Monday, November 19, 2007

After a thoroughly forgettable 73-89 campaign, the Astros appear to be starting fresh.

First off: Farewell, Craig Biggio. The man has been an absolute pleasure to watch and root for since I started caring about baseball. Bidge wasn't ever the biggest, the quickest or the strongest player on the field, but by God he tried the hardest. Even in his last years, when his keen batting eye and his legs began their inevitable decline, you could still see his never-say-die attitude in every grimace. He'll turn 42 in December, but to his last at-bat, Biggio played with the intensity of a September call-up trying to earn a spot in The Show. He is, truly, forever young. Perhaps we'll see him again before long in a Houston dugout.

2007 has indeed been a year of coming and going. Along with Biggio, we witnessed the departures of Roger Clemens, Andy Pettitte, Dan Wheeler, Morgan Ensberg, Jason Lane and Brad Lidge. Orlando Palmeiro, Mike Lamb, Trever Miller, Mark Loretta, Brian Moehler, Jason Jennings are likely to follow, with Chris Burke and Luke Scott no longer guaranteed roster spots, either.

But not all has been doom and gloom in Astroland this year. The arrivals of Carlos Lee, Hunter Pence, Troy Patton, J.R. Towles, Paul Estrada, Ty Wigginton and Michael Bourn give us hope for the future. None is perfect (although Pence is close), and only one has a résumé of established major-league success, but all can contribute if they stay healthy and live up to their potential. These seven players will undoubtedly be integral factors in the team's success in the next 3-5 years. A quick look at each one:

Carlos Lee: As close to a sure thing as you can get in baseball. Of course, we've all said that about Berkman. Lee's great year was largely masked by the team's offensively-challenged campaign. But El Caballo did exactly what we asked of him in '07: He hit lots of home runs and drove in lots of runs. Sooner or later, Lee will drop off. Let's just hope it's later. And who needs defense, anyway? It's only left field.

Hunter Pence: He didn't make the team out of Spring Training, but was the team's first call-up after Burke struggled in centerfield. Jack and I thought it much to early to call up the youngster, but Hunter exceeded everyone's wildest dreams by hitting over well over .300 with power and speed. If not for an broken wrist, Pence may have battled Ryan Braun and Troy Tulowitzki for Rookie-of-the-Year honors. His defense in center was serviceable, and he should be above-average in right field in '08. 

Troy Patton: He's not the next Roy Oswalt (Who is?), and he's not likely to light up the hype machines like Tim Lincecum or Yovani Gallardo. But he is a very good, very young pitcher who's got loads of talent. He'll have growing pains, but he'll also have Brad Ausmus to help him get through the doldrums. Let's also hope he gets a rotation spot to himself.

J.R. Towles: Hallelujah! A catcher who can hit! He won't post a 1.000 OPS, nor will he drive in 8 runs in a game ever again. But his track record indicated his hitting is for real. It remains to be seen how often he gets to play with Ausmus hanging around. Here's hoping it's a bunch.

Paul Estrada: The Astros' bullpen was terrible last year, and it wasn't all because of Lidge and Wheeler. It's because we had guys like Dave Borkowski, Rick White, Brian Moehler, Mark McLemore and Stephen Randolph. These guys just aren't good, and they didn't get the job done. This is where Paul Estrada comes in. I heard phenomenal things about this guy in the minors, and assuming a natural adjustment to the majors, he can be a crucial bridge to the late innings with tons of strikeouts along the way. I don't think we need to spend $40 million on a closer like Francisco Cordero, but an Eric Gagne or a Scott Linebrink or a Kerry Wood would go great with Chad Qualls and Estrada.

Ty Wigginton: The anti-Ensberg. Wiggy won't walk too much, and he's not good enough of a hitter to get on base at a .350 clip. But if can approach a .500 SLG and a .800 OPS, we'll consider it an improvement over Mr. Nerd. He'll hit 4 homers a month or so, and, batting behind Lee and Berkman, he'll probably drive in a ton of runs. Plus, The Juicebox seems to favor righty pull hitters.

Michael Bourn: He fast. He'll play some enormous defense in center, and he'll steal a shit-ton of bases. But you can't steal first, and we'll be lucky if he can slug .400. In other words, it's Willy T., Version 2.0. He is still young (25 in December), so we'll see how he reacts to being handed a starting gig in his hometown. Could have an impact ... we'll see.  

Perhaps the most intriguing new addition is GM Ed Wade who has been, surprisingly, a breath of fresh air. After several years of getting jerked around by free agency and trades for the sake of trades, it's nice to see a leader who's able to assess a team's strengths and weaknesses, and make intelligent moves. I like the Lidge-for-Bourn trade. Not a steal by any means, but the truth is, we're probably better off without Lidge. Although we'll see who's closing come April. 

Assuming Adam Everett is still our starting shortstop (and who knows how long that will last), the other major issue facing the team is second base. Biggio's gone, and his heir apparent, Chris Burke, took a step backward in 2007. Wade has allegedly signed Geoff Blum, whose utility is useful. But God help us if he gets 300 ABs next year. I don't mind going forward with Burke and Blum at second. Loretta was a nice addition last year, but he completely lost his power in the second half, and his versatility is severely limited, just like his range at shortstop. 

Luke Scott has got to be pissed right now. I mean, did people actually expect him to reproduce his 1.050 OPS in 200 ABs in 2006? The guy puts up a .850 OPS, and he's out of a starting job. What's the deal? The guy has made a case for being at least a semi-regular player, and instead he's now our fourth outfielder. Scott actually hit lefties just fine last year. Since he's still under club control, I hope we hold onto him in case an injury strikes. 

The rotation looks a little shaky right now. There are a lot of names, but still quite a few question marks. Oswalt, Patton, Backe, Wandy and Williams appear to fill out the rotation, but several guys are hanging around and are worth a look: Chris Sampson, Matt Albers, Felipe Paulino, Juan Gutierrez. 

We've been linked to a couple free-agent starters in possibly the weakest free-agent pitching field I've ever seen. Thankfully, the names I've heard us inquiring about are players I wouldn't mind seeing wearing an Astros uniform, if the price is right. Jon Lieber won't put up fantastic numbers, but if he's healthy, he can eat innings and make quality starts. Same goes for Randy Wolf, but his left elbow is a ticking time bomb. If either could be had for a 1-year, $7 million deal, sign 'em up. There's always Andy Pettitte, but with all his pals resigning with the Yankees, it's hard to believe he won't join them. 

I hope we keep an eye on Eric Hinske. The guy seems comfortable in a backup role, and that's precisely what we'd want him for: our Mike Lamb role. A bench of Scott, Blum, Reggie Abercrombie (Who knew we had HIM? And how much does he look like Hanley Ramirez?), Ausmus and Hinske would be average to above-average. Lefty masher, righty masher, speed guy, all-around guy and catcher. Boo-yah. 

CF Bourn
RF Pence
1B Berkman
LF Lee
3B Wiggy
C Towles
2B Burke
SS Everett

P Oswalt
P Patton
P Woody
P Backe
P Wandy
(Leiber? Wolf?)

P Qualls
P Estrada
P Geary
P Nieve
P Villarreal
P Sampson
(Gagne? Linebrink?)

1B-3B Hinske
2B-Ss-3B Blum
OF Scott
OF Abercrombie
C Ausmus

Looks pretty good to me. 

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