Astros grab two relievers, ink a third-baseman

The Houston Astros were a bit busy Wednesday at the winter meetings, completing a trade for Marlins reliever Matt Lindstrom while signing reliever Brandon Lyon and third-baseman Pedro Feliz to contracts.

Lindstrom is coming off a rough 2009 campaign that saw his control issues worsen while suffering injuries. The injuries aren’t entirely to blame for Lindstrom’s struggles, as his 2008′s 3.14 ERA was misleading.

In Lindstrom’s rookie year of 2007, he walked 2.8 per nine innings, a figure that rose to 4.1 the following year without the requisite spike in ERA. While he was lucky in 2008, the baseball gods made Lindstrom pay for it in 2009.

Is Lindstrom as bad as his 2009 or as good as his 2008? No. He’s a solid middle reliever who could fashion himself into a setup man or perhaps closer if he can reverse his control tendencies. One red flag about Lindstrom is moving to the bandbox that is Minute Maid Park, which will affect his sensational home runs allowed totals.

Lindstrom was essentially traded for a bucket of balls, as the Marlins received two no-name prospects. The motivation here was certainly finances, as Lindstrom is eligible for arbitration. While it will be difficult to replace the departed LaTroy Hawkins, Lindstrom represents a great chance to do just that.

Rangers-Tigers

Another reliever came to town as well, this one on a three-year deal. Brandon Lyon looks to have every opportunity to close in the Lone Star State, and his solid groundball totals should play well, although there are questions about Houston’s defense. Given that Lyon has the guaranteed contract worth $15 million, he’ll get every shot to be the closer until he — likely — implodes. Lyon’s chances at closer historically have not gone well, and it’s unlikely the trend will be reversed in 2010.

That said, Lyon is a fantastic setup man who has put up numbers for four straight years now. While a three-year, $15 million pact to a middle reliever is never recommended, Lyon stands a great chance of contributing for the duration of the contract. By the end of this deal, I doubt Lyon will have been considered under- or overpaid.

Pedro Feliz moves from Philadelphia to be the third-sacker, effectively waving goodbye to Miguel Tejada. While Houston is certainly trying to get younger, Chris Johnson never looked like the appropriate target to open the season as the starter. This move won’t block Johnson, but it will give the Astros a much needed defensive lift, especially with wild cards Jeff Keppinger and Tommy Manzella aside him at short. The defense of this club won’t be too shabby, and the pitching will certainly appreciate it.

There’s been some grumbling about these deals, wondering why Houston is bothering if they’re not expected to contend. For one, just because us readers and writers don’t expect Houston to contend doesn’t mean the club should give up. In any given year, a club should try to make cost-effective signings that put the best product on the field. That’s what Ed Wade and his minions are trying to do. Are they making the right choice in their player selection? That’s up for debate. But not striking for the three aforementioned players would have put Houston in worse competitive straits while at the same time compromising their depth.

Houston’s back of the rotation is very poor, and their offense will thin out fast. There’s no question they’re destined for a below-.500 finish, but is that any reason to give up on the team? Their farm system is awful, but organizations have demonstrated in the past an ability to scrape by with a poor farm system that only figures to improve: The past two years with Wade at the helm and Bobby Heck at scouting director is largely responsible for Houston’s top prospects that you see today — Houston has Jason Castro arriving any day now at catcher (drafted in 2008) plus an intriguing shortstop in Jiovanni Mier that was their first-round pick in June.

With a lousy farm system not even close to supplying Houston with a pipeline of prospects, the only chance Houston has from slipping into consecutive years of 100-plus losses is to make trades and signings of players that can complement a team. Remember, it’s not just about the product on the field. Houston needs to keep fans interested and coming to the park if they want the capital to be able to spend on the draft and to pursue free agents. It’s a balancing act, and irrespective of their personnel decisions, I can understand their motivations.

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