Five Questions: Houston Astros

As usual, the experts have picked the Astros to finish third or fourth in the NL Central, behind the Cards, Brewers and Cubs. The experts predicted the Astros to finish third or fourth last year, too (and we finished second.) Come to think of it, the year we won the pennant in 2005, seems to me I recall they picked us to finish third. Of course, most of these self-same experts picked the Yankees to play in the World Series those years and they were wrong about that, too.

I don’t totally disregard “the experts”; I merely hope they are wrong about the Astros—as usual. However, this team certainly doesn’t seem to be championship caliber. There are at least five nagging questions that must be addressed.

1. How bad—I mean good—will the starting rotation be?

  • Roy Oswalt, the winningest pitcher in baseball over the past four years is the ace. No problems here.
  • Jason Jennings, obtained for Jason Hirsh, Taylor Buchholz and Willy Taveras, is the number two guy. Jennings has had a bad spring, with 5.79 ERA in four starts and 14 innings.
  • Woody Williams, who really can’t exceed five or more innings any more, is coming into the regular season on a down note: 9.92 ERA in four starts and over 16.1 innings.
  • Wandy Rodriguez, the little lefty slated (by Phil Garner) for the number four spot, has also struggled (yes, this is getting monotonous): 5.40 ERA in four games over 11.2 innings—and that’s just in ML camp. He hasn’t fared any better in minor league camp, as he is beset with his usual weakness: too many walks.
  • Brian Moehler has a borderline respectable ERA due to some Web Gem catches, but has been hit hard.
  • Chris Sampson came, he saw, he got his butt kicked in his first start, but redeemed himself in his second and now sports an ERA of 5.89 over 16 innings.
  • Matt Albers and Fernando Nieve have been discussed as relievers and actually had good outings. Albers has had only one start, but has a 3.21 ERA in 14 innings. Nieve has had three starts and sports a 2.81 ERA over 16 innings.

We can insert all the caveats about sample size and it’s certainly true that Roger Clemens had an ERA over 8.00 in spring training 2005. Regardless, this rotation looks shaky, at best.

2. Is Brad Lidge finished?

If spring training stats are any indicator, then yes: 13 hits, 2 home runs, four walks, seven strikeouts and 11 earned runs in eight innings, which explains his somewhat-south-of-sparkling 12.38 ERA. In fact, he’s only pitched two innings in which he didn’t allow any runs. Unless he can recover the movement on his fastball and recover the motion that fooled hitters on his slider or make his new two-seamer and forkball work, I think we’d best break out the butter and jelly because he’s toast.

3. Will Craig Biggio‘s quest for 3000 hits overwhelm the other interests of the team, namely winning?

Biggio is 41 years old and an Astros icon. Drayton McLane, the Astros owner, believes that Biggio personifies the ideal Astros ballplayer, and McLane badly wants Biggio to reach 3000 hits now that he is just 70 shy. Biggio, for the past few years has started strong, reaching 70 hits by the All-Star Break last year. The overwhelming probability is that Biggio will bat leadoff and remain in the lineup until he hits number 3000 regardless of whether he justifies the spot.

Over the past few years, he has had an increasing difference in his home/away splits, and last year it was especially exaggerated (.868 OPS vs .541 OPS) so he may just bat at home, with Mark Loretta playing second base on the road.

4. Will Chris Burke succeed in center?

He certainly did last year: batting .295 with a .381 OBP and slugging .500. Burke fielded very well—two runs above average and only one error. He doesn’t have a strong arm, but he got to a lot of balls and never missed the cutoff man. Burke had a very poor spring with both bat and glove, but his track record demonstrates that he will recover and do well.

5. Will Morgan Ensberg and Jason Lane recover their strokes?

Ensberg had an .858 OPS in what was a very down year for him due to injuring his shoulder in early June and coming off the DL too soon. As soon as the season ended, he allowed his shoulder to heal and admitted that it took three months before it stopped hurting. This spring, he’s been his old self: batting .286 and slugging .500. His swing looks like it’s back so he looks like a go.

Jason Lane has always been a very, very, streaky hitter. He had an off year in 2006 posting a career low (in both the majors and minors) .710 OPS. He started off very strong this spring before cooling off. Lane is batting .259 with a .328 OBP and a .586 SLG. Phil Garner intends to platoon him with lefty Luke Scott, another streaky hitter. Lane will be on a very short leash if he doesn’t continue to hit for power.

Retroactive Review: Ace
Looking back at some of Justin Verlander's most interesting moments.
Bonus 6th Question:

Will The Rahjah return from his fourth retirement?

It’s true that best friend Andy Pettitte left for the Bronx but don’t forget that Clemens has a 10 year personal services contract with the Astros. He is involved in the farm system and is part owner of the Double-A team. Further, even though they are both local boys, Clemens is an idol whereas Pettitte is not. Also tying him to the Astros is his son, who is an Astros minor leaguer; plus three other sons play baseball locally.

Added to all this is that Rahjah is up to his eyeballs in local charity events which makes it difficult to see him wanting to go to either the Bronx or Boston media circus. These days he’s a six inning/100 pitch starter, which he demonstrated in 2006. Finally, it’s highly doubtful that he wants to get hammered by the heavy hitting AL East. So I give him a one-in-three chance that he returns to baseball at all, and if he does, I’ll give him a 90% chance of signing with the Astros.

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