San Marcos Mercury | Local News from San Marcos and Hays County, Texas

March 31st, 2008
Astros have nowhere to go

Editor at Large

The Houston Astros finally finished waiting out the past in 2007, failing to sign Andy Pettitte, which meant Roger Clemens was gone, too, then riding Craig Biggio’s campaign for 3,000 hits through an otherwise dismal season.

Before it ended, the club canned General Manager Tim Purpura and Manager Phil Garner, replacing them with Ed Wade and Cecil Cooper, respectively. So, the Astros finally have let go of their old glory. Which doesn’t mean they’ve got a compelling future.

The Astros have re-tooled themselves as a different kind of loser for 2008, which at least relieves their fans from the tedium of losing every game 3-2. Instead, the Astros will lose a lot of 9-8 games this year.

Unlike the ball club in Arlington, the Astros really don’t have anywhere to go from here. The Rangers are a bad club killing time until their good club grows up on the farm. The Astros will be a bad club with no way out in the foreseeable future.

It was charitably proposed by this publication that the Astros’ retooling for offense was designed to make them more attractive for a glitzy class of free-agent pitching next winter. But even that speculation lost plausibility when the San Diego Padres signed an extension with Jake Peavy and the New York Mets traded for Johan Santana before signing him to a long-term deal.

Meanwhile, Baseball America ranks the Houston farm system 30th out of 30 major league organizations. The Astros don’t have a single solid prospect as a starting pitcher. By accounts, minor league starters like Brad James, Bud Norris, Chad Reineke and Sergio Perez would stick in the big leagues as relievers.

At least the Astros won’t be embarrassed by their winter trades in the near future. Brad Lidge, dealt to Philadelphia, will begin this season on the disabled list, and it’s likely that starting pitcher prospect Troy Patton, dealt to Baltimore, will miss the entire year. Then again, the Astros will start the year without new second baseman Kaz Matsui, who is out for a couple weeks with an anal fissure.

The Astros appear to have at least diversified their bullpen, if they haven’t strengthened it. Fans will be more comfortable this year when Jose Valverde goes in to protect a ninth-inning lead. Newcomers Oscar Villarreal, Wesley Wright and Geoff Geary will give the long staff a new look.

The bullpen is absolutely key for the Astros, because it’s their best chance that pitching might actually set them up to win. Except for Roy Oswalt, Astros’ starting pitchers will almost never produce quality starts. But the club figures to hit well enough to come from behind, if the bullpen can keep early deficits from soaring out of reach.

Houston native Michael Bourn, acquired from Philadelphia in the Lidge trade, figures to fill a number of important roles after a good spring training. Bourn is at once a center fielder, a leadoff hitter and a left-handed hitter, all of which the Astros needed. If he performs as projected, he’s a line-drive gap hitter who will draw walks and steal bases, an excellent offensive catalyst. That’s if he performs as projected.

Matsui is a switch hitter with little ball skills in the two hole once he re-enters the lineup. After that, the Astros can walk up a parade of big blasters, including Hunter Pence, Lance Berkman, Carlos Lee and Miguel Tejada. Even third baseman Ty Wigginton can hit a bit, and rookie catcher J.R. Towles showed some bat in his audition last season.

Potentially, the Astros are the best offensive club in the National League this year. They can manufacture runs at the top of the order and bomb their way through the rest of it. They’ll do as much damage to opposing pitchers as opposing pitchers do to them.

But the Houston starting rotation is so shaky that there’s no true ground for optimism. Maybe Astros starters will just not be terrible, in which case their hitting will allow Cooper to spare the bullpen from time to time. But even if the Astros find a way to contend, they will die down the stretch if they cook their bullpen too much through the early months.

In a National League Central division featuring the Chicago Cubs consolidating their base with veteran acquisitions, the Milwaukee Brewers growing into a force and the Cincinnati Reds adding starting pitchers, the Astros are very hard-pressed to win a playoff spot with their pitching staff.

Indeed, any ball club would be hard-pressed to win with the Houston pitching staff. The Astros are counting on Brandon Backe to make a strong comeback after taking only 13 starts in the last two years. Backe pitched well in five turns last season, but now the Astros need him to hold up for a whole season.

Wandy Rodriguez apparently is what he is, a garden-variety 10-game winner who will average six innings per start. Throughout his career, Shawn Chacon is only good enough to hook on with bad pitching staffs. Chris Sampson is hit or miss. That’s the Astros rotation.

The Astros figure to lose in a whole different way this year. The novelty will wear off quickly. Falling behind early grows old in a hurry. Sadly, for the Astros, it doesn’t seem they will solve that problem in a hurry.

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