By Shawn Clarke, MLB Analyst (Sports Network)
2003 FINISH (87-75) - Second Place (NL Central)
KEY OFFSEASON ADDITIONS: RP - Brandon Backe, SP - Roger Clemens, SP/RP - Brandon Duckworth, OF - Orlando Palmeiro, SP - Andy Pettitte, RP - Dave Veres
KEY OFFSEASON SUBTRACTIONS: 3B - Geoff Blum, OF - Orlando Merced, SP - Ron Villone, RP - Billy Wagner, RP - Rick White
PROJECTED LINEUP: Craig Biggio (CF), Morgan Ensberg (3B), Jeff Bagwell (1B), Jeff Kent (2B), Lance Berkman (LF), Richard Hidalgo (RF), Brad Ausmus (C), Adam Everett (SS)
PROJECTED ROTATION: Roy Oswalt (RHP), Andy Pettitte (LHP), Roger Clemens (RHP), Wade Miller (RHP), Tim Redding (RHP)
PROJECTED CLOSER: Octavio Dotel (RHP)
MANAGER: Jimy Williams
Houston, you have no problem!
The Astros have revamped their pitching staff and the team has a championship attitude heading into the 2004 campaign. Houston will certainly push the defending NL Central champion Chicago Cubs with the acquisitions of starting pitchers Andy Pettitte and Roger Clemens.
Houston finished just one game behind the Cubs last year and had no chance in catching the World Series champion Florida Marlins for the wild card spot. The Astros and Cubs again will fight down to the wire, and both will exceed the 90-win mark. The Astros will also have to keep an eye out for the St. Louis Cardinals.
Back to the mound, however, Pettitte and Clemens will surely elevate the confidence and work ethic of the team since the former Yankees are proven winners. Pettitte, a lefthander, will adjust to the National League and cause major problems for NL hitters, while Clemens, who put off retirement, instills fear when his name is mentioned.
Clemens' gritty approach will go hand-in-hand with general manager Gerry Hunsicker's goal to reach the Fall Classic. Houston, which has struggled miserably in the postseason and hasn't won a playoff series in its 42-year history, has an outstanding opportunity in 2004 to change the record books.
The Astros have a veteran infield that will only get better with solid pitching. Led by second baseman Jeff Kent and first baseman Jeff Bagwell, the Astros have arguably one of the best right sides of the infield in the National League.
Kent finished with a .297 batting average with 22 homers and 93 RBI last season, while Bagwell muscled 39 home runs and 100 runs batted in. Both players are expected to put up the same or even better numbers in 2004.
Since third baseman Geoff Blum was acquired by Tampa Bay in the offseason, Morgan Ensberg will have to shoulder the load at the hot corner. He is coming a productive season with 25 homers and 60 RBI in 127 games. This season, his numbers will rise because he will see action every day.
Speedy shortstop Adam Everett, who does not provide much power, will be a cog in the team's run producing category. He produced a .320 on-base percentage last season and knocked in 51 runs.
A two-time Gold Glove winner, catcher Brad Ausmus has played five seasons with the Astros and is the only Gold Glove catcher in franchise history. He finished second among major league catchers with a .997 fielding percentage and also threw out 37-of-105 base stealers for a 35.2 percent clip. Ausmus batted .229 last season with four homers and 47 RBI.
Houston isn't expecting through the roof numbers from Ausmus, but an improved 2004 at the plate couldn't hurt either.
Leftfielder Lance Berkman is the man in the Houston outfield and has established himself as one of the best sluggers in the game. Berkman recorded a .288 batting average with 25 home runs and 93 RBI. He missed just nine games last season, proving his longevity will be the key to his success in 2004.
The Astros have another slugger opposite of Berkman in rightfielder Richard Hidalgo. Hidalgo, a potential Gold Glove candidate, hit .309 with 28 homers and 88 RBI last season. The Venezuelan finished as the Astros' leading hitter and ranked second on the club with a career-high 43 doubles. Hidalgo also led the majors with 22 outfield assists.
Meanwhile, veteran Craig Biggio will roam center field once again for the front-running Astros. Biggio, who switched from the infield last season, is coming off consecutive off years. Whether it was the switch to the outfield or his 38-year-old body asking for a rest, Biggio could be approaching the end of his career. He's signed through 2004, but unless he takes a turn for the better this season, it's unlikely the team will exercise its option for 2005.
Biggio hit .264 with 15 home runs and 62 RBI last season. He will be pushed by promising youngster Jason Lane, who made the team as a backup outfielder.
Also, the Astros signed outfielder Orlando Palmeiro to a one-year contract this offseason. Palmeiro, a nine-year veteran, posted career-highs last season with three homers, 33 RBI and 141 games played for the St. Louis Cardinals. He batted .271 and led the team with 13 pinch hits.
Other than the signing of Nolan Ryan on November 19, 1979, January 12, 2004 could prove to be one of the biggest days in the history of the Houston Astros. That's the day Clemens was signed to a one-year, $5 million contract. As baseball's only six-time Cy Young Award winner, Clemens joins friend and fellow Houston native Pettitte in the rotation.
Clemens has over 300 career wins and Pettitte has won at least 12 games in each of his nine seasons. Last year, Pettitte won over 20 games for the second time in his career. The duo have a combined postseason record of 21-14 with 56 starts and 342 1/3 innings pitched. Pettitte also has four World Series rings -- two more than the Rocket.
Last season's numbers indicate there was little reason for Clemens to retire. He is still an effective pitcher, even at 41. He went 17-9 with a 3.91 ERA last year for the Yankees. Now he enters the 2004 season only 37 strikeouts behind Steve Carlton for second on the career list.
Pettitte, who signed a three-year deal worth $31.5 million, is coming off another stellar year with the Yankees as he went 21-8 with a 4.02 ERA. He won his final four starts of the season and went 8-1 over his last nine. He is also tied with John Smoltz for the most wins in postseason history with 13.
Houston, however, will hand the ball to Roy Oswalt on opening day. Oswalt, who grew up watching Clemens, finished last season just 10-5 with a 2.97 ERA despite being hampered by a nagging hamstring injury that landed him on the disabled list on three separate occasions.
Oswalt still managed to fight through pain and finish the season with a strong September, going 4-0 in the season's final month. The righthander was then forced to undergo surgery following the conclusion of the season to fix the problem.
Entering his fourth major league season, Oswalt owns a career mark of 43-17 with a 2.92 ERA. He went 14-3 in just 20 starts during his rookie campaign in 2001, then won 19 games -- to just nine losses -- in 2002.
Wade Miller is only two years removed from receiving the opening day nod, while Tim Redding could be the best No. 5 starter in the league. Miller again was the workhorse of the Astros' staff in 2003, making the most starts (33) and piling up a team-high 187.1 innings. Miller, who has been hampered with elbow problems, can be among the top pitchers in the league if he puts together an injury-free season.
Redding can be one of the top pitchers in the league and if he reaches that potential, the Astros would have one of the best starting trios in baseball. Redding was the team's most consistent starter from beginning to end last year and his maturity will take him even further.
Houston is all smiles this season with four potential 20-game winners and veteran leadership in the rotation.
Although the bullpen was the club's strength in 2003, it is suspect this season since hard-throwing closer Billy Wagner was dealt to the Philadelphia Phillies. Wagner had a franchise-record 44 saves last year, but now the Astros will rely on Octavio Dotel to shut the door in the late innings.
Dotel has the makeup to be a successful closer and the tools to go with it. He did record 16 saves in 2000 when Wagner missed the final 3 1/2 months with a partially torn flexor tendon.
His numbers as a setup man were comparable with the league's top closers, but Dotel hasn't closed on a regular basis in four years. He went 6-4 last season with a 3.62 ERA and four saves in 76 appearances as Wagner's setup man.
Brad Lidge, a righthander, will be the main setup man in a role he has not had before.
Jeriome Robertson, who won 15 games as a rookie despite a 5.10 ERA, will be put in the bullpen in a long relief role and may see some spot starting duties if an injury occurs. Ricky Stone, a 29-year-old righthander, will also be in long relief.
The Astros also have pitcher Dan Miceli in the fold. Miceli ended the 2003 campaign with the Astros after being acquired from the New York Yankees in late July for cash considerations. In 57 combined games in 2003, Miceli posted a 2-4 record with a 3.20 ERA.
Dave Veres, who spent last season with the Cubs, will also serve as a righthanded setup man as will Brandon Backe.
Houston added some coaching help for this year's hurlers as Hall of Famer Nolan Ryan joined the club in the offseason. will serve in a variety of roles in his new job with the Astros, including assisting the club's major league baseball operations staff with its major and minor league player development programs.
Lane could also be used as a first baseman, but he will be used more in pinch- hitting roles. He is a strong, powerful hitter who has the potential to hit 40 homers in a full season. Lane, a future starter, will get occasional playing time as a backup for Hidalgo, but likely will get most of his starts in center field when Biggio rests.
Palmiero also will bolster the bench as well as utility infielder Jose Vizcaino. Vizcaino batted .249 with three homers and 26 RBI in 91 games for the Astros in 2003, including 32 starts. He missed 49 games with a broken left ulna.
A veteran of 15 major league seasons, the 35-year-old Vizcaino has a career average of .272 with 30 home runs and 416 RBI. Infielder John Valentin was signed to a minor league contract, but did not play in the majors last year. He spent the 2002 campaign with the New York Mets where he hit .240 with three homers and 30 RBI.
Raul Chavez, who has played just 53 games since starting his major league career in 1996, will serve as the backup for Ausmus behind the plate.
Solidarity and a cohesive pitching rotation will propel the Astros in 2004. In order to get over its playoff hangover, Houston certainly started on the right foot with the acquisitions of Pettitte and Clemens. The Astros have posted a dismal 2-12 record in 14 postseason games since the 1997 campaign, including a pair of sweeps by powerhouse Atlanta in '97 and '01. But with the help on the mound and a veteran squad behind them, the Astros are on the verge of exorcising their playoff demons. Anything less than a World Series berth will be considered a waste for this year's Astros.