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[INSIDER] Astros preview

Discussion in 'Houston Astros' started by NJRocket, Feb 7, 2007.

  1. NJRocket

    NJRocket Contributing Member

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    Cockcroft: Houston Astros preview


    A second-place team for five consecutive seasons, and a playoff team in six of the past 10 years, the Astros appear to have reached a crossroads. "Killer B's" like Jeff Bagwell, Craig Biggio and Lance Berkman led the team for more than a decade, but Bagwell is now retired, while Biggio is more than likely entering his final season. Sure, Berkman remains, and he's in his prime, but the Astros now face the difficult task of trying to squeeze one more productive season out of their remaining veteran core.

    To that end, the Astros added free-agent outfielder Carlos Lee, only 30 years old and coming off a season in which he set career highs in home runs (37), RBI (116) and OPS (.895), and starters Jason Jennings, now 28 and coming off a career year himself in ERA (3.78) and WHIP (1.373), and Woody Williams, who had 12 wins and a 3.68 ERA in 24 starts in 2006, to the core that won 82 games yet fell six games short of the wild card. They should help plug some holes, and in Lee's case especially, he should finally strengthen an offense that finished among the game's 10 worst in each of the past two seasons.

    That offense, however, did lose center fielder and leadoff/No. 2 hitter Willy Taveras, shipped to the Colorado Rockies in the Jennings trade, leaving that job in the hands of Chris Burke, a downgrade in the speed and defense departments. Plus, the Astros received only a .228 batting average and 24 home runs out of their bottom three lineup spots in 2006, and they'll return the same Nos. 7 (Adam Everett) and 8 (Brad Ausmus) hitters this year. That puts loads of pressure on a heart-of-the-order hitter like Morgan Ensberg, who desperately needs to put forth a year closer to his 2005 than 2006. Hey, judging by the fact his best performances have come in odd years (2003, 2005), at least it's good that it's an odd year.

    PROJECTED LINEUP:
    2B Craig Biggio
    CF Chris Burke
    1B Lance Berkman
    LF Carlos Lee
    3B Morgan Ensberg
    RF Luke Scott/Jason Lane
    SS Adam Everett
    C Brad Ausmus

    DEPTH CHART: (Projected starters listed in bold, players expected to begin the year in the minors listed in italics)
    C: Brad Ausmus, Humberto Quintero, Eric Munson, Hector Gimenez
    1B: Lance Berkman, Mike Lamb, Mark Loretta, Eric Munson
    2B: Craig Biggio, Mark Loretta, Eric Bruntlett, Chris Burke
    3B: Morgan Ensberg, Mike Lamb, Mark Loretta, Eric Munson, Cody Ransom
    SS: Adam Everett, Mark Loretta, Eric Bruntlett, Chris Burke, Cody Ransom
    LF: Carlos Lee, Orlando Palmeiro, Jason Lane, Richard Hidalgo
    CF: Chris Burke, Jason Lane, Richard Hidalgo, Hunter Pence, Eric Bruntlett, Charlton Jimerson, Josh Anderson
    RF: Luke Scott, Jason Lane, Richard Hidalgo, Orlando Palmeiro, Lance Berkman, Charlton Jimerson
    SP: Roy Oswalt, Jason Jennings, Woody Williams, Wandy Rodriguez, Matt Albers, Chris Sampson, Fernando Nieve, Brian Moehler, Ezequiel Astacio
    CL: Brad Lidge
    RP: Dan Wheeler, Chad Qualls, Trever Miller, Dave Borkowski, Matt Albers, Rick White, Chris Sampson, Fernando Nieve, Scott Sauerbeck, Stephen Randolph


    If Ensberg can't rebound, at least Berkman and Lee should help provide the pitching staff with decent run support, but as things stand today, the staff's simply not as deep. During the winter, Andy Pettitte returned to the New York Yankees, and if Roger Clemens follows him again as he did when he came to Houston in 2004, this rotation will be considerably thinner. As it is, Clemens might not be ready to pitch for any team before June 22, the same date he came out of retirement in 2006, so the Astros will have to make good with untested arms in the Nos. 4 and 5 rotation spots at least until then. And with one of their best prospects (Jason Hirsh) also gone to Colorado, there isn't a lot to get excited about.

    Closer Brad Lidge is another Astro in desperate need of a rebound season. Fortunately, there's no World Baseball Classic this spring, and the winter's rest should do him some good. But if he's no sharper than he was in 2006, this might be no more than a .500 team.

    FANTASY STUD: Both Lance Berkman and Carlos Lee are reasonably safe bets for at least .300-35-110 numbers, and Roy Oswalt is one of the five safest starting pitchers in fantasy baseball. In short, you can't go wrong with any of them, but Berkman gets the slight edge, as the player coming off the best 2006, and the one with the best plate discipline. He'll sure enjoy having a player like Lee hitting behind him in the order.

    OVERRATED: No offense meant to Craig Biggio, a seven-time All-Star and surefire Hall of Famer, but it's those past accolades of his that will continue to make him more appealing in the fantasy market than his actual worth. At this stage of his career, he's no longer speedy enough to be a double-digit stolen base performer, and he's not even an ideal fit to lead off for the Astros, coming of back-to-back years of no better than a .325 on-base percentage. Biggio batted only .201 after the All-Star break in 2006, and while he might bring his best in his probable final year, there's only so much a 41-year-old can do.

    TOP SLEEPER: If Brad Lidge isn't up to the task of closing again in 2007, don't count on the Astros being nearly as patient with him this time. Dan Wheeler, who has a 2.36 ERA and 1.065 WHIP the past two seasons combined, proved he's more than capable of stepping in, with nine saves in 12 chances. Those who pick Lidge should make getting Wheeler as a handcuff a mandatory strategy, as he's among the game's best setup men.

    INTRIGUING SPRING BATTLE: The right-field battle could produce an intriguing late-round sleeper, and that's not only if Luke Scott emerges as the victor. Sure, on the surface he's a fine choice, as a .336 hitter with a 1.047 OPS in a 65-game late-season stint in Houston and a 30-homer man between the majors and minors in each of the past two years. But among the other candidates, Jason Lane hit 26 homers two years ago, while Richard Hidalgo is still only 31 years old and three seasons removed from a 28-homer campaign. In that ballpark, any of them could be a sneaky 30-homer type as a regular.

    PROSPECTS FOR NOW:
    • SP Matt Albers: A candidate for the fifth-starter job while the Astros wait on a Roger Clemens decision, Albers is a hard thrower who could probably be a decent reliever right now. If he makes the rotation, though, he could be a decent source of strikeouts.
    • SP Chris Sampson: This kid threw seven shutout frames of three-hit ball in his first big-league start last June 7. Sampson's a command specialist, and his ground ball-inducing repertoire would make him a decent late NL-only gamble if he cracks the rotation.

    PROSPECTS FOR LATER:
    • SP Troy Patton: Though he has some work to do on the release point of his curveball, Patton's command and approach bring to mind a lite version of Tom Glavine. He could be a factor as a middle-of-the-rotation type before the 2008 All-Star break.
    • OF Hunter Pence: In the best-case scenario for the Astros, Chris Burke handles center field adequately in 2007, then shifts to second base once Craig Biggio retires. That'll clear center for Pence, a better pure fielder with above-average ability in the Roto categories.

    THE BALLPARK: Though the numbers the past three seasons classify Minute Maid Park as only an above-average hitters' park, it's actually one of the more hitting-friendly environments. Quality Astros pitching has kept the 2004-06 numbers down, but the Crawford Boxes in left field do render the park awfully friendly to right-handed sluggers.
     
  2. NJRocket

    NJRocket Contributing Member

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    more of a fantasy preview...but still fun to read about the Astros
     

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