*From Protect the Plate
The Houston Astros ended the season as one of the best teams to fall short of the playoffs. They were one of the hottest teams in baseball to end the year, but failed to make any substantial additions, and even lost a few key contributors.
Houston still has one of the best aces in baseball, the National League saves leader, and two of the most dangerous hitters in baseball, so you can't count them out in 2009.
The Astros were 44-51 (.463) before the All-Star break and most fans had already counted them out of the playoff race. Houston stormed back, however, going 42-24 after the break to finishing the season at 86-75.
Though they finished 3.5 games back of Milwaukee in the Wild Card race, the strong finish gave the Astros new life and positive momentum heading into 2009.
The Astros will lean heavily on bell cow Roy Oswalt, who's spending his spring pitching for Team USA in the World Baseball Classic. The 31-year-old went 17-10 with a career-worst 3.54 ERA, which still ranked 13th in the NL.
Oswalt has been incredibly durable, pitching over 200 innings for the five years in a row. He played a big role in the team's second half turnaround, going 10-2 with a 2.24 ERA after the All-Star break.
In his first season taking over for Craig Biggio as the face of the franchise, Lance Berkman delivered his usual solid numbers. He had a career-high 114 runs and 18 steals while hitting .312 with 29 home runs, 106 RBI, 99 walks, a .420 on-base percentage and .567 slugging percentage.
After 10 seasons in the majors, Fat Elvis has a .302 batting average and .973 OPS. At 33-years-old, there's no reason why Berkman can't have another big year, though he did hit .171 over the final month of the season.
STRONG LIKE A HORSE
After a stellar first season in Houston, Carlos Lee was on pace for an ever better second campaign with the Astros. A broken finger cost him most of August and all of September, but he still managed 28 homers and 100 RBI. El Caballo had a career-high .937 OPS, and still can be counted on to post huge numbers.
The Arizona Diamondbacks sold high on closer Jose Valverde after he led the NL in saves, betting the odds were against a repeat performance. That's exactly what happened, as Valverde saved 44 games for the Astros, leading the NL for the second-straight season.
He also set career highs in appearances (74), wins (6), innings pitched (72) and strikeouts (83).
Miguel Tejada has seen his home runs and slugging percentage drop each of the past five seasons. LaTroy Hawkins gave up just one earned run in 21 innings (0.43 ERA) with the Astros last year.
Lefty Wandy Rodriguez posted a career-best 3.54 ERA and 1.31 WHIP in 25 starts last season. Hunter Pence hit 25 homers and drove in 83 runs in his first full season. Michael Bourn stole 41 bases, but hit just .229 with a .288 on-base percentage.
Career utility man Geoff Blum is slated to start at third with Aaron Boone also getting at-bats. J.R. Towles, a .300 hitter in the minors, will compete with Humberto Quintero for playing time behind the plate.
Mike Hampton returned to the mound for 13 starts last year after missing the entire 2006 and '07 seasons. The last time he pitched for the Astors, he won 22 games with a 2.90 ERA in 1999.