I'm not gonna lie to you—nothing about the Houston Astros excites me. Unless I'm wrong, this is essentially the same team that took the field in 2008 minus Randy Wolf, Ty Wigginton, and Mark Loretta. Those aren't huge losses, but they are definitely significant and Houston didn't exactly have tons of margin with which to work.
Houston hung around the postseason picture longer than most people thought or acknowledged, but the club never was a dire threat to the eventual qualifiers.
This year, the 'stros should get (hopefully) a full season from Carlos Lee and another year of improvement from Hunter Pence. Neither is a small addition, but both will not be enough to make this team a serious contender.
There are just too many aging or unknown commodities. Even worse, the proven commodities are not the kind sought after by most organizations.
No kidding, ESPN lists Mike Hampton as Houston's number three starter. Yahoo Sports lists him as its number four. Oh man, that's depressing if you have the misfortune of rooting for the Houston nine.
Here's the rest of a very vanilla picture:
Projected starting lineup
First base—Lance Berkman
Second base—Kazuo Matsui
Third base—Geoff Blum/Aaron Boone
Left field—Carlos Lee
Center field—Michael Bourne
Right field—Hunter Pence
Most sites list Humberto Quintero as the starter, but I don't see why that makes sense. He's almost 30, is a career .230 hitter with five home runs. Towles was brutal in his run last year, but at least he's only 25. Let's see what the kid can do. Darren Erstad's also floating around the edges.
Ace—Roy Oswalt (R)
Second spot—Wandy Rodriguez (L)
Third spot—Brian Moehler (R)
Fourth spot—Mike Hampton (L)
Fifth spot—Brandon Backe (R)
Oswalt's a nightmare when he's right and he should be right in 2009 after a bit of an off-year in 2008. It's about time to admit that Rodriguez is what he is and that's not a number two. You can still argue he might blossom and fulfill the promise everyone sees, but the dude is 30 and 2008 was a bit of a regression. The rest of the rotation is a series of interchangeable parts.
And a Russ Ortiz sighting is NEVER a good sign. In any capacity.
Closer—Jose Valverde (R)
Set-up—Doug Brocail (R)
Set-up—Chris Sampson (R)
Set-up—Geoff Geary (R)
Set-up—Clay Hensley (R)
Man, are you as bored as I am by that squad?
Lance Berkman was unreal in 2008—he hit .312 with 46 doubles, 29 bombs, 114 runs scored, 106 runs batted in, 18 stolen bases (that might be the most amazing of his numbers), a .420 on-base percentage, and a .986 OPS. Still, Sir Lancelot is 33 so is it realistic to expect him to get better? Or even repeat 2008's excellence? I say he gives some of that production back.
Carlso Lee wasn't too shabby either. El Caballo raked to the tune of a .314 average with 27 doubles, 28 home runs, 61 runs, 100 RBI, a .368 OBP, and a .937 OPS in only 436 at-bats. Another 100 ABs from Lee would be a big help. But he'll also be 33 soon after Opening Day.
Kaz Matsui is a decent hitter for average (.293 in '08) and he'll give Houston some extra speed on the bases (20 swipes), but that's about it. Miguel Tejada continues his accelerating decline; Miggy managed only 13 HRs, a .283 average, and 632 ABs in '08 i.e. health wasn't the problem. Michael Bourn is impossible to contain once he's on base, but his .288 OBP last year made his 41 steals virtually useless.
Geoff Blum, Aaron Boone, J.R. Towles, and Humberto Quintero don't need to be discussed other than to point out they will be on the field.
And then there's Hunter Pence. He didn't quite answer the bell in '08 as well as some had hoped, but his .269 average, 34 doubles, 25 HRs, 78 runs, 83 RBI, .318 OBP, and .783 OPS amounted to a pretty damn good second full season in Major League Baseball. At 26, he should be primed for a leap in the very near future. Don't be surprised if it happens in 2009.
Unfortunately, I don't think any of it matters because the pitching staff is garbage.
As I said above, Roy Oswalt is a maniac when he's throwing well and I totally expect him to throw well in '09. But Wandy Rodriguez is a mediocre pitcher at this point in his career and this point may very well be his peak. Brian Moehler might have been better than average at one point, but that point is in the rearview mirror.
If Mike Hampton makes 15 starts, I think most people in baseball would consider it the surprise of the year. Brandon Backe—who cares?
And I'm not kidding about having Russ Ortiz on your roster in any capacity. That right there is an enormous red flag that screams Houston knows it's got a problem on the mound.
It is a desperate, desperate move.
Forget the bullpen. Jose Valverde is actually better than I though and can be downright filthy for long stretches. And I like Doug Brocail as well as Geoff Geary. But I have a hard time taking any 'pen seriously that is considering LaTroy Hawkins.
Regardless, 162 games cannot be conquered without—at the absolute minimum—decent starting pitching. The Houston Astros don't have that.
Which is why I expect them to spend 2009 in one of the most offensively explosive pillow fights for last place in the National League Central with the Milwaukee Brewers.
Two amazing offensives behind two amazingly offensive pitching staffs. Should make for some fun games though.