just that by signing Carlos Lee to a six-year, $100 million contract. This new acquisition should finally provide Lance Berkman, who single-handedly carried the Astros offense last season, with some protection in the heart of the line-up.

Along with this newly acquired outfielder, Houston announced the signing of Woody Williams, who is expected to add a veteran presence to the rotation, which has to suffer a considerable loss of depth after the departure of lefty Andy Pettitte and probably Roger Clemens. Shortly after losing out on Pettitte, Purpura traded Jason Hirsh, Taylor Buchholz and Willy Taveras for Jason Jennings and Miguel Asencio. Since Jennings is a groundball-pitcher and the ’Stros have one of the best (if not the best) infield defenses in the NL, the front office expects him to fare very well. Chris Burke is expected to take over the vacant spot from Willy Taveras in CF. The signing of Mark Loretta could have been the stroke of a genius. He is an extremely versatile infielder who can fill in at all positions and posts a career .299 average.

All things considered the Astros have certainly been busy this offseason and added a few solid players to their roster, but it remains to be seen if they can compensate for the loss of pitching depth to claim the NL Central crown and perhaps win it all.

Strengths: If Luke Scott hits anywhere near his magnificent .336 campaign of last year, the Astros have an extremely strong heart of the order with Lance Berkman (.315 AVG, 45 HR, 136 RBI), Carlos Lee (.300, 37, 116) and Luke Scott (.336, 10, 37 in 65 games). With the hope of Morgan Ensberg recovering from his slump last year and the upgraded offense in center field, Houston’s lineup could be one the Stros’ strengths instead of a weakness as it was in the past years. The infield defense around shortstop Adam Everett should prove to be another strength, if they play anywhere near the level of the previous years. Provided a recovered Brad Lidge, the Astros should have a very decent bullpen with Wheeler, Qualls, Miller and a long reliever to be determined in Spring Training. Finally of course, the Astros call Roy Oswalt, arguably the best pitcher in the NL, their ace, who will take another shot at a well-deserved Cy Young this year and aims at 20 Ws.

Weaknesses: The Stros’ greatest weakness is uncertainty. Count the “Ifs” under “strengths” and you know why. In case Clemens should not return, their rotation has lost depth. Jennings might be a legitimate replacement for Andy Pettitte (remember, that Andy had a mediocre season with a 4.20 ERA and a 14-13 record and has elbow problems, Jennings however put up a 3.78 ERA in a pitchers’ purgatory) and Williams could provide a solid #3-performance (albeit a better #4). But the back end of the rotation is still up for grabs and full of questions. Wandy Rodriguez has a leg up, since he is the only lefty (until they call up top-prospect Troy Patton), but he hasn’t shown any consistency last year. Matt Albers, Chris Sampson and Fernando Nieve are also promising but still unproven.

The outfield defense has certainly been downgraded from last year and could be one of the Astros’ weaknesses. Chris Burke has to prove he can handle the huge center field in Minute Maid Park and that his arm is better than he is given credit for. Carlos Lee was signed for his bat and not exactly for his defense.

The same argument you make for the bullpen as a strength can be made for the pen as a weakness. If they blow 18 saves like they did last year, the Astros might be going nowhere in October.

Potential Lineup:
1. 2B: Craig Biggio
2. CF: Chris Burke
3. 1B: Lance Berkman
4. LF: Carlos Lee
5. 3B: Morgan Ensberg (might be platooning with Mike Lamb)
6. RF: Luke Scott
7. SS: Adam Everett
8. C: Brad Ausmus
9. Pitcher

Keys to Success: The key to success this year is starting pitching. That is of course a commonplace, but while the Astros had one of the best rotations in the Majors over the last three years and a lack of run support, they will have to make due with what pitching they have left after the departure of Pettitte and probably Clemens. Jennings has to put up a solid #2-performance and some of the rookies have to pull the chestnuts out of the fire at the back end of the rotation. Sampson, Nieve and Albers have shown some impressive performances in the past and might convince given a starting job. Wandy Rodriguez has to finally gain control over the strike-zone or he will be walking batters in Triple A by the end of April.

The offense has to score the key runs. A commonplace as well, but it has been the Stros’ biggest problems last year. With the acquisition of Carlos Lee and Mark Loretta, Astros-fans should be much more confident this season.

Prediction: As long as the Cubs bat Soriano lead-off, I don’t think they will be serious contenders. The NL Central is up for grabs this year and it might take until the end of September before a decision is reached. If the Astros can resign Clemens, I really like their chances. I’ll go out on a limb here and say that the Astros finish just ahead of the Cards and that the Wild Card will go to the NL Central (although there’s a lot of hopes and wishes in that prediction).