Ahhh, the Astros
- Updated: April 3, 2009
Coming off a year in which almost the entire team was overhauled and still were one big hurricane away from carrying a playoff chase into the final days of the season, the Astros were the first team this off-season to plead economic downturn, and it showed. GM Ed Wade, under orders from legendarily hands-on owner Drayton McLane, trimmed a projected 2009 payroll from $120 million to just over $100 million to compensate for a recession.
It was an off-season full of Plan Fs and Plan Gs. Let go were Brad Ausmus, Ty Wigginton and Randy Wolf. Brought in were Toby Hall, Aaron Boone and Mike Hampton. The biggest questions in the off-season were behind the plate, the starting rotation, and third base – and I’m not entirely sure those questions have been answered.
The lack of depth at the minor-league level, ranked either at the bottom or very close to it from many sources, hurt the club in that there just weren’t the pieces available to get big deals done. It seems the biggest rumors about the Astros involved the players they did not sign: the Brewers and Padres could not find enough pieces to get a deal with Wade for Ben Sheets or Jake Peavy.
Humberto Quintero, J.R. Towles, and Rule 5 pick Lou Palmisano failed to distinguish themselves after Toby Hall suffered an arm injury, so Ed Wade went out and nabbed All-Star Ivan Rodriguez. Brandon Backe gave up a league-high 36 home runs in 2008, so Ed Wade signed Russ Ortiz and Clay Hensley to minor-league deals. When December signing Aaron Boone had to leave the Astros in March due to a heart complication, the Astros look poised to let prospect Chris Johnson give it a shot – unless Wade goes in another direction in the last week of Spring Training.
So there are plenty of questions abound about the Astros, but one aspect of the team in which there is no question is the bullpen. Anchored by $8 million closer Jose Valverde – NL saves leader for two years running – the bullpen is a mixture of veterans like LaTroy Hawkins and Doug Brocail – and youngsters like 2008 Rule 5 pick Wesley Wright. Behind Roy Oswalt in the rotation are uncertainties like Wandy Rodriguez, who is lights-out at home and flat-out suspect on the road; Brian Moehler, who stepped up in a major way for the Astros in 2008; the fifth starting pitcher in the rotation looks as though it belongs to Russ Ortiz, who hasn’t been solid since 2004. But nobody knows what to expect from #3 starter Mike Hampton, whose last season pitching in more than 13 games came in 2004.
Michael Bourn will start the season in center field after an atrocious 2008 campaign, but 2nd-year manager Cecil Cooper is praising Bourn’s focus on plate discipline, bunting, and hitting to opposite fields. Kaz Matsui needs to be healthy for the Astros to compete after spending a lot of fluke time on the DL.
Cecil Cooper and Lance Berkman don’t see any reason the Astros can’t win 90+ games, but in many ways, the Astros aren’t just trying to catch lightning in a bottle – they’re trying to catch 2004’s lightning in a bottle. With stars Berkman, Carlos Lee, Miguel Tejada and Roy Oswalt’s careers peaking (or declining, depending on who you talk to), Wade and McLane look as though they are trying to keep the Astros competitive in a division in which no club has made a major impact. The 2005 NL Champion Astros weren’t supposed to do anything special, and neither are the 2009 version – but with superstars and veterans fitting around a minor rebuilding plan, anything can happen. And that includes winning – or losing – 90 games.
For more of James’ work check him out at Astros County