Since Larry Dierker left the manager's post with the Houston Astros Baseball Club, most seasons have begun with questions. Twice, the answer to those questions was summed up as: "playing for the National League pennant." Since the 2005 campaign, the questions have been more difficult to answer.
In large part, that difficulty was based on the dedication to aging heroes, particularly Craig Biggio. While he was arguably the best Astro ever, and his pursuit of 3,000 hit was the most necessary tangent the club has undertaken, his extended career put many other prospective careers on hold, and may have thrown some kinks in the development system.
Of course, selling off most of what was once among the best farm systems, to pay for slightly-above-average and overpriced talent, has not made much development possible.
With the well almost dried up in Round Rock and Corpus Christi, and Drayton McClain's self-imposed salary caps bullying the front office, the Astros have slowly slipped from Dierker's dominant teams, through the Star-Powered Miracle teams, to a team barely able to make a .500 record.
Before presenting this team's bank of questions, some Astro principles should be noted.
The good guys are consistently one of the best defensive teams in the National League. For a while, that was despite Biggio's aging arm. Last year, that was despite Tejada's sudden realization of his true age. While Adam Everett is no longer turning in two-error seasons at shortstop, the defensive machine should still be oiled well.
Also, much of the difference between the NL-winning Astros and the teams that followed can be found in the shift from an emphasis on pitching to a focus on offense. This move came in response to much gnashing of fans' teeth over the inability to score in 2005, even though, with strong pitching, the Astros lost the World Series by a total of 9 runs.
Gerry Hunsicker had developed the pitching-and-defense pattern with Dierker, but his ouster allowed for the shift. Now Hunsicker has advised the Tampa Bay Rays to move to pitching-and-defense, and lo and behold! they win the AL.
Don't expect a return to that formula, as much of the payroll is tied up in offensive stars Lance Berkman, Carlos Lee, and Miguel Tejada.
While Mike Hampton and Roy Oswalt are among the top four earners in the clubhouse, one could certainly say that at least one of them (Hampton) is past his prime. Neither is likely to provide the more-spectacular returns of his past.
With all that said, here are some of the most urgent questions facing the 2009 Houston Astros:
1. Who will provide wins on the mound? The entire National League expects Oswalt to win at least 15 games this summer. Mike Hampton seems to have recovered from his injury concerns of last year, so he can be trusted for 10, perhaps a miraculous 15.
Wandy Rodriguez seemed to have finally put his whole game together in 2008, but road futility and injury prevented him from earning the title of "Best Astros Pitcher."
That covers two-and-a-half spots in the rotation. Rodriguez probably will have the focus required to be the reliable No. 2 or No. 3 that he's been expected to be, but that's the refrain of the last three years. Brian Moehler earned a starting role down the stretch last year, holding up the back end of the rotation well.
Brandon Backe, while incredibly gutsy in the NLCS years, has not found the same control and fire since. Tommy John surgery certainly would douse most flames for a while, but Backe is two years departed from the procedure, and will not last long without much-improved control.
The best one can expect from him, today, is that he will hold games close for long enough to allow Doug Brocail, LaTroy Hawkins, and Jose Valverde to pinch wins from him.
There are some other pitchers fighting for rotation spots in spring training, the most prominent being Fernando Nieve. He was long one of the most coveted prospects in the Houston minor league system, and had a strong debut in his introduction to The Show, but injuries have slowed him down as well.
2. Where will everyone hit in the order? This question does assume that the Astros will actually hit, probably a safe bet.
So far, only three batting order spots are set in stone—Kaz Matsui leading off, Berkman batting third, and Lee hitting cleanup. After them, fielders will play musical chairs until manager Cecil Cooper finds something that works. And, like the last two years, that solution will only work for two weeks, when the music will start up again.
In the long run, Michael Bourn will hopefully find the plate discipline and on-base percentage, known to be stored in either his bat or his shoes, to earn back the leadoff spot that was handed to him to start 2008.
For now, Bourn will probably bat seventh, with Hunter Pence splitting time in the second and sixth positions, and Tejada splitting time in the second and fifth positions.
The catcher's spot will remain eighth, pitcher ninth, and the third-base platoon of Aaron Boone and Geoff Blum will rotate between second, sixth, and seventh, depending on which spot is not already taken.
3. Speaking of catchers...who wants that job? Now that Brad Ausmus is finally out of his way, Humberto Quintero has nearly all the leeway in the world to occupy the back of the plate.
Essentially, the battle between fellow coffee-drinker J. R. Towles and newcomers Lou Palmisano and Toby Hall is for the backup position, probably as "personal catcher" to the No. 4 or No. 5 pitcher.
4. Will there be anywhere to go for help to make adjustments? This is not really just an Astros question, this is a baseball question. Just like the real economy, the market for players went from irrational exuberance to recession very quickly.
In 2008, the Hot-Stove League's most asked question was: "Why is [insert player] being paid that much?" In 2009, the HSL wonders: "Plenty of teams need plenty of help, so why is [insert player] still unemployed?"
While the talent will be out there, somewhere, most teams will probably be very conservative about trades. Many current free-agents may languish in their palaces for a month or two before finally coming down on their asking price. The concern for many teams, especially the Astros, is whether the right players will come down to the right prices when they are needed.
The Astros did not raise ticket prices this year—good for the fans, but a drag on what has fallen to the No. 14 payroll in the majors (in 2008). As owner McClain insists on maintaining his self-imposed salary cap, the checkbook will be under armed guard in Union Station unless a Ben Sheets or a Jake Peavy donates himself to Minute Maid Park for nominal pay.
5. How long will the fans stick around? Most previews will only worry about the on-field performance of a team. The Astros are facing nearly the same February predicaments as in most of the last four years except that the economy is bad.
Each year that goes by with the same questions is another year passed that these questions weren't answered to satisfaction.
Now, Houston has long had a loyal fan base for the club, and the Astros have drawn (percentage-wise) better than most clubs in the majors since the strike year.
This year, even though Texas has avoided the worst of the recession thus far, people have tightened their belts a bit, and Minute Maid Park will likely not see as many repeat customers as usual.
The economy aside, Houston, while a good sports town, is not a place to bring nonsense to the park. Often described as a football town, the two D1-FBS college football teams in the city suffer at the turnstile because they're both in a lower-tier conference. And the Texans see many fans disguised as red or blue seats in Reliant Stadium. In this city, a team has to deliver the goods, or suffer from apathy.
Most of the fans remember the winning years of 1997-2005, and, while they clamored for more offense, now see a team that can't make the playoffs, even in a division where the St. Louis Cardinals won the World Series with 83 regular season wins in 2006, and the Cubs took the division in 2007 with 85 wins.
The largest division in baseball always seems to tear itself apart with the division games down the stretch in September, and three or four teams tend to cluster near the top of it.
So, while the Astros can't seem to answer the same questions they had the last three seasons, there is no reason they should be out of contention, barring a Cubs runaway or early season meltdown.
Houston hasn't proven able to answer the questions since the 2005 World Series, and many fans will speak with that tone to anyone who will listen. Thus it will be interesting to see whether the fans will support the same effort (lack of?) to solve the problems and return to the "proper" way of winning a baseball season.
Overall, 2009 should be similar to 2008, and perhaps slightly better, as the Brewers may be less of a factor without Sabathia. The Cubs will be relying on pitching to get them through.
If another miracle-run occurs, I won't be too surprised, because most of these players have seen success in their top-flight. Most of all, the season depends on health, one of the main devastators of the 2008 season.