Five Questions: Houston Astros

1. The starting rotation appears to consist of Roy Oswalt and a bunch of No. 4 and No. 5 guys. Can anyone step up and become a solid No. 2?

Unfortunately, the probability is that Woody Williams (89 ERA+ over the past three years, 83 ERA+ last year), Shawn Chacon (110 ERA+ last year as a reliever, mostly), Brandon Backe (lifetime 93 ERA+, including games he played hurt) and Wandy Rodriguez (96 ERA+ over 31 GS last year: lifetime 83 ERA+) will not throw 200 innings of 110 ERA+ ball or even 100 ERA+ ball.

Chris Sampson (109 ERA+ as both a starter and reliever), the dark horse candidate for the rotation, actually has the stuff to be the Astros’ No. 2 starter, but unfortunately, he requires excellent left-side defense, as he is a sinkerballer and this year’s gloves will not be helpful. Lefty Wandy Rodriguez developed a very good, sharp curveball last year under the tutelage of Brad Ausmus and pitching coach Dave Wallace; he also decided to throw his fastball for strikes and led the starters in strikeouts. If he can overcome his difficulty with concentration under emotional stress, he very well could improve this year. Felipe Paulino will, barring injuries to two or more of the above pitchers, begin the year in Triple-A and it is, of course, possible that he will excel, be promoted and continue to excel, but very few pitchers are able to not only make the jump from Double-A, but move into the No. 2 spot in the rotation.

2. Has the bullpen improved from last year?

Well, last year, the bullpen consisted of (ERA+ over the past three years/last year):

Their combined record was 15-21, with 51 saves in 72 opportunities over 406.1 innings.

This year (barring injury or unexpected choice of rookie over veteran) will consist of:

Their combined record was 22-13 with 50 saves in 62 opportunities over 431.2 IP.

The number of saves is the same, but mostly accumulated by one man. There are eight more wins, eight fewer losses, nine fewer blown saves and an additional 25 innings, so at least on paper, this bullpen appears to be an improvement over last year’s: of course, the problem with relievers is that it is extremely difficult to predict how they will do from one year to another, so the answer is that for now, the fans are ecstatic because Lidge and Qualls are gone.

3. Will the defense be better this year?

The Astros team defense was, with the exception of Luke Scott and Hunter Pence, absolutely dreadful after the loss of Adam Everett (replaced by the lead glove Mark Loretta) and the benching of Morgan Ensberg (replaced by lead gloves Mike Lamb and Ty Wigginton.)

Carlos Lee, the third worst left fielder in the NL is still there, Lance Berkman, the second worst first baseman in the NL is still there, Ty Wigginton, who is way below league average, is still there. Miguel Tejada is a significant downgrade from Adam Everett, probably a good 30 to 35 runs worth, but at least he is better than Mark Loretta. Kaz Matsui at second, is a significant upgrade from what was left of Craig Biggio, but as Matsui has never played more than 114 games in a season, his replacement would be either Geoff Blum or Mark Loretta, both of whom are not an upgrade over Biggio, unfortunately.

Justin (JR) Towles, a rookie, is supposed to be a good defensive catcher, but then again, so is the man he is replacing, Ausmus. Pence and Scott in center and right have been replaced by Michael Bourn in center and Pence in right. Bourn is supposed to be a good defensive fielder by reputation, but only played 104 innings in the field last year, far too few to make a good judgment. Pence was league average in center last year, and it is reasonable to suppose he would be at least league average in right. So the conclusion is that with the exception of second base (67 percent of the games) and possibly center field, the defense has not only not upgraded, it has downgraded.

4. How strong is the bench?

Barring injury or a miracle, the bench will consist of (three-year OPS+/last year’s OPS+):

I trust this answers your question.

5. Is it really true that new manager Cecil Cooper plans to bat Kaz Matsui and his .256/.305/.367 line away from Coors in the No. 2 spot and waste Hunter Pence .322/.360/.539 in the No. 6 spot?

So far, that is in fact the plan. You see, Kaz runs fast and if he happens to get on base, that will create pressure on the defense. Speed is what wins ballgames these days—remember the ’03 Marlins with Pierre/Castillo. Also, he can bunt Michael Bourn over if necessary because teams wouldn’t walk Berkman to get to Tejada/Lee because those two almost never GIDP.

You see, it would be best to have Kaz hit singles with Bourn on first, or even with bases empty because Kaz almost never clogs up the bases by walking and it might make things difficult and complicated if you had a No. 2 hitter who had a better average, OBP and slugging, because what if he drove in Bourn from first and cut down on the running game? Can’t have that. And it is important to ignore the fact that Pence also runs very well.

Bonus Question: Will Roger Clemens join the rotation in June?

No. This time, he really has finished his career. However, unless Bud Selig instructs Drayton McLane to buy out Clemens’ personal services contract, that will start as soon as Roger officially retires, which I would guess will be at the conclusion of the FBI investigation and perjury trial.

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It is not a perfect program, but it certainly counts as progress.

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