2008 Outcome: 86-75, 3rd Place In The NL Central, 11 Games Behind The Cubs.
What They've Lost: 3B Ty Wigginton(Signed With Orioles), SP Randy Wolf(Signed With Dodgers), IF Mark Loretta(Signed With Dodgers), C Brad Ausmus(Signed With Dodgers), IF Jose Castillo(Signed With Nationals), P Jack Cassel(Signed With Indians), RP Dave Borkowski(Signed With Phillies), RP Fernando Nieve(Claimed Off Waivers By Mets).
What They've Added: Signed C Ivan Rodriguez(1 Year, $1.5 Million), Signed SP Mike Hampton(1 Year, $2 Million), Signed OF Jason Michaels(1 Year, $750,000), Signed P Jose Capellan(Minor League Deal), Signed P Russ Ortiz(Minor League Deal), Signed P Clay Hensley(Minor League Deal), Signed RP Neal Musser(Minor League Deal), Signed IF Jason Smith(Minor League Deal), Signed IF Matt Kata(Minor League Deal).
Needs: Better starting pitchers and youth.
The Talk: Payroll flexibility, well the lack thereof, is a major issue with this organization right now. It played a major part in their inability to keep starting pitcher Randy Wolf and third baseman Ty Wigginton. It's also prevented them from being able to make a big splash in free agency. However, they did make a very notable move recently.
37-year-old catcher Ivan "Pudge" Rodriguez was impressive in the World Baseball Classic for Puerto Rico. It was clear he can still swing the bat, and although he's not quite the same catcher that won 13 Gold Gloves, he's still got a great arm and won't hurt you back there. Well the Astros had a major hole at catcher with J.R. Towles being a major disappointment in his 2008 rookie campaign, and Humberto Quintero is a backup catcher at best. So they signed Pudge to a 1-year deal worth $1.5 million and he'll be their starting catcher.
They also signed starting pitcher Mike Hampton. He still has something left, but it's a matter of being able to take the ball every five days which has been a major problem for him. Hampton gets injured more than Dick Vitale says "Duke". The last time he made over 13 starts was in 2004.
As for the rest of the rotation, there's no doubt Roy Oswalt is a #1, but you don't know what you're getting with the other pitchers. Wandy Rodriguez had a very good 2008 season, going 9-7 with a 3.54 ERA in 137.1 innings pitched. However, his best ERA in a season prior to 2008 was 4.58 and he's struggled mightily away from home. His durability is a major question mark as well, and a fingernail issue's already bothered him this spring.
After that, it's Hampton, Brian Moehler, and Brandon Backe who will start the on the disabled list with a left intercoastal strain. Moehler was solid in 2008, putting together an 11-8 record with a 4.57 ERA. It's very questionable if the 37-year-old right-hander can repeat such a performance though.
Replacing Backe will be veteran Russ Ortiz, and Ortiz hasn't thrown over 100 innings since 2005. Even worse, he hasn't had an ERA under 5 since 2004. Still, is it any worse than Backe and his 9-14 record with a 6.05 ERA last year?
If those pitchers can get into the 6th or 7th inning with the lead, the Astros should be in pretty good shape. Jose Valverde is an elite closer, leading the National League in saves each of the past two seasons. He struck out 83 batters in 72 innings pitched with an ERA of 3.38 in 2008. The rest of the bullpen has dependable veteran righties in Doug Brocail, Geoff Geary, and Chris Sampson, and a promising young left-hander in Wesley Wright. The 24-year-old Wright has a filthy curveball and held lefties to a .621 OPS last season.
The Astros know what they're getting with those two, and 25-year-old(26 on April 13th) outfielder Hunter Pence is an extremely talented hitter. In 2007, he batted .322, with 17 homers, 69 RBI, and an .899 OPS in 484 plate appearances. His 2008 batting average dropped significantly to .269, but did hit 25 home runs, with 83 RBI, and still had a solid OPS of .784. His power production should only increase, and expect him to get the batting average up into the .280 area or so this season.
They're going to need much, much better production at the plate out of speedster Michael Bourn. The Astros acquired Bourn in the 2008 offseason from the Phillies for closer Brad Lidge. Bourn was solid in 2007 for the Phillies and the Astros thought they were getting a very good young leadoff hitter that will steal a ton of bases. The speed wasn't a problem as he swiped 41 bags, but he was absolutely awful at the plate. His batting average was just .229, and he only got on base at a .288 clip. This guy could steal 80 bases if he got on base at league average. He's likely batting 8th for awhile, and if he improves could replace Kaz Matsui in the leadoff spot.
With Ty Wigginton gone, veteran utility infielder Geoff Blum will get the starting nod at third base. The 35-year-old has some pop, belting 14 homers in 325 2008 at bats.
Free Agent Signing/Trade Prediction: I don't know if they'll make anymore moves before the season starts. There was talk they were on the verge of signing Pedro Martinez to be in the starting rotation, but those rumors were quickly shot down. It makes sense as they obviously need help there and while Pedro isn't anything like what he used to be, he still might be a better option than anybody in their 3-5 spots in the rotation.
There's also rumors that Reds utility man Jeff Keppinger is on the trade block and that the Astros have shown interest. Keppinger can play multiple infield positions and had a terrific 2007 season, but struggled in 2008. I doubt the Reds would prefer to deal him within the division though.
Young Player To Make 2009 Impact: Bud Norris.
Norris is the Astros' top pitching prospect and made a push at making the club out of spring training, but will start the season at Triple-A Round Rock. Right now, the Astros aren't sure if they'd rather have him starting or in the bullpen. If he's going to be starter, he needs to develop another pitch as right now his fastball and slider are the only reliable pitches he has. I think he'll be up with the big club soon, especially if there's a pitcher or two struggling in the rotation which is very possible. Even if he's not starting, the Astros might choose to move Chris Samspon to the rotation for example, and that would open up a spot for him in the bullpen. One way or another, I think he's pitching at some point for the Astros in 2009.
2009 Outlook: Although the starting rotation is a major concern, I can't see them being 18 games worse as Baseball Prospectus currently projects. I'd imagine at least one starting pitcher outside of Roy Oswalt will be dependable, most likely Wandy Rodriguez. Regardless, they're going to score runs and have a lineup filled with right-handed power which suits the dimensions at Minute Maid Park perfectly. I'd probably predict about 4th place in the NL Central, but they could finish 2nd place as well if their pitching performs better than anticipated.
Hottest Thigh Association: Laura Cover.
I wasn't sure if I should use this lovely woman for this, as her husband is Aaron Boone and he's of course been going through a very difficult situation. Aaron underwent open-heart surgery on Thursday, and thankfully it all went well. He signed with the Astros this offseason to hopefully be their starting third baseman, but he won't be able to play this year and maybe never again. Obviously that's not the most important thing, as he's just happy to be alive now. He should also be happy to have this smoking hot wife Laura to go home to every night. Laura is a former Playmate and this was about the only picture of her wearing clothes that I could find on a nice Google of her.