Five Questions: Houston Astros

The Astros rose from the dead like Lazarus not once, but twice the past two years under Phil Garner, notched the only postseason series wins in the franchise’s 43-year history and made their first World Series appearance. What can they do for an encore?

1. Can the Astros return to the World Series?

A better question might be “What was an 89-win team doing there in the first place?” After their horrible 15-30 start, the Astros rode hot starting pitching and a few timely hits to a 74-43 (.632) record, best in the majors the rest of the way. They also exploited the weaknesses of their two playoff rivals, the Braves (bullpen) and the Cardinals (injuries) to win their first National League pennant.

Expect the starting pitching to backslide a bit, but expect the offense to be stronger. Basically, this is the same team as last year with one more power bat and perhaps one less power arm. While that is normally not a formula for winning another pennant, the Braves and Cardinals haven’t noticeably helped themselves either. While the Cubs and Mets look stronger, it will take some time to tell if they are able to mesh their talents into champions. The odds say the Astros won’t successfully defend their title but they’re starting to make a habit out of defying the odds.

2. Is there any reason to think the offense will be significantly improved in 2006?

The signing of Preston Wilson should give the offense a lift. On the surface, Wilson is another righthanded, high-strikeout, good-power, mid-average hitter. He’s a slightly older version of Jason Lane. But a deeper look into the numbers shows that Wilson hits lefties as well as righties (three-year averages vs LHP .273, .813 OPS; vs RHP .266, .821 OPS) and is a more dependable RBI bat. The Astros struggled with lefthanded pitching (.249 as a team) and stranding runners, so Wilson should help in both regards.

Lane should improve after a full season as a regular, and getting a full year out of Lance Berkman should perk up the offense as well. It’s too early to say if 2005 was a career year for Morgan Ensberg, but even a small dropoff should be offset elsewhere.

While offensive liabilities Brad Ausmus and Adam Everett return in the 7-8 spots in the order, the Astros could put together a top six capable of hitting 20 or more homers each if Jeff Bagwell plays regularly.

3. So you think Jeff Bagwell will return as the first baseman this year?

Maybe or maybe not. There are several factors pulling in both directions. Bagwell is non-committal about whether he can play and the Astros, not Bagwell, will make the final call. The Astros have a $15.6 million dollar disability claim riding on Bagwell not playing, but the future Hall-of-Famer is not making the decision easy. He’ll probably get frequent off days and be the designated hitter whenever interleague play allows it, but if the team can squeeze 100 starts out of Bagwell, they’ll be happy to cancel the claim. Outsiders don’t realize Bagwell has played with bone-on-bone irritation in his arthritic shoulder for a few years now, but was able to hit well (.266 avg, 27 home runs, 89 RBIs, .842 OPS) as recently as 2004, despite the pain. The scuttlebutt is that, post-surgery, Bagwell is near 2004 levels in terms of playing ability. Still, that may not be good enough for the front office.

Bagwell’s high OBP (.374 the past three seasons) and good baserunning skills might make him fit best in the second spot in the order, after longtime teammate Craig Biggio, and before Berkman, Ensberg, Wilson and Lane. If that lineup works, however, it will mean less playing time for second-year players Chris Burke and Willy Taveras. Burke would become a supersub, covering all over the infield and outfield, and Taveras, who has options remaining, could be sent down to Triple-A Round Rock, where he can play regularly until an injury takes somebody out of the lineup. Mike Lamb would be another option when Bagwell or Ensberg needs a day off.

4. Is Roger Clemens coming back? If not, how does their rotation stack up?

Nothing is certain, but Roger’s son, Koby, hinted his father would be back with the hometown nine last month and he’s in as good a position to know as anyone. The Astros offer two things the other suitors can’t match. They let Roger decide whether to stay home when he’s not pitching, and they can let Roger get into shape while playing ball with his son in the minors.

The two wild cards are Roger’s health (he’ll be 44 in August) and whether owner Drayton McLane Jr. will pay enough to lure Clemens out of retirement yet again. The Astros have already met two of his demands—they re-signed Ausmus and they added more offense.

Even if Clemens doesn’t return, Roy Oswalt is good enough to be the ace of any staff, and Andy Pettitte can too if he stays healthy. Brandon Backe needs to be more consistent ,but has the makeup to be a #3 starter. Lefthander Wandy Rodriguez won 10 games as a rookie last year, but doesn’t have the upside for much more than that. Penciled fifth starter Ezequiel Astacio has major league stuff, but tends to leave his mistakes in the hitter’s happy zone. Just ask Geoff Blum. If the staff experiences turbulence, help may come from veterans Carlos Hernandez and Steve Sparks or farmhands Taylor Buchholz and Fernando Nieve.

5. Does Tim Purpura love his young players too much to trade them?

In almost 17 months as general manager, Tim Purpura, the former director of minor league development, has pulled off just one trade—dealing pitcher Tim Redding to San Diego for catcher Humberto Quintero. At the July deadline, it was reported he had agreed to swap Nieve for ancient Mariner Jamie Moyer, but the veteran nixed it, citing his 10-and-5 rights.

Purpura is stuck between giving geezers like Clemens, Bagwell and Biggio one last shot at a World Championship and hoarding youngsters like Burke, Taveras, Buchholz and Lane, who are thought to be future stars. He’s stated publicly that Burke and Lane won’t be traded even though they are two of the players most likely to get someone in return that can upgrade a position. There will be pressure to trade some young guns for veteran help if the Astros are in the pennant race. By then, we may know if Bagwell and Clemens will be part of another run towards history or just footnotes that end two outstanding careers.

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