As has been the case for the past few years, the Astros pitching staff was left largely intact over the offseason, with only three pitchers filing for free agency (two of whom were enticed to return to Houston for another season). The third, Randy Wolf, was quickly replaced on the spring training roster by Mike Hampton, who has yet to play a full season since going 13-9 for Atlanta in the 2004 season; and Russ Ortiz, who also has yet to play a full season since going 5-11 for Arizona in 2005.
Thus the trend continues for the Houston Astros, who seem to perennially prowl the free agent market for bargain pitchers past their prime still searching for a team willing to utilize their services (Roger Clemens after retiring with New York, Andy Pettitte, Woody Williams, Randy Wolf, and now these two). These two pitchers have much to prove, but given the Astros’ history with such pitchers they may last the season regardless of poor performance.
At the present the Astros hope to experiment with a six-man rotation, led by ace Roy Oswalt. With Oswalt the Astros can expect to continually receive quality starts, thus saving the bullpen for later in the season when the older pitchers in the rotation begin to tire down the stretch. Known for attacking opposing hitters relentlessly, Oswalt must maintain the speed on his fastball that has allowed him to so effectively utilize his curveball. Also one of the most capable hitting pitchers on the squad, Oswalt had a .214 batting average, only 15 points lower than lead-off man Michael Bourn who also failed to convert multiple bunt attempts in key situations.
Wandy Rodriguez is coming off one of his best years as an Astro, compiling a 9-7 record over the course of the season. Whereas in previous years he seemed to win only while at home at Minute Maid Park, his 4-2 record on the road signified his maturation into a solid #2 starter for the Astros. Coming into spring training, the one question mark for him is his stamina, which seemed to prevent him from pitching further than the 5th or 6th inning on multiple occasions.
Brandon Backe had a season to forget in 2008 with an ERA of 6.05 and a 9-14 record. Having had Tommy John surgery more than two years ago, he has yet to fully recover, having significantly lost velocity on his fastball and the control that helped lead the Astros to the World Series in 2005. Unfortunately, the presence of five other quality starters (plus a reinvigorated Chris Sampson) on the squad means that manager Cecil Cooper will have Backe on a shorter leash than usual, and he may see himself demoted to the bullpen should he struggle early in the season, or even traded given the fact that the Astros were hesitant to even tender him a contract during the offseason that would have guaranteed him a salary of over $1 million.
Rounding out the rotation is Brian Moehler, who had an amazing season by anyone’s standards last year. His record, 11-8, was the first winning season for him since 2000, when he went 12-9 for the Detroit Tigers; it was also only the third time in his career that he posted a winning record. He also proved himself capable at home and on the road, posting a 6-3 record in Houston and a 5-5 record away from home with ERAs below 5.00. If the Astros hope to make win the NL Central, Moehler must perform at the same level as last season.
The Astros bullpen has long been considered a strong point, though it often let the Astros down last season. However, Chris Sampson is back this season having recovered from off season elbow surgery, and he sees himself ready to compete fully by early March. With his chronic elbow pain gone, the Astros have a strong reliever who can go deep into ballgames and also spot start if necessary. Having avoiding arbitration this season, the Astros have also declared their intent to rely on Jose Valverde for closing duties; Valverde has one of the safest jobs this season for the Astros, having bucked his initial slump to complete 44 saves by season’s end. The other important Astros reliever is LaTroy Hawkins, who, upon last season’s acquisition, allowed the Astros to rest Doug Brocail while not allowing an earned run in his first 22 games. The Astros hope to use both late in games and thus save them both down the stretch for what the Astros hope will be a deep playoff run.
With the start of the season rapidly approaching, the Astros seem on paper to have a stronger pitching squad than last season. With a longer than normal spring training, the Astros will have even more time to prepare its squad for the long season ahead—and if the pitchers play to their full potential, the Astros could see their season extended beyond the end of the regular season.