So it's Opening Day today, a day generally reserved for baseball optimism. Unless you live in Pittsburgh or Kansas City, or...Houston. I know that Lance Berkman thinks that this team can compete, but seeing as how the Big Puma is starting the season on the disabled list with a balky knee, and seeing as how there's no real timetable for his return, and seeing as how that means Geoff Blum has just become the infield's best hitter, well...
This is not a good Astros team. This is a team that could actually challenge the Pittsburgh Pirates in terms of being bad. The Astros have been a poor team the past several years, but damn, none of them were this bad. Tony LaRussa, Bobby Cox, and Joe Torre couldn't find a way to win with this team, so while I like what I've seen and heard from new manager Brad Mills, this team needs a complete talent makeover for him to stand any chance of managing it to a winning season.
Why am I so pessimistic? How about the fact that three-fifths of an already iffy starting rotation is suffering/recovering from spring injuries. Roy Oswalt had a problem with his hamstring two weeks ago that somehow merited a shot in his back -- so Oswalt's back is still bugging him to go along with the hammy. Brett Myers had a problem with his hamstring, as well, and he's also recovering from hip surgery and shoulder problems. Then the fifth starter, Felipe Paulino came down with back spasms last week and had to miss his final spring start.
Not that the remaining two-fifths of the rotation looks much better. Wandy Rodriguez should be screaming that he's injured. That makes it much easier to explain away his awful spring numbers -- 12.10 ERA in 19.1 innings after surrendering 34 hits, 26 earned runs, five homers, and a .386 batting average against. You could look at his stats from last season and say that spring was just an aberration, as you can do with proven commodities like Oswalt, but if you look at his career stats and his spring stats, it's easier to say that last season was actually the aberration -- for what it's worth, Rodriguez is as worried about his spring as the rest of us.
And Bud Norrris, the fourth starter who is facing his first full year in the majors, didn't necessarily inspire the fans with his 10.00 spring ERA -- his brutal outing on Saturday doesn't exactly inspire confidence, either.
Then there's the starting lineup. Berkman's out on the disabled list. Geoff Blum is going to play first base, as is Pedro Feliz. Now Feliz was signed to provide supposedly Gold Glove-quality defense at third base. But because Blum's not good enough to play every day, then Feliz will shift over to play there, as well. Chris Johnson was finally good enough in spring to earn a major league roster spot, and he plays third. Only he's not that great with the glove, so it would probably make more sense to play him at first base, but then again, this is the Astros where logic doesn't necessarily play a role in the decision-making process.
Kazuo Matsui returns to start at second base, until he goes down with an injury. And Tommy Manzella will man shortstop, and Manzella has been battling a problem with his quad. So expect super-sub Jeff Keppinger to spend a lot of time playing for these two, especially Matsui who is only a sneeze away from the disabled list.
Carlos Lee's out in left field, and somehow, this guy tweaked his quad earlier this spring. How can somebody tweak a quad if they never exert any effort? That's a puzzler. But worse than that is the simple fact that his numbers have been dropping off every year since he was signed.
Now I always sound negative about the Astros -- that's because I generally am. But damn, who can be negative about Michael Bourn and Hunter Pence. Hopefully, with Miguel Tejada banished to Baltimore, these two guys will start to emerge as clubhouse leaders. Unlike most of the team, these two guys are young AND good AND actually seem to give a damn. Bourn won a Gold Glove for his play in center last year -- he should have gotten two Gold Gloves since he had to cover left field at the same time. He improved with the bat last season, and he seems to be growing into the leadoff role. He's one of those guys who actually can turn a walk into a double, and he's becoming a smart base runner.
Pence, after a somewhat disappointing second year, took a big leap last year. He made the All Star team. And with Bourn, he forms an outfield duo that can cover just about any amount of ground to play. He's got a good arm, and became adept at nailing runners at third and home last season. Though he's probably better suited to hit fifth or sixth in the lineup, Pence will probably move to the three slot while Berkman is out.
After two years, Jose Valverde departed to close in Detroit. He was replaced in Houston by Brandon Lyon, who had relief duties in Detroit.
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Lyon was also previously a closer in Arizona, where he was first replaced by Valverde and then by Chad Qualls, one of the Astros traded for Valverde. Maybe the Astros should have held onto Qualls who still makes less money that Valverde and Lyon, and who, unlike Lyon, has shown an ability to stay healthy.
Lyon was brought into close this season, but because of elbow problems, can't close at the moment. He'll be the set-up guy while Matt Lindstrom, who lost the closing job in Florida due to ineffectiveness and, you guessed it, injury, will serve as closer. Lindstrom's one of those guys who can put up triple digits on the radar gun. He's also one of those guys who has a bit of problem controlling that fastball that can reach triple digits.
Catching those guys, at the moment, is J.R. Towles. Towles had a really good spring. But it's generally assumed that Towles isn't really an everyday catcher. It's also generally assumed that he's just manning the position until the team deems Jason Castro ready -- that will come some time in late May/early June, after the arbitration clock has ticked over, allowing the Astros to keep him away from arbitration for another year.
I've seen a lot of bad Astros teams -- I attended games in 1975 when the Astros were a laughingstock for more reasons than just the rainbow jerseys. And I don't think the Astros are bad as that team. But Lance Berkman assertions aside, there's just no way this team is going to compete for anything other than last place of the NL Central.