Ah the Astros. The team that once had the Ryan Express, Mike Scott, Killer-B’s, Terry Puhl (formerly the best hitter Canada produced), Jose Cruz Sr, J.R. Richard, Roger Clemens, Joe Niekro, Billy Wagner, and Joe Morgan. So, where are they today, just 2 full seasons away from their only World Series appearance? Dropping and dropping fast but with some kids in the outfield and catching who give you hope.
After 6 years of above 500 ball they fell to 73-89 last year (still better than the Rays have ever done). This was their 3rd straight year of decline in wins. Last year they had 4 regulars with a 100+ OPS+ (3 outfield positions plus 1B). Of the 6 guys to get 10+ starts only one had an ERA+ of 100+. Of the 5 guys most used in their pen (by games played) just 2 had an ERA+ of 100+, which is pretty sad. The average age of their team (both offence and pitching) was above 30, thus showing they were not exactly testing their young players either.
So the question becomes what is going to happen down in Houston this year? Are they prepping for takeoff or are they like a satellite about to be shot down? Well, new GM Ed Wade has shown no hesitation in making trades and putting kids into positions to prove themselves. Listed below are Avg/OBP/Slg OPS+ for 2007 plus ZIPS projections
2007: Brad Ausmus: 235/318/324 OPS+68 and Eric Munson: 235/313/356 OPS+74
2008: J.R. Towles: OPS+159 over 14 games, Minors: 287/393/447 split between high A, AA, AAA ZIPS:250/322/379
Potentially a major area of improvement here. Towles is just 24 and hopes are high. However, he climbed very far very fast last year after a 907 OPS in A ball the year before. I'd be very nervous about his defense as catchers normally take longer to get ready. John Sickels likes him and thinks PECOTA is underestimating him but that he is a bit of an injury risk due to body type. Ausmus is still around too, for what that is worth.
2007: Lance Berkman 278/386/510 OPS+131, Mike Lamb 289/366/453 OPS+112
2008: Berkman ZIPS:277/396/520 - Lamb is now in Minnesota for $6.6 over 2 years.
Very solid with Berkman, but their #1 backup is now listed as Darin Erstad - ugh - see outfield for details.
2007: Craig Biggio 251/285/381 OPS+ 71 and done, Chris Burke 229/304/357 OPS+72
2008: Kaz Matsui 288/342/405 OPS+ 87, ZIPS: 254/307/331; Mark Loretta 287/352/372 OPS+89 ZIPS: 274/344/350
Well, it is an improvement. Nothing great, but good OBP's from both in '07 and at least a shot at a 100 OPS vs last season. Although ZIPS really hates Kaz.
2007: Morgan Ensberg 232/323/384 OPS+83, Mike Lamb (see 1B), Ty Wigginton 278/333/459 OPS+107
2008: Ty Wigginton ZIPS: 273/335/467, Geoff Blum 252/319/367 OPS+84 ZIPS: 241/305/341
Wigginton was traded for last year for reliever Dan Wheeler who Tampa is using as a closer now. Ty has played a lot of 2B and 1B in his career and is a decent player who should be a big improvement over Ensberg.
2007: Adam Everett 232/281/318 OPS+56; Mark Loretta (see 2B); Eric Bruntlett 246/346/283 OPS+67
2008: Miguel Tejada 296/357/442 OPS+109 ZIPS: 303/359/461; Blum (see 3B)
Big time offensive improvement. Big time defensive drop. Big controversy. Last year was the first time Tejada didn't get an MVP vote since 1999. They had to live with a mix and match for all but 66 games last year (Everett was hurt big time) so this is a big help, assuming Everett wouldn't have been the best defensive shortstop since Ozzie Smith anymore, and might have been an improvement regardless. Read here for an article on Tejada which points out how he is just 31 and shouldn't collapse.
2007: Carlos Lee 303/354/528 OPS+126 played all 162 games
2008: Same ZIPS: 286/345/503
Three of the past 4 years he has played 161+ games. 3 of the past 4 years his OPS+ was 126 or 127. Durable, talented, consistent. Wow.
2007: Hunter Pence 322/360/539 OPS+130; Misc junk (Lane 56 OPS+)
2008: Michael Bourn 277/348/378 OPS+85 ZIPS: 250/314/320 - Pence to RF
Bourn is expected to lead off (18-1 in SB last year). Lifetime in the minors (last year was his rookie season for Philly) he has a 377 OBP so it isn't a crazy idea although ZIPS hates him (634 OPS projected). In fact, it could be a very good one if he is solid in CF and the reports I saw said he is. He basically is replacing the CF backups (ugh) and the right fielder of 2007
2007: Luke Scott 255/351/504 119 OPS+
2008: Hunter Pence (see CF) ZIPS: 292/343/510
Pence had a breakout year last season as a 24 year old rookie. Lifetime minor league numbers are 304/377/556 so he looks like a blue chipper. A young and darn amazing trio in the outfield (well, Lee is in his 30's but is darn good). Scott was part of the trade to get Tejada from Baltimore and given he was 4th on their depth chart it makes sense although he would've been a heck of a lot nicer as a backup than Darrin Erstad who has been sub-100 for OPS+ for 7 straight years and sub-90 for 6 of those years, sub 70 the past two. Other backup options include Reggie Abercrombie (55 OPS+ over 361 ML PA's) and Yordany Ramirez (23 years old, minor league numbers include a 649 OPS). Lets pray for no injuries here.
Starting Pitchers (ERA+ listed for guys with 10+ starts ZIPS ERA for 2008)
2007: Roy Oswalt 138; Wandy Rodriguez 96; Woody Williams 83; Chris Sampson 96; Matt Albers 75; Jason Jennings 68
2008: Oswalt 3.48; Rodriguez 4.72; Williams 5.23; Sampson 4.99; Brandon Backe lifetime 93 ERA+, just 71 IP in the majors the past two seasons 5.02 ZIPS;
Well, they could get better. Shawn Chacon (96 ERA+ lifetime) has had 3 starts this spring. Not a lot of good stuff to look at outside of Oswalt. All are 29+ years old so I figure what you see is what you get. AAA guys will get a shot, lets hope someone is up to the challenge. Brian Moehler is trying to shift from the pen to the rotation and rookie Mark McLemore (not the hitter) is trying to make the staff but will probably be in AAA.
Bullpen (50+ IP ERA+ ZIPS ERA)
2007: Brad Lidge 131; Chad Qualls 144; Trever Miller 90; Dave Borkowski 85; Dan Wheeler 87; Brian Moehler 108
2008: Jose Valverde 177 3.13; Doug Brocail 132 ; Geoff Geary 105 3.70; Oscar Villarreal 100; Borkowski 4.56;
Valverde should do nicely as the closer given his 47 saves for Arizona last season. Doug Brocail is 41 and mediocre. Geoff Geary is a younger Brocail (just 31); Oscar Villarreal looks decent at 26; Borkowski returns; Qualls and Lidge were both traded. Should be a deeper pen but not as good as what we have in Toronto.
Finally, a few notables on their non-roster invite list...
Former Jays: Alberto Castillo, Tomas Perez, and Jose Cruz Jr.
Talented but never gets a shot: catcher JR House
Family history: Lance Niekro (1B), son of Joe, nephew of Phil
This is a team that once was known exclusively for their pitching. Now it is hitting all the way with Oswalt and pray for 4 days of rain. Wandy, Woody, and the bullpen is weary.
A nice blog I found about Houston is the Crawfish Boxes where they mention the GM is now getting very, very desperate for pitching.
I figure this team is due for a rebound from their 4th place 73-89 record of last year. Given it is the NL Central I'd say if any kids can make it into the rotation and the outfield and #1 catcher stay healthy and the kids are better than ZIPS the Astros could be back in the playoffs quickly with an 83-79 record and an outside shot at 90 wins if the starters can pull it together fast and the young hitters outperform ZIPS, followed by a GM of the year award to Ed Wade. My real view is 79 wins and less than 10 games from the NL Central title.