It's all pretty clever. Everyone predicting the NL Central is focused on the Pittsburgh Pirates as being the bottom-dwellers once again.
Meanwhile, the real sixth-place threat is in Houston. Compared to the Astros, Pittsburgh actually looks like a powerhouse.
There's trouble brewing in Astros' camp. Very rarely do you hear about a manager getting into heated closed-door meetings with his coaching staff only two weeks into Spring Training.
Even more rarely do managers, coaches, or players express the amount of distress pouring out of Houston's Florida complex.
While Cecil Cooper, skipper of the woe-be-gone Houston Astros, seems to be utterly shocked by his team's lack of performance on the field, Houston fans and sportswriters cannot possibly be shocked.
This is something we've seen coming.
The Astros offseason was nothing short of underwhelming. They sent Ty Wigginton, emerging as a multi-position power hitting threat, packing. Then, they signed Aaron Boone to replace him. Then, exit Mark Loretta and enter Jason Michaels.
The downward trend in offensive production was immediately obvious. Boone and Michaels don't even equal Loretta (let alone Wigginton).
Then the team basically claimed it did not have the finances to retain Randy Wolf (who's second-half surge was key to the Astros' near-playoff run).
Then, the Astros failed to acquire a bona fide starting pitcher in free agency. Mike Hampton's injury history disqualifies him. He's already had issues in Spring Training—who's to say he can even approach 200 innings?
Plus, he's not the same stalwart who won 22 games with Houston in his last season with the team. He's aging and likely on the downside of his career.
With several available at ever-falling prices, Houston did nothing but stand by and watch.
Even with Pedro Martinez still available, the Astros have failed to even contact his agent about his asking price. Ironically, the Pirates might bid on and sign Martinez. The Pirates payroll, even with Martinez, would be far lower than Houston's projected number.
Houston has recently also been touting its stable of young prospects banging on the door of the majors. Touting prospects is something a lot of smaller market teams are doing.
But John Gall and Chris Johnson are not Hunter Pence or Lance Berkman. Felipe Paulino and Fernando Nieve are not Roy Oswalt or Brad Lidge. In a nutshell, there are no top prospects to tout.
The Astros have significant holes everywhere. Here's a snapshot of the lineup, as it stands, for Opening Day:
Leadoff: Kaz Matsui (2B)
Second: Hunter Pence (RF)
Third: Lance Berkman (1B)
Fourth: Carlos Lee (LF)
Fifth: Miguel Tejada (SS)
Sixth: Michael Bourn (CF)
Seventh: Chris Johnson/Aaron Boone/Geoff Blum (3B)
Eighth: Humberto Quintero/Lou Palmisano (C)
Bourn was signed to lead off, but his numbers preclude that. He's having a slow spring, so it's unlikely he can win that job out of camp. Matsui was okay, but he has injury concerns.
If he's healthy, he still has to prove his year in Colorado was no inflated by Coors Field.
Hunter Pence would be better off hitting lower in the order, but the Astros need capable bats near the top so that Berkman and Lee can drive someone in when they bat. Eventually, he should move down to the fifth or sixth spot.
Berkman and Lee are solid, but the Puma has to bounce back from an awful second half and Lee has to bounce back from an injury.
Tejada had a train wreck of an offseason, so how he performs will be interesting. He also is sliding down the career slope. Cecil Cooper would like to rest him, but who is supposed to play in his place?
Bourn could bat first, second, sixth, seventh, or eighth. The problem is that if he has another year like 2008, the Brad Lidge trade will be an unforgettable blotch on the Wade regime.
Catcher is another position (like the pitching staff) that didn't get any needed attention. J.R. Towles flamed out last year. Quintero hasn't been anything that you'd want an everyday catcher to be, but he's the best of the rest. Palmisano is a Rule V guy who'll probably stick out of desperation.
Guys who could have potentially filled the gaps include Wigginton and Pudge Rodriguez, yet Houston made little inquiry on their price tags. Wade seemed to be placed into the difficult position of being told to win with no money.
The pitching staff is even scarier. Take a look at the rotation:
Felipe Paulino/Brian Moehler/Fernando Nieve/Chris Sampson/et. al
There's no question about Oswalt except when the strain will begin showing. He pitches an awful lot of innings and has yet to experience a breakdown. He gives Houston a chance to win one of every five games.
Rodriguez took a step forward last year, but then he got hurt. He's an injury liability. He also can't seem to harness his strong pitching on the road.
Hampton is an injury risk (and a big one). If he pans out, he gives Houston a chance to win one of every five games, if not, he's going to create another big hole.
Backe is up and down. Since his surgery, it's been mostly down. Most other teams wouldn't even have him in rotation competition, but Houston has nobody else.
The rest are a collection of the injured (Paulino and Nieve), the sometimes effective (Sampson), and the possible one hit wonder (Moehler).
The bullpen is the team's undeniable strength. That's saying something, too.
Closer: Jose Valverde
Setup: LaTroy Hawkins/Doug Brocail
Middle Relief: multiple candidates
Long Relief: multiple candidates
It's hard to handicap the races for the relief roles. This is a solid area of the team, but there are questions at the back end.
Valverde is notoriously wild at times. Plus his violent motion could be cause for injury. Hawkins is riding a big second half. Brocail is at the end of the line.
Joe Beimel and Will Ohman are out there tonight. Where is the interest?
If Cecil Cooper is shocked by all of this playing out as a disaster on the field, then he should be fired for being blind. This team was not made to be competitive. It was left for dead by the economic recession and now has to contend with fringe players filling important roles all over the place.
If Houston avoids a 100-loss season, it will be a shock. The train wreck gets worse by the day.
They haven't just been losing their games. They've been getting blown away. If it's not the pitchers handing out bases like they were free candy, it's the hitters suffering from a bad case of staring at the strikes and swingin' at the balls.
If Drayton McLane thinks he can get away with this for very long, he's got another thing coming. We can't ignore that the Astros haven't drafted and developed well for years.
It's not all Ed Wade. He can only work with what he was given. And this winter, he was given pocket lint and told to get a World Series.
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