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Sunday, January 10, 2010

Offseason Prospectus #18: The Houston Astros

Houston's general manager, Ed Wade, made perhaps his biggest splash of the winter this weekend by signing free agent right-hander, Brett Myers, for $5 Million.  Although Wade has been busy throughout the Hot Stove season, Myers is the most reputable addition he's made.  Wade chose, instead of chasing John Lackey, Chone Figgins, or any of the other big-ticket free agents who would've been good fits in Houston, to pursue a handful of less notable complimentary players.  He renovated the bullpen by signing Brandon Lyon (3 yrs./$15 Mil.) and trading for Matt Lindstrom.  He improved his infield defense by adding Pedro Feliz (1 yr./$4.5 Mil.) and allowing Miguel Tejada to walk, so that he could cede shortstop to some combination of Jeff Keppinger and prospects.  Finally, he signed Myers, who despite struggling to stay out of trouble and on the field in Philadelphia, pitched quite well as both a starter and a late-inning reliever.  The Astros would like him to join the rotation, which was their Achillies heel in 2009.

Free Agents:

Brandon Backe (32) RHSP
Doug Brocail (43) RHRP
Chris Coste (37) C [Signed w/ Mets]
Darin Erstad (36) 1B/OF
Geoff Geary (33) RHRP
Mike Hampton (37) LHSP
Latroy Hawkins (37) RHRP [Signed w/ Brewers]
Miguel Tejada (36) SS
Jose Valverde (30) RHCL  

Arbitration Eligible:

Michael Bourn (27) CF
Tim Byrdak (36) LHRP
Jeff Keppinger (30) UT
Hunter Pence (27) RF
Humberto Quintero (30) C
Wandy Rodriguez (31) LHSP
Chris Sampson (32) RHRP

ETA 2010?:

Chris Johnson (25) 3B
Tommy Manzella (27) SS
Wladimir Sutil (25) SS
Polin Trinidad (25) LHSP

Unfortunately for the Astros and their fans, Houston posted one of its worst seasons of the decade in 2009, despite having the franchise's largest ever payroll ($103 Million).  Astros County expects Houston will try to roll back that payroll slightly in 2010, to somewhere between $90-95 Million.  The 'Stros do have a fair number of veterans coming off their books, but they still have enormous commitments to Lance Berkman, Roy Oswalt, and Carlos Lee, as well as sizable arbitration awards coming for Wandy Rodriguez, Hunter Pence, and Michael Bourn.  Astros County thoughtfully argues that the Houston fan base can't expect the franchise to make another commitment this offseason of anything more than $3 Million.  That means even if Ed Wade uses that remaining cash very efficiently, the 2010 Astros are still going to have some gaping holes, especially for a team that hopes to compete with at least three divisional contenders: the Cardinals, Brewers, and Cubs.

I'll start with some good news.  The Astros rotation will be better than it was in '09.  Granted, it couldn't be much worse.  The '09 'Stros finished with a rotational ERA of 4.79, 14th in the NL.  But there's cause for hope going forward.  Roy Oswalt had the worst season of his career (8-6, 4.12 ERA).  At only 32, he's almost sure to bounce back.  Wandy Rodriguez (14-12, 3.02) continued to trend in the right direction, developing into a solid #2 starter.  He has improved his ERA, WHIP, and K/BB rate in each of the last three seasons, but continues to struggle on the road (4.05 ERA, compared to 2.08 at Minute Maid), which means there's still room for improvement.  Rodriguez remains a somewhat unheralded pitcher and could be a breakout player in '10.

Myers will likely slot into the rotation at #3, followed by Bud Norris.  Norris made ten starts as a rookie, going 6-3 with a 4.53 ERA.  He finished especially strong by going 3-0 in four September starts witha 1.57 ERA, 24 K, and only 6 BB in 23 innings.  Compare that to an August in which he walked 18 batters in 30 innings, causing his ERA to skyrocket (6.98).  If he has indeed solved those control issues, he could be a very solid back-end starter this coming season and a future star.

Yorman Bazardo, Felipe Paulino, Brian Moehler, and Polin Trinidad will also be fighting for starts, and with the exception of Moehler there is reason to believe that all of them have fairly bright futures.  Paulino was very inconsisten in '09, but is still only 26 and showed a solid strikeout rate (8.6 K/9) and was even dominant for brief stretches.  Bazardo and Trinidad are youngsters who have proven themselves in the minors and will look for the opportunity to reach the bigs for good in 2010.

The Astros lineup reminds me a great deal of the '09 Twins.  At the top, their is some serious thunder.  Michael Bourn has developed into solid archetypal center-fielder/leadoff-hitter, whose speed makes him an asset on both sides of the ball, an in '09 he raised his OBP by 70 points, to a respectable .354.  Behind him are Lance Berkman, Carlos Lee, and Hunter Pence, a commendable trio of sluggers who have combined for 75+ HR in each of the last three seasons.  However, as in Minnesota, the bottom of the Astros lineup is a barren wasteland.  Kaz Matsui's OPS dropped to 659 in '09.  Pedro Feliz was only slightly better, at 694, and that was when he was hitting in that mechanism of pitcher fatigue, the lineup of the Philadelphia Phillies.  Behind them there will be J. R. Towles (609 OPS in 234 MLB AB) and either Keppinger (707 OPS in '09) or one of the defensively-minded prospects, Tommy Manzella (756 OPS at AAA in '09) or Wladimir Sutil (673 OPS at AA in '09).  Followed by a pitcher, that means there are five "easy outs" in a row, which will also make it easier for pitchers to avoid Berkman and Lee or attack Bourn and Pence as necessary.  If the Astros are going to have a chance this season, they need one of those "easy outs" to exceed expectations.  The most likely candidates are Matsui, who had a 781 OPS as recently as '08, and Towles, who posted strong OBP numbers throughout the minor leagues.  

The other possibility is that Ed Wade will be able to secure an additional cheap bat from among the disappointed free agents who are still looking for work come Spring Training.  I'm guessing he's keenly following negotiations with Orlando Cabrera and Rod Barajas. 

While the Astros did add two solid relievers this offseason (Lyon and Lindstrom), they also lost one of baseball's best closers (Jose Valverde) and their top set-up man (LaTroy Hawkins).  It will be a major challenge for Lyon and Lindstrom to replace that pair, who combined in '09 for 117 innings, 36 saves, 20 holds, and a 2.21 ERA.  The Astros bullpen was hardly lights out even with Valverde and Hawkins (4.13 ERA in '09), so Houston needs somebody to make a BIG step forward and protect leads for their improved rotation.  Jeff Fulchino (3.40 ERA in 82 IP) and Tim Byrdak (3.23 ERA in 61 IP) will need to build on their solid '09 performances and somebody from the group of young, promising arms will need to become a late-inning guys, either Wesley Wright, Alberto Arias, or one of the three prospects listed above who aren't in the rotation.

I'm guessing a lot of casual fans will look at the Astros this spring and think they are serious contenders in the NL Central. The middle of their lineup and their front four starters match up fairly well with many of their rivals.  However, those who follow this blog know that I consider roster depth among the most important aspects of building a competitive team for the six-month haul.  Frankly, the Astros are just plain thin, and their several weaknesses are going to be exposes over and over again by the middle of summer, especially if they suffer even one injury among that core group.  It would only take a small amount of bad luck for the Astros to actually sink below the Pirates and finish in last place for the first time since 1991.

Projected 2010 Opening Day Roster:

CF Michael Bourn (L)
2B Kaz Matsui (S)
1B Lance Berkman (S)
LF Carlos Lee (R)
RF Hunter Pence (R)
3B Pedro Feliz (R)
C J. R. Towles (R)
SS Jeff Keppinger (R)
SP Roy Oswalt (R)

SP Wandy Rodriguez (L)
SP Brett Myers (R)
SP Bud Norris (R)
SP Yorman Bazardo (R)

CL Brandon Lyon (R)
SU Matt Lindstrom (R)
SU Jeff Fulchino (R)
MR Tim Byrdak (L)
MR Alberto Arias (R)
LOOGY Wesley Wright (L)
SWING Felipe Paulino (R)

C Humberto Quintero (R)
1B/3B Geoff Blum (S)
SS Tommy Manzella (R)
OF Jason Michaels (R)
OF Jason Bourgeois (R)

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