Paraphrasing Rick Blaine in Casablanca, "We'll always have 2005."
They're all gone now. Last season's July trades that sent ace Roy Oswalt and slugger Lance Berkman packing followed up on the retirements by Jeff Bagwell and Craig Biggio several years earlier. Just five full seasons since winning their only NL Pennant in 2005, the Houston Astros enter 2011 with only one player from that roster.
Two disclaimers to begin: 1) I gave this club my heart in 1962 when the franchise started, and; 2) My double throw-down locks for 2010 MLB futures included the Astros 'under' 74½ wins, a losing ticket when they finished with a 76-86 record.
Not being a believer in the whole 'bad beat' excuse for losing wagers, you'll never hear me whine too much about flushing that wager. Plus, it'll serve me well to remember not to count my chips before the hand is won again, a lesson I constantly relearn. I was doing that last July 26 when Houston stood 40-59 and on pace for maybe 66 wins. Trading Oswalt and Berkman away, the 'under' was a cinch, right?
No, as it turned out. Looking at their numbers, 'under bettors would've preferred Roy O and Fat Elvis had remained in Houston.
The Astros were 7-13 in Oswalt's 20 starts despite his 3.42 ERA wearing the brick-&-sand of Houston. Berkman's average dropped to .245 with Houston last season, and his power numbers between the Astros and Yankees dropped dramatically, nearly 100 points worth of slugging.
None of those stats drove the trades; simple economics and the payroll did that. The irony is without the ridiculous deal the club gave Carlos Lee before the '07 season, the club might have held onto either Oswalt or Berkman. Ah, but I digress.
Houston retools offense, lineup
Opening Day '10 saw the Astros put Geoff Blum, Kaz Matsui, Tommy Manzella and Pedro Feliz around the infield from first to third. Only Manzella stands a chance of being in the Game 1 mix this year, and that would be due to an injury.
Offseason acquisitions included Clint Barmes to play short and Bill Hall to play second. There's definitely the potential for a huge power upgrade from those two after Manzella and Jeff Keppinger combined for all of seven homers filling the midfield roles the majority of the time in 2010.
Chris Johnson is back at third after proving himself in 94 games last season, batting .308 with 11 HR and 52 RBI.
Across the diamond at first, Houston hopes Brett Wallace will step in and begin to realize some of the potential that made him the 13th-overall pick in 2008 by the Cardinals. If Wallace can't cut it, Carlos Lee will likely come in from left to play first, with Hall possibly moving to left and Keppinger back at second.
Picked three slots ahead of Wallace in that same draft was catcher Jason Castro who will be backed up by Humberto Quintero.
The outfield is where some of the best battles will be this spring, and where you could see the Astros deal from before Opening Day. Lee is in left, Michael Bourn leads off and resides in center and Hunter Pence is expected to drive this offense while playing right. Hall can play the outfield if need be, so it appears Jason Michaels, Jason Bourgeois and Brian Bogusevic are fighting for two spots at most. Michaels has been a favorite of Ed Wade's for a while, but Wade is running out of options on the other two and the club could try and give the full-time job in left to Bogusevic if Lee is going to take most of the AB's at first.
Wandy Rodriguez is the answer
For those wondering about the lone player on the current roster who was also part of that '05 team, it's Wandy Rodriguez who is one of three starters with a job guaranteed coming out of spring.
Rodriguez will be one of two southpaws, the other J.A. Happ who came from Philadelphia in the Oswalt trade. Brett Myers, also a former-Philly hand, is coming off a very solid campaign. Houston was 20-13 in his 33 starts, 12-5 from July on. Myers lasted at least six innings in all but one of his outings, his final start of the season when he worked 5-2/3 frames.
Right-handers Bud 'Cardinal Killer' Norris and Nelson Figueroa are penciled into the 4-5 slots of the rotation going into camp, but that could change. Houston will give a look-see this spring to righties Aneury Rodriguez and hometown boy Lance Pendleton, a former 4th-round pick by the Yankees in 2005 after a collegiate career at Rice. Two southpaws that will also be tested are Wesley Wright and Ryan Rowland-Smith.
Manager Brad Mills would ideally like to see Wright snare the left-handed relief role for late-inning situational use, but Wright hasn't really gripped that role in the past with any consistency.
Brandon Lyon will close, assuming Wilton Lopez and Jeff Fulchino can bridge from the starters. Fulchino will have to look good in the spring just to hold a job; Alberto Arias and Fernando Abad are two that could fill a late-inning role, as well as Sammy Gervacio once he's 100% from offseason shoulder work.
And the survey says...
There are mysteries on offense behind Pence, Lee, Bourn and Johnson, plus a fairly shallow and unproven bullpen infront of Lyon, himself needing to prove he can repeat his 2010 as the lone closer. It all adds up to a team that can easily lose 90 or surprise everyone with a win total in the mid-80s. And that's how it came off in my crude simulations.
According to the ol' Pythagorean calculation, the Astros overachieved by seven wins in 2010. If they could've played just within the NL Central, the 'Stros would've overachieved a little more. Houston was 45-33 (.576) against division foes, but struggled mightily versus the NL West (13-22) and in interleague play (3-12).
St. Louis and Cincinnati are the NLC favorites going in, and everyone expects bigger and better things from Milwaukee who finished just a game ahead of the Astros a year ago. A 75/1 long shot at Bodog to do the unthinkable and win the 2011 World Series, I suspect when the season win totals come out the number will be 73-74 for Houston. No more than 75 wins according to my crystal ball.
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