Before spring training started, some people had guarded optimism about this team heading into 2011. After trading away top stars Lance Berkman and Roy Oswalt, they had a record above .500 and were playing pretty good baseball down the stretch.
They had four rookies in their starting lineup and rotation and if these young players continued to develop, the Astros would be competitive this season.
However, expectations for this team have quickly dropped only two weeks into spring training. They have started off very slow so far and last week lost Jason Castro, who was expected to be their starting catcher this year, for the majority of the season.
But no matter what injuries the Astros have to deal with, the show must go on. This is what I expect to see for a starting lineup and rotation for the Houston Astros on Opening Day.
The Astros know what they get with Humberto Quintero, who is a good defensive catcher but struggles at the plate. However, J.R. Towles is still somewhat unknown as he has some untapped potential. He has had less than 100 at-bats at the major league level the last two years.
Towles was one of the top Astros prospects heading into the 2008 season, and the injury to Jason Castro has given him one more shot to prove he can be a catcher at the major league level. So far this spring training he has shown some improvement at the plate, hitting .250 through four games with one double and one RBI.
As long as the Astros don't bring in another catcher via free agency or a trade, Towles should be the starting catcher for the foreseeable future.
Another player who has not reached his potential is first baseman Brett Wallace, however this will be Wallace's first year that he will be starting at the major league level on Opening Day. He has bounced around the past three years, spending time in the minor league systems of St. Louis, Oakland, Toronto and Houston.
A good sign is that Wallace is having his best spring training to date. He is hitting .267 with two RBI through five games but does not have an extra-base hit yet this season. If he expects to hold on to his starting spot for the whole season, he will need to improve his power numbers.
Bill Hall was signed as a free agent this past offseason and one of the main reasons he signed with Houston was that he was promised the starting second base job. He spent last season playing multiple positions for the Red Sox and wanted to have some regularity this season.
However, Hall is not off to the best start this season as he is only hitting .143 with no extra-base hits or RBI. One of the reasons the Astros brought Hall in was to help add some power to the lineup, so hopefully he can show that power once the season starts.
The other big offseason acquisition for the Astros is shortstop Clint Barmes. Like Hall, he is off to a slow start this spring training. He is only hitting .059 through five games but does have an RBI.
The Astros traded for Barmes from the Rockies again as a way to add some power to the lineup. Back in 2009 he hit 23 HRs for the Rockies. Hopefully the start of spring training is not a sign to come for this shortstop.
One of the key reasons the Astros were so successful in the second half last year was because of third baseman Chris Johnson, and it looks like he is picking up right where he left off last year. So far this spring he is one of the better Astros at the plate, hitting .308 with an RBI through five games.
The Astros will rely heavily on Johnson this season as he will be expected to play a key role. He will most likely be hitting in the middle of the lineup with Carlos Lee and Hunter Pence, and hopefully can keep the momentum going to Opening Day and beyond.
Saying that Carlos Lee had a down year last year is an understatement, but Lee is determined to have a bounce-back year. He has to be tired of hearing about and answering questions about if he has lost it, and I am sure that is extra motivation.
He has played well so far this spring training as he is hitting .364 with one home run through four games. He will be expected to provide a lot of power in the middle of that lineup, especially if Hall and Barmes struggle.
He will start the season in left field but if Wallace struggles at first base, don't be surprised to see him make a move to first base during the season.
Michael Bourn is on the cusp of becoming one of the best center fielders in the game. He has won two consecutive Gold Gloves, which is impressive considering he has to deal with Tal's Hill out there in center field, and was a National League All-Star last year.
He will be the leadoff batter for the Astros like in previous years but he will need to improve his batting average to be considered in the discussion for best center fielder. If he is able to improve his batting average, that will be a major improvement for the Astros offense as he will cause havoc on the basepaths, has unbelievable speed and can quickly get in scoring position for the middle of the Astros lineup.
One of the longer-tenured Astros, Hunter Pence will man right field for Houston for the fifth year. He has been consistently one of the Astros' better hitters over the years, hitting 25 home runs each of the past three years, and has been on a tear so far through the spring. In six games he is hitting .471 with three extra-base hits and one RBI.
Now that Lance Berkman is gone, Pence will need to take the next step and become the leader of this team. The best way for him to do this is by his performance in the field and at the plate. From the looks of spring training so far, Pence is up to the challenge.
The Houston Astros pitching staff will need to have a great year if the team hopes to have any chance of being competitive in 2011. Brett Myers had a great 2010 and became the ace of this staff after Roy Oswalt was traded away. Myers has been pitching pretty well so far this spring training, with an ERA of 3.67 through five innings of work.
Wandy Rodriguez started 2010 very slowly but was able to figure it out and pitched well down the stretch, and the start of 2011 is looking similar to last year. He has given up eight runs through 4.2 innings of work and has not looked like the pitcher fans have come to expect.
J.A. Happ and Bud Norris are two young pitchers who will be expected to play key roles in the rotation this year. Happ came over from the Phillies in the Oswalt trade and pitched pretty well in his first half of season with the Astros. He has only had one outing so far in spring training but went two innings and only gave up one hit.
Bud Norris will be entering his second season as a starter in the Astros rotation and had an up-and-down season. He had trouble stringing quality starts together, which he will need to work on this season. Like Happ, he has had limited work to this point and has only pitched two innings and gave up one run.
The last spot in the rotation is up for grabs between Nelson Figueroa, free-agent signee Ryan Rowland-Smith and top prospect Jordan Lyles. Even though Lyles has pitched very well so far, not allowing a run through five innings of work, I think Figueroa will win the final spot, allowing Lyles to get some work at the Triple-A level.
Figueroa pitched very well at the end of the last season, having an ERA below 3.25 through his final 10 starts. Figueroa has only pitched two innings so far this spring but didn't give up a run.