2006 W-L: 82-80 (2nd place)
2006 Pythag: 83-79
Carlos Lee, Mark Loretta, Jason Jennings, Woody Williams, Rick White, Scott Sauerbeck, Brian Moehler, Richard Hidalgo, Miguel Ascencio
Andy Pettitte, Roger Clemens, Taylor Buchholz, Jason Hirsh, Willy Taveras, Aubrey Huff, Russ Springer, Orlando Palmeiro
The Astros In a Nutshell:
In 2006, Andy Pettitte wasn't as good as he was in 2005. Roger Clemens followed up his '05 season with something nearly as dominant, but not for as long. The difference in those two performances goes a long way toward explaining why the Astros won seven fewer games in 2006.
Now Houston is primed to take another hit: on the assumption that Clemens isn't coming back, they're losing two of their three aces, and replacing them with distinctly inferior options in Jason Jennings and Woody Williams. (Oldster? Check! Consistent quality? Uh...) Importing Carlos Lee in a very Caballo-friendly park will make up some of the loss, but not nearly enough to put the Astros back in the postseason.
It makes some sense that Tim Purpura would want to make his biggest free-agent splash a power hitter: the Astros were in the bottom half of NL offenses for the last two years. While Carlos Lee's contract might be an albatross in five years, he will give the Astros a boost for the next few years, especially once he adjusts to take full advantage of the short porch in left.
On the other hand, Purpura did nothing to address the real problem areas on this team. One of those issues is all but out of his control: until Craig Biggio gets to 3,000 hits, anyone in Houston who denies him the opportunity would probably be lynched. This despite the fact that Biggio is, at this point in his career, essentially a bench-level player.
While Biggio has no real performance-related reason for being in the lineup nearly every day, at least Brad Ausmus and Adam Everett can point to their gloves. Ausmus was particularly useless at the plate, slugging under 300. (I'm not kidding. You can look it up, if you're stout of heart.) Everett cracked a 350 SLG, but didn't get on base 30% of the time.
In short, it's a great time to pitch in the NL Central.
Aside from upgrading to Carlos Lee in left field, the biggest boost the Astros can expect is nearly doubling Chris Burke's playing time. He may not be a Willy Taveras-caliber defender (honestly, I have no idea), but I'd rather have Burke's 276/347/418 in my lineup than Taveras's complete and utter lack of power.
While it's easy to point out Astros who slumped last year--Morgan Ensberg and Jason Lane come to mind--those don't provide much in the way of opportunities for improvement. Despite Lane's uninspiring performance, Astros right fielders combined for a very respectable 264/371/495 line, thanks in large part to Lance Berkman's and Aubrey Huff's time there.
Ensberg did struggle pushing the ball past defenders, but he was otherwise very effective, getting on base nearly 40% of the time. He may put up prettier traditional stats this year, but unless he has a career year, the difference won't be worth more than a handful of runs.
Further, part-time efforts from Huff, Mike Lamb, and Luke Scott ensured that the Astros offense wasn't quite as putrid as it could easily have been; while there may be some improvement from a few players, I wouldn't count on Lamb or Scott 850+ or 1050+, respectively.
No matter how good Berkman and Lee are, the Astros have a fundamental problem: you won't have a good offense if three eighths of your starters don't have offensive skills that justify their presence in a major league lineup. If everything breaks right, Houston could sport a league-average offense for the first time in quite a while; if a few things break wrong, the offense at Minute Maid will be positively Pittsburghian.
Much as it did last year, the Astros rotation looks primed for the midseason reappearance of Roger Clemens. That is to say, it could well be one starter short of competent, and one great starter short of good enough.
There's no doubting the greatness of an ace such as Roy Oswalt, and it seems reasonable to expect a solid year from Jason Jennings. Then again, it's easy to get overexcited about the young pitcher: before last year's solid showing (ERA: 3.81, ERA+: 127), he posted three straight years of ERAs above 5 with concurrent ERA+ numbers under 95. That isn't awful--the ERAs are largely owing to Coors--but that's more Brandon Backe than Pettitte/Clemens. It isn't Jennings's fault that that's the pitcher he is, but it's a stretch to make him a #2 starter on a contender.
It's even more far-fetched to have any expectations related to Woody Williams. It's true that the Astros didn't drastically overpay for him, though a second year is kind of a stretch for the 40-year-old. Williams's numbers benefited from his time in Petco; his road ERA last year was more than a full run higher than his home mark. Again, it isn't Williams fault that he isn't any better, but the Astros ought to have more than two starters who are better than that.
The frontrunners for back-rotation spots at this point appear to be Fernando Nieve and Wandy Rodriguez, if only because they've spent more time at the major league level than their competition has. Wandy seems like a sort of prospect, but he's now 28, and has made 20+ starts in each of the last two years, never topping an ERA+ of 81. Further, his left-handedness isn't doing him any favors in Minute Maid, though he's been equally bad on the road.
Fernando Nieve is actually something of a prospect, not yet 25 years old and with 11 solid MLB starts under his belt. While he barely topped 100 innings in 2006, his '05 split between double- and triple-A offers grounds for hope: he struck out more than a batter per inning over 167 innings. It seems unlikely he'll be good for more than 150 innings, but of the Astros likely to see time in the rotation, he's the one with legitimate upside.
Beyond that possible starting five, the Astros do have options, though few of them are appetizing. Brandon Backe should make his way back from Tommy John surgery midway through the season, though as usual, it's not smart to count on him to be back in top form immediately upon return. Middling prospects Matt Albers and Phil Barzilla could make starts here and there, along with Chris Sampson; none of those guys, however, are going to be difference makers; it's likely that Williams's claim to the #3 spot in the rotation won't be in danger.
Little has changed since this time last year. The biggest difference is the degree of uncertainty surrounding Brad Lidge. Last spring, it seemed foolish to doubt Lidge simply because of a postseason misstep; now, it's equally foolish to count on a return to dominance from someone whose home run rate doubled and whose walk rate increased by 50%.
That said, it's hard not to stay optimstic about this guy: even in a down year, he struck out over one hundred batters (for the third year running, incidentally) in 75 innings. He may not get Cy Young Award votes again, but its easy to see him becoming a solid closer again.
As the Astros always seem to have, they have options in case he doesn't. Chad Qualls is one of the better non-closer relievers in the game, despite an unimpressive strikeout rate. Dan Wheeler has been even better the last few years, and as he got the bulk of the non-Lidge save opportunities last year, he seems like the most logical heir apparent if Lidge is traded or becomes completely ineffective.
Beyond Trever Miller, the Astros quality lefty specialist, the rest of the bullpen spots would appear to be completely up for grabs. Dave Borkowski has the inside track for a spot, having served in middle relief for all of last season.
Non-roster invitee Scott Sauerbeck could reclaim lost glory and serve as a second lefty, while a slew of failed starters (or starters who will be failed after they don't make this year's rotation). Ultimately, those spots don't matter much: most of the contenders have options, so the losers will go back to Round Rock and fight for the opportunity to come back when a job opens up. For the Astros bottom line, Lidge's peripherals are more important than the production from those last two or three spots put together.
All Together Now
I'm starting to feel like a grumpy old stathead: this is my third consecutive preview (first: Reds, second: White Sox) in which I project bad things. After losing Pettitte and Clemens, it might have made sense for Purpura to rebuild; Jason Hirsh may well have a brighter future than Jason Jennings does, and there's no way Drayton McLane is going to be happy about the checks he writes Carlos Lee in three or four years.
Then again, it's tough to rebuild when you're committed to players like Lance Berkman and Roy Oswalt. It'd be one thing to trade the likes of Lidge and Ensberg, but on the offensive side, the Astros don't have as much of a core to build around as they do on the mound. They entered the offseason stuck in an awkward part of the success cycle, and ended it worse off, unlikely to find the "success" in "success cycle" anytime soon.