PRESEASON PREVIEW: Houston Astros

PRESEASON PREVIEW: Houston Astros

The Astros' 2004 postseason hero (Carlos Beltran) is with the Mets, the RBI leader (Jeff Kent) is with the Dodgers and the batting and home run leader (Lance Berkman) is recovering from a torn ACL in his left knee, which he suffered playing flag football. It's been a tough offseason for the Astros.

ARRIVALS

LHP John Franco (signed as a free agent), RHP Dave Burba (minor league contract), RHP Turk Wendell (minor league contract).

LOSSES

RHP Wade Miller (free agent, signed with the Red Sox); 2B Jeff Kent (free agent, signed with the Dodgers), OF Carlos Beltran (free agent, signed with the Mets), RHP Dan Miceli (free agent, signed with Japanese team).
 

PROJECTED LINEUP:

1) LF Craig Biggio

2) 2B Chris Burke

3) 1B Jeff Bagwell

4) RF Lance Berkman

5) 3B Morgan Ensberg

6) CF Jason Lane

7) SS Adam Everett

8) C Brad Ausmus

The new faces have a lot to prove in 2005.  The Astros will give Chris Burke every opportunity to succeed, and expect that he will. The Astros' 2001 first round pick out of Tennessee he was named the Pacific Coast League Rookie of the Year in 2004 and will likely start the season in the two-hole in the order, but with his fantastic speed (108 stolen bases in 452 minor league games) he could flip flop with Biggio and become the prototypical lead off hitter the Astros so desperately need.  

Burke was the Astros top prospect in 2004, but the man who held that distinction prior to Burke was Jason Lane.  Like Daryl Ward before him, he was a highly touted young Astros outfielder without a place to play, that is until postseason hero Carlos Beltran decided to leave Houston for the Mets.  In '05 Lane will be asked not only to be an everyday Major League Ballplayer, he'll be asked to help plug the hole Beltran vacated.

And as if that isn't enough, he might be asked to do even more.  Lance Berkman is the Astros right fielder, when he's healthy, but a torn ACL suffered this offseason could keep Berkman out until May.  The Astros may turn to their best bench player, Orlando Palmerio, to fill the void in right, or they may ask Burke to play there, and turn to another rookie, Willy Taveras, to play center.

The Astros have been mum on their preference thus far, but they have been trying to find a way to accelerate Taveras' development, even going so far as to attempt to teach the 24 year old how to switch hit.  That sort of move might end up being a sign that the Astros feel Taveras, who has amazing speed (55 stolen bases last year in Double-A), and won the Texas League batting title with a .355 average, really doesn't have enough bat to play in the Majors.  One telling statistic comes from last season.  Though he did lead the Texas League in batting average and finished with 137 hits, he had only 158 total bases, meaning he rarely drove the ball.  While Taveras can hit .300 beating out weak grounders to the left side in the Texas League, it seems unlikely that will happen at Minute Maid Park.

All this adds up to an Astros team sorely lacking in offense.  With 2004's leading RBI man (Jeff Kent) gone, their leading home run hitter out until May, Biggio and Jeff Bagwell a year older, one wonders if they will be able to score with any consistency.

BENCH:

INF Mike Lamb

INF Jose Vizcaino

OF Orlando Palmeiro

OF Willy Taveras

C Raul Chavez

Vizcaino is a cagey vet who can be very productive in limited duty, and filled in nicely when Adam Everett when down in 2004.  Lamb will fill in at both second and third, and will be the first man looked to if Chris Burke can not handle the everyday duties at second.  Both are slick fielders, but neither has shown the ability to light up the batter's box, thus compounding the Astros offensive woes.  Palmeiro has more than enough bat to fill in for extended periods of time, but if he's starting it removes one of the best pinch hitters in the business from the Astros bench.  Chavez was Roy Oswalt's personal catcher last season and appears to have that role again this year, meaning Ausmus will get one out of every five days off.  Though Chavez showed some unexpected power last season, like Ausmus his focus is clearly on handling pitchers, something he does well. 

PROJECTED ROTATION:

RHP Roy Oswalt 

RHP Roger Clemens

LHP Andy Pettitte

RHP Brandon Backe

LHP Carlos Hernandez

"What Andy's doing is more important than what I'm doing, we have to have Andy."  That's Roger Clemens, talking to MLB.com, and echoing the sentiments of everyone even remotely associated with the Astros.  Pettitte's elbow hurt all year, and he finally shut it down in August to have surgery.  With Clemens coming off another Cy Young Award winning year and Oswalt the only NL pitcher to win 20 games in the National League last year having a healthy and effective Pettitte could very simply be the difference between an Astros team that competes for the crown in the NL Central and an Astros team that has trouble reaching the .500 mark in wins.  He's yet to make an appearance in a Spring Training game, but has thrown in two simulated game situations and gotten encouraging results.  Brandon Backe finished the season strong and appeared to gain confidence in both himself and from the organization, but this will be his first full season as a starter at the Major League level, and it remains to be seen if he had two good months, or the beginning of a good career.  In 2002 Carlos Hernandez was a revelation, and looked to be one of the best young lefty starters in the game, but a throwing shoulder injury has allowed him to play in only nine games the past two years, meaning both of the lefties in the Astros rotation will be question marks until further notice.

BULLPEN:

CL:  Brad Lidge

RHP:  Dan Wheeler

RHP:  Chad Qualls

RHP:  Chad Harville

LHP:  Mike Gallo

RHP:  Russ Springer

RHP:  Turk Wendell

RHP:  Dave Burba

RHP:  Brandon Duckworth

RHP:  Tim Redding

LHP:  John Franco

RHP:  Ezequiel Astacio

Brad Lidge is widely considered the best young closer in baseball especially after he has remained healthy for two consecutive seasons after landing on the disabled list in each of his first five years in professional baseball. Lidge, who set the National League record for strikeouts by a reliever by fanning 157 hitters in 2004, has been working out steadily in Colorado and proclaims himself ready for spring training.  

Getting to Lidge could be a problem.  Once a three headed monster that went Lidge to Octavio Dotel to Billy Wagner, the bullpen has had its share of problems anointing a set up man to get to Lidge.  In the offseason the Astros grabbed Wendell, Burba, and the 137 year old John Franco to add to their own potential set up guys, Wheeler, Qualls, Harville, and Springer.  Experience counts, which could give Wendell, Burba and Franco an edge, but expect outs to count more for Manager Phil Garner. 

The intention is to use Duckworth and Redding primarily in middle relief, but the Astros also have to feel good about the youngsters being able to fill in if and when Pettitte, Clemens and Hernandez need time off, or if Backe doesn't live up to the hype he built for himself late last year.

Obviously the Astros won't carry 12 relievers, though seven is a possibility.  Lidge, Gallo and Redding are virtual locks, and Franco appears to be the guy the Astros will turn to for that one big left handed out.  That leaves two spots for eight guys, and no one, including Garner and the Astros front office, has any idea who will win the positions.  The dark horse is rookie prospect Ezequiel Astacio, who came to the Astros with Duckworth in the Billy Wagner deal.  He's been a starter his whole minor league career, with impressive results (a 3.31 ERA in 129 minor league games) and will figure into the starting rotation if injuries hit, but could compete for, and claim, the set up role with an impressive Spring.

BIGGEST QUESTION MARK:

Andy Pettitte's elbow.

This is not a team that's going to score eight and ten runs a game.  When healthy, Oswalt, Clemens and Pettitte can rival any top three in the Majors, and for the Astros to go anywhere near the top of the Central, Pettitte will have to be healthy and effective.

BREAKOUT PLAYER:

Chris Burke.  The Astros top prospect, and best hope for the future, has been itching for a chance to play regularly, and will get that chance this season.  Watch for Burke to supplant Biggio in the lead off spot (where Biggio was among the worst in the league last season) and with his speed allow the Astros to manufacture runs, something they will have to get used to doing, especially until Berkman is back from injury.

PROJECTION:

The Cardinals won the Division last year and did it by mashing the ball, even against good pitchers.  It appeared the addition of Beltran seemed to take a lot of pressure off the killer B's (Biggio, Bagwell, and Berkman) and really bring the team together.  With the loss of Beltran and Jeff Kent the pressure on players already past their prime becomes huge, and counting on unproven rookies to generate runs is never something a manager looks forward to.  Even if Pettitte is healthy and effective this team could struggle, but with his rehab not going as smoothly as some hoped it probably means the Astros will be staring up at the Cardinals, Cubs, and possibly even the Brewers by the end of the year.

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