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Spring Training: Let the Funk Begin

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It’s February 14th across the land. Time for us to hear those four words we’ve been wanting to hear all year.

Pitchers and catchers report.

(What? Did you think I was going to say “Honey, I love you?” I don’t think so.)

Spring training is opening up today and all of the young (and not-so young) Astros pitchers and catchers are reporting to camp, to be followed in a week or so by the rest of the gang. In days of yore, the call of spring training supposedly meant that every team had a chance to win the pennant.

But this is the Astros we’re talking about. The pennant is something that’s just not going to be happening this year, even though Richard Justice finds reasons to be optimistic. I’ll write more during the next six weeks or so previewing the upcoming season. But here are the basics.

This season is going to be ugly. Think 2000-ugly all over again. You remember four-hour, 7-6 games with both teams going through about five or six pitchers each, as cheap home run after cheap home run lands in the front row of the Crawford Boxes? This season is going to make last season look like fun. There’s not even going to be a Craig Biggio record to keep track of every game.

The primary reason for this is that the Astros pitching sucks. It’s I-want-Jose-Lima-back-it-sucks-that-bad bad. John Donovan, one of baseball’s most respected writers, earlier referred to the Astros starting rotation as Roy Oswalt and The Whos. I love Roy Oswalt. I think he’s one of the best pitchers in baseball. But then comes the rest of the rotation.

Woody Williams. Wandy Rodriguez. Brandon Backe. Chris Sampson. Doesn’t that just make you feel optimist about the season? Backe’s coming off Tommy John surgery and pitched only a few games last September. Backe’s been nails when he’s pitched in the playoffs. Unfortunately, he’s pretty much sucked come the regular season. Chris Sampson’s also coming off an injury and we don’t know if last season was a fluke. Wandy Rodriguez was perfectly mediocre, which is all that he’s ever been, and there’s no evidence that he’ll ever be anything but a mediocre pitcher. And while mediocre may be okay for a five starter, it’s not okay for a two or three starter. And don’t get me started on Woody Williams.

I’ll discuss Jose Valverde and the bullpen later. But as I’ve written before, it doesn’t matter how good the closer is if he’s never used. And with this rotation, the only time the closer’s going to be used is when Oswalt pitches, though there is a good baseball-connected friend of mine who believes Oswalt will end up spending much of the season on the disabled list.

The consensus seems to be that the Astros will score lots and lots of runs this season (which I’ll discuss at a later date) and they’re going to have to if they’re going to overcome the shoddy pitching. But the people in the Crawford Boxes should get lots of parting gifts in terms of home run balls. Let’s just hope they don’t actually expect wins to go with those gifts.

But hey, Drayton, I understand that Roger Clemens might be available. Cheap. – John Royal

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