Houston Astros 2010 preview

From 2005-08, the Astros’ .557 second-half winning percentage was tied for sixth-best in the majors. But instead of making a late-season run and vaulting into postseason contention last season, the Astros went 30-44 (.405) after the All-Star break — a slide that cost manager Cecil Cooper his job in late September. Enter Brad Mills, a managerial rookie who served as Red Sox bench coach the past six seasons. Mills inherits a 74-win squad that finished in fifth place in the NL Central.

Three quesions

Can Roy Oswalt and Lance Berkman contribute like they have in the past?
Can Roy Oswalt and Lance Berkman contribute like they have in the past?

1. Is Roy Oswalt still an ace?
For the first time in his career, Oswalt failed to achieve a double-digit win total in 2009. He finished 8-6 with a career-worst 4.12 ERA in 30 starts. It was the sixth consecutive season he made at least 30 starts, but the first time since 2003 that he failed to pitch at least 200 innings. Oswalt also battled back problems, leading to whispers that the 32-year-old is breaking down as a result of the wear and tear from his years of shouldering a heavy workload.

Because Wandy Rodriguez was the only other Astros starter with an ERA under 4.50 last season, the team needs Oswalt to return to pre-2009 form — or as close to it as possible. Newcomer Brett Myers is a question mark at No. 3, and the final two spots in the rotation are up for grabs, with Brian Moehler, Bud Norris and Felipe Paulino the top candidates.

2. Will this be Lance Berkman’s final season in Houston?
The last remaining Killer B is under contract through the 2011 season, but the Astros hold a $15 million option for next season. Berkman recently said he would be inclined to sign elsewhere if the Astros don’t exercise that option and allow him to become a free agent. His future could depend on whether he is able to bounce back from what statistically was the worst season of his career.

Limited to 136 games because of biceps and calf injuries, Berkman hit .274 with 25 homers and 80 RBIs in 2009. Not terrible numbers, but not up to par with his usual production. In 2006, Berkman hit .315 and established new career highs with 45 homers and 136 RBIs. At one point last season, Berkman had a 33-game homerless drought.

3. Will there be enough offense?
Houston finished 27th in the majors in runs scored and 25th in OPS last season, and it lost its second-best RBI man from last season when Miguel Tejada signed with the Orioles in the offseason. In addition to Berkman’s down season, Carlos Lee’s homer total dropped for a second consecutive year. As a result, leadoff man Michael Bourn failed to score 100 runs despite his career-best .354 on-base percentage and an NL-leading 61 steals.

Taking over for Tejada at shortstop will be defense-first Tommy Manzella, whose five career major league at-bats came late in 2009. "(Manzella has) done a great job through the minor leagues, and he’s been exceptional on the defensive end," Mills said.

Projected lineup
1. CF Michael Bourn: Must cut down on K’s (140 in ’09).
2. 2B Kaz Matsui: Just a .302 OBP last season.
3. 1B Lance Berkman: Switch hitter hit .231 vs. lefties.
4. LF Carlos Lee: .831 OPS was lowest since ’05.
5. RF Hunter Pence: .298 AVG, 11 HRs before break; .263 AVG, 14 HRs after.
6. 3B Pedro Feliz: .301 AVG, 18 RBIs in 25 career games at Minute Maid Park.
7. SS Tommy Manzella: 52 SBs, 19 triples in 5 minor league season.
8. C J.R. Towles: .188 AVG in 84 MLB games the past 3 seasons.

Projected rotation
1. RHP Roy Oswalt: 4.12 ERA at home and on road in ’09.
2. LHP Wandy Rodriguez: 9-3, 2.08 ERA at home; 5-9, 4.05 on road.
3. RHP Brett Myers: 6.43 ERA as RP after returning from hip surgery last season.
4. RHP Felipe Paulino: 4-12, 5.74 ERA in 20 career starts.
5. RHP Bud Norris: 3-0, 1.57 ERA in final 4 starts of ’09.

PROJECTED CLOSER
RHP Brandon Lyon: 2.86 ERA in setup role with Tigers last season.

Grades

Offense: D. Despite playing in one of the majors’ most hitter-friendly parks, Houston was outscored by every NL team except the Pirates and Padres last season. And Houston finished 25th in homers. At least the Astros make contact; only the Mets finished with fewer strikeouts.

Pitching: D. Only six major league teams had a staff ERA worse than Houston’s 4.54 last season. The back end of the rotation has holes, and the bullpen lost closer Jose Valverde (25 saves, 2.33 ERA last season) and setup man LaTroy Hawkins (2.13 ERA). The bright spot is Rodriguez, an emerging ace.

Bench: C. With the addition of Pedro Feliz, Geoff Blum will return to a reserve role and add a powerful bat to the bench. Jeff Keppinger, who had a career-high seven homers in 2009, will serve as the middle-infield backup. Jason Michaels, a .228 hitter the past two seasons, is the fourth outfielder.

Manager: C. An incomplete might be more accurate, given that Mills’ has yet to manager his first major league game. Although he won’t have the talent he did while serving as Boston’s bench coach, Mills will have plenty of veterans to lean on in Houston. It remains to be seen, however, whether those veterans are in decline.

Sporting News prediction: With lingering questions about both the offense and the pitching staff, Houston is unlikely to improve upon its fifth-place finish from last season.

Coming Monday: Pirates preview.

Chris Bahr is a senior editor for Sporting News. E-mail him at cbahr@sportingnews.com.

From 2005-08, the Astros’ .557 second-half winning percentage was tied for sixth-best in the majors. But instead of making a late-season run and vaulting into postseason contention last season, the Astros went 30-44 (.405) after the All-Star break — a slide that cost manager Cecil Cooper his job in late September. Enter Brad Mills, a managerial rookie who served as Red Sox bench coach the past six seasons. Mills inherits a 74-win squad that finished in fifth place in the NL Central.

Three quesions

Can Roy Oswalt and Lance Berkman contribute like they have in the past?
Can Roy Oswalt and Lance Berkman contribute like they have in the past?

1. Is Roy Oswalt still an ace?
For the first time in his career, Oswalt failed to achieve a double-digit win total in 2009. He finished 8-6 with a career-worst 4.12 ERA in 30 starts. It was the sixth consecutive season he made at least 30 starts, but the first time since 2003 that he failed to pitch at least 200 innings. Oswalt also battled back problems, leading to whispers that the 32-year-old is breaking down as a result of the wear and tear from his years of shouldering a heavy workload.

Because Wandy Rodriguez was the only other Astros starter with an ERA under 4.50 last season, the team needs Oswalt to return to pre-2009 form — or as close to it as possible. Newcomer Brett Myers is a question mark at No. 3, and the final two spots in the rotation are up for grabs, with Brian Moehler, Bud Norris and Felipe Paulino the top candidates.

2. Will this be Lance Berkman’s final season in Houston?
The last remaining Killer B is under contract through the 2011 season, but the Astros hold a $15 million option for next season. Berkman recently said he would be inclined to sign elsewhere if the Astros don’t exercise that option and allow him to become a free agent. His future could depend on whether he is able to bounce back from what statistically was the worst season of his career.

Limited to 136 games because of biceps and calf injuries, Berkman hit .274 with 25 homers and 80 RBIs in 2009. Not terrible numbers, but not up to par with his usual production. In 2006, Berkman hit .315 and established new career highs with 45 homers and 136 RBIs. At one point last season, Berkman had a 33-game homerless drought.

3. Will there be enough offense?
Houston finished 27th in the majors in runs scored and 25th in OPS last season, and it lost its second-best RBI man from last season when Miguel Tejada signed with the Orioles in the offseason. In addition to Berkman’s down season, Carlos Lee’s homer total dropped for a second consecutive year. As a result, leadoff man Michael Bourn failed to score 100 runs despite his career-best .354 on-base percentage and an NL-leading 61 steals.

Taking over for Tejada at shortstop will be defense-first Tommy Manzella, whose five career major league at-bats came late in 2009. "(Manzella has) done a great job through the minor leagues, and he’s been exceptional on the defensive end," Mills said.

Projected lineup
1. CF Michael Bourn: Must cut down on K’s (140 in ’09).
2. 2B Kaz Matsui: Just a .302 OBP last season.
3. 1B Lance Berkman: Switch hitter hit .231 vs. lefties.
4. LF Carlos Lee: .831 OPS was lowest since ’05.
5. RF Hunter Pence: .298 AVG, 11 HRs before break; .263 AVG, 14 HRs after.
6. 3B Pedro Feliz: .301 AVG, 18 RBIs in 25 career games at Minute Maid Park.
7. SS Tommy Manzella: 52 SBs, 19 triples in 5 minor league season.
8. C J.R. Towles: .188 AVG in 84 MLB games the past 3 seasons.

Projected rotation
1. RHP Roy Oswalt: 4.12 ERA at home and on road in ’09.
2. LHP Wandy Rodriguez: 9-3, 2.08 ERA at home; 5-9, 4.05 on road.
3. RHP Brett Myers: 6.43 ERA as RP after returning from hip surgery last season.
4. RHP Felipe Paulino: 4-12, 5.74 ERA in 20 career starts.
5. RHP Bud Norris: 3-0, 1.57 ERA in final 4 starts of ’09.

PROJECTED CLOSER
RHP Brandon Lyon: 2.86 ERA in setup role with Tigers last season.

Grades

Offense: D. Despite playing in one of the majors’ most hitter-friendly parks, Houston was outscored by every NL team except the Pirates and Padres last season. And Houston finished 25th in homers. At least the Astros make contact; only the Mets finished with fewer strikeouts.

Pitching: D. Only six major league teams had a staff ERA worse than Houston’s 4.54 last season. The back end of the rotation has holes, and the bullpen lost closer Jose Valverde (25 saves, 2.33 ERA last season) and setup man LaTroy Hawkins (2.13 ERA). The bright spot is Rodriguez, an emerging ace.

Bench: C. With the addition of Pedro Feliz, Geoff Blum will return to a reserve role and add a powerful bat to the bench. Jeff Keppinger, who had a career-high seven homers in 2009, will serve as the middle-infield backup. Jason Michaels, a .228 hitter the past two seasons, is the fourth outfielder.

Manager: C. An incomplete might be more accurate, given that Mills’ has yet to manager his first major league game. Although he won’t have the talent he did while serving as Boston’s bench coach, Mills will have plenty of veterans to lean on in Houston. It remains to be seen, however, whether those veterans are in decline.

Sporting News prediction: With lingering questions about both the offense and the pitching staff, Houston is unlikely to improve upon its fifth-place finish from last season.

Coming Monday: Pirates preview.

Chris Bahr is a senior editor for Sporting News. E-mail him at cbahr@sportingnews.com.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

*