Guide Preview: Houston Astros

Our trip through the NL Central next brings us to the Houston Astros. They had an interesting season last year, nearly bottoming out in the first half of the season before tearing off to the best record in baseball over the second half. Surprisingly, they finished the year in third place. It might be hard to replicate that, though.

As before, this preview is meant to be a summary of what the three main baseball preview magazines are saying about the team’s 2009 season. I’ve included quotes and other information from each of the them – Sporting News, Athlon, and Lindy’s. I’ve also included some statistics about each magazines’ success at predictions over the last ten years. Be sure to check out the Team-by-Team Season Preview index for other guide previews over the next few weeks.

My original intention was to completely refrain from providing any opinion. I was afraid that I would have too much to say about some teams and too little about others. But, after doing a few of these now, I feel like there’s room for some personal commentary. I think it’ll add a little bit of personality to the preview. But I don’t want to make my opinion the focus of the post, so I’ll put it near the end. Please feel free to ignore it; I’ve never claimed to be the most knowledgeable person when it comes to all 30 teams. With that said, on with the “combined” team preview for the…

Houston Astros
Last Year: 86 – 75, 3rd Place, NL Central

Predictions Since 1999
This Year Last Year Avg Pred. Avg Finish
Sporting News 5 3 2* 2.375*
Athlon 3 4 2.5** 2.375**
Lindy’s 5 3

* Sporting News average includes preview guides from these years: 1999 – 2001, 2003 – 2004, 2006 – 2008
** Athlon average includes preview guides from these years: 1999 – 2003, 2006 – 2008

Team Notes

In 2008, the Astros followed their recent history to a ‘T’, playing so poorly in the first half that people wondered when rookie manager Cecil Cooper would be fired, but then turning things around in such a way that Cooper ended the season with Manager of the Year votes. The “yo-yo” nature of the Astros’ play makes them a tough team to predict, as it’s hard to know how legitimate the team is. Fittingly enough, though, this style of play reflects the construction of the team quite well. With two of the top players in the league at their respective positions, it seems like the Astros should always be in the playoff hunt.

“Pitching with a sore hip, Oswalt stood 6-8 with a 4.77 ERA ater a June 25 loss last summer. Coincidentally, the Astros were 36-42. The Houston ace then finished on an 11-2 tear accompanied by a 2.10 ERA. The Astros followed suit, finishing 50-33.

‘I’d rate Berkman among the top three hitters in the NL. He’s a better hitter left-handed than right-handed, but is dangerous from both sides. … An underrated athlete, Berkman’s also really improved his defense at first base.’ (TSN)”

But the team is much more than Oswalt and Berkman, and the remaining 23 players don’t quite match up. And while some of them may have their strengths, they definitely have their weaknesses too.

“Even with [Carlos] Lee healthy for the whole season, the Astros still have too many holes in their lineup offensively, particularly at catcher and in center field. [Michael] Bourn’s speed is useless if he can’t get on base. That would make [Kaz] Matsui the lead-off hitter. Similar to Bourn, he doesn’t walk often enough. The 7-8-9 spots in the batting order appear to be pretty weak. Houston needs someone after Oswalt to become a solid No. 2 starter and win 15 games. The rest of the rotation is a crapshoot. No matter how well the bullpen pitches, it can’t win many games pitching from behind. The Astros will definitely need some breaks, and major contributions by veterans such as [Darin] Erstad, [Geoff] Blum, and [Mike] Hampton to make the playoffs. (Athlon)”

This comes as no surprise to people following the Astros, though. And it doesn’t seem to be a surprise to GM Ed Wade or owner Drayton McLane. What is a surprise, though, is how they are addressing these issues by closing their pocketbook. These are definitely tough economic times, and you can’t really blame them. But it does make it tough for the Astros to compete.

“Astros owner Drayton McLane says the organization will never use the term ‘rebuild’ as long as he owns the club, and that proved true last season. A team that others certainly would have characterized as rebuilding ended up contending for the playoffs until the very end.

The Astros, though, are in a tough spot going forward. A farm system that has helped them post winning seasons in seven of last eight years and 14 of the last 16 has run dry, and McLane doesn’t want to spend the money to buy all the help they need on the free-agent market. At the same time, though, McLane would never allow Wade to trade one of the team’s big stars to bring back several young players who would help the Astros shore up an aging roster that has its share of holes. So Wade will have to do the best he can through smaller trades and secondary free agents to fill the stars. (Lindy’s)”

Spotlight Quote

An interesting note from the “Beyond the Box Score” section of the Athlon:

Age Before Beauty: The Astros have several seasoned players, led by reliever Doug Brocail, who will turn 42 in May. Righthander Brian Moehler is 37, lefthander Mike Hampton will be 37 in September, reliever LaTroy Hawkins is 36, and third baseman Geoff Blum will be 36 in April, shortstop Miguel Tejada will be 35 in May and outfielder Darin Erstad will be 35 in June.”

But, more importantly, is this note from the “Scouts’ Snapshot” section of the Lindy’s:

“They might be the hardest team in baseball to predict this season. On one hand, they should be able to contend with guys like Roy Oswalt, Lance Berkman and Carlos Lee on their roster. Then you see them relying heavily on guys like Brian Moehler and Michael Bourn, and you figure there is no way they can even be competitive. Flip a coin, I suppose.”

Commentary

Honestly, I don’t tend to think too much about the Astros. With the Cubs and Brewers near the top of the division, they always seem to be an afterthought. Of course, I know that isn’t necessarily the brightest perception to have, especially after they turned things around so drastically in the second half last year (plus, they did play in the World Series a couple of years back). I agree with that last note from the Lindy’s magazine, though: while the Astros do have some top-caliber stars, with Oswalt, Berkman, and Lee, they have too many average or below-average players getting significant playing time. In a situation like that, I just can’t trust the team. The fact that they’re tightening their belts so much in these tough times (despite being in one of the biggest markets in baseball) does not help my optimism. I just can’t trust them placing higher than 4th place. If everything goes right for them, it’s possible, but I wouldn’t put money on it.

Larry Granillo

About Larry Granillo

Larry Granillo has been writing Wezen Ball since 2008 and has dealt with such touchy topics as Charlie Brown's baseball stats and Ferris Bueller's day off. In 2010, he got the bright idea to time every home run trot in baseball; he has been missing ever since.

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