NL Central Preview: Astros
Next game: Wednesday, April 8th at San Francisco
2008: 86-75, third place.
Manager: Cecil Cooper (second full season).
He's Here: C Ivan Rodriguez, LHP Mike Hampton, OF Jason Michaels, INF Jeff Keppinger.
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Rotation: RH Roy Oswalt (17-10, 3.54 ERA, staff-high 208 2-3 IP), LH Wandy Rodriguez (9-7, 3.54), LH Mike Hampton (3-4, 4.85 with Braves; hasn't pitched full season since 2004), RH Brian Moehler (11-8, 4.56), RH Brandon Backe (9-14, 6.05) or RH Russ Ortiz (2-3, 5.51 in 2007 with Giants; missed 2008 with injury) or RH Jose Capellan (0-0, 4.50 in 1 relief appearance with Rockies).
Key Relievers: RH Jose Valverde (6-3, 3.38 ERA, NL-high 44 saves), RH Doug Brocail (7-5, 3.93 in 72 games), RH LaTroy Hawkins (3-1, 3.92 in 57 games with Yankees and Astros), RH Geoff Geary (2-3, 2.53 in 55 games), LH Wesley Wright (4-3, 5.01 in 71 games).
Hot Spots: Rotation and catcher. Oswalt is a legitimate ace, but the starting rotation is a question mark behind him. Wandy Rodriguez has won nine games in each of the last three seasons. The Astros are counting on Hampton to start 30-33 games even though he missed 2006-07 and made only 13 starts last year because of injuries. Moehler was solid in July and August but tailed off late and lost three of his final five starts. Backe will begin the season on the disabled list with strained muscles in his left side. Houston is hoping Ortiz can be useful, but the one-time All-Star missed last season with an arm injury. The Astros added Pudge Rodriguez during spring training to upgrade at catcher. He played very well for Puerto Rico in the World Baseball Classic, but it's unclear if the 14-time All-Star and 13-time Gold Glove winner can still be an everyday player at 37. If not, Houston will be left with Humberto Quintero or J.R. Towles, who batted .226 and .137, respectively, last season.
Stat Sheet: The Astros had the fewest errors in the majors last season with 67 and the best fielding percentage at .989. But they didn't make the playoffs thanks in part to ranking 22nd in runs with 712 and 20th with a .737 on-base percentage.
Bottom Line: The Astros got off to a terrible start last season but posted the best second-half record in the National League and charged back into the wild-card race. Their path to the postseason was derailed, in part, by Hurricane Ike, which forced the team to play a pair of home games against the Chicago Cubs in Milwaukee. Lee missed the stretch drive with a broken finger but has recovered from that injury. This year, Houston was awfully sloppy early in spring training. The Astros opened 1-16-3 in Grapefruit League play, going winless in 19 straight games while several stars were banged-up or away at the World Baseball Classic. Still, the shoddy performance day after day bothered Cooper before his club set off on a winning streak. The rotation is a major concern besides Oswalt. The middle of the lineup is experienced and dangerous, though the 34-year-old Tejada could be on the decline. The former AL MVP had a trying offseason, too. Tejada was sentenced to one year of probation for misleading Congress about the use of performance-enhancing drugs. In February, he pleaded guilty to withholding information when questioned by a House committee's investigators in August 2005 about an ex-teammate's use of steroids and human growth hormone. He also acknowledged he bought HGH while playing for Oakland, but said he threw the drugs away without using them. Prosecutors said they have no evidence to contradict that. The Astros hope to get more out of the oft-injured Matsui in his second year with the team. He missed 65 games in 2008. For the offense to really click, Bourn must improve on his paltry .288 on-base percentage so his blazing speed is more of a factor. The bullpen could be a strength with the return of Valverde and Brocail.
(Copyright 2009 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)