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2006 National League Preview: Houston Astros

Mike SteffanosFriday, February 10, 2006
By Mike Steffanos


2005: 89-73 (2nd)

Note: This preview, along with ones on the Braves and Padres, was originally written for the Mets Daily web site which is no longer in operation. I worked pretty hard on them, so I'm posting them here for Mets fans who might want a heads-up on the teams when we play them this season.

For the second year in a row, the Houston Astros overcame a bad start and a struggling offense to capture the National League wildcard. After losing a heartbreaking 7-game NLCS to the Cardinals in 2004, Houston roared all the way to the World Series in 2005 before meekly succumbing in a 4 game sweep to the White Sox.

There are two main themes dominating the Astros' off-season. Number one, they were unable to get Roger Clemens to re-sign, or even commit to playing in 2006, and opted not to offer him arbitration. Although he could, if he chose, return to the club after May 1, there are no guarantees. Clemens will probably only return if he feels confident that he can regain top form, and at 44, that's not a given.

The second unanswered question for Houston is whether Jeff Bagwell, coming off shoulder surgery and turning 38 in May, can come back and contribute in 2006. He has been extremely slow recovering from last spring's surgery, and will see specialist Dr. James Andrews some time in January. There are rumors that the Astros are pressuring him to retire so they can collect on an insurance policy. Although Bagwell is resisting retirement, it seems more and more unlikely he will return to any type of full time role.

[Update: This preview was obviously written before the Astros decided to try to collect on Bagwell's insurance policy. As of the date I am publishing this on Mike's Mets, Bagwell still intends to report to spring training. Most experts seem to feel if he plays this year, Bagwell is unlikely to be an everyday ballplayer.]

Even without Roger Clemens, the Astros are still defined by their top-quality starting pitching, especially the top two. Roy Oswalt, who will be the ace even if Clemens returns, has put together back-to back 20 win seasons. He is young (28) and durable (241.2 IP). 33-year-old Andy Pettitte bounced back from an injury-riddled 2004 campaign to win 17 games while contributing 222.1 innings to the cause. There has to be some concern over his left elbow, however, as he has lost significant time to injuries in 2 of the last 4 seasons. Third starter Brandon Backe, while volatile and somewhat inconsistent, has better stuff than his stat line (4.76 ERA) would indicate. A handful of dismal starts hurt his overall numbers.

When you get down to the fourth and fifth starters, things get a little problematical for the Astros. Second year men Wandy Rodriguez and Ezequiel Astacio are the leading candidates going into the spring, but neither shone brightly in 2005. LHP Rodriguez won 10 games last season, but pitched to a 5.53 ERA. RHP Astacio was rocked to the tune of a 5.67 ERA. Another possibility is 23-year-old RHP Fernando Nieve, who split last season between AA-Corpus Christi (4-3, 2.65 ERA) and AAA-Edmonton (4-4, 4.83 ERA).

When the game goes to the bullpen, the Astros are not found wanting. Closer Brad Lidge had a post-season that he would just as soon forget, but at 29 years old he is the premier ninth-inning man in the National League. His moving fastball and filthy slider make him almost unhittable at times. With 6'5" Chad Qualls, former Met Dan Wheeler, and leftie specialists Mike Gallo and newly signed Trever Miller, the Houston bullpen is deep as well as good. Indeed, they have one of the top bullpens in all of baseball.

Although Houston struggles offensively at times, they are not without legitimate weapons. Lance Berkman has become one of the best power hitters in the game. Off-season knee surgery cost him the first month of 2006, but he came back to post solid numbers for Houston (.293 AVG, 24 HR, 82 RBI, 524 SLG). Morgan Ensberg became a big-time player for the Astros in 2005. He led the team in HR (36), RBI (101), and SLG (.557) and made the All-Star Team. RF Jason Lane (26 HR) and newcomer Preston Wilson (25 HR) also provide power to the lineup.

To set the table for their sluggers at the top of the order, the Astros have the ageless Craig Biggio (94 Runs) and second year man Willy Taveras, who led the team in stolen bases with 34. Tavares needs to learn to be more patient at the plate and work out more walks, as he is a slap hitter without power. SS Adam Everett is also a speedy baserunner (21 SB), but a big disappointment at the plate. His On-Base Percentage in 2005 was only .290.

OF Preston Wilson was the major free agent signing of the winter. If Bagwell doesn't come back full-time, Berkman will likely slide over to 1B and Wilson will play the lion's share of games in LF. It's possible that Wilson might take playing time away from Tavares in CF, although his gimpy left knee would work against covering the cavernous centerfield in Minute Maid Park. Manager Phil Garner seems content to let it all shake out in spring training, but it is certain that Wilson was signed to play, not ride the pine.

So, what can we expect from the Astros in 2006? Much will depend on whether Clemens chooses to return, and if he does, whether he comes back as the pitcher who dominated early in the year or the one that struggled and looked old late in the year. Even if Clemens does return, the Astros do not have enough to overtake the Cardinals in the NL Central. They will battle the Cubs and possibly the Brewers for second place in the division and a wildcard playoff slot.

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IN: OF Preston Wilson (1 year, $4.5 million), LHP Trever Miller ( 1 year, $1.3 million), OF Orlando Palmeiro (re-signed, 2 years), C Brad Ausmus (re-signed, 2 years), INF Mike Lamb (re-signed, 1 year), RHP Dave Borkowski (minor league contract), RHP Steve Sparks (minor league contract), INF Eric Munson (minor league contract), RHP Ben Diggins (Rule 5 Draft)

OUT: RHP Roger Clemens (not offered arbitration), IF Jose Vizcaino (Giants - 1 year, $1.25 million)

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Position Players

1B: With all of Jeff Bagwell's problems, Lance Berkman will likely play 1B. He has an excellent eye at the plate and doesn't strike out much for a power hitter (92 BB, 72 K). Defensively, well let's just say he's one heck of a hitter. Mike Lamb is waiting in reserve, just in case, but with his less than scintillating numbers (.236 AVG, .412 SLG), the Astros hope that won't be necessary. (Grade A-)

2B: 40-year-old Craig Biggio will be playing in his 19th major league season in 2006. He still plays more than 150 games a season and gives the Astros solid numbers offensively (.264 AVG, .468 SLG, 26 HR, 40 2B). Now that he has moved back to a position he is comfortable playing, he is a more than adequate 2B. He's lost a couple of steps, but he's a smart and effective baserunner. (Grade B-)

SS: Adam Everett is an excellent fielder with great range and a flare for making highlight-reel plays. Astros pitchers love him for the runs he saves them. Everett is also a speedy baserunner that will steal his share of bases, when he manages to get on base. Unfortunately, that doesn't happen often enough, as attested to by his lifetime .305 OBP. With his speed, he just has to score more runs than the 58 times he crossed home plate last season. (Grade C+)

3B: All-star Morgan Ensberg had a break-out season for the Astros last year (.283 AVG, 36 HR, 101 RBI). He strikes out a little too much (119), but will take a walk (85). On an offensively challenged team that was missing Jeff Bagwell for most of the year, Ensberg's offensive production probably was the difference in obtaining the wildcard. He plays an above average 3B, too. (Grade A)

LF: Newly acquired Preston Wilson (.260, 25 HR, 90 RBI) will play the bulk of games in LF and provide some juice to the Houston offense. Expect his numbers to pick up in the bandbox that is Minute Maid Park. Knee injuries have slowed him down some, but he's a solid outfielder, too. Second year man Chris Burke will back him up after a somewhat disappointing rookie season (.248 AVG, .309 OBP, .368 SLG). (Grade B)

CF: Willy Taveras finished second to Phillies phenom Ryan Howard in NL Rookie of the year voting. His .291 AVG was solid for a top of the order hitter; his OBP (.325) was not. A singles hitter (.341 SLG), he will have to learn to be more patient and take some walks. He's a solid defensive CF, and a speedy baserunner. He'll steal a base (34), but needs to pick his spots a little better (11 CS). (Grade B-)

RF: The Astros like to forecast Jason Lane as a similar player to Lance Berkman. Though that might be a lot to hope for, the 29 year old put up some solid numbers in his first season as a full-time player. He was tied for 2nd on the team in HR (26), 3rd in RBI (78) and SLG (.499). Look for him to continue to improve in 2006. He's also a good OF and has a decent arm. (Grade B-)

C: Brad Ausmus is still a good defensive catcher who is wonderful at handling pitchers and calling a game. His offensive numbers are sub-par, even for a catcher. His AVG (.258), and RBI (47 in 387 AB) weren't bad, but his power numbers were abysmal (3 HR, .331 SLG). Ausmus' potential backups, Humberto Quintero and Raul Chavez, managed 2005 batting averages of .185 and .172, respectively. (Grade C-)

Pitching

Starters: Roy Oswalt (20-12, 2.94 ERA), is that rare pitcher that combines good power numbers with excellent control. His strikeouts, while still good, have come down somewhat over the years (6.8/9IP), but so have his walks (1.8/9IP). Andy Pettitte (17-9, 2.39 ERA) bounced back from an injury-riddled 2004 season to pitch 222.1 quality innings for the Astros last season, and if Houston is to compete in 2006, he will need to post similar numbers. Number 3 starter Brandon Backe (10-8, 4.76 ERA) shows promise, but needs to stay healthy and find some consistency. Wandy Rodriguez (10-10, 5.53 ERA) and Ezequiel Astacio (3-6, 5.67 ERA) are the likely candidates for the fourth and fifth starter slots. Neither dominated in 2005. The league batted .274 against Rodriguez, he gave up 135 H, 53 BB and 19 HR in 128.2 IP. In a smaller sampling (81 IP), the league battered Astacio for .301 AVG and beat him up for an incredible 23 HR, 1 every 2.8 IP. (Grade B)

Relief: In the 2005 post season, Brad Lidge suffered a tough loss to the Cardinals in game 6 of the LCS, and then was beaten in games 2 and 4 of the World Series. He's going to have to shake it off and get on with the rest of his career, but by all accounts, he is mentally equipped to do so. His numbers (70.2 IP, 58 H, 103 K, 23 BB, 42-46 SV) speak to the dominance he usually enjoys over hitters in the ninth inning. Dan Wheeler (73.1 IP, 53 H, 69 K, 19 BB) and Chad Qualls (79.2 IP, 73 H, 60 K, 23 BB) handle the seventh and eighth with comparable effectiveness. Mike Gallo and Trever Miller give the Astros 'pen two quality southpaws. (Grade A)

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