To open with a particularly apropos quote, I'm not here to talk about the past.
No, my concern this morning is not the past, ladies and gentlemen, but the future! The future of the division we all hold so dear to our collective breasts, that extra-teamed group known as the National League Central. I come before you today not to dwell upon what has gone before, but to shed light on what shall be! I ask you, are you ready, ladies and gentlemen?
What was that? I can't hear you! I said, are you ready?!
Alright, now that we're all properly pumped up, let us take a look at the next team in our (now) alphabetically organised list of competitors: the Astros of Houston, Texas.
Houston Astros 2009 Record: 74-88, 17 games out of first
Pythagorean Record: 68-94 (643 runs scored, 770 allowed)
I've said it before, and I'll say it again: I just don't quite understand what the Houston Astros are thinking most days. Drayton McLane just seems to get crazier and crazier every year, and a once-great franchise just seems to be slowly sinking further and further into the sea. Then again, the Astros have had a couple very strong drafts in a row now, so perhaps there is hope on the horizon after all.
Nonetheless, I'm having a hell of a time figuring out just how the Astros look at the world. As bad as their record was, they actually outperformed their pythagorean, so the truth may be even more unpleasant than the reality. With that in mind, you might think the Astros would finally do the unthinkable and start their badly needed rebuilding process in earnest.
Yes, you might think that. However, you would be wrong.
Offense: It was supposed to be the strength of the Astros going into the 2009 season, an offense featuring bats up and down the lineup capable of producing. Unfortunately, someone forgot to tell the Astros' hitters how imposing they were supposed to be, and the results were not so good.
Lance Berkman still makes the Houston offense go, and he'll be back in 2010. The Big Puma's production numbers slipped a bit from 2008 to '09, largely due to some nagging injuries, but he still managed to provide the 'Stros with a force in the middle of the lineup. Carlos Lee, the Astros' other big-ticket hitter, was good as well, but he wasn't great. The unfortunate thing, of course, is the Astros are paying Lee to be great.
Hunter Pence proved to be a solid contributor, an .800+ OPS hitter with plus defense in right field. Michael Bourn wins the Great Leap Forward Award, as he improved his OPS by 150 points from 2008 to 2009. (.588 to .738) An OPS+ of 96 may not seem all that impressive, but when it comes from a solid defensive center fielder, it certainly isn't anything to sneeze at, either. (See also Rasmus, Colby)
That's the good. Now for the bad.
The Astros gave over 500 plate appearances to Kaz Matsui and his .659 OPS. They also gave Ivan Rodriguez half a season's worth of ABs to put up a .662. Rodriguez will be plying his trade elsewhere this season, so that helps. The same can't be said of Matsui, sadly.
Houston did go out and sign Pedro Feliz to a very nice contract; at $4.5 million he should represent a solid value. Feliz isn't much shakes with the lumber, though, preferring to make his money with the glove. He'll be better overall that Geoff Blum was, but I'm not sure how much he'll really contribute to the cause of improving the Houston offense.
The biggest departure for the Astros on the offensive side of things is Miguel Tejada, who posted a .795 OPS last year at short. It appears Houston will attempt to fill Tejada's shoes with Tommy Manzella, a 26 year old who posted a .750 OPS last year in Triple A. The reports on Manzella's defense are generally positive, and he should represent a definite upgrade over the increasingly immobile Tejada. Still, the dropoff in offense may make the whole thing a zero-sum game. Of course, the money saved still makes it the right decision.
As far as the catcher position, I really don't have much of a read on what the 'Stros are thinking. The two favourites for the job are JR Towles, who has struggled badly since his red-hot debut, but still has a ton of talent and certainly could be used strictly as an anti-Cardinal weapon if all else fails. Humberto Quintero played a significant amount at the big league level last year and looks like a solid if unspectacular player. He didn't hit a ton, but garnered positive reviews for his defense, throwing out 46% of attempted basestealers. Between Quintero and Towles, the Astros likely have most of the backstop playing time locked up at little more than league minimum.
One intriguing option could be Jason Castro, the Astros' first-round pick in 2008. He's still awfully young, and is almost certainly headed to Triple A to begin the season, but his ceiling is almost certainly higher than either of the 'Stros incumbents, and it's not out of the realm of possibility Castro could make his way to Houston this year.
Just as Lance Berkman is the engine that drives the Houston offense, the Astros' starting rotation is largely driven by a superstar moving into the downside of his career: Roy Oswalt. Oswalt is still a very good starter, though his 2009 numbers were certainly a step down from his typical season. Nonetheless, I fully expect to see Oswalt on the mound for the Astros on Opening Day and inhabiting the nightmares of Cardinal fans throughout the summer.
There was, however, a bit of a passing of the torch in 2009, as the top of the Houston rotation saw Wandy F. Rodriguez step forward to become the team's de facto ace. Perhaps fittingly, Wandy also inherited Oswalt's position in baseball as a whole, as he may now be the most underrated pitcher in the game. Unfortunately for the rest of the division, there's really nothing in Wandy's statistical profile that suggests he's due to fall off a cliff any time soon.
The rest of the Astros' rotation in 2009 was a rather piecemeal affair, with Brian Moehler making 29 starts and Mike Hampton, Felipe Paulino, Russ Ortiz(!), and Bud Norris combining to shoulder the rest of the load. Of those five, Moehler, Paulino, and Norris all look to be returning in 2010. Moehler is a really, really bad starter, except when he's pitching against the Cardinals. He's sort of like the JR Towles of the pitching world. Norris and Paulino, on the other hand, are extremely talented young pitchers who both need nothing more than time to develop. Norris is a bit further along, and looked like an emerging young stud at times last year. Paulino may have even more electric stuff, but is also quite a bit more raw.
The Astros recently made a move to upgrade their rotation with the addition of Brett 'Why Do You Make Me Hit You?' Myers. He'll slot in behind Wandy and Oswalt, if he can prove he's fully healthy, and could certainly represent a powerful force as a #3 starter.
And then, of course, the mere fact that Russ Ortiz won't be anywhere near the Houston rotation in 2010 is cause enough for optimism. Call it the Todd Wellemeyer Effect.
And here's where things get really weird. Two words: Brandon Lyon.
Last season, Houston had one of the toughest closers in all of baseball, with Jose Valverde locking up the leads he managed to get. Valverde won't be with the Astros in 2010, leaving a very large hold at the back end of their bullpen. It looks as if they will try to fill in that hole with a combination of two Winter Meeting pickups: Matt Lindstrom and the aforementioned Mr. Lyon. Lindstrom is certainly the more imposing of the two, with closer stuff, but Brandon Lyon somehow keeps getting handed closer jobs, and I just can't quite figure it out. How the 'Stros deal with the end of games may be one of the more intriguing storylines in the entire division this coming season.
The rest of the bullpen was solid, but not extremely noteworthy in '09. Jeff Fulchino and Tim Byrdak were both useful arms and will return in 2010. LaTroy Hawkins was shockingly good, but has taken off for greener pastures.
Honestly, it seems the Astros have already finished what they're likely to do this offseason. They paid way too much for Brandon Lyon to help fill in for the departing Valverde, and the signing of Brett Myers gives them a remarkably solid rotation. (Well, potentially, anyway.)
Other than those moves, Houston actually appears to be in a bit of a holding pattern. The outfield is set, the right side of the infield is under contract. They seem to be looking at internal options for both catcher and shortstop, with catcher in particular a position the Astros have high hopes for in the very near future. Feliz gives them a solid presence at third base, though he certainly isn't a long-term solution.
I think the Astros are probably finished. They don't really even have a need for any utility help with Geoff Blum and Jeff Keppinger both hanging around, so even the fringe moves we so often see for teams going into spring training will likely be thin on the ground in Astroland.
The Bottom Line
I don't think the Astros are going to be much of a threat this season. I look at their woeful Pythagorean record from a year ago and I see a team who just doesn't have the firepower to get it done. Then, I look at what their rotation could be capable of, and I'm not so sure. If Oswalt returns to form and Wandy can replicate his 2009 performance, they have an elite 1-2 punch. Myers is remarkably similar to Brad Penny in my assessment; both are power pitchers who have always had better arms than results and have fallen on hard times recently. Either one could easily recapture some bit of their promise and end up being very, very good.
At the back of the rotation, I think Houston holds a real advantage. Norris is an emerging star, and Kyle Lohse is, well, Kyle Lohse. The 5th starter spot is probably a wash, with Houston having the more dynamic arm in Paulino but the Cardinals having the more impressive pitcher in Garcia. (Plus whatever else may come.) At the very least, the 'Stros could always just stick Moehler in that 5th spot against the Cardinals and ensure themselves of one victory in any given series.
Personally, I see the Astros back in the 4th/5th spot in the division, the victims of an offense that could really use some more oomph and a bullpen that won't come near the standards of Houston bullpens past. Then again, I also see them as the team most likely to beat you 3-2 on any given day, and that could very well make them a dangerous team.
The Baron's Playlist for the 13th of January, 2009
"Metanoia" - MGMT
"Think Long" - Mates of State
"The City Waltz" - The Ghost is Dancing
"X-Pat" - Octoberman
"Save Me Save Me" - Xiu Xiu
"Laura" - Girls