2008 MLB Preview: Houston Astros

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2008 MLB Preview: Houston Astros

Manager: Cecil Cooper
Arrivals: IF Geoff Blum, OF Michael Bourn, RP Doug Brocail, OF Jose Cruz, OF Darin Erstad, RP Geoff Geary, 2B Kaz Matsui, RP Chad Paronto, SS Miguel Tejada, RP Jose Valverde, RP Oscar Villareal
Departures: SP Matt Albers, OF Josh Anderson, 2B Craig Biggio, SS Eric Bruntlett, 2B Chris Burke, SS Adam Everett, SP Jason Jennings, 3B Mike Lamb, RP Brad Lidge, RP Trever Miller, OF Orlando Palmiero*, RP Chad Qualls, OF Luke Scott

Offseason grade: B

Starting rotation

After perennial Cy Young contender Roy Oswalt, Houston's rotation isn't very impressive. 

Brandon Backe, who hasn't pitched a full season since 2005, will return to the rotation after having Tommy John surgery last year. In 2005, Backe went 10-8 with a 4.76 ERA, and if he can repeat those numbers this year, he would fit nicely into the back of Houston's rotation. However, that's a big if considering Backe's history of arm problems. 

Wandy Rodriguez has shown no signs of improvement over the 77 games he has started between 2005 and 2007, so, by my amazing powers of deduction, he probably won't improve much in 2008. Expect 10-13 wins and an ERA hovering around 5 for Rodriguez this year–nothing very impressive.

No, Woody Williams hasn't retired yet. He's going to be 42 and is slated to be a middle-of-the-rotation starter for the Astros this year, probably posting an ERA above 5. Williams epitomizes Houston's rotation after Oswalt–mediocre win totals and ERAs over 5.

Rounding out Houston's rotation is Chris Sampson, who may end 2008 as Houston's second-best starter. Sampson made about 500 illegal phone calls and...whoops. Wrong Sampson. Chris Sampson is a solid back-end starter who, ironically, probably will make less this year than Kelvin Sampson's $750K buyout.

Overall, this Houston rotation will have a lot of problems after Oswalt. It ultimately could be Houston's downfall, as the rest of their team is pretty good.

Starting rotation grade: C-

Bullpen

Houston compeltely re-made their bullpen for the better in the offseason. Out are Brad Lidge, Chad Qualls (both of whom, as you can tell, hold special places in my heart), Trever Miller, and Dan Wheeler. In are Jose Valverde, Geoff Geary, Oscar Villareal, and Doug Brocail.

The only name that remains from Houston's 2007 bullpen is Dave Borkowski, who is nothing more than a mop-up man.

However, those four pitchers Houston acquired all are pretty good.

Valverde saved 47 games and had a 2.66 ERA with the Diamondbacks last year. He may not get as many save opportunities with Houston this year, but he still should do a very good job closing out games for the Astros even though his save total may not be as high.

Geary was brought over from Philadelphia in the Lidge trade and could benefit from moving out of the bandbox the Phillies play in. Geary will give Houston some solid innings out of the bullpen, but isn't a guy I'd want setting up Valverde in a close spot in the 8th inning.

That role could be reserved for Brocail, who posted a 3.05 with the Padres last year. His ERA likely will rise after moving out of Petco Park, but he still should be a viable setup man for Valverde.

Finally, Villareal was brought over from Atlanta for Josh Anderson. Villareal gives Houston a multi-inning option who could work very well in the 6th and 7th innings. While he may never put up the stats he did with Atlanta in 2006–a 3.61 ERA over 92.1 innings–he still gives Cecil Cooper a good option in the earlier innings.

Houston's bullpen should be decent this year, but the lack of consistent starters in the 2-5 spots could lead to this group being overworked.

Bullpen grade: B-

Lineup

The Astros quietly have assembled one of the better lineups in the National League. 

Michael Bourn and Kaz Matsui give Houston a good 1-2 beginning to the lineup. Bourn is a speedster who could easily steal 50 bases and Matsui showed that he in fact does have baseball skill last year with the Rockies, hitting .288 with an OBP of .342.

With Bourn and Matsui setting the table, Houston's 3-4-5-6 hitters will get a lot of RBI opportunities.

Filling those four spots: Lance Berkman, Carlos Lee, Miguel Tejada, and Hunter Pence.

NL Central pitchers, you've been warned.

Berkman and Lee could put up even better numbers than they did last year now that they have some protection behind them. Berkman had a .378 OBP with 34 home runs and 102 RBIs while Lee smacked out 32 home runs with 119 RBI and a .303 batting average in 2008.

It'll be interesting to see how Tejada plays this year. If he's able to focus solely on baseball on not the steroid scandal he's a part of, he could up up some massive numbers hitting fifth behind Berkman and Lee.

If Hunter Pence can avoid those damn glass doors, he could poised for a huge 2008. Pence, who will turn just 25 in April, hit .322 with 17, 69 RBI, and 11 steals in just 108 games for Houston last year. Pence is one of the most exciting young players in the game and will be a big part of what will be a deadly middle of the order for the Astros.

Ty Wigginton is a solid hitter at the back of Houston's lineup who should hit around .280 with 20-25 home runs. 

J.R. Towles should replace Brad Ausmus as Houston's starting catcher after hitting .287 (.393 OBP) in the minors last year. While it may be unfair to expect that kind of production out of Towles, he still will be an offensive upgrade from Ausmus in the eighth spot of Houston's lineup.

Lineup grade: A

Bench

The Astros have a very solid, vetaran bench in Geoff Blum, Mark Loretta, Darin Erstad, and Brad Ausmus. 

Blum can play all over the infield and, as the Astros well know, can provide a decent bat off the bench (see: Game 3 of the 2005 World Series).

Loretta, like Blum, can play all four infield positions in a pinch and gives the Astros a good contact bat for late-inning pinch hit situations.

Darin Erstad is worthless as a starter, but still has some value off the bench. Another good contact hitter, Erstad can provide a good at-bat or crucial bunt when necessary.

Finally, Ausmus is a gold-glove backup catcher who should be a very good mentor to Towles.

Bench grade: A

Houston's Achilles' Heel almost certainly will be their starting rotation. Their bullpen is good enough to content and their offense certainly is good enough to help the Astros content, but the weak starting rotation could wipe all of that out. 

However, if Houston catches lightning in a bottle and gets some success out of their 2-5 starters, this is a team that could jump up and nip the Cubs atop the division. 

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