In this era of sweeping organizational change and constant re-evaluation, the Houston Astros have become a sign of the times in their quest to restore a franchise that has seen better days.
It wasn't that long ago when the Astros were the model of consistency among the National League Central crop, placing first or second in the division nine times in a 10-year span from 1997-2006 and making six playoff appearances and one World Series trip during that successful stretch. However, financial problems and a glaring neglect of the minor-league system have led to a sizeable fall from grace, with Houston having compiled a humbling 233-252 overall record over the past three seasons.
Last year's fifth-place finish in the NL Central and 30-44 mark after the All- Star break -- the third-worst in the Senior Circuit over the second half -- caused the Astros to switch gears once again. Manager Cecil Cooper was let go in late September and eventually replaced by Brad Mills, who brings a winning pedigree as the former bench coach of two Boston Red Sox teams that captured world titles in 2004 and 2007.
Plenty of key players were shown the door as well following last season's 74-88 disappointment, with All-Star shortstop Miguel Tejada, closer Jose Valverde and well-paid relievers LaTroy Hawkins and Doug Brocail headlining a roster purge that is expected to slash the team payroll by nearly $15 million.
General manager Ed Wade did have some money to spend in the offseason, however, handing out a three-year, $15 million contract to reliever Brandon Lyon to presumably serve as the new closer and signing ex-Phillies Brett Myers and Pedro Felix to one-year deals to repair holes in both the starting rotation and third base.
All three newcomers will be asked to play important roles for a Houston squad that hasn't yet completely committed to a full-scale rebuilding mode. While right fielder Hunter Pence and starting pitcher Wandy Rodriguez -- two products of a farm system that's finally begun to develop talent after years of failure -- have emerged as high-level players now in the prime of their careers, the Astros will be again relying heavily on veterans such as left fielder Carlos Lee, first baseman Lance Berkman and ace right-hander Roy Oswalt to lead what the team hopes is a quick transition back to respectibility.
Oswalt is coming off an injury-plagued season in which he produced just eight victories and a career-high earned run average, though, while the 34-year-old Berkman missed nearly the entire spring after undergoing arthroscopic knee surgery.
Below we take a capsule look at the 2010 edition of the Houston Astros, with a personnel evaluation and prognosis included therein:
(74-88) - Fifth Place (NL Central)
Key Offseason additions
3B Pedro Feliz, SP Brett Myers, RP Brandon Lyon, OF Cory Sullivan, RP Matt Lindstrom
Key Offseason subtractions
SS Miguel Tejada, SP Mike Hampton, RP Jose Valverde, C Chris Coste, OF Darin Erstad, RP LaTroy Hawkins, RP Doug Brocail
There's question marks abound in a Houston infield that will have two new starters on the left side and received a mediocre 2009 season out of second baseman Kazuo Matsui. Even Berkman (25 HR, 80 RBI), one of the game's most consistent run-producers over the past decade, has become somewhat of a concern due to his health issues. The five-time All-Star was limited to 136 games a year ago because of calf and back problems, while his .274 average was the switch-hitter's lowest since his rookie campaign of 1999. Still a dangerous No. 3 hitter, the Astros need him to be at or near full strength if they hope to contend.
Feliz's (.266, 12 HR) power numbers have also declined since matching a career high with 22 homers with the Giants in 2006, but the soon-to-be 35-year-old did knock in 82 runs for a strong Philadelphia offense last year. He's also an excellent defender who should provide an overall upgrade over journeyman Geoff Blum, the team's 2009 regular at the hot corner who'll be pushed into a bench role.
The Astros also feel they've improved their defense at shortstop with the insertion of rookie Tommy Manzella, who offers considerably more range than the aging Tejada in the field. The Tulane product will be hard-pressed to match his predecessor's offense, however, as he's just a career .268 hitter with 21 homers over five minor-league seasons.
Houston will be going young as well at the catcher position, where 26-year-old J.R. Towles appears to have won the job with an outstanding spring. He'll have to remain playing well to keep it, though, with 2008 first-round draft pick Jason Castro waiting in the wings as the organization's No. 1 prospect.
Matsui (9 HR, 46 RBI, 19 SB), one of Wade's first signings upon becoming the Astros' GM after the 2007 season, will be aiming to rebound after posting a .250 average that was 43 points lower than the previous year. The Japanese import still can be an asset near the top of the order due to his speed and ability to put the ball in play.
The strongest area on the roster, the Astros' outfield possesses a terrific middle-of-the-order bat in Lee, an developing all-around star in the athletic Pence and a potential game-changing leadoff hitter in improving center fielder Michael Bourn.
Lee (.300, 26 HR, 102 RBI) has driven in 99 runs or more in seven consecutive seasons and reached the .300 mark for the fourth straight year as Houston's cleanup hitter. And unlike Berkman, the 33-year-old has yet to experience a noticeable dip in production.
Pence (.282, 25 HR, 72 RBI, 14 SB) earned a first career All-Star nod in 2009 and continued to make strides towards being a more consistent hitter in his third major-league season. The five-tool talent doesn't need much more polishing on the defensive end, as he's a Gold Glove-caliber right fielder with an outstanding arm and tied for the NL lead with 16 outfield assists last year.
Bourn (3 HR, 35 RBI) did receive a Gold Glove for his work in the field in 2009 and was also able to take his game up a notch offensively, raising his average from .229 to .285 and topping the NL with 61 stolen bases. The fleet- flooted Houston native added 12 triples while displaying better plate discipline, although he did strike out 140 times on the year.
Suspect starting pitching was critical to Houston's dip from 86 wins in 2008 to 74 last season, with the club's rotation members combining for the third- worst earned run average (4.79) in the NL. Bounce-back and injury-free performances out of Oswalt and Myers, a consistent winner for the Phillies a few years back, would go a long way towards bettering that number, as would signs of progress out of some of the youngsters expected to compose the back end.
After registering at least 14 victories in each of the previous five seasons, Oswalt slipped to an 8-6 record with a rather ordinary 4.12 ERA while dealing with an assortment of ailments in 2009. The two-time 20-game winner did look both sharp and fresh in his spring assignments, though, lending hope for a turnaround year.
Rodriguez helped combat Oswalt's down year with a breakthrough 2009 in which the diminutive left-hander delivered personal bests in wins, ERA (3.02) and strikeouts (193). The underrated 31-year-old's 14-12 mark was somewhat misleading, as he produced a quality start in 23 of his 33 outings and was often plagued by poor run support.
Wade is hopeful Myers (4-3, 4.84) will be able to regain the form that won him 50 games for the Phillies from 2003-06 and solidify the No. 3 spot in the rotation. The competitive right-hander made just 10 starts and pitched a total of 70 innings last year, missing more than three months due to midseason hip surgery, but is still just 29 years old and should be highly motivated after inking an incentive-laden deal in January.
The Astros are counting on young righties Bud Norris (6-3, 4.53) and Felipe Paulino (3-11, 6.27) to come of age as the projected fourth and fifth starters. The 25-year-old Norris is eager to build on a strong finish to his rookie year, when he went 3-0 with a 1.57 ERA in four September starts. Paulino has flashed ace stuff at times at the major league level, but has often been held back by a lack of command and consistency.
Houston did re-sign veteran Brian Moehler over the winter as a fall-back plan, although the crafty 38-year-old's 8-12 record and 5.47 ERA last season suggests there's not much left in the tank.
After deeming Valverde, who signed a two-year, $14 million pact with Detroit in January, too expensive to retain, the Astros went out and gave $5 million a year to Lyon (6-5, 2.86, 3 SV) to handle ninth-inning duties. Although he put together a strong 2009 season in a setup capacity with the Tigers, it may have been a risky investment on a pitcher with a history of arm problems who struggled as a closer in Arizona a few years back.
Lyon isn't guaranteed the fireman's role, however, with the team's offseason acquisition of fire-baller Matt Lindstrom (2-1, 5.89) from Florida. The 30- year-old saved 15 contests for the Marlins last season, and with a fastball that's been clocked in triple-digits, has the stuff and mentality to finish out games. He's also been plagued in the past by wildness and a tendency to give up home runs, however.
Lefty specialist Tim Byrdak (1-2, 3.23) and righty Jeff Fulchino (6-4, 3.40) return to their support roles and are both coming off effective seasons, and the Astros are intrigued by the potential of 25-year-old Sammy Gervacio (1-1, 2.14), a hard-throwing Dominican who fanned 25 batters in 21 innings after being promoted from the minors last August.
Also back is versatile veteran Chris Sampson (4-2, 5.04, 3 SV), a former starter who's slated to work in long and middle relief, and Alberto Arias (2-1, 3.35), another promising righty who'll likely begin the season on the disabled list with shoulder woes.
Mills will have a wealth of proven reserve options at his disposal in his debut season. Blum (.247, 10 HR, 49 RBI) is an 11-year vet who can play all over the infield and an accomplished pinch-hitter who's best known for hitting a game-winning homer off the bench against the Astros in Game 3 of the 2005 World Series, while then with the Chicago White Sox. Fourth outfielder Jason Michaels (.237, 4 HR, 16 RBI) also has extensive pinch-hitting experience from the right side and owns a career .285 average against left-handers, while infielder Jeff Keppinger (.256, 7 HR, 29 RBI) hit .314 versus southpaws last season and provides a nice insurance policy in case Manzella isn't up to the task.
Cory Sullivan (.250, 2 HR, 15 RBI with the Mets), a one-time starting center fielder in Colorado who came to camp on a non-roster invite, stands a good chance of sticking as a backup outfielder and lefty bat off the bench, with defensive specialist Humberto Quintero (.236, 4 HR, 14 RBI) rounding out the reserve corps as the No. 2 catcher.
Although the Astros haven't stressed patience in the past, ownership is going to have to grin and bear it in what is clearly a year of transition for a team with a rookie manager and several young players inserted in key spots. There are enough parts in place for Houston to be competitive in a division that contains plenty of other clubs with their share of question marks, but a lack of quality starting pitching depth and a suspect bullpen could prove to be obstacles too difficult to overcome.