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2010 N.L. Central Preview: Houston Astros

2008 FINISH: 74-88, fifth place


IN: 3B Pedro Feliz, SP Brett Myers, RP Matt Lindstrom, RP Brandon Lyon

OUT: SS Miguel Tejada, OF Darin Erstad, SP Mike Hampton, RP Jose Valverde, RP LaTroy Hawkins, RP Doug Brocail

LINEUP: Essentially, the Astros' plan for building a ballclub is this.

1) Throw about $800 billion at about four players;

2) Toss about $25 billion more at a couple mediocre middle relievers;

3 ) Ravage the couch cushions for some extra cash to pay role players, since the neglected mess of a farm system will rarely provide them;

4) Hope that somebody, anybody, has a miraculous breakout season.

This is a plan that produces better results than, say, the Pirates did under Dave Littlefield, who had a pretty similar plan but without that crucial first step. But it's still a really uninspired, sub-optimal strategy that frankly adds little to the overall talent level of the game, and if I were an Astros fan I'd be nearly as frustrated as I was during the Littlefield years. For one thing, the Astros' plan disregards depth--it effectively neutralizes a great hitter like Lance Berkman by forcing him to compensate for all the spots in the lineup they've inexplicably neglected. Last year, for example, the Astros' primary third baseman was Geoff Blum, who posted his annual 80 OPS+. Now, Blum wasn't forced into duty when someone got hurt; he was Plan A. (Well, along with Aaron Boone, who couldn't play because he had heart surgery shortly before the season, but there was no reason to think Boone would have been much better anyway.) That's just negligence on the Astros' part.

Things aren't much better this year. The new third baseman is Pedro Feliz, who like Blum produces an 80 OPS+ each year, but at least brings a plus glove. The catcher, if Astros fans are lucky, will be Jason Castro, a 2008 first-round pick who has a questionable bat but at least has upside, and can't be much worse than Ivan Rodriguez and Humberto Quintero were last year. Castro is competing with perennial disappointment J.R. Towles.

Shortstop, though, is an issue--after losing Miguel Tejada to free agency, the Astros are going with Tommy Manzella, a defense-first guy who can't hit and will be 27 in April. As a utility infielder, or a Triple-A backup plan, Manzella would be acceptable, but as Plan A, he's just terrible, and he'll be lucky to crack a .300 OBP.

Meanwhile, CF Michael Bourn's 95 OPS+ in 2009 likely represents the peak of his abilities, and at 34, 2B Kaz Matsui isn't a great bet to bounce back much from a tough 2009 season. That forces Berkman, Carlos Lee and Hunter Pence to carry the offense, which is worrisome, because Berkman and Lee are big guys who aren't getting any younger. The 2009 Astros finished 14th in the league in runs scored, seven runs more than the last-place Pirates, with those two on the field the whole year. If either of them are hurt or ineffective, watch out. If both of them are hurt, the Astros will basically have a Triple-A offense.

PITCHING: Here things are somewhat better, at least in the rotation. All the Astros' pitchers should benefit somewhat from the additions of Manzella and Feliz; the Astros' defense didn't catch much of anything last year. Health permitting, Roy Oswalt and Wandy Rodriguez form a very good 1-2 at the top of the rotation. Third starter Brett Myers is a jerk who hits his wife (I guess I should say "allegedly") and looks like he puts eye black where his eyebrows should be, so he'll be particularly fun to make fun of all year, but he's actually pretty interesting as far as bargain free-agents go. He's a huge risk because of the hip issues that caused him to miss much of last season, but he's a capable starter if healthy. Bud Norris will have to fight to make the rotation, but it's a fight he should win--he has a solid, if unspectacular, minor league pedigree, and he handled himself well in ten big-league starts last year. Fifth starter is a question mark, but that's true of many teams. Depending on how Myers turns out, the rotation could be a relative strength.

The bullpen likewise has at least a chance to be decent, particularly if the Astros trust younger, relatively high-upside talents like Sam Gervacio and Alberto Arias, and perhaps also Chia-Jen Lo and Wesley Wright. Some of their older options, such as Tim Byrdak (who has posted ridiculously low BABIPs the past two years) and Jeff Fulchino, are less inspiring, and Lyon and Lindstrom aren't likely to replace the production of Hawkins and Valverde, but overall the bullpen could at least be interesting.

PROGNOSIS: Bleak. The cream of the Astros' farm system has improved to such a degree that their top three prospects (Castro, low-minors pitcher Jordan Lyles and 2009 top pick Jiovanni Mier) are actually pretty reasonable, but after that it quickly degenerates into relievers, role players and dubious toolsy types. Worse, after spending a some money in the 2008 draft (possibly in response to criticisms of their 2007 draft, in which they didn't sign anyone drafted higher than the fifth round), the Astros picked Mier and then went right back to sleeping through the draft in 2009, mostly signing a bunch of players for slot value, the way they usually have in the last decade. 

This pattern precedes Ed Wade, so it probably isn't his fault, but it will force him to scramble every time someone gets hurt, because the Astros won't be able to solve those issues internally. That's too bad, because Wade is about as awful as it gets at dealing with those sorts of problems--he hands out three-year contracts to every thirtysomething middle reliever who wants one, and doesn't seem to be able to identify good complementary players. The two-year extension to which the Astros recently signed Wade was like a bad joke (or a good one, if you're a Pirates fan), and their unwillingness to build through the farm system shows that they either aren't really taking themselves seriously, or simply don't know how to. The 2010 Astros don't have enough talent to contend, and they have a shot at being outright embarrassing if they have a couple of poorly-timed injuries. After 2010, it might get even worse.

5. Houston Astros 73-89

6. Pittsburgh Pirates 70-92