Christopher Reina. 1st April, 2010 - 9:05 pm
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The Astros have long been known for their offense, but they have been on a steady decline in that area, which actually began before the made the World Series in 2005. It culminated in their second sub-.500 record in three seasons after a string of .500 or better in 14 of 15 years between 1992 and 2006.
2009 Opsera Finish: 24th
What Happened In The Winter
The Astros made a couple small moves, most significantly by hiring manager Brad Mills, who replaces the much maligned Cecil Cooper.
The signings were all subtle in nature with Brandon Lyon on a three-year, $15M deal along with the unpredictable Brett Myers on a one-year, $5.1M contract. They also acquired Matt Lindstrom from Florida, who should rebound from his disastrous 2009.
Brian Moehler was retained to be part of the Astros' end of rotation.
Out went Miguel Tejada and in came Pedro Feliz, at an appropriate $4.5M salary.
Houston also said goodbye to Jose Valverde, Darin Erstad and LaTroy Hawkins.
Astros Offensive Preview
The Astros were an unmitigated disappointment offensively in 2009, finishing 14th in the NL in runs and 12th in OPS. Without any significant changes in the offseason, the Astros would need more than several above typical seasons in order to get into the top half of the NL.
Lance Berkman and Carlos Lee are the 34-year-old versions of Milwaukee's sluggers of Ryan Braun and Prince Fielder. Provided they remain healthy, those two guys are capable of raking with any middle of the lineup hitters in baseball.
Berkman hit for an OPS of .907 in 2009, which was significantly lower than his .986 in 2008. We need to see how he responds to his arthroscopic knee surgery, whether he can stay on the field and really hit for power when he is in the box. His homer total has dropped from 45 in 2006 down to 34 in 2007, 29 in 2008 and 25 in last season. Because his at bats were down in 2009, his AB/HR rate stayed relatively unchanged.
Lee enters the fourth season of his $100M, six-year contract after his OPS decreased from .937 down to .831. He was healthier in 2009 with over 600 at bats, but both his power numbers and OBP decreased. His home/away splits were also disconcerting (.915/.751).
The key to Houston's offensive success is whether Hunter Pence is capable of inching forward in his fourth MLB season. He had an .899 OPS as a rookie, followed by .783 in 2008 and .818 last season, which included an .844 OPS in September after struggling in July and August. He has been a fairly clutch hitter for the Astros and they will need that extra production outside of Berkman and Lee.
The extremely quick Michael Bourn will hope to continue his 2009 success when his OBP jumped from a brutal .288 to a very good .354. His run total jumped from 57 to 97 despite just a 174 increase in plate appearances. Bourn also won a Gold Glove with a brilliant defensive season. Bourn in center and Pence's also very good defense in right compensates for the defensive shortcomings of Lee.
Kaz Matsui and Tommy Manzella will be Houston's middle infielders. Matsui is a good hitter for the two hole behind Bourne, though I'd like to see him get his OBP back up from where he was last season at .302. Since leaving the Mets, Matsui has consistently been over .340 and I feel 2009 was an aberration. The Astros aren't expecting much offensively from Manzella, who hits like the shortstops of the 80s rather than the 90s.
Feliz shows some occasional power, but he continues to be an OBP nightmare despite lowering his strikeout rate.
Humberto Quintero and J.R. Towles will share catching duties, neither of whom will likely have an OPS over .675. Prospect Jason Castro out of Stanford should be on their heels by the All-Star break.
If the Astros don't get to pitchers by the middle of the lineup, there is little help coming from the 7-8-9 slots.
The Astros weren't great defensively in 2009, but they weren't particularly bad either. The exchange of Manzella and Feliz on the left side of the infield will make a huge difference.
Astros Pitching Preview
The Astros have a couple front end pitchers who can compete with the NL's best on any given fifth day in Roy Oswalt and Wandy Rodriguez.
Oswalt's ERA climbed to 4.12 in 2009, but he was essentially the same pitcher he has consistently been since coming up in 2001 with a FIP of 3.76. Oswalt's strikeout rate decreased a little bit, but he was more hurt by defense than missing bats.
Largely behind his excellent curve, Rodriguez has consistently been one of the NL's best southpaw starters. Rodriguez is excellent against lefties with a .502 OPS against. A statistical anomaly, Rodriguez had a home ERA of 2.08 versus 4.05 on the road, which was similar to his splits in 2008.
Bud Norris will be Houston's number three and has the potential of being a strikeout pitcher in the bigs. He had a 2.62 ERA and 8.4 K/9 rate in 120 Triple-A innings in 2009 and a 4.53 ERA and 8.7 K/9 rate in 55.2 innings in the show.
Myers has been knocked around in Spring and I think his mental makeup is better suited for late inning work where he can stay focused and on call on a daily basis.
Moehler is the fifth starter and was better than his 5.47 ERA might advertise, with a 4.75 FIP. He should be better in 2010, especially if he can get his walk rate back down towards two per nine innings.
Blowing saves was once against a problem for Houston in 2009 and now that Valverde is gone, closing duties will fall to Lindstrom. He had a 5.89 ERA in 2009 and a WHIP of 1.65, which is troubling for a guy incapable of blowing anyone away. Nevertheless, the Ricks College product should fair better if he can get better life and command to his solid fastball.
Lyon can also close if Lindstrom struggles, while Alberto Arias, Tim Byrdak and Jeff Fulchino will provide support.
What Are Their 2010 Chances?
After the Cardinals and Cubs, the middle teams of the NL Central is very fluid meaning the Astros could finish anywhere between third and fifth. I think the Reds and Brewers have much more interesting and younger teams that will stay healthy and have a better chance of overachieving in 2010.
The Astros won 74 games in 2009, but Pythagorean had them at 68, which is a realistic landing spot for them this season.
Berkman's injury scares me and without real improvement in their offense or in the bullpen, even if Oswalt, Rodriguez and Norris comprise a near elite Big 3, I don't think they will be able to offset those deficiencies to be anywhere near .500.
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