By Chris Lane
By Jeff Balke
By Aaron Reiss
By Angelica Leicht
By Dianna Wray
By Aaron Reiss
By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
Craig Biggio is gone. Jeff Bagwell is long gone. The brief Hometown Hero heyday of Roger Clemens, Andy Pettitte and their assorted needles is no more.
The Houston Astros who will take the field in 2008 represent a new era for a city that had grown accustomed to its baseball stars, not to mention the eventual disappointment provided by those stars.
You knew what you were getting: Bagwell not driving in runners in scoring position late, Biggio not reaching routine grounders, Clemens not bothering to travel to away games. And, despite 40-plus years of learning, each year fans' hopes would build that the postseason would end in a World Series title. Each year it wouldn't.
But those were the old Astros, the ones who still had links with the Astrodome and rainbow shirts. These new Astros — with new stars, a new manager, a new front office — are going to have to define what the post-Biggio/Bagwell era looks like.
So far, it must be said, it doesn't look like much.
1. Whose team is this? Is the laid-back Lance Berkman, the last of the Killer B's, ready to step up to a leadership role?
2. Will the Miguel Tejada trade turn out to be an all-time bust? Getting an aging All-Star the day before he's named as a steroid user is, so far, new general manager Ed Wade's big move. Will he ever live it down?
3. Just how high are the scores going to be this year? The Astros' pitching stinks. There's no other word for it. But the rest of their line-up promises to produce a ton of runs. So expect a lot of four-hour, 14-11 games with seven pitching changes and lots of dingers. As opposed to, you know, real baseball.
4. Is it some kind of ominous harbinger when your starting second baseman goes on the injured-reserve list because of "anal fissures," an injury possibly first on the list of Injuries We Don't Want to Know About? We're guessing yes.
5. Is it another kind of ominous harbinger when your hotshot right-fielder crashes through a plate-glass window on his way to his home hot tub during spring training and has to put up a headline on his blog saying "I Did Not Consume Any Alcohol"? Maybe. Although "I'm Just Really Clumsy" would have worked too, even if you don't want it to apply to your hotshot right-fielder.
The biggest question of all, of course, is: What's the bottom line this year? How good will the Astros be?
The consensus is: You don't want to know.
Keep No Hope Alive
It's difficult to find much optimism for the Astros' chances this year among baseball experts, but if there is one slim reed of hope, it is the fact that they play in the single suckiest division in the major leagues.
The NL Central was won by the Cubs last year, which is the baseball equivalent of "anything can happen." Get yourself a few games over .500 and you're looking like a king in the NL Central.
But you could say the same for the Cards, Brewers, Cubs and Reds. (Even the NL Central can't save the Pirates.)
So what else you got? Not much.
"If a fantasy draft was conducted of the 30 starting rotations in major league baseball, the Astros would be among the last half-dozen teams taken," says Charlie Pallilo, radio host and baseball guru of KBME 790. "Roy Oswalt is magnificent. The rest of the group includes not one guy with anything beyond ordinary stuff, not one guy who is young with any significant upside."
That doesn't sound too good.
And it's not just the pros who are seeing doom and gloom at Minute Maid. Attorney Robert Breen has been an Astro fan for almost all his 44 years.
Let him establish his bona fides: "To this day, I have never felt such utter despair and slack-jawed despondency as I did when the Astros lost to Pete Rose's Phillies in the 1980 playoffs...I have learned that the baseball gods are fickle creatures indeed, and that for every good thing they grant us (Mike Scott's no-no to clinch the division title), they exact a price in return (Jose Lima's 2000 season)."
Breen, too, takes a look at the pitching rotation and covers his eyes. "To shine a light on just how underwhelming our pitching looks this year, not only is Woody Williams apparently not going to be watching this season from the comfort of his Barcalounger in his living room, he's apparently going to make our starting rotation."
And that's not all: "Not only is he going to make the starting rotation, he's not even slated for the [low-ranking] fifth spot. That distinction is likely to be bestowed upon Shawn Chacon. What kind of Teflon ego will that guy need to be able to get up every day and go to the ballpark knowing that he's a worse pitcher than Woody Williams?"
(Woody Williams, for those who don't follow the Astros closely, is the aging pitcher who followed up a crummy 2007 season with an even worse 2008 spring training. The critics may be too harsh, though: Unlike some other Astro pitchers this spring, Williams at least flirted with getting his ERA into the single digits.)