Who's On Deck for the Houston Astros in 2008?

The Astros' post-Biggio era begins with a lot of unanswered questions, but the biggest one of all is: Just how bad are things going to get?

(On the other hand, just as we went to press, the Astros released Williams. So maybe there's hope for Chacon's ego yet.)

The Astros' biggest asset this year is their offense. That, of course, depends on whether Berkman can recover from a sub-par 2007, Kaz Matsui can recover from his anal fissures, Tejada can recover from pissing off Congressional committees investigating steroids, and new centerfielder Michael Bourn can recover from the inevitable lame stream of "Bourn Identity" headlines and comments. (If we had to pick which of these setbacks we'd most like to have to recover from, it'd be Bourn's.)

"If Bourn turns out to be a good (great not needed) leadoff man and Tejada is productive and remains eligible for employment in this country," says Pallilo, "this should, by a good margin, be the best Astro offense since 2004."

A great offense and terrible pitching. In other words, the Astros have become the Texas Rangers.

And we all know how good the Rangers have been for, like, forever.

Fun at the Ol' Ballpark

Good hitting and bad pitching means one thing: long, long games.

Lots of drawn-out counts at the plate, as batters patiently wait for a mistake. Lots of walks and people on base. Lots of mound conferences, lots of pitching changes with the ensuing warmups and delays.

All of which is nice when you're the team batting, but this will also be happening when the Astros are on the field trying to stop the other guys from scoring.

Dave Borkowski, one of the Astros' relief pitchers, has already been quoted as saying the coaching staff has told him "to be ready from the first inning through." (Borkowsi's career ERA as a reliever: 5.68.)

So how are you, the Astro fan, supposed to pass the time during your four- or five-hour stay at Minute Maid?

1. Cuddle up with your date throughout the game, so the "Kiss Cam" operator will pick you when the time comes. When the time does come and all eyes in the stadium are on you, have your girlfriend dive face-first into your lap. Hilarity ensues, although you may have competition for your girlfriend the rest of the game.

2. Count exactly how many advertisements are displayed throughout the stadium. Then count the number of bricks that somehow do not have an advertisement on them. See which is more. (Don't bet on the bricks.)

3. Reminisce about those olden days of yore when Milo Hamilton was still in the radio booth even though he was obviously well past his prime. Then look in the booth to see Hamilton still there, probably announcing that the new pitcher is Dizzy Dean.

4. Consume your eighth beer of the night, even if it means no bicycle for the kid this birthday. It will help you imagine the Astros as a contender, at least until the buzz wears off.

5. As the clock ticks on towards 11 p.m. with no end in sight to the game, consider that at least you're getting your money's worth timewise. You're getting twice as much baseball as some joker going to a 2-1 pitcher's duel!!

At Least Someone's Happy

You know who likes slow, drawn-out, high-scoring games? Aramark, the people who sell the food at Minute Maid Park.

"There are several factors that go into determining the amount of food fans eat at the ballpark, [and] one of them is the length of the game," says Aramark spokesman Greg Healy, who's a bit on the cautious side when it comes to saying anything that might impugn the product the Astros put on the field. "Others include the team record, who the opponent is and the time of the game."

But despite Healy's reticence, food vendors adore a long game. The guys selling Fenway Franks used to love Red Sox catcher Carlton Fisk, who was known for frequent and lengthy trips to the mound to consult with his pitchers.

Healy won't talk about the process Aramark uses to figure out how much food to prepare, but we're guessing it involves Game Day memos like "Warning: Roy Oswalt is NOT, repeat NOT, pitching today. Prepare accordingly."

Aramark is ready to take advantage of the time-outs with some new offerings this year. At Minute Maid Park, that includes "Ballpark Sliders," mini-­hamburgers apparently based on White Castle. Hopefully with less grease.

Aramark is also "going green" this year, among other things recycling their Minute Maid Park frying oil so it can be used as bio-diesel fuel.

So go ahead and chomp down on those fries. It may not be healthy for you, but it's helping the environment. Some sacrifices have to be made.

Help Is (Not)on the Way

All right, so the team that the Astros put on the field Opening Day is likely to struggle. Surely they can get some help from their farm system, right?

Wrong.

The Astros' farm system, not so long ago the envy of baseball, is in a shambles. Prospects have been traded away, bad draft picks have been made, budget cutbacks are starting to pinch.

In 2002, Baseball America magazine, which follows this stuff very, very closely, ranked the Astros as having the third-best farm system among the majors' 30 teams. Now it's ranked 29th.

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