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2010 Houston Astros:
We Have a Problem - Offense 2010 Spring Preview
by Keith Glab,
March 20, 2010

Key Transactions
Acquired Pos.
Brandon Lyon RP
Matt Lindstrom RP
Brett Myers SP
Pedro Feliz 3B
Cory Sullivan OF
Departed Pos.
Miguel Tejada SS
Jose Valverde RP
Mike Hampton SP
LaTroy Hawkins RP
Darin Erstad OF/1B
Chris Coste C
It wasn't too long ago when the Houston Astros were on top of the world.  They won their first ever postseason series in 2004 and made their first ever World Series appearance the following October.  They appeared to have several of baseball's best players in their primes in Roy Oswalt, Lance Berkman, Morgan Ensberg, and Brad Lidge and some able youngsters on the way in Taylor Buchholz, Chris Burke, and Jason Hirsh.

Things have taken a turn for the worse, to say the least.  The Astros have averaged 76 wins per season since that World Series appearance.  They are now on their fifth manager in the past seven years.  They lost their first two picks in the 2007 draft in order to sign the ancient Woody Williams and the obese Jason Jennings, plus failed to sign their third and fourth round picks that summer.  All that remains at the big league level are a handful of aging stars, and most of the minor league help is still a couple of years away.

2009 Standings - NL Central
Central W L PCT GB Home Road RS RA Exp W% RHP LHP
St. Louis Cardinals 91 71 .562 0 46-35 45-36 730 640 .560 63-50 28-21
Chicago Cubs 83 78 .516 8 46-34 37-44 707 672 .523 67-62 16-16
Milwaukee Brewers 80 82 .494 11 40-41 40-41 785 818 .481 59-64 21-18
Cincinnati Reds 78 84 .481 13 40-41 38-43 673 723 .467 59-59 19-25
Houston Astros 74 88 .457 17 44-37 30-51 643 770 .418 57-67 17-21
Pittsburgh Pirates 62 99 .385 29 40-41 22-58 636 768 .415 44-73 18-26

Still, the Astros have only finished with a losing record twice in the past nine seasons.  Those seasons were 2007 and 2009, which also happen to be the worst years of Lance Berkman's career.  If that is more than just a coincidence, the Astros may be in trouble. Their 34-year-old first baseman is going to miss time in April after undergoing knee surgery last week.  Besides Berkman, no other Astro had an on-base percentage of even .355 last year.  Worse yet, Geoff Blum, who has an ominous .666 OPS over the past seven seasons, is Berkman's backup at first base. 

Pos '09 '10
SP Oswalt Oswalt
SP W Rodriguez W Rodriguez
SP Hampton Myers
SP Moehler Moehler
SP Russ Ortiz Norris
SP Paulino/Norris Paulino
CL Valverde Lyon
LP Byrdak Byrdak
LP W Wright W Wright
RP Hawkins Lindstrom
RP Fulchino Fulchino
RP Sampson Sampson
Roy Oswalt, Houston's other star holdover from the 2005 World Series squad, is similarly coming of an injury and the worst season of his underrated career.  He has a few things going for him, however.  He's almost two years younger than Berkman is, still has terrific peripheral stats, and will enjoy vastly improved defense on the left side of his infield this year.

Roy Oswalt

Even if Oswalt returns to his old form, he may still play second fiddle to Wandy Rodriguez.  Also a member of the 2005 club, Rodriguez has improved every year since.  His 3.02 ERA was 12th among all MLB ERA qualifiers last year and his 193 strikeouts reveal that he is for real.  Since Rodriguez throws left-handed, he should get an even bigger boost from the improved defense out of third base and shortstop. 

Perhaps the Astros' most important acquisition this winter was new #3 starter Brett Myers.  Even though Myers is three years removed from his heyday of 2005-2006, he is just 29 years old and might thrive from a change of scenery.  Since he replaces Mike Hampton in the rotation, it will be difficult for Myers to disappoint.  At $3.1 million this year, Myers is one of a select few underpaid Astros and could even be one of the steals of the offseason.       

Bud Norris and Felipe Paulino are pitchers who may not benefit much from the improved infield defense.  Only 37% of batted balls against Norris were hit on the ground.  Paulino was one home run shy of the team lead in homers allowed despite not having reached the 100-innings mark.  Both Norris and Paulino struck out nearly a batter per inning in their limited action, further reducing the role of the defense.  The 38-year-old Brian Moehler, however, needs all the help he can get on defense.  He fanned just 91 batters in 154.2 innings last year.  Even if he can't improve on his 5.47 ERA from last season, at least he is the #5 or 6 starter this year as opposed to the #3 or 4 guy he was a season ago.

Comeback Candidate
Roy Oswalt
Averaged 16-8 3.13 in eight seasons before 2009
Josh Towers Candidate
Brian Moehler
This guy hasn't been a productive pitcher in a decade
So what is this improvement on the left side of the infield I keep going on about, anyway?  Well, Miguel Tejada is gone after costing the Astros 16 runs at shortstop last season.  His replacement, Tommy Manzella, is supposedly a slick defender.  Since he turns 27 in April and has a career minor league OPS under .700, you have to hope he isn't bad with the glove.  At third base, Secret Weapon Feliz takes over from Geoff Blum.  Blum isn't bad (defensively), but Feliz still ranks among the best defensive third basemen in the game despite a subpar 2009 by his standards.

It isn't all roses on defense, however, as the loss of Ivan Rodriguez will be a difficult one to shoulder.  The Astros were just one game below .500 in I-Rod's starts, but a whopping 13 below the break-even mark when someone else started at catcher.  Their options this year are top prospect Jason Castro, who had just a .747 OPS and only threw out 28 % of basestealers at Double-A last year, and J.R. Towles, who has hit .188 in 234 big league at-bats and battles injuries every year.  Humberto Quintero will back up one of them as a quintessential all-glove, no-bat backstop.

The biggest overhaul in team personnel can be found in the bullpen, but the overall change in its effectiveness should not be substantial.  Jose Valverde and LaTroy Hawkins, both of whom sported earned run averages in the low-2's last year, are gone.   Replacing them are Brandon Lyon and Matt Lindstrom.  Lyon has 54 career saves and has boasted a sub-3.00 ERA in two of the past three years.  Lindstrom had  a 5.89 ERA last year, but he did save 15 games in 17 tries.  He had ERAs in the low-3's in his first two big league seasons on the strength of his upper-90s fastball, and a new grip on his slider has contributed to five scoreless outings to begin spring training for him.  Lindsrom and Lyon are unlikely to duplicate the low ERA provided by the Valverde/Hawkins tandem, but they may actually improve on that duo's save efficiency, which was not great. 

Pos '09 '10
C I-Rod Towles/Quintero
1B Berkman Berkman
2B Matsui Matsui
3B Blum/Keppinger Feliz
SS Tejada Manzella
LF Lee Lee
CF Bourn Bourn
RF Pence Pence
Speaking of not great.... it's time to discuss the offense.  Can this year's lineup really score fewer than the 643 cobbled together by last year's offense?  Unfortunately, it really could.  Most notably, the difference between Tejada's .313 batting average, 46 doubles, and 86 RBI and whatever Manzella provides will be a .313 batting average, 46 doubles, and 86 RBI, as Manzella is going to provide zero offense. Pedro Feliz, while a defensive upgrade over Blum, isn't any better with the stick.  Any game Blum is playing first base instead of Berkman is a game in which the Astros' starter had better throw a shutout if he wants to win.

Lance Berkman
The Astros do have two seemingly solid hitters in their primes: Michael Bourn and Hunter Pence, both of whom will be 27 during the season.  Bourn seemingly became a competent leadoff hitter last season, but his .366 batting average on balls in play was really high/lucky, even for someone with Bourn's speed.  I'm not saying that he will regress into the disaster he was in 2008, as he is drawing more walks now, but Bourn still strikes out way too much and would be very fortunate to repeat his .285 batting average and .354 OBP from a year ago.  Pence is someone I have never liked, but even I am impressed with the way he cut down on his strikeouts and drew more walks last season without sacrificing much power.  He is the one player in the Astros' lineup who might reasonably be expected to perform better than he did the year before (besides Towles, who could add 50 points to his batting average and still be an inadequate offensive player).

The rest of the lineup is dominated by thirtysomethings: Kaz Matsui, Carlos Lee, Lance Berkman, and Pedro Feliz.  Lee and Berkman are still good hitters, but clearly on the decline.  If Berkman's injured, Lee will have a very hard time being an "RBI Horse," as no one will ever be on base ahead of him.  Feliz and Matsui are just awful and figure to get even worse.        

Astros Team Capsule

3/20/10: Houston Philly Vultures - The Houston Astros may want to change their name to the Houston Philly Vultures.   Over the past few seasons, they have netted Michael Bourn, Geoff Geary, Chris Coste, Pedro Feliz, and Brett Myers directly from the Philadelphia Phillies.   Jason Michaels, who appeared in 102 games with the Astros last season, was originally drafted by the Phillies and played for them from 2001-2005.   --KG

The Astros' lineup was remarkably healthy last year.  Not only is there no help ready in the minor leagues, but there is nobody exciting on the bench, either.  Blum and Quintero will be joined by Jeff Keppinger, Jason Michaels, and Cory Sullivan.  Should Berkman's injury escalate, or should one of Houston's outfielders suffer an injury, there is a real danger that this squad scores the fewest runs in all of baseball.

Final Word

For a team replete with deficiencies, the biggest additions to this Astros team were by subtraction. While shedding Tejada might give Oswalt an Rodriguez nice fantasy seasons, it still doesn't help the Astros' win total, as his offensive production wasn't replaced.  Basically, the Astros figure to have a better rotation, similar bullpen, and worse lineup as compared to last year. 

Without Ivan Rodriguez starting, the team went 19-32 last year.  I-Rod is gone.  Without Lance Berkman, they went 12-19.  Berkman is gimpy.  Pythagorus expected the Astros to win 68 games last season, and I expect them to win a similar total this year.

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