Astros Need Several Players to Take Off in 2009
Michael Bourn was acquired to be the leadoff hitter to replace legendary Craig Biggio. Ed Wade envisioned Bourn as the next "Killer B," a speedy youngster who could be a defensive gem in Minute Maid Park's cavernous center field and could be devastating as a top of the order threat both at the plate and on the base paths.
Bourn was devastating, but only to the Astros offense. In his first full year as a starter and first in Astros Red and Black, Bourn posted only a .229 average and a miserable .288 on-base percentage.
On the plus side, he stole 41 bags. Imagine what that number would look like if he had managed to get on base more often.
Bourn was pretty successful in center field, posting a .984 fielding percentage (with five errors) in one of the most difficult venues in baseball.
If the Houston Astros, maligned thanks to an unusually quiet offseason in which the losses outweighed the gains, are to get on track and make another surge into the postseason, Bourn is going to have to turn around his batting average and on-base numbers in a big way.
He had a good winter of work and says he's ready to emerge, but so far his spring numbers aren't very encouraging.
Either way, misery loves company, and Bourn is not alone in the "we're really counting on you this year" category.
Behind Roy Oswalt, the Astros' rotation is a bevy of pitchers with varying degrees of success, failure, and injuries.
Mike Hampton, the most experienced of the lot, is trying to prove that he can indeed be healthy for a full season. The last time Hampton donned a Houston jersey, he went 22-4.
The Astros would love a repeat, but they'll settle for 12-15 wins, a steady diet of innings, and no trips to the DL.
After Hampton, the Astros have two guys with loads of talent and potential but only mediocre results.
Wandy Rodriguez has improved every season. He's a steady left-hander who has so-so stuff but seems to be able to pitch around his shortcomings.
The drawback? He's never posted better than nine wins in a season and also hasn't shown that he can pitch equally well at home and on the road in the same year.
Brandon Backe is a converted infielder who has plus stuff and potential. Backe, when he's on, is one of the better pitchers in the organization. He recovered quickly from Tommy John surgery and pitched well at the end of 2007 when he returned.
The drawback? Backe is hardly ever on. He gives up too many dingers (31 last year) and can't stay away from the big inning. He's wildly inconsistent. This year is probably his last chance. He also has to stay healthy.
After Backe and Rodriguez is Brian Moehler, a retread who performed admirably in 2008 as a surprise addition to the rotation. Moehler is the classic "does everything good yet nothing special" player. He gets outs and eats innings.
He will be in the rotation as long as he's healthy, but he also has to prove that last year wasn't an accident.
There are also two out of options players who could figure into the rotation battle if Backe or Rodriguez struggles.
Felipe Paulino is a flamethrowing right-hander who has injury concerns but could vault himself onto the big league staff with a good spring. His speed and plus stuff would make him a huge asset.
Fernando Nieve is another injury-plagued prospect. He has great control and stuff but has never gotten to showcase it at the big league level. If he's healthy, he'll push for a spot on the roster.
Both players could potentially clear waivers, but if they perform well, the Astros will be hard-pressed to keep them on board.
On the hitting side of the coin, Bourn is joined by Hunter Pence, Carlos Lee, Kaz Matsui, and all of the catchers and third basemen in camp.
The Astros lost Ty Wigginton when they declined to offer him arbitration and lost Brad Ausmus in free agency. To replace them, they brought in Aaron Boone and Rule Five pick Lou Palmisano to compete with in-house prospects Chris Johnson and J.R. Towles. Utility man Geoff Blum is also in the mix at third.
Boone and Blum together don't equal a Wigginton, but Chris Johnson, if he can make the jump from AA to the majors, could. Johnson has been raking in spring ball and might surprise everyone by making the roster.
Catcher is a greater concern. Palmisano has been impressive and should stick as the backup, but the starting spot is in sorry shape.
Humberto Quintero, who's managed to hang around the organization for several years now, is the top option. Quintero isn't much with the bat or behind the plate, but he's a serviceable catcher in the right situation.
Towles, who hit so well as a 2007 call-up, is the guy Ed Wade and Cecil Cooper are hoping will surprise them in 2009. After hitting a miserable .137 last year, he's on the cusp of being sent packing his bags. If he can show some of the bat and defense that brought him up in 2007, he will be the starter when Houston breaks camp.
The Astros could do with a return to health from Lee, who missed most of the second half of 2008 with a hand injury. If Lee is healthy, the Astros will have a potent middle of the order with Lance Berkman, Lee, Miguel Tejada, and Pence (who we'll get to in a minute).
They'll need all of that power if the pitchers don't live up to the lofty expectations laid on them.
Pence is another guy looking for a bit of a rebound year. He was great as a rookie, but regressed a little last year as he tried too hard to be a factor in every plate appearance.
He's better than his .269 average, and he has some of the best raw power on the roster. He should rebound to around .295 to .305 and hit 30-35 dingers in 2009.
Houston needs big seasons and rebounds from injuries all over the place if they are to contend in 2009. So far, the Astros' spring games have looked ugly, but there are some bright spots (Chris Johnson and backup candidate John Gall, for instance) to give fans hope.
If some of these young players reach for the stars in 2009, Houston could once again find themselves on the brink of a wild card berth.
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