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2006 Team Preview: Houston Astros
by Karl Wright
March 31, 2006

2005 Record: 89-73 (2nd Place-Wildcard berth)

2005 Runs Scored: 693

2005 Runs Allowed: 609

Pythagorean 2005 Record: 91-71




Going into last season, the Astros were still feeling great from their rollercoaster 2004 campaign that ended in St. Louis in the NLCS. However, expectations were low after the departures of playoff-heroes 2B Jeff Kent and CF Carlos Beltran. Somehow though, they managed to shake off an ugly early start (again) and get themselves into the playoffs despite having only scored a measly 693 runs. Pitching was the saving grace of the 2005 squad that made its way to the World Series for the first time in franchise history, only to be swept in one of the closest classics in history.

Once again, expectations will be running low. You won’t find too many people who are willing to say the 2006 Astros will be in the hunt for a Wildcard spot, let alone a World Series run. And you won’t hear it from me, either. Although, I’ve been wrong before….

 

Catcher

2005 Starters: Brad Ausmus, Raul Chavez

Projected 2006 Starters: Brad Ausmus, Eric Munson

            To be frank, Ausmus would have been forced into retirement (or someone else’s uniform) if Raul Chavez had carried a bat when he went into the box. Brad Ausmus was once an excellent defensive catcher with wheels, which made his low offensive numbers digestable. Now that the wheels have come off and his arm looking to follow, one must wonder when the Astros will trade to get Mitch Meluskey again. Eric Munson had a heck of a spring batting .380. The waiver and subsequent claim of Chavez by Baltimore has opened the door on the Astros roster for a guy who has been nothing short of terrible in his career.

 

First Base

2005 Starter: Jeff Bagwell, Lance Berkman, Mike Lamb

Projected 2006 Starter: Lance Berkman, Mike Lamb

            The departure (or lack thereof) of Jeff Bagwell has been the big off-season story for the Astros. However, the club won’t miss his production since they’ve been without it for a full season already. Instead, they’ll move on with what could be considered an upgrade at the position with Berkman or Lamb, who can both still throw the ball.

 

Second Base

2005 Starters: Craig Biggio, Chris Burke, Eric Bruntlett

Projected 2006 Starter: Craig Biggio, Chris Burke, Eric Bruntlett          

            After enjoying years of terrific offensive production at this position from Biggio (and Jeff Kent), it seems that the train may continue to roll. Chris Burke has shown a penchant for the clutch hit and demonstrated good range at the position, while Bruntlett would be considered successful if he can create a niche as a young utility guy for this ballclub.

 

Third Base

2005 Starters: Morgan Ensberg, Mike Lamb

Projected 2006 Starter: Morgan Ensberg

            The breakout year long predicted for Ensberg finally occurred last season as he went crazy with a .283 BA, 101 RBI, and 36 HR. One would think he’s done enough to keep Phil Garner from foolishly platooning Lamb at third with him, as has been done in the past. With Ensberg’s production up, expect Lamb to be used more at first, giving flexibility to a team with a weak-hitting starting OF.

 

Shortstop

2005 Starter: Adam Everett

Projected 2006 Starter: Adam Everett

            As they have for the past three seasons, the Astros will be counting on Everett’s leather to overshadow his shortcomings at the plate. It seems he took a step back in the hitting department last year, where despite hitting a career high 11 HRs, his average dropped a full 25 points. His saving grace is that he’s still a better hitter than Ausmus and the Astros have never expected any offensive from him, anyway.

 

Utility

2005: Jose Vizcaino, Mike Lamb

2006: Mike Lamb, Eric Bruntlett

Mike Lamb has been solid for the Astros in the past two seasons and looks to be on track for another good year. Even with Ensberg solidifying his starting position at third, look for him to get plenty of time at first. Bruntlett, of course will be spotting Everett and Biggio in the MI, when needed.

 

Outfield

2005 Starters: Chris Burke, Willy Taveras, Jason Lane

Projected 2006 Starters:  Preston Wilson, Willy Taveras, Jason Lane

            Preston Wilson adds some pop to this outfield, but is no juggernaut by any means. Willy T is probably due for a sophomore slide, especially when you take into account that many of his hits were of the infield variety (a trick that doesn’t play well for long). Jason Lane is the X factor in the outfield. In his first year as the full-time right fielder, Lane showed promise, hitting 26 HR with a .499 SLG.     

 

Pitching

2005 Front Three Starters: Roger Clemens, Andy Pettite, Roy Oswalt

Projected 2006 Front Three: Andy Pettite, Roy Oswalt, Brandon Backe

            You need not ponder long when trying to figure out just how those Astros of 2005 made it to the Fall Classic. Just take a look at those names on the back of the guys throwing the ball. Now, its still debatable as to whether we’ll see Clemens pitch for the Astros again, but we’ll assume that he’s finally calling it quits. Even without Clemens, this is a formidable top three. No way am I saying that Backe is on the same plane of baseball existence as a Clemens, Pettite, or even an Oswalt, but he’s got gravel in his guts and spit in his eye, and ask the Cardinals if you should overlook him. 

 

Other 2005 Starters: Wandy Rodriguez, Ezequiel Astacio, Brandon Backe, Brandon Duckworth

Other Possible 2006 Starters: Wandy Rodriguez, Taylor Buchholz

            The Astros are hoping that the fruits from a trade that sent Billy Wagner to Philadelphia will finally ripen as Buchholz has finally made it to the show. Wandy Rodriguez is getting another shot at being mediocre enough to make fans cringe, but good enough to stay away from AAA Round Rock.

 

 
Lidge gets agitated if you bring up the postseason 
2005 Top Relievers: Chad Qualls, Chad Harville, Dan Wheeler, Brad Lidge

Projected 2006 Top Relievers: Russ Springer, Chad Qualls, Dan Wheeler, Brad Lidge

            When talking about the 2005 success that the Astros enjoyed, you can’t just say that starting pitching was responsible. The Astros boasted one of the best bullpens in baseball last year. Lidge has solidified himself as one of the league’s top closers (despite his post-season floundering) and looks to further strengthen that claim this season. Often overlooked is Dan Wheeler, who is in the set-up position, usually keeping the lead right where it is so as to pad Lidge’s stats. Chad Qualls has been solid since his arrival, posting a 3.28 ERA last year.

 

Final Word:

  

            The Astros come into this season with little, if any expectations of another playoff run. If we’ve learned anything from this club in the last two years, though, its that we should never underestimate them. Having said that, there is no Roger Clemens (yet) on the roster, Jeff Bagwell won’t even be DHing in the inter-league series, and the cupboards appear to be bare at the AA and AAA levels. Perhaps the Astros have finally arrived at a time where everything catches up with them and they flop. Then again, that already happened once in 2000 and I don’t foresee anything that catastrophic for this year’s version. I’ll say they finish tied for 2nd with the Cubs, well behind the division-winning Cardinals.



 





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