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weekend thread: project the astros

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herewith a compressed preview of the astros, who are -- lest we forget -- the defending nl champions, and very deserving ones. as i've pointed out elsewhere, the astros' unremarkable 89-win total last season misrepresents that team's true quality. they opened the season without their four best hitters from the previous year -- kent and beltran gone via free agency, berkman and bagwell out with injuries -- and hence, not altogether surprisingly, struggled a bit to score runs. they hit rock bottom on may 24, when they stood 15-30 and were dead last in the majors in runs. berkman had just returned to the lineup shortly before that and needed some time to shake off the rust; he started to hit right around june 1. from that point forward -- the last four full months of the year -- houston played .630 baseball and had the best record in the majors at 70-41 (the cards were 67-44). their offense picked up somewhat -- they scored the 6th-most runs in the nl from june 1 forward -- and their pitching remained incredible, as it had been since opening day.

the entire team that staged this impressive four-month display -- and followed it up with convincing wins in the first two rounds of the playoffs -- returns intact . . . . sort of. one big piece, the rog, will not be in uniform to start the year, and he may not pitch for houston at all; we're all supposed to hold our breath until he makes up his mind. but that's only one guy, albeit an extremely valuable one. the 2005 astros, however, survived the loss of three guys (kent beltran bags) whose combined value was much greater than roger's. houston still has a solid 1-2 in the rotation, along with a deep bullpen; they also have some attractive trade coin (including jason lane and two well-regarded triple-a pitchers) with whom they might be able to purchase jose contreras, bronson arroyo, or one of these other mid-rotation starters that has been cycling through the rumor mill for months. (read some fresh houston trade gossip here.) and you can't count the astros out of the running for barry zito's services, should beane decide to trade him midseason. if clemens doesn't return and the stros can't land a decent starter via trade, they may be in some trouble; but if one or the other works out for them, they should be no worse than a top-4 nl staff this year.

i think houston's offense will be improved; berkman will be healthy all season, and preston wilson -- not a great player by any means -- is an upgrade over taveras. no lineup that features brad ausmus and adam everett is going to lead the league in runs, but the 'stros should be solid 1-6 and will have some good options on the bench (burke taveras palmeiro). i think they can bump last year's 693-run output up to 730 runs or so.

since the nl central was created 12 seasons ago, the astros have finished lower than 2d place only 1 time, in 2000 (4th). clemens or no clemens, they'll find their way into the mix this summer -- and may yet give the cardinals fits.

that's all i got time for; please project houston's won-loss, runs scored, runs allowed, and place in the standings for 2006. here's how they have fared in all four categories the last four years:

record finish scored allowed
2002 84-78 2d 749 (5th) 695 (6th)
2003 87-75 2d 805 (4th) 677 (3d)
2004 92-70 2d 803 (5th) 698 (4th)
2005 89-73 2d 693 (11th) 609 (1st)