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2006 Team Previews: Houston Astros, Pitchers

This is the last of the three previews that Jeff Sackmann graciously wrote for us at BtB. Enjoy!

Last year, the Houston Astros charged their way to the World Series with a spectacular pitching staff, headlined by the best front three in baseball. Heck, Roger Clemens, Roy Oswalt, and Andy Pettitte made up one of the best threesomes of their generation (insert gratuitous pornography joke here). If the Astros reach the postseason again, they'll need their pitching staff to be just as solid, if not more so. The sudden stratification of the NL East suggests the league Wild Card may go to a 92+ game winner. Can the 'Stros be that team?

If there's still baseball in Minute Maid Park in October, it won't be because of the offense. Last year, the Astros scored 693 runs--good for 11th in the league. You can wishcast your way into the mid 700s if you'd like, but let's face it: the offensive side of this team keeps getting older, and unless Preston Wilson reveals himself to be the second coming of Hack Wilson, the fate of this team rides on the performance of the pitching staff.

Of course, the pitching staff, in turn, rides on the performance of just a few guys, one of whom isn't even under contract. Roy Oswalt seems as good a bet for 230 IP as anyone in baseball, and one hopes Andy Pettitte's 2005 is a sign of many more durable years to come. Brad Lidge, postseason lapses notwithstanding, may be the best closer in baseball. That leaves Roger Clemens, who might come back May 1st to make 28 starts for the Astros, or he might make zero. I wrote a few days ago about the drastic fall in production if a Ben Sheets injury led to a couple dozen Rick Helling or Jared Fernandez starts. The Astros find themselves in a nearly identical situation: it's Clemens or Taylor Buchholz. Buchholz has turned heads this spring, but so has Fernandez. And it wasn't that long ago that the Astros released Jared.

So, with or without Clemens, can Houston keep their opponents in the neighborhood of 600 runs? Last year, their 609 runs allowed made for a microscopic 3.51 ERA. Let's take apart this pitching staff and see if we can expect a repeat or a catastrophe.

1. Roy Oswalt: As a Brewers fan, I would trade Ben Sheets for only a tiny handful of players in all of baseball. Setting aside contract considerations, Roy Oswalt is one of those guys. Will Carroll is sufficiently satisfied with Oswalt's recent inning-eating prowess to reward him with a green light, and a healthy Roy Oswalt makes for an unhappy NL Central. Last year, he assembled 240+ innings of sub-3.00 ball. Both PECOTA and ZiPS project him to wind up back at 3.40, but when you're one of the top 5 pitchers in baseball, projection systems might just be regressing you for the fun of it. If you're optimistic, you might care to latch onto Roy's 75th percentile PECOTA forecast of a 2.85 ERA, worth more than eight wins over replacement. It seems a little unfair to say this, but if the Astros don't get Clemens back, they better hope for that 75th percentile projection or better: unless the entire staff morphs into a bunch of Oswalt clones, they're going to need superhuman production out of their ace.

2. Andy Pettitte: Second verse, same as the first. Pettitte was even more unhittable than Oswalt--all the more shocking given that Minute Maid park should be brutal on lefties. Instead, Pettitte was brutal on everybody. Unlike Oswalt, though, his co-ace is on the dark side of 30, and his track record before 2005 doesn't suggest he's reached some ungodly new plateau of dominance. Accordingly, ZiPS and PECOTA figure Andy for an ERA in the 3.40 range. Here's where I start getting repetitious: a 3.40 ERA would be impressive for a lefty in the Juicebox, but it would probably keep the Astros out of the playoffs.

3. Brandon Backe: If I were feeling particularly cocky in my prognosticating powers, I'd guess that in five years, Backe will be out of baseball, and when news of his retirement hits the AP wire, every casual fan in America will remember this game and say to whoever is nearby: "Man, that guy coulda been great." Unfortunately for Backe, brilliant postseason performances do not all-star careers make. Backe fell victim to that, tumbling below league-average last year as the Astros' fourth starter. He figures to do more of the same this year--that is, if he can continue to stay healthy.

4. Wandy Rodriguez: Despite having a great baseball name, Wandy is a low-rent version of Backe. While he's still young (he'll turn 25 in September), there's nothing in his professional performance thus far that suggests he's even going to live up to billing as a fourth starter. He was rushed to Houston after just nine minor league starts last year. Neither his minor league performance up to that point--an ERA just under 4 in 460 IP, almost all AA and below--nor his Major League numbers after it justified the hurry. Taking those struggles into account, a favorable projection for W-Rod (pronounced "dub-rod") gives him 25 starts and an ERA over 5.00.

5. Taylor Buchholz: Another great baseball name, another low-rent Backe. He hasn't pitched an inning in the Majors yet, and he's still young, so I guess he could surprise us. However, he was considerably less than awesome in two partial seasons in Round Rock (AAA), walking about 3 and K'ing about 6 per 9 innings. ZiPS is downright nasty to the righty, forecasting an ERA above 6.00. PECOTA shows a bit more Taylor love, but unless Phil Garner and Jim Hickey know something that we don't about this guy, they'd better hope Roger Clemens is suited up and ready to go on May 1st.

Others: As I've said above, Roger Clemens is probably the make-or-break guy for this staff. Duh. But the interesting thing is that, with a 3-4-5 consisting of below average guys, the Astros may have a top 3 sitting in Round Rock that would exceed their production immediately. Carlos Hernandez is one of the guys Phil Garner kept in the mix for a rotation spot, but let's forget about him. Ezequiel Astacio, Jason Hirsh, and Fernando Nieve all have their warts and may all benefit from more time in the minors, but both PECOTA and ZiPS project all of them to outperform Brandon Backe this year. So while Tim Purpura has clandestine meetings with Alan Hendricks and Houston sportswriters figure out yet another way to write a column about the possible return of Roger Clemens, the more interesting story will be whether the organization maximizes their return on the assets they actually have under contract. It wouldn't surprise me at all if 3/5 of the rotation was different by August.

CL: Brad Lidge: There are two schools of thought on Lidge right now. One might be summed up by Will Carroll's red light: "Lidge's velocity was off as much as his confidence." The other is summed up by PECOTA: 2.51, 11 K/9, 5.7 WARP. Being a doctrinairre stathead, I feel obligated to go with the latter, but I'll certainly be watching with interest, rooting for dominance most of the time, cheering for a Jeff Cirillo pinch-hit HR the rest.

Setting Up: It's amazing to think that in 2003, Brad Lidge was entrusted with the 7th inning, giving way to Octavio Dotel and then Billy Wagner. Less than a half-season later, Lidge took over for Dotel. While this off-season's trade rumblings came to nothing, had Lidge departed, the Astros probably could've stayed in-house and presented yet another excellent closer. Dan Wheeler may have been one of the more questionable selections for Team USA (well, before Al Leiter was chosen, anyway), but that is more about the strength of that staff than Wheeler's ability. ZiPS projects Wheeler for 8+ K/9 in 2006, along with another sub-4.00 ERA. That'll be good enough to hold down the 8th inning. If he exceeds that early on, he'll give the Astros enough flexibility to trade Lidge--or, if Will Carroll is right, to cope with Lidge's loss of effectiveness without going outside the organization.

Chad Qualls didn't match Wheeler's miniscule 2.21 ERA last year, but he was nearly as effective in a similar role. Though he doesn't quite equal Wheeler's strikeout rate, that shouldn't stop the Astros from counting on him for another 70-80 innings of sub-4.00 relief. I wouldn't be as ready to move Qualls into the closer's spot should the need arise, but if Dave Weathers can close, so can Qualls. Like the front of the rotation, the back of the bullpen represents a major strength for Houston. However, if Wheeler and Qualls regress back to, say, a 4.00 ERA and 110 ERA+, it's yet another nail in the coffin of the Astros' precarious October hopes.

The Rest: Since taking over the helm, Tim Purpura has proven himself capable when it comes to staffing the back end of a bullpen. This year should be no different, with Russ Springer (R), Mike Gallo (L), and Trever Miller (L) filling out the back of the pen. Each should be in the neighborhood of league average, and while none will find themselves next in the great progression of Houston closer-to-be's, each will do their part to keep Carlos Hernandez in Round Rock where he'll best serve this team. There's a chance Fernando Nieve will make the team as a swingman, and if Garner decides to go with 12 pitchers for much of the year, there's a good chance we'll see a revolving door with guys like Joe Valentine and Will Cunnane making appearances when injuries beckon.

Summary: Do the Astros have a shot at matching or besting last year's 609 runs allowed? Without Clemens, it looks doubtful. Not only would Oswalt, Pettitte, and a couple of relievers have to equal their career years, but a bunch of young players would also have to make huge leaps with very little room for error. The test of Purpura and his field staff will be the length of the leash they give guys like Rodriguez and Buchholz. If we hear things about "another solid outing" after 3 runs in 5 innings, Astro fans should watch for the ceiling caving in. On the other hand, if Fernando Nieve finds his way into the rotation by mid-May and Ezequiel Astacio rapidly follows, anything's possible.

If Clemens comes back, all bets are off. Suddenly Backe becomes a fourth starter, which isn't such a recipe for disaster. There are five or six guys to use as a fifth starter, maybe even skipping that spot when the opportunity arises. Maybe a bit of pressure comes off the bullpen, with Clemens going six or seven every time out instead of Buchholz's occasional 4 1/3. If I had to guess, I'd say the Astros will give up 640 runs with Clemens, 680 without. Either of those numbers would, at the very least, keep things interesting into September.

Thanks to Jeff Sackmann for writing about the Brewers and two of their divisional foes.