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Houston's NL Central Hopes Are Pretty Astronomical

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Houston's NL Central Hopes Are Pretty Astronomical
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As long as the Houston Astros refuse to acknowledge the "R" word, fans will become more acquainted with the "L" word.

An aging ballclub with a barren minor league system spelled a 74-88 campaign for the Astros in 2009. Continuing to fool himself and their fanbase, owner Drayton McLane's "WTF?" acquisitions of batting practice fodder Mike Hampton and Russ Ortiz -- combined with a punchless lineup -- that finally made McLane realize the euphoria of the 2005 National League championship season was no longer driving fans to Minute Maid Park.

It would beg to reason the additions of 3B Pedro Feliz and pitchers Brandon Lyon and Brett Myers didn't provoke a run on season ticket renewals.

In a National League Central division comprised of a legitimate playoff threat (St. Louis), teams on the cusp (Milwaukee, Chicago) and clubs on a steady ascent (Cincinnati, and -- yes, Virginia -- even Pittsburgh), Houston finds itself as a club uncertain of its future, yet too stubborn to let go of its past.

New manager Brad Mills has a solid core of veterans (1B Lance Berkman, LF Carlos Lee, SPs Roy Oswalt and Wandy Rodriguez) and a pair of up-and-coming talents (Gold Glove CF Michael Bourn and RF Hunter Pence) to build upon. The hope is that Berkman (.274-25-80) and Oswalt (8-6, 4.12) can bounce back from injury-plagued seasons, while Bourn (.285, 61 SB) and Rodriguez (14-12, 3.02) take the next step toward stardom.

Mills would be the King of Wishful Thinking if he holds grandiose visions of that level. The brutal reality for the Astros is that years of neglecting a once-dominant minor league system has come to roost. McLane's short-sighted philosophy of low balling draft picks has resulted in an organization left with little choice but to wheel out the likes of SS Tommy Manzella and 2B Edwin Maysonet as "prospects" ready to contribute, while Ron Karkovice clones J.R. Towles and Humberto Quintero handle catching duties until Jason Castro -- the club's only legitimately ready prospect -- toils down in the minors until Mills grows weary of watching his catchers kill rallies at the bottom of the order.

With such little change in the lineup, there is no reason to feel optimistic about an Astros club that finished 27th in runs scored (.643), 25th in homers (142), 24th in slugging percentage (.400) and 17th in batting average (.260).

Oswalt and Rodriguez provide a solid pairing in the front of the rotation. The 3-5 spots? Well....

  • Myers: A hip injury limited him to 18 appearances (10 starts). The Astros spent $5 million in hopes the Myers of 2005 (13-8, 202 Ks) shows up instead of the hurler whose ERA has risen each of the last four seasons.
  • Bud Norris: The ability is there. The control (25 BB in 55 1/3 innings) isn't.
  • Brian Moehler: If he's the answer (5.47 ERA), you probably don't want to know the question.

Closer Jose Valvedere's decision to skip town opened the door for Lyon and hard-throwing Matt Lindstrom to compete for what few save opportunities the Astros will have Lindstrom throws high octane gas, but his fetish for walks allowed sets up perfectly for Houston fans to leave agonized after another squandered save.

Maybe it's best for Astros fans to hold on to the memories of 2005. The visions of the Killer B's, Rocket and Andy along with Lights Out Lidge will be welcomed as Houston's biggest fight in 2010 will be keeping the Pirates from sending them to the Central's slag heap.

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