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2007 N.L. Central Preview: Houston Astros

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Discussion of this article at Crawfish Boxes (an Astros blog)

2006 W-L: 82-80
Runs scored: 735
Runs allowed: 719
Pythagenport W-L: 82.6-79.4

IN

INF Mark Loretta
OF Carlos Lee
OF Richard Hidalgo
SP Woody Williams
SP Jason Jennings
SP Brian Moehler
P Miguel Asencio
RP Scott Sauerbeck
RP Rick White
RP Lincoln Holdzkom

OUT

OF Aubrey Huff
OF Willy Taveras
SP Andy Pettitte
SP Jason Hirsh
SP Taylor Buchholz
RP Russ Springer

FREE AGENTS REMAINING

SP Roger Clemens

DEFENSE

C Brad Ausmus
1B Lance Berkman
2B Craig Biggio
SS Adam Everett
3B Morgan Ensberg
OF Carlos Lee
CF Chris Burke
OF Luke Scott / Jason Lane

ROTATION

RHP Roy Oswalt
RHP Jason Jennings
RHP Woody Williams
LHP Wandy Rodriguez
????

HOW WAS THE OFFSEASON?

With Andy Pettitte and Aubrey Huff leaving, Roger Clemens doing his annual will-he-or-won't-he, and one of baseball's worst offenses in 2006, the Astros had to do something. I guess handing $100 million to Carlos Lee counts as "something," and he'll help them for the next couple years, but the Astros will probably regret that contract quite a lot in 2009 or so. Jason Jennings was a very good pickup, and Jason Hirsh was the only player in that trade they're likely to miss much after this year.

HOW'S THE OFFENSE?

For a lineup with a legitimately great hitter (Lance Berkman) and another very good one (Morgan Ensberg, who admittedly didn't have a great season by his standards), the Astros' offense was subpar last year, scoring more runs than only five other teams. Part of the problem was that they ranked 29th among all major league teams in OPS from the catcher position and 27th among all major league teams in OPS from the shortstop position. One might think that such enormous offensive sinkholes would present excellent opportunities for the Astros to improve, but they're going into 2007 with exactly the same starters at those positions (Brad Ausmus and Adam Everett). Starting Everett is probably defensible, since his defense is terrific and the Astros have a bunch of groundball pitchers. But there's just no excuse for Ausmus - his hitting last year was indescribably bad, he doesn't throw out baserunners anymore, and "working with pitchers" is not a skill that produces tangible results.

Anyway, the Astros attempted to upgrade their offense this winter by throwing a bazillion dollars at Carlos Lee. Lee should be a big upgrade over Preston Wilson, and they Astros will also benefit (offensively, anyway) from getting Willy Taveras' bat out of the lineup. Ensberg should also rebound somewhat, although that improvement will probably be offset by regression from outfielder Luke Scott, who went berzerk down the stretch last year. Overall, Houston's offense should be better - not as good as it might have been if they'd fixed their problem at catcher, but better.

HOW'S THE PITCHING?

Led by Roger Clemens, Andy Pettitte and the excellent Roy Oswalt, the Astros' rotation was among the best in baseball last year. Jason Jennings will probably be able to put up Pettitte-like numbers for the 'Stros in 2007, but after that, the rotation should be considerably weaker than last year. They've replaced Clemens with Woody Williams, and they have less depth because they traded youngsters Jason Hirsh and Taylor Buchholz to get Jennings. Wandy Rodriguez, Fernando Nieve, Matt Albers, Brian Moehler, Dave Borkowski and Chris Sampson will compete for the last two spots in the rotation, but Rodriguez has the inside track because he's left-handed. That's a shame for the 'Stros, because it's doubtful Rodriguez will ever be a productive starter. Of the other five, only Nieve and Albers have much upside, and neither is likely to become a solid starter this year.

The 'pen is likely to be solid - Brad Lidge should rebound, and he'll be ably supported by righties Dan Wheeler and Chad Qualls. Trever Miller was terrific last year, but as a journeyman with a history of mediocre peripherals, he isn't a great bet to continue that success. After that, the Astros have a bunch of guys who could fill in capably in the back of the bullpen, but no one you'd want pitching high-leverage innings. If Nieve doesn't get a rotation job, he and his fabulous fastball could be just what the bullpen needs.

This should be a solid pitching staff, but, obviously, it should still take a big step backward if Clemens isn't re-acquired. Also, they've got an absolutely terrible outfield defense, with Carlos Lee in left, converted infielder Chris Burke in center and either Luke Scott or Jason Lane in right. Most of their starters keep the ball on the ground, which is fortunate, but Williams doesn't, so he may struggle.

OUTLOOK

Houston's offense will be better in 2007, but their pitching will be substantially worse. I'm picking them to finish fourth, but in this bad division, they'll probably be closer to first than last. And if Clemens comes back, all bets are off.