Five questions: Houston Astros

The Astros’ rotation appears to consist of ace Roy Oswalt, an unappreciated, often hurt lefty (Wandy Rodriguez) and a bunch of has-beens/never weres. What do you expect from the Nos. 2-5 starters in the rotation?

Rodriguez should be the No. 2 starter. He missed approximately two months of the season last year with rib muscle pulls, but otherwise he pitched very well. His ERA last year was 3.54 with a FIP of 3.68, a strikeout rate of 8.9/9 and a walk rate of 2.9/9 IP. He has improved every one of his numbers since arriving in the majors in 2005 since he dropped his ineffective slider and polished his devastating curve ball, and there is no reason to expect him to regress. In 2007, he had unusually wide home/away ERA splits of 2.94/6.37, but they resembled customary home/away numbers last year at 2.99/4.34.

The other three starters will be 37-year-old Brian Moehler, 36-year-old Mike Hampton and 34-year-old Russ Ortiz (yes, the ex-Giant/Diamondback.)

Ortiz was an ace pitcher from 2001 to 2003 and a very good pitcher in ’04. From the day he signed his free agent contract with Arizona in ’05 until the day he had elbow surgery in mid-2007, he was simply awful. He has lost weight since then. (Yes, of COURSE I know that posted weights for baseball players are usually, uh, not accurate, but his abdomen no longer resembles that of a seven-months-pregnant woman as it did in his years with the Diamondbacks.) Although I know that spring training statistics do not necessarily accurately predict performance in the regular season, Ortiz has done well, giving up 19 hits, 1 homer, 9 walks and 16 strikeouts over 22.1 IP for a 3.22 ERA. In his heyday with the Giants, Russ gave up approximately 1 HR/9, 4 BB/9 and 6 K/9 with a average 3.58 ERA and a 1.31 WHIP, but then again, he was 6-8 years younger.

Hampton’s last full season was 2004, and he hurt himself midway through 2005; since that time, he has struggled with numerous injuries including elbow ligament replacement surgery. He did return after the break last year and threw 78 innings of 4.58 ERA ball. Ignoring his two dreadful seasons in Colorado, Mike has basically given up 0.6 HR/9, 3.7 BB/9 and 5.8 K/9. This spring, he has given up nine runs, 23 hits, no homers, three walks and 16 strikeouts over 21 IP. I hope he will pitch as well as he did last year (which isn’t saying much) and that he will throw 32 games, but his injury history over the past five years is rather significant, and one can’t really expect a miraculous return to his acehood of his 20s.

Moehler made the team last year as a NRI and was given the job of mopup man. He was inserted into the rotation when Wandy Rodriguez was first hurt and had a surprisingly good year, his first good year since 2005 when he threw 158 innings of 4.55 ERA ball after spending most of the previous three years on the DL. Over 143 innings, he threw 26 games of 4.43 ERA (93 ERA+) ball, giving up 1.2 HR/9, 2.1 BB/9 and 4 K/9. This spring, he has thrown well, given up 24 hits, 4 BB, 9 K, 7 R/6 ER over 26 IP: a 2.08 ERA and a 1.08 WHIP. In this age of steroid testing, it would be extraordinary, to say the least, if a 37-year-old pitcher who last posted an ERA under 4.00 11 years ago, improved his pitching numbers.

I should mention Brandon Backe, the only Astro to make all of his starts last year, less than two years after undergoing Tommy John surgery. He pitched reasonably well for a fifth starter, sporting a 4.72 ERA as late as August 1, when he obviously tired and was twice left in games long enough to give up 11 ER, which sent his ERA into the, shall we say, unacceptable level. He pulled a rib muscle this spring and will start the year on the DL. The team is obviously keeping him as insurance in case one of the three has-beens (or Wandy) either goes on the DL or pitches poorly. Backe will most likely start the year in Triple-A on a “rehab” assignment which may last for at least several weeks, as he only threw a few innings in spring training. It is also possible, that because of his late start as well as having had more time to recover from his elbow surgery, that he will be much stronger and pitch better this year.

You never know…

Michael Bourn, installed as the starting center fielder after being obtained last year for Brad Lidge, had a dreadful year. Do you expect significant improvement?

Last year, many predicted that Bourn would hit .300 and steal 70 bases. They were wrong. Over 514 plate appearances, Bourn struck out once in every 4.63 appearances, had a 3:1 K:BB ratio (and this is BAD, given that he’s not a pitcher), stole 41 bases and was caught 10 times for a 80 percent success ratio. Unfortunately, he was made into a leadoff man and his OBP from the leadoff spot was only .279. This year, he will most likely hit in the second or seventh spot and will not be under as much pressure.

He has worked on improving his batting eye and his bunting. This spring, he has significantly improved his OBP to .320 in spite of a batting average of .219, has reduced his strikeout ratio to one in seven plate appearances and decreased his K:BB ratio to 11:10.

Kaz Matsui, this year’s leadoff man, interestingly enough, has had an unbelievably poor spring: 70 PA with only 11 hits, two walks and one reached on error. If his slump continues into the regular season, Bourn may again see himself in the leadoff slot. However, I would guess that if after two months Bourn’s numbers again resemble last year’s, he may find that Wade will not be so patient with him, as this year’s team is expected by its owner to “compete” (not with the Pirates for last place, but for a playoff slot.)

How strong is the bench?

The bench consists of Humberto Quintero (51 OPS+ last year as the backup catcher, 52 lifetime OPS+ over 391 at-bats); Darin Erstad (672 OPS [78 OPS+ over 342 PA] last year as fourth outfielder, provided excellent defense); Jason Michaels (ex-Phillie, had OPS of .652, .717, .721 [OPS+ of 73, 87, 85] over past three years with a mediocre glove);
Geoff Blum (had an amazing .705 OPS—84 OPS+—and a career-high 14 homers with the Astros last year—his OPS over the previous three years had been .685, .641, .659 to accompany his mediocre-at-best glove); and two of either Jason Smith (age 30, lifetime 64 OPS+ over 591 PA who’s hit .385/.418/.538 this spring but has not impressed with his glove), Edwin Maysonnet or Chris Johnson.

NOT an impressive bench.

Will any rookies crack this year’s 25-man roster, given the team’s obvious propensity for Proven Veterans?

Aaron Boone was forced to undergo season-ending heart surgery, so it is possible that 24-year-old third baseman Chris Johnson will be given Boone’s job as Geoff Blum’s righty platoon partner; that is, if the Astros are unable to pick up some Proven Veteran on the waiver wire before the start of the season. Johnson, the Astros’ fourth-round pick in 2006, posted an .870 OPS over 330 at-bats in Double-A before being promoted to Triple-A, where he posted a 539 OPS over 101 at-bats. It is possible, of course, that the Astros have somehow not noticed that Johnson has an .849 OPS vs right-handed pitchers and a .544 OPS vs lefties. I should mention that he has posted a .672 OPS over 50 plate appearances this spring. Proven Veteran Geoff Blum, however, has posted a .510 OPS over 55 plate appearances.

It is also possible that Edwin Maysonnet will win the job as utility infielder. He’s 27, selected in the 19th round in the 2003 draft. He has a reputation as a glove man, had a .722 OPS over 450 plate appearances in Triple-A last year, and is hitting .318/.348/.773 over 23 plate appearances this spring—numbers which, needless to say, he won’t approach in the majors. However, his glove is visibly better than Jason Smith‘s, so he could win the utility job, in spite of his extreme youth and absence of Veteran Presence.

Baseball Prospectus expects the Astros’ win-loss record will be 66-96. The Astros’ manager, Cecil Cooper, on the other hand, has stated that he expects this team to WIN, not lose, 90 games. What is your prediction?

I knew you were going to ask me that.

Although many fans insist that this team is essentially the same team as last year, minus Brandon Backe, Ty Wigginton and Mark Loretta, it isn’t.

Lance Berkman had a spectacular year, not merely with the bat, but posting career highs in stolen bases (18-for-22), significant improvement in baserunning, scoring 16 times from second on a base hit, being thrown out at the plate only three times, AND his glovework improved to the point that he was the second-best defensive first baseman in the league, behind only Albert Pujols. I could hope for a repeat. Carlos Lee also had a career year with a .937 OPS and only 8 GIDP. The bench of Erstad, Loretta, Blum, Newhan and Abercrombie was unusually strong. LaTroy Hawkins, after being acquired from the Yankees, pitched 22 consecutive scoreless innings over 22 games, a feat which will not be repeated.

For the Astros to again reach 86 wins, the pitchers would have to post their spring training numbers, the bullpen would have to repeat its post All-Star Break excellence, Berkman and Lee would have to repeat their numbers, Ivan Rodriguez and Miguel Tejada would have to post high batting averages (as they are not going to hit for power or walk much) and not ground into too many double plays, Kaz Matsui will have to get on base as he did when healthy last year, and Bourn will have to get on base and steal more.

COULD it happen?

Sure. Every year, about every prediction system has the Astros with a losing record, in fourth or fifth place, and since 2004, except for The Biggio Retirement Tour Year, the Astros have managed a second-half Run For The Playoffs from seemingly nowhere. Last year, the Astros had the best post All-Star break record in the majors.

So although I doubt that Hampton, Ortiz and Moehler will pitch as well as they did in spring training, let alone their good old days, and I doubt that Pudge will replace Wigginton’s production, all I can say is that it is the Astros and with this team, you never know.

I’m predicting 81 wins, hoping for 86 and praying for 90.

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