The Houston Astros have had a rocky start in the past few MLB seasons, something they hope can be turned around in 2011. After losing long-time ace Roy Oswalt to the Phillies last season, the Astros bolstered their rotation by promoting J.A. Happ to the third spot in the rotation, behind opening day starter Brett Myers and upstart Wandy Rodriguez.
"Spring Training is necessary," said Myers after one of his first starts. "In the offseason, you forget how to think and eat seeds at the same time, so you have to work on getting that down first, then worry about getting back to game-form. We're all down here to figure some things out, try some new things, and when the real show starts, we will all be ready."
Myers has been, as usual, the most reliable option for the Astros this spring, but thus has allowed 18 runs in 18 innings while only fanning 11 batters. Myers carries a hefty 9.00 ERA into the season, the highest among the Astros starting rotation.
Rodriguez isn't far behind though, carrying a 8.04 ERA while posting a WHIP of exactly 2 in the spring, hardly what you want from your young prospect coming off a career year.
Perhaps the most promising aspect of the rotation this season is young Bud Norris, who suffered a slight leg strain late in the spring, but as he says, "is fine." Norris hasn't gotten the run support the other pitchers have to this point, but has more wins than Myers and Rodriguez put together—one. Norris has also set down 18 batters this spring, including seven strikeouts in three innings against the Tigers last week.
Happ and Nelson Figueroa are the only rotation starters with sub-6 ERAs, and even their numbers aren't that great, both posting a WHIP over 1.5.
The Astros hope bullpen stud Ryan Rowland-Smith can not only overcome the torrid injury issues he went through in Seattle, but also be a bridge to new closer Brandon Lyon, who proved to be a valuable option in Detroit.
In the field, the Astros brought in a mix of mid-level free agent middle infielders in Clint Barmes and Bill Hall, who will play shortstop and second base, respectively. Barmes and Hall are an improvement at the plate over Geoff Blum, and have some sure hands on the infield.
It appears that upstart Brett Wallace—despite looking quite out of shape in Spring Training—will play first, while hard-hitting Carlos Lee will be playing in left field.
Chris Johnson will be the starting third basemen, as incumbent corner infielder Jeff Keppinger will be out until late April after foot surgery.
The outfield is the lone bright spot for the Astros, with Lee joining the speedy Michael Bourn and five-tooler Hunter Pence. Both Bourn and Pence have the chance to be game-changers for Houston, but even the above .300 averages they are posting may not be enough.
Look for Bourn to steal around 60 bases, and don't forget he led the league in both infield hits (53) and bunt singles (28) over the past few seasons. Heading into his prime at 28 years old, he should again repeat those numbers and hopefully score somewhere just south of 100 runs.
Pence has hit exactly 25 long-balls in each of his past three seasons. He hits around .300 every year, and is one of the mainstays of consistency in the majors. While not spectacular, he is a great steady hand to have on the team.
"I just go out there and play ball," said Pence. "The numbers will come as they always do, I just try to go out and have a little fun and put the team in place to win some games."
The Astros are losing the battle for last place by a single game to the lowly Arizona Diamondbacks, posting a spring record of 11-22 so far, with only one game left to play until Opening Day on Wednesday.
Houston was in the muddled-middle of the NL Central last season, with Cincinnati surprisingly winning the division. While many think the Reds can repeat, they will again have to fend off perennial powerhouse St. Louis and ever-dangerous Milwaukee to do so.