The Astros had some major problems in their outfield last year. Jason Lane was the opening day right fielder but got sent to AAA in June for lack of production from a corner outfield position. Preston Wilson, the opening day left fielder took over at right while Chris Burke replaced him in left.
Wilson eventually lost his job to Luke Scott who got called up when 3rd baseman Morgan Ensberg went on the DL in July. Scott proceeded to tear the cover off the ball ending the season with a .336 average and 10 home runs. Aubrey Huff, acquired via trade from Tampa Bay, ended up being the everyday right fielder for the Astros.
On the last day of the season, Willy Taveras was the only opening day outfielder still standing, and even he had lost his job in center field to Chris Burke at one point during the season.
The off season saw Willy Taveras being traded to the Rockies in the deal that brought Jason Jennings home to Texas. Chris Burke, deserving of everyday playing time, had been deemed the starting center fielder. They brought in Richard Hidalgo to provide Lane and Scott some competition for the right field job and Hunter Pence got an invite to the big league camp to familiarize him with major league pitching.
After 9 spring training games, Jason Lane is hitting for a respectable .348 average, with an OPS of 1249. Hidalgo has a dismal average of .100 with only 2 hits in 20 at bats. Scott isn’t faring much better so far either, batting .214 in 14 at bats. Pence, on the other hand, is absolutely killing the ball. He’s batting .722 with an ungodly OPS of 2139. No that’s not a typo–it really is that high.
Since it’s only the 2nd week of spring training, things are likely to change some. I don’t know if Pence can keep up the torrid pace or if Scott and Hidalgo start heating it up. Lane certainly seems to be on a steady pace to make the club right now, but a slump could hurt his chances significantly.
Spring 2007, in many ways is a deja-vu of Spring 2005. The Astros went into 2005 stinging from the loss of the Carlos Beltran sweepstakes. They weren’t expected to have a winning record after having lost Beltran and Kent–two key cogs in the post-season success of 2004. In the first few months of the 2005 season, they certainly were proving the prognosticators right with a dismal 15-30 record towards the end of May. Lance Berkman was still recovering from off-season ACL surgery and Jeff Bagwell’s arthritic shoulder finally gave out on him. Luke Scott had already been sent packing to AAA in early May.
Only the stellar pitching performances from Oswalt, Clemens, and Pettitte and Morgan Ensberg’s bat kept the Astros from falling even further under the .500 mark. In the history of baseball, only one team had ever gone to the post-season after having been 15 games under the .500 mark during the season and that feat had last been accomplished 91 years prior. Accordingly, the Houston Chronicle printed a tombstone on the front page of the sports section on June 1st, declaring the 2005 Astros dead and buried.
The month of June, however, saw the return of Lance Berkman and Ensberg’s bat miraculously stayed hot. Jason Lane got into the act also and the big three kept on pitching like there was no tomorrow. The Astros sent four players to the All Star Game, three of them for the very first time. Brad Lidge earned the nickname "Lights Out" and suddenly the Astros were on the brink of doing something that only the 1914 Boston Braves had done–gone from a record of 15 games under .500 to the World Series.
2007 has brought its own question marks and similarities to 2005 with the Yankees winning the Andy Pettitte sweepstakes and the departure of Willy Taveras via trade. Although the offense is much improved with the additions of Carlos Lee in left field and Mark Loretta as a super sub in the infield, pitching remains a problem with no one knowing where the Rocket will land and just like 2005, the seemingly bare outfield is suddenly crowded. Hunter Pence has become the story of Spring Training 2007 just like Luke Scott in 2005.
The baseball pundits are once again forecasting doom and gloom for the Astros based on the loss of Pettitte and Clemens’ indecision. They claim Jennings isn’t a true #2 starter and the outfield of Lee, Burke and Scott will be among the worst defensively in the majors.
Can the Astros pull off another 2005 and surprise the prognosticators by making a return to the World Series? Stellar starting pitching from Oswalt, Jennings and Woody Williams will be key as will the performances from Morgan Ensberg and Brad Lidge. Both had disappointing seasons last year and both are expected to bounce back in 2007. Hunter Pence, should he make the club, could turn the Astros outfield upside down as he can play both center field and right field. Ensberg seems to thrive in odd-numbered years, so here’s hoping that Morgan Ensberg has another monster odd-year season and helps propel the Astros to a return to the Fall Classic.