Pitching likely to tell tale for Astros

Pitching likely to tell tale for Astros

KISSIMMEE, Fla.---The basic equation has changed with the Houston Astros this spring.

In their most successful recent seasons, the Astros have generally been solid in pitching and questionable in scoring runs. This year, going in, the offense has been shored up, but there are questions about the pitching.

One way or another, the Astros will still be good. This has quietly become one of the most successful franchises in baseball. The Astros have qualified for the postseason in six of the last 10 years, have finished below second only once in that stretch, and, of course, reached their first World Series in 2005.

In a National League Central Division that seems to define competitive balance, they clearly project contender status. But to get back to the postseason, 2007 might require a different path than the one they have taken in the past.

On the plus side, they have added a proven run-producer in outfielder Carlos Lee and very worthy veteran, infielder Mark Loretta, in a utility role. Lee offers protection in the lineup for Lance Berkman, and with Minute Maid Park's cozy left-field dimensions, Lee's production should only get better. Loretta may be over-qualified for a backup role, but that beats the alternative of trying to make an everyday player out of somebody who should be coming off the bench.

"The offense should be better," manager Phil Garner said Saturday as the Astros pitchers and catchers worked out at Osceola County Stadium. "And the reason you can make a fair statement that the offense should probably be better is that we've added a guy like Carlos Lee, who is a proven product.

"We'll put Chris Burke in center field, and he's probably going to be a better offensive player than Willy [Taveras] was. He won't steal the bases, but he's potentially more of an offensive threat; will hit more doubles, more home runs, will drive in more runs. So we've probably improved our offense there.

"And we've improved our bench. We've added Loretta, and that's a big improvement."

On the starting pitching side, the Astros have essentially replaced Andy Pettitte with Jason Jennings, which does not seem like a considerable net loss. They still have one of the game's best in Roy Oswalt atop the rotation and they have added a solid veteran in Woody Williams.

But Roger Clemens remains in his annual semi-retirement and has publicly placed his chances of returning at 20 percent. Even if he decides to pitch again, he may decide to pitch again for one of his other suitors, the Yankees or the Red Sox. Another one-half season of brilliance from the Rocket is a commodity that can be hoped for but not counted upon by the Astros at this juncture. Plus, Brandon Backe had Tommy John elbow ligament replacement surgery, and the very earliest he will return is September.

So the Astros need to fill the bottom 40 percent of the rotation. Lefty Wandy Rodriguez is probably the leading candidate for the fourth spot, based on an edge in experience. The other rotation candidates include Matt Albers, Chris Sampson, Brian Moehler, Fernando Nieve and Dave Borkowski. The majority of those are pitchers with much more potential than experience. The middle relief spots require filling as well.

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"We've helped ourselves a little bit, but we're still going to have to rely on some of our kids to step up and come through," Garner says. "What I prefer to say is that we just don't know pitching-wise. I like our arms, we've got some good young arms and we've got some kids who throw the ball well and look like they can throw the ball over the plate and do very well.

"Just ask Detroit about two young arms. They did a great job for them last year and we could be in the same boat this year. But that's just part of the unknown. You think that they'll do well and you feel very confident, but until we get into the season and see what happens, you just don't know."

There also remains the question of whether closer Brad Lidge can regain his full measure of effectiveness. He's healthy, the Astros believe that his mechanics are once again in order, and his stuff is still impeccable, so the benefit of the doubt goes in his direction.

The question of the young pitchers capably filling the necessary spots is the central issue. Mountains don't have to be moved here. The St. Louis Cardinals were the eventual World Series champions last year, but they won the Central with just 83 victories. The division title will probably require more victories than that in 2007, but it probably won't require absolute dominance.

"I think that whoever plays well within the division is going to have a good shot at the pennant," Garner says. The Astros were 45-32 in the division in 2006, which was adequate. But that record included an inexplicable 5-10 against Cincinnati. "The year before we were like 11-4 against Cincinnati, so that's where the big difference was. Cincinnati hurt us last year," Garner says.

This year, the Astros will be more likely to score more runs against the rest of the division and the rest of their opponents, too. The question is whether they will be able to find among their young arms enough capable pitching depth to blend with that improved offense into a division-winning combination.

Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.