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