Now that Lance Berkman is gone and Carlos Lee is coming off a down year, the race is wide open for who will lead the Houston Astros in home runs in 2011. They no longer have that one player who can be expected to hit 30 to 35 home runs in a season.
When looking at the current Astros roster, there are three players who jump out that could lead this team in home runs this season. Right fielder Hunter Pence, left fielder Carlos Lee and third baseman Chris Johnson have the best chance.
Hunter Pence does not look like your typical home run hitter, but last year he led the Astros in this category. He hit 25 home runs over the course of the year, beating out Carlos Lee by one home run.
In four years at the major league level, he has hit 25 home runs each of the past three years and hit 17 in his first season.
He is only 28 years old and seems to be improving every year, so he is one of the favorites to lead the Astros in this category again in 2011.
Now that Lance Berkman is gone, there is an opportunity for a player to step up and fill that leadership role for this team. I can see Pence taking that role and running with it this year and for years to come.
He is one of the longer-tenured players on this team, and one of the easiest ways to become a leader in the clubhouse is to lead by example. Pence is one of those energy-type players and gives it everything he has. This type of player can be infectious for other players.
Each of the past three years Hunter Pence has hit 25 home runs. He has become a very consistent player, and there is no reason not to expect this again in 2011.
With the lack of power hitters in the lineup, if Pence stays consistent and hits 25 or more home runs, he should lead the Astros this season in home runs.
Over the past 10 years, Carlos Lee has not hit less than 24 home runs in a season and has hit as many as 37, which he did during the 2006 season, when he split time between the Brewers and the Rangers.
The concern is that Lee hit those 24 home runs last year, and some feel his ability to hit the ball out of the yard is regressing. However, I don't think Astros fans should give up so quickly on Lee this season.
Yes, Minute Maid Park could be used as a reason for all three players, but looking at Carlos Lee's stats from last year, he has the biggest difference between home runs hit at home compared to on the road. Last year, he hit 16 of his 24 home runs at Minute Maid Park.
Given the fact that Carlos Lee is getting older and is starting to lose some power, having that short porch in left field will benefit Lee the most of the three candidates. If he wants any chance to lead the Astros in home runs next year, he will need to use Minute Maid Park to his advantage.
Even though Carlos Lee had what constitutes a down year for him, he was only one home run behind Pence for the team lead last year. That was even after an awful April, when he hit only .183 with no home runs.
Towards the end of the season, though, Lee started to play much better at the plate and had 10 of his 24 home runs after August 1st. If he is able to carry that into 2011, there is no reason he can't lead the team in home runs.
Chris Johnson is included in this discussion on who will lead the Astros in home runs after only a half year of major league experience because of one of two reasons: He either is that talented of a player or the Astros don't have any other power hitters in their lineup.
He did play in 11 games in 2008 but did not have any home runs. Then in 2009, he started the season down in the minor leagues but was soon called up and hit 11 home runs in 94 games, with a majority of those home runs coming towards the end of the season.
Sometimes young players struggle playing away from home, but Chris Johnson actually played pretty well away from Minute Maid Park. Last year five of his 11 home runs came away from Minute Maid Park, and three of those home runs came at the friendly confines of Wrigley Field.
This is pretty surprising considering Minute Maid Park is one of the more hitter-friendly ballparks in the majors. If Johnson is able to hit this well on the road for a full season and use the home field to his advantage, he could sneak up on Pence and Lee and end up leading the team this season in home runs.
Last year, Johnson started off slow but towards the end of the season really found his swing and started to knock the ball around. He hit five home runs in the month of September alone and fell one home run short of matching his season total to that point.
It is a long offseason, but if Johnson is able to carry that momentum into the 2011 season, he could easily lead the Houston Astros in home runs.
In 2011, Hunter Pence will lead the Houston Astros in home runs. Chris Johnson does not have enough experience, and given the fact that he is a free swinger, he may struggle a little bit in the early going of 2011.
Carlos Lee will probably be right there with Pence for most of the year for the lead, but Lee is getting older and is on the downside of his career, while Pence is still young and is starting to enter his prime. I think you usually have to go with the younger player with more potential over the older player and past performances.
The fact that there aren't many power hitters in the Astros lineup means Pence will most likely take the title with less than 30 home runs this season.