Astros' hopes may rest on rotation

Astros' hopes may rest on back end of rotation

KISSIMMEE, Fla. -- Even though the Astros have one of the higher payrolls in the Major Leagues, they still like to do things the old-fashioned way while building a team.

The Astros have always had a handful of high-priced superstars mixed in with a crop of homegrown talent that is relatively affordable, whether they're Major League minimum newbies or a few years from free agency and not yet breaking the bank.

The Astros spent a bunch of money over the winter, but the back end of the rotation will be up to a handful of pitchers who have yet to become household names. The Astros need Nos. 4 and 5 starters, and it's up to the candidates to pitch their way onto the Opening Day roster.

The candidates include non-roster invitee Brian Moehler, a right-hander with several years of experience as both a starter and reliever. He will compete with a group that has minimal Major League experience, considering lefty Wandy Rodriguez, with 1.105 years of service time, is one of the elder statesmen of the group. The rest: right-handers Matt Albers, Chris Sampson, Fernando Nieve and Dave Borkowski, although Borkowski is more likely headed to the bullpen as a long reliever.

Manager Phil Garner loves young players, but at the same time, they scare him. Yes, they're enthusiastic and loaded with potential and willing to work, but at the same time, they're just so darned unpredictable.

"We just don't know, pitching-wise," Garner said. "I like our arms. We've got some good young arms. We've got some kids who are throwing the ball well that look like they can throw it over the plate and they look like they can do very well."

Garner then referred to the Tigers' pitching staff. At this time last year, he raved about young flamethrowers Joel Zumaya and Justin Verlander, who went on to lead Detroit to the American League pennant.

"They did great for them last year and we could be in the same boat this year," Garner said. "That's just part of the unknown. You think they will do well and you feel very confident, but until they get into the season and [you] see what happens, you just don't know."

Garner cautiously gave Rodriguez the upper hand for the No. 4 spot, because of the left-hander's past experience in the big leagues. Still, Rodriguez will have to perform well. A 5.58 career ERA will only get you so far, after all.

"[Jason] Jennings was a great addition, and I think Woody [Williams] is going to be a great addition," Garner said. "And still, Wandy has got to step up and be the consistent pitcher that he needs to be."

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The same could be said for the rest of the candidates, although they haven't had equal time to prove themselves on the Major League level. Albers, Double-A Texas League pitcher of the year, pitched only 15 innings for Houston in '06. Nieve's stay was longer -- he appeared in 40 games, 11 as a starter, and the Astros suspect that if he stays healthy, he could emerge as a force in the rotation this year.

Sampson, up and down from Triple-A to the Majors four times last year, pitched 34 innings in Houston, spanning 12 games (three starts). He came through every time he was asked to step into the rotation at the last minute, and he appears to have started to win over the front office.

Garner also speaks fondly of Albers.

"Albers, more than anybody in the league, consistently threw the ball down," Garner said. "And, he was right around the plate. If he does that, he'll win here. Even if he doesn't get his breaking ball over as consistently as he'd like, he'll still win. He has a power sinker and guys will be hitting it into the ground. So he's an exciting option."

But is he ready for a full-time Major League assignment? That's the question Garner and Purpura will ask about all of the candidates as they inch toward decision time.

"We're not unlike a lot of clubs," Purpura said. "We're looking at filling some of our spots with younger players. That's the hallmark of this organization to me. We have to develop our own players. I think we've done a great job developing pitchers. Certainly, you don't know who's going to be in that fourth and fifth spot. But I feel good about the options we have."

Alyson Footer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.