The Houston Astros believe they have what it takes to return to the playoffs in 2009.
Offensively they have a good blend of power and speed, and they have one of the best relief corps in the game.
Unfortunately, their success may hinge on a stable of starting pitchers that will require career years, or a return to past glories.
For an organization that has prided itself with historically strong pitching, the 2009 version may be the worst group of five in Astros history, which explains GM Ed Wades' emphasis on keeping their strong relief staff together.
It's not all bad. Roy Oswalt would be the ace of most major league teams and comes off a 17-win season that was probably the worst of his career. After a slow start (he was under .500 at the break), Roy came back strong in the second half, and finished with typical Oswalt stats. There's no reason to believe he'll be anything but successful this season.
The most intriguing starter may be Wandy Rodriguez. While he would be the third or fourth starter on most teams, the Astros believe he has the stuff to follow Roy in the rotation. The good news is he has improved every year, and his 3.54 ERA in 2008 was a career best. Unfortunately, he has a tendency to get missed several starts a season due to a variety of minor injuries, and has a horrendous road record.
Mike Hampton was signed on the cheap after returning for the last month of the season for the Atlanta Braves after missing the 2006 and 2007 seasons. If he's healthy, Hampton will pitch well enough to keep you in games, but that's a big "if". The Astros are counting on 30 starts from Hampton, and it may be too much to ask.
The Astros could do worse than having Brian Moehler back as their fourth starter. He had a good season in 2008, pitching 150 innings, and securing 11 wins. If Moehler can duplicate those results in 2009, the Astros will be satisfied.
Brandon Backe will open the season as the fifth starter. If Brandon could convince himself that every game is a playoff game, you might have something as his career 2.95 ERA in postseason would indicate. Unfortunately, the Galveston native struggles to complete five innings in two out of three games, and may ultimately lose his starting job to recently signed Russ Ortiz or young Brad James.
Behind Oswalt, the Astros will count on a number of unknowns in 2009. To be successful it is imperative that the starters keep the game close for the team's strong offense, and not over-burden the above average relief staff Ed Wade has assembled.