2008 NL Central Preview: Houston Astros

2007 W-L: 73-89
2007 Pythagorean W-L: 72-90

IN: SS Miguel Tejada, 2B Kaz Matsui, RP Jose Valderde, CF Michael Bourn, RP Oscar Villarreal, RP Geoff Geary, RP Doug Brocail, P Shawn Chacon, P Jack Cassel, RP Chad Paronto, UT Geoff Blum, OF Darin Erstad

OUT: RP Brad Lidge, 2B Craig Biggio, SP Jason Jennings, OF Luke Scott, RP Chad Qualls, 2B/OF Chris Burke, SS Adam Everett, SP Juan Gutierrez, SP Matt Albers, SP Troy Patton, SS Eric Bruntlett, 3B Mike Lamb, RP Trever Miller

It was an outrageously busy offseason for the Astros, but not a good one. Coming off a 73-win season and looking at an aging roster and a terrible farm system, new GM Ed Wade decided... well, I don't know what he decided. Early in the offseason, he dealt Lidge, his best reliever, for an underwhelming package centered around the speedy outfielder Michael Bourn. But just when it appeared that the Astros would be sellers, Wade signed Kaz Matsui to a three-year contract.

Matsui will surely be an upgrade over what was left of Craig Biggio, who put up terrible numbers last year while chasing the 3000-hit milestone. But not as much of an upgrade as you might think: Matsui's overall numbers looked respectable, but he hit .249/.304/.333 away from Coors Field last year. That's not the kind of player you want to have signed for three years.

The Astros will depend heavily
on Roy Oswalt in 2008.

Photo: Scott Ableman.
The Astros also dumped no-hit, great-glove shortstop Adam Everett and replaced him with Miguel Tejada. Now that's an improvement - Tejada's numbers took a dive last year and he's involved in the steroid scandal, but he'll still help. But to what end? The Astros had to trade most of what remained of their farm system to get him, and now they're going to run into serious trouble if one or more of their starting pitchers gets injured.

The Astros' real problem, and the main reason I'm guessing they'll finish 5th, is that their starting pitching is thinner than an IPod Nano. Insofar as there's any pattern to their offseason activities (and, granted, you have to look awfully hard to find one), it's that the Astros are shipping out starting pitchers without replacing them. One of the departing starters, Jason Jennings, was a complete disaster last year and I'm sure no one in Houston will miss him. Forgetting about Jennings for a second, though, three of the players the Astros dealt for Tejada and Jose Valverde are young starters who were relatively close to being able to help. The Astros didn't do anything to replace those guys (Albers, Patton and Juan Gutierrez, in case you're wondering) except sign B.P. Chacon and minor-league vet Jack Cassel, and as Pirates fans will attest, if B.P. Chacon is anywhere near your rotation, your team probably has a problem.

So the Astros will go with Roy Oswalt at the top of their rotation, and Wandy Rodriguez (who took a big step forward last year) is probably their second-best starter. After that, though, things get dicey. They've got 41-year-old Woody Williams, who was bad in 2007, probably doesn't have much left, and is a poor fit for the Astros' ballpark. They've got Brandon Backe, who's coming off Tommy John surgery. And there's Chris Sampson, a minor league veteran who struck out just 3.77 batters per nine for the big club last year.

And that's it. The Astros are counting on those five guys, plus Chacon, to get it done. After those guys, all they've got is a collection of prospects, semi-prospects, and minor leaguers (Cassel, Fernando Nieve, Felipe Paulino, Chad Reineke, Mark McLemore) who are all either unready, not good enough, injured, or some combination thereof.

Wade and the Astros do deserve some credit for taking some steps to address some seriously glaring offensive holes, with Tejada and Matsui taking over for Everett and Biggio, and with J.R. Towles set to finally edge Brad Ausmus out of the starting nine. These changes at least are a sign that the Astros aren't letting the Bagwells and Biggios and Ausmuses have the run of the place anymore, if only because injuries, retirements and terrible play have forced the team's hand.

Still, Wade's offseason missed the forest for the trees. Building a team isn't just about fixing big holes (especially not when you have to create others to do so, as the Astros have done by trading young starters and replacing Luke Scott's bat with Bourn's). It's about having goals and assessing where your franchise is relative to those goals.

The Astros won 73 games last year. While it's not impossible that Tejada, Lance Berkman, Hunter Pence and Carlos Lee could all have huge years and carry the Astros to the playoffs, it's extremely unlikely, and even big seasons from those players won't save the Astros if Oswalt or Rodriguez gets injured. Meanwhile, the Astros have a horrible minor league system and no serious hope of contending in the near future. They could have addressed those issues this offseason, but they didn't.

I think the Pirates will be worse than the Astros; the Bucs have similar problems with depth in their starting rotation and probably have a worse offense and bullpen than Houston. With a couple of bad breaks, though, the Astros could wind up in the cellar.

RANKINGS SO FAR

  1. Houston Astros
  2. Pittsburgh Pirates

Discussion of this preview at the Astros blog Crawfish Boxes

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