Since moving to the new ballpark the Astros have never lost an opening series. They’ve had losing seasons (2000) and missed the playoffs (2002, 2003, 2006), but never have they been 0-3 to start the season. Of course, they’ve never won the world series either, so this is new turf they tread on this year.
The Good News: The positives I saw in this opening series against the Pirates are that Oswalt is still Oswalt, Pettitte won’t be missed as Jennings is a legit #2. Scott and Lane are hitting well and Burke is showing that his miserable spring training batting stats won’t carry over into the regular season. The Astros made the right decision with giving Rick White a spot in the bullpen–he will be this year’s Russ Springer.
Here are the negatives: The offense is still anemic and can’t score more than 2 or 3 runs. They have got to do better than that to win the NL Central. Berkman and Lee will come around, but will Ensberg? The Astros need Mo’s bat to be closer to 2005 than 2006 if they are to succeed.
Williams had problems getting out of the 4th inning, but maybe that was due to excess adrenalin of his first start for his hometown team. Lidge 2006 returned on opening day and infected Qualls and Wheeler too. Uncharacteristic errors by Adam Everett and Burke’s lack of experience in the outfield highlighted the Astros defensive woes.
Question marks remain and will need to be answered if the Astros are to reclaim the NL Central crown from the Cardinals. Sampson looked good in relief, but how will he do in his first start? Wandy, oh Wandy…will you get beat up by the Cardinals tonight? Were the blown leads by the bullpen a fluke and they all just got out their bad outings early? When will Trever Miller get in a game? Can Biggio get his 3000th hit by the middle of June and therefore be relegated to the bench? Will Burke’s bat offset his defense in centerfield or will we be rueing the Taveras trade? Will Brandon Backe be able to defy common wisdom and rejoin the club after the all star break–cutting short the recovery time from the traditional 12-18 months to a mere nine? Will Roger Clemens make a dramatic entrance on his white horse in June?
A wee bit of satisfaction: The Jennings trade might work out better for the Astros than the Rockies after all. I know, I know, it’s only been 3 games and there are 159 more to go–but, it is interesting to see that Taylor Buchholz got lit up in relief and has an ERA of 27 in 2/3 innings pitched. Willy T. has only 1 hit in 10 plate appearances and is batting .111. Jason Hirsh will make his Rockies debut against Greg Maddox and the Padres tonight. Andy Pettitte lasted only 4 innings in his Yankee return and gave up 4 runs, 2 earned for an ERA of 4.50. Seems like Andy’s back spasms from spring training continue to trouble him as he only threw 86 pitches. The Astros may have made the right decision by not re-signing Pettitte after all.
Minor Leagues Watch: I subscribed to the Round Rock Express’ live streaming so I can keep an eye on what’s going on 2 hours north of Houston. Pence didn’t get a hit in their season opener but he did walk twice and stole a base. The Express beat the Iowa Cubs 6-2 with non-roster invitee Stephen Randolph getting the win in relief. Paul Estrada looked sharp as he shut down the Baby Cubbies. Lefty Phillip Barzilla got the hold for his 2 scoreless innings. Nieve lasted only 4 innings and has an ERA of 2.25. Bruntlett went hitless, but Eric Munson and Brooks Conrad both homered. Munson also had a single and a double that was just an inch shy of being called a home run.
Less than two weeks till Opening Day and the Astros are trimming their roster. Gone after today’s game are pitchers Miguel Asencio, Paul Estrada and Scott Sauerbeck along with the switch-hitting infielder Brooks Conrad and catcher Lou Santangelo. Asencio, Estrada and Conrad were optioned to AAA Round Rock while Sauerbeck and Santangelo were reassigned to the minor league camp. The big league roster now stands at 35 (30 from the 40 man roster and 5 non-roster invitees)
As we approach 2 April, it looks like Jason Lane will make the opening day roster while Richard Hidalgo, who had high hopes of making it back to the bigs won’t. The Astros are hoping Hidalgo accepts a minor league assignment at Class AAA Round Rock. That would give Richard a chance to be called up should there be an injury or if Lane or Scott falter.
Lane’s strong showing this spring poses a dilemma for the Astros if they choose to carry 12 pitchers as is their wont–they will have to cut either Eric Bruntlett or Orlando Palmeiro from the 25 man roster. Bruntlett, on the surface, seems to be the easy decision as Palmeiro is in his final year of a 2 year contract. While Bruntlett does have an option left, the Astros would have to try to get him through waivers to reassign him to Round Rock due to the time he’s spent as a pro.
Due to Bruntlett’s versatility, (he can play 4 of 5 infield positions and all 3 outfield positions) his might be the greater loss. While cutting Palmeiro would mean having to pay him nearly $1 million, he is an older pinch hitter whose left handed bat can be replaced if Eric Munson makes the team as the back up catcher. Munson, one of the 5 non-roster invitees still in camp, has quietly been having a very nice spring. In 17 games, he is batting .345 with an on base percentage of .424 and a .517 slugging percentage.
With Andy Pettitte’s departure, Brad Ausmus’ plate appearances should be greatly reduced, giving the backup catcher a lot more playing time. In 2006, Ausmus had 439 at bats. If Munson or Quintero get another 100-150 at bats, the Astros offense would be in much better shape. Out of the duo of Munson and Quintero (.179 AVG in 15 games), Munson has more power and is a lefty while Humberto Quintero is the stronger defensive catcher.
Although it would hurt to lose Palmeiro’s veteran leadership and contact pinch hitting ability, it might be in the Astros best long term interests to release him and make room for Eric Bruntlett on the 25 man roster.
The 2007 Opening Day starter will be Roy Oswalt for the 3rd year in a row. That may be the only comforting thought for Astros fans as they eagerly await April 2nd. Jason Jennings will be solid as Roy O’s Second. Woody Williams will provide a stabilizing veteran influence in the 3 spot. It’s the spots after that that are likely to give me conniption fits.
I took a peek at the Astros Official Depth Chart earlier today. It lists Wandy Rodriguez and Matt Albers in the 4 and 5 spots at Pitcher. Now, I have nothing against Matt Albers being listed as one of the most likely starters–his placement as the #5 starter is just fine by me.
What made me explode–to the point that I choked on my cup of coffee and had some of it land on my crisp, clean shirt–was seeing Wandy penciled in at #4 and NO MENTION OF CHRIS SAMPSON!!
What is it going to take for the Astros Brass from Tim Purpura and Tal Smith down to Phil Garner to realize that Chris Sampson is a better pitcher than Wandy and deserves the starting spot more?
I would love someone to explain to me this love-affair that Garner (and to be fair, other managers too) has with a lefty in the starting rotation…last I heard, there are more right-handed hitters in MLB than left-handed ones…so, wouldn’t it make more sense to stack your starting rotation with right-handed pitchers? You know, the ones that have better stats against the majority of the hitters in MLB?
Besides, it’s not like Wandy Rodriguez is the second coming of The Big Unit in his prime. He is just the latest "Jeroime Robertson" and like Robertson, needs to move on out…at this point in time, I don’t even care if the Astros don’t get anything in return for him.
If a southpaw is a must, then I hope the Astros seriously consider giving that starting rotation slot to either Phillip Barzilla or Mark McLemore, both of whom started for The Round Rock Express in 2006 and posted very respectable ERAs and WHIP. Granted, McLemore is more suited to the bullpen as the 2nd lefty, but, hey, at least give the man a fair shot in spring training.
I shall pray every night until the end of spring training that Phil Garner comes to his senses and replaces Wandy with Sampson, Barzilla or McLemore.
As promised, here is my ideal, yet realistic 2007 Astros roster that would have a good shot at winning the NL Central and doing well in the playoffs.
The Keepers: These players are signed through the 2007 season:
Lance Berkman at $14.5 million, Roy Oswalt at $13 million, Brad Ausmus at $3.5 million, Trever Miller at $1.3 million, Orlando Palmeiro at $950,000.
I would also bring back the following players still under club control for one year–Brad Lidge at $4.25 million, Adam Everett at $2.25 million, Mike Lamb at $2.25 million, Dan Wheeler at $1.5 million, Russ Springer at $1 million, Willy Taveras at $500,000, Chad Qualls at $400,000, Eric Bruntlett for $375,000, Eric Munson for $327,000, Chris Burke at $400,000, Fernando Nieve for $327,000, Joe Borkowski for $327,000 Chris Sampson for $335,000, Luke Scott for $350,000. Adding in Jeff Bagwell’s $7 million buy-out, the Astros have a little over $53.5 million committed.
The free agents: I would sign Andy Pettitte to a 2 year contract for around $16 million, Craig Biggio for 1 year at $4.5 million, Aubrey Huff for 2 years, $14 million, Alfonso Soriano for 5 years, $65 million, Woody Williams for 2 years at $9 million bringing the estimated payroll to just over $90.5 million. Roger Clemens for one more half season would add $13 million to the final payroll. If Clemens does rejoin the club mid-season, I’d send either Sampson or Nieve to AAA. If I couldn’t sign Soriano, I’d take Carlos Lee at 5 years, $60 million.
Traded: Lane ($450,000), Ensberg ($3.8 million) and Buchholz ($327,000) for a veteran starter.
Back To The Minors: In my opinion, based on what I saw of them during the season, I would keep Wandy Rodriguez, Jason Hirsh, and Matt Albers in Round Rock for most of the 2007 season barring emergency call ups.
On The DL: Backe should be spending the entire season on the DL and therefore, his salary should be paid from the injury-insurance policy.
My Opening Day 2007 Roster:
Taveras – CF
Sorianno – LF
Berkman – 1B
Scott – RF
Huff – 3B
Biggio – 2B
Everett – SS
Ausmus – C
Oswalt – SP
Rotation: Pettitte, Veteran Starter via trade, Williams, Sampson (if Clemens rejoins mid-season, Sampson goes to bullpen or AAA)
Bench: Palmeiro, Lamb, Bruntlett, Burke, Munson
Bullpen: Lidge (Closer), Wheeler (Setup), Qualls (7th inning), Miller (Lefty specialist), Springer (6th inning) Nieve and Borkowski (long relief)