On Saturday, I started the Climbing Out of the Canyon series with Part 1, which previewed the 2007 Cardinals. Continuing on down the ’06 final standings, I’m ready for Part 2 and the Houston Astros.
Phil Garner’s squad was almost able to capitalize on St. Louis’ late-season collapse–but close only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades. They finished at 82-80, 1.5 games out of the division lead, and failed to make the playoffs. A look at their tumultuous offseason, according to the ESPN Hot Stove Index:
ADD: Carlos Lee, OF; Mark Loretta, IF; Woody Williams, SP; Jason Jennings, SP; Miguel Asencio, SP
DROP: Aubrey Huff, CI/OF; Andy Pettitte, SP; Russ Springer, RP; Taylor Buchholz, SP; Jason Hirsh, SP; Willy Taveras, CF
They have one remaining free agent. They call him Rocket. Here’s a blurb from Yahoo! Sports about him:
Clemens’ agent Randy Hendricks said it’s “greater than 50-50″ that his client will pitch again in 2007, the New York Daily News reports. Hendricks also said that it’s most likely that Clemens will pitch a shortened season again, just as he did for Houston last year. “I don’t think any team is really ahead,” Hendricks said. “Obviously, Houston has the home-field advantage.” The Red Sox and Yankees are also expected to have significant interest in bringing back the 44-year-old.
That was January 11th. Since then, it appears as if the Yankees may have taken the lead in the Clemens sweepstakes. This could prove to be the move that makes or breaks the Astros’ off-season.
The $100 million man Carlos Lee will be a boost to the offense, providing another capable bat in the order behind Lance Berkman, but Houston’s rotation will be the deciding factor in ’07. Losing two All-Star pitchers in addition to two top prospects would be devastating. Roy Oswalt still anchors the staff, but he’s followed by the mediocre Jason Jennings and the aging Woody Williams. Wandy Rodriguez is penciled into the fourth slot, and there’s a derby for #5.
Bringing back Clemens, even for a half season, would be a dramatic boost. Obviously adding a Hall of Fame starter would extend the rotation–but it also would alleviate some of the stress on the bullpen. Brad Lidge is the closer heading into Spring Training despite a rocky 2006 campaign. Dan Wheeler and Chad Qualls are possible replacements. Trever Miller is the only lefty listed on the roster–good thing Houston isn’t in the AL East.
The lineup Garner can run out should be able to produce:
Richard Hidalgo, Jason Lane and Mike Lamb provide depth in the outfield. Mark Loretta is an excellent reserve infielder. Ausmus and Everett won’t hit much, but they’re Gold Glove defenders. If Ensberg performs, the middle of the lineup is powerful. Chris Burke isn’t as fast as Taveras, but he should field his position well. He won’t steal 60 bases, but 25 or 30 wouldn’t be unrealistic.
It comes down to whether the Astros can win in April and May. If they’re leading the division when the calendar turns to June, they might be a more enticing destination for Clemens. If they’re not, Tim Purpura has to pray that Jennings throws like he did in 2006 (when his ERA was more than a run lower than his career numbers) and that Williams contributes 150 innings. The Astros are more well-rounded than most of the teams in the NL Central, and while they have a decent offense and a good staff, they can’t afford to lag in one area or the other. Similarly to the Cardinals, this rotation could turn into the ace and a bunch of jobbers in no time.
With the Rocket: The Astros improve on their 82-win season. Without him? They’re just another dog in the fight. By my estimates, our Pirates are still alive and kicking.