Are the Houston Astros the worst team in baseball? No, not as long as the Pittsburgh Pirates and Washington Nationals still count as major league teams.
But when the biggest moves of your offseason are signing a domestic-violence-past pitcher whose Wikipedia entry has subtitles like “2008: Troubles Arise” and “2009: Injuries” and a closer who lost his job last year to Fernando Rodney and then turned around and couldn't win your closer's job this spring ... well, how long before those Texans report to training camp?
The glory days of the 2005 Astros — and their World Series carpet ride — are long past. Unfortunately, many of the players from that team are still around. Some of them will be on the field when the Astros open their 45th anniversary season Monday night at Minute Maid Park vs. the San Francisco Giants.
The Astros’ problems start with an old roster and end with a bloated payroll. Waco homeboy (and former Rice University star) Lance Berkman remains the increasingly tired face of the franchise, and his surgically repaired left knee might give him a season or more of good productivity. MIGHT with as much doubt's ever been used with the word.
Berkman starts the season on the disabled list. He’s a player on the decline, and the Astros don’t have anyone in the pipeline who can put up his kind of power numbers, unless Hunter Pence doubles in size in the next two years, which, for the record, we are not advocating. Watch for Berkman to carry the team for a month or six weeks and to miss huge chunks of the season because of injuries.
Pence, for his part, remains a good but not great baseball player. His decent slugging percentage, .472, was undermined last season by his mediocre on base percentage, .346. He has never lived up to the promise of his first season, and his numbers don’t justify his paycheck, which is also a problem with aging has-beens like Carlos Lee and never-weres like, shudder, Kaz Matsui.
And what did the Astros’ front office do to bolster this sagging team?
They brought in right hander Brett Myers, who gives up more home runs than a tee-ball tee and who infamously punched his wife Kim in the face on a Boston street corner several years ago. Then, there's the aforementioned closer who will not close, Brandon Lyon. Lyon ended last season with a 2.86 ERA mostly because he rarely saw the mound. The Astros also signed third basemen Pedro Feliz, about whom the less said, the better.
At least, free agent relief pitcher Matt Lindstrom can’t help but improve on his terrible 2009 season. Lindstrom won the closing job over Lyons, who was signed for $15 million over three years to be the closer.
Are there bright spots in the Astros’ filament? Sure. Left-handed pitcher Wandy Rodriguez may be 31 years old, but he dominated teams last season, proving that he can get his majestic curveball to break outside of the stifling humidity of Minute Maid Park. Now, Wandy's spring troubles just have to stay in Florida.
Center fielder Michael Bourn stole ton of bases last season (a National League-high 61), and he’s going to steal a ton of bases this season. If Bourn can develop a little discipline at the plate — and rely on somebody to drive him in — his speed might mean something in the standings this year.
What the Astros need in 2010 is a year to rebuild, but it’s not something the front office is giving them.
That’s good news in a recession. Unless you're a scalper. Major League Baseball tickets won't come much cheaper than they do on Crawford Street this season.