By Shawn Clarke, MLB Analyst (Sports Network)
2004 FINISH (92-70) - Second Place (NL Central); lost to St. Louis in NLCS
KEY OFFSEASON ADDITIONS: RP - Dave Burba; SP - Brandon Duckworth; RP - John Franco
KEY OFFSEASON SUBTRACTIONS: OF - Carlos Beltran; 2B - Jeff Kent; SP - Wade Miller; SP - Darren Oliver; RP - Dan Miceli
PROJECTED LINEUP: Craig Biggio (2B), Adam Everett (SS), Jeff Bagwell (1B), Jason Lane (RF), Morgan Ensberg (3B), Orlando Palmeiro (LF), Willy Taveras (CF), Brad Ausmus (C)
PROJECTED ROTATION: Roy Oswalt (RHP), Andy Pettitte (LHP), Roger Clemens (RHP), Brandon Backe (RHP), Ezequiel Astacio (RHP)
PROJECTED CLOSER: Brad Lidge (RHP)
MANAGER: Phil Garner
The 2004 Houston Astros were one win away from their first-ever World Series appearance, but last season's accomplishments will not carry over into the 2005 season. Besides losing to the St. Louis Cardinals in Game 7 of the NLCS, Astros fans had another reason to hang their heads when the club failed to re- sign star outfielder Carlos Beltran. He helped lead the Astros to their first- ever playoff series win with a victory over Atlanta in the Division Series, and his eight homers tied a single postseason record, but he opted to sign for big bucks in the Big Apple with the New York Mets.
Beltran’s 38 home runs and 104 RBI will most certainly be missed in the Lone Star State, as well as veteran second baseman Jeff Kent, who inked a deal with the Los Angeles Dodgers and batted .289 with 27 homers and 107 RBI last season.
The problem for Houston is simple -- it never replaced the RBI production lost when Kent and Beltran signed to play on the coasts. Also, outfielder Lance Berkman tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee in November while playing flag football and he's expected to miss at least the first month of the season.
How will Andy Pettitte recover from elbow surgery? How will Jeff Bagwell bounce back from a down year? Can Roger Clemens repeat his Cy Young performance? Will the Astros produce as much or even more RBI without Beltran and Kent? These questions will need to be addressed for the 2005 campaign.
The Astros simply lost too much offensive firepower without replacing it and they will have to overachieve to find themselves in the hunt for October play.
Taking over for Kent at second base will be veteran Craig Biggio, who played left field last season. Biggio, who will not exactly duplicate Kent’s 107 RBI from last year, can play every position on the diamond and will solidify an already-solid infield. Biggio registered 24 homers and knocked in 63 runs last season.
Jeff Bagwell started slowly last year and even slipped to the No. 6 spot in the batting order. The burly first baseman will have to make his 15th season in the major leagues a bright one if he wants to play baseball in October. His fielding is excellent, but his shoulder gave him some problems in 2004. Bagwell, though, later rebounded to the No. 3 spot and was able to shrug off the lingering pain to hit .266 with 27 homers and 89 runs batted in.
Another slick-fielding player is shortstop Adam Everett. His speed and excellent bunt skills helped him to the No. 2 spot in the order. Everett, who ended with 22 sacrifice bunts in 2004, batted .273 with 31 RBI and eight home runs. Everett's ability to get on base coupled with a better season for third baseman Morgan Ensberg will provide runs in '05 with the absence of Kent. Ensberg posted just 10 homers -- a 15-home run drop-off from the 2003 season -- and 66 RBI in 2004. Despite the lack of round-trippers in 2004, Ensberg’s RBI totals improved.
Brad Ausmus will handle the catching duties. Ausmus is limited offensively, having hit .248 with five homers and 31 runs batted in, but has the veteran leadership to handle both the young and old pitchers.
Mike Lamb will also be relied on in the infield. He split time at several positions last season and batted .288 with 14 HRs and 58 RBI. Lamb will see more action with Kent gone, and Jose Vizcaino and prospect Chris Burke should also see extensive time on the diamond.
If Beltran had stayed with the club and Berkman wasn't playing around in the offseason, Houston’s outfield would not be in question. After tearing the ACL in his right knee while playing flag football, Berkman will be sidelined for at least the first month of the 2005 season.
Berkman, however, reached an $85 million multi-year deal with the Astros that will keep him in Houston through 2010. He is coming off a stellar 2004 season in which he hit .316 for the Astros with 30 homers and 106 RBI in 160 games. Last year, the 29-year-old led the club in hitting, games, total bases, homers, walks, intentional walks, slugging and on-base percentage.
The Astros right now plan to open the season with Willy Taveras in center field, which means Burke will either go back to the minors or stay with the big-league club as a utilityman/left fielder. Club hopeful, Jason Lane, will most likely be a platoon outfielder and bench player, Orlando Palmeiro, is slated to play right, although that could change as the 2005 campaign approaches.
Then there's the possibility of Luke Scott earning a spot on the club. He hit 19 homers in just 208 at-bats with Double-A Round Rock last season and was having success at spring training camp.
The rotation is the team strength and will keep the ‘Stros from falling too far from last year's 92 victories, especially with the return of ace righthander and 2004 Cy Young Award winner Roger Clemens. The 42-year-old Clemens, fresh off his unprecedented seventh Cy Young Award, inked a one-year $18 million contract in the offseason. Clemens, a 10-time All-Star, also topped the 200-strikeout plateau for the 12th straight season and played an instrumental role in Houston’s big run to the postseason. He finished 18-4 with a 2.98 ERA for the Astros, who won 36 of their final 46 games for a Wild Card berth.
However, it won't be Clemens on the mound Opening Day versus the Cardinals. The Astros will look to another ace righty in Roy Oswalt, who led the NL in wins last season with 20. Oswalt, 27, signed a two-year deal worth $16.9 million in the offseason to sure up a solid Houston rotation. In 36 games last season, Oswalt notched a 20-10 mark with a 3.49 ERA and won12 of his last 14 decisions. He was also 1-0 with a 4.19 ERA in four postseason games (three starts) with his lone win coming in Game 5 of the Division Series against Atlanta. That triumph lifted Houston to its first-ever playoff series win.
On the other hand, literally, the Astros have lefthander Andy Pettitte in the No. 2 spot behind Oswalt. Pettitte will definitely give the club a boost since he is fully recovered from elbow surgery performed in mid-August. The southpaw needed a tear in the flexor tendon repaired after spending more than half the 2004 season on the disabled list. In 15 games, Pettitte went 6-4 with 79 Ks and a 3.90 earned run average. He has been throwing in simulated games and Houston needs him to regain his Yankee form in order to compete with the Cardinals and Cubs.
Brandon Backe, who showed flashes of brilliance in the 2004 NLCS, is slated to pitch fourth in the rotation after Wade Miller signed with the Red Sox. Backe went 5-3 with a 3.40 earned run average last season. The fifth spot, however, is in question with Carlos Hernandez, Tim Redding, Brandon Duckworth, Dave Burba, Taylor Buchholz and Ezequiel Astacio as possible candidates.
After Octavio Dotel was traded to Oakland last season, Brad Lidge went from being a dominant setup man to establishing himself as a top closer in the majors. Lidge struck out 157 batters, a National League record for relievers, in 94 2/3 innings and was 29-for-33 in saves chances.
The setup job is wide open. John Franco signed as a free agent after spending the last 14 years of his 20-year career with the New York Mets. The all-time saves leader among lefthanders, Franco held lefties to a .173 batting average in 2004 with a 5.28 ERA. His veteran presence alone should help this bullpen.
Chad Qualls showed signs of being able to handle the setup position late in 2004, but veteran Burba has a chance to earn that spot. Burba signed a minor league contract in the offseason and can jump into the rotation as a spot starter or to provide long relief. Duckworth, Redding and Mike Gallo will also see action from the pen.
The players Garner will look to for help off the bench will be Lamb, Palmeiro, Vizcaino, Taveras, Lane, infielder Eric Bruntlett and catcher Raul Chavez. Lamb proved to be a clutch hitter off the pine last season, while Vizcaino is a quiet leader. He can sub anywhere and did an excellent job of doing it in 2004 when Everett was hurt. Chavez served as Oswalt's personal catcher in his first full season in the majors, and Oswalt benefited from Chavez enough to become the only 20-game winner in the NL. Because Oswalt trusts Chavez so much, the back-up catcher has a sure spot with the team. Lane, meanwhile, could get a chance to start since he has the ability to hit homers and produce a modest amount of RBI.
Houston has regressed from 2004 and has a tough chance making any serious run at winning the NL Central this season. Despite the Cubs losing sluggers Sammy Sosa and Moises Alou, the Astros and Chicago could wind out battling for second place in the division behind St. Louis, and possibly a Wild Card berth. If Clemens repeats his Cy Young performance, young players have breakout years and Berkman is effective after his injury, the Astros have a solid shot at winning the Wild Card and making a race of the division. The team will also rely on the arm strength of Clemens, Oswalt and Pettitte. If not, the club is going to be battling the Cincinnati Reds for third place and booking early tee times. Over the last 13 years, the Astros have four division titles, a wild card, and one season below .500. This season could be No. 2 with a losing mark.