"If we ended up losing a couple players like that -- the caliber of a Tejada or Wigginton -- you've got to think in terms of the guys you're going to get back," Cooper said during a 25-minute session with reporters on Monday at the Bellagio Resort. "I don't think it would hurt us significantly, especially if it would help us to improve on the pitching front. If that's the case, you weigh the two options, and I think we'd still come out OK."
Whether the Astros can unload one or both players in exchange for pitching remains to be seen, but as Cooper ticked off multiple names that comprise the bulk of the Astros' lineup, he indicated he's fully comfortable with the players he has while expressing optimism that a handful of youngsters could step in and take on a more active role on the 25-man roster.
If the Astros were to lose Wigginton, they might take a look at Chris Johnson, a 24-year-old third baseman who hit .296 in the Arizona Fall League this year. Cooper also has taken a liking to a couple of other infielders -- Edwin Maysonet and Drew Sutton, both of whom can play multiple infield positions, and Tommy Manzella, a light-hitting, defensively sound shortstop who has drawn comparisons to Adam Everett.
For now, however, Cooper is approaching the '09 season assuming he'll have all of his veterans back, including Wigginton and Tejada. He also spoke glowingly of Michael Bourn, who had a successful run in winter ball, where he accomplished his two main goals: strike out less, and walk more. Whether that translates to the big league level next year remains to be seen, but Cooper sees Bourn's winter numbers as progress.
A year ago, Bourn was tagged as the club's starting center fielder and leadoff man. Cooper, excited about Bourn's strong arm and blazing speed, even gave him a nickname -- "the igniter."
Cooper has no intention to put such pressure on Bourn this time around. Kazuo Matsui, if healthy, will start the season as the leadoff man, while Bourn will be allowed to find his way lower in the order.
"Just because of [Matsui's] experience, just because of the success that he had this past year," Cooper said. "I think Michael, we will slowly work him into that scenario. He is the future of our club in that [leadoff] spot. I think we have to back up a step and slowly move him into that. This past year, we might have put a little more pressure on him than we needed to."
Cooper is aware of the Astros' needs in the catching area, but ideally, he'd like to first add another pitcher to the rotation mix. General manager Ed Wade would like to do the same, but financial restrictions may prevent him from doing so.
Cooper pointed out that the Astros led the league in home runs allowed, a statistic he finds unacceptable.
"We need to get better at that," he said. "We're a little short in [starting pitching], I think we can all agree in that. We need to improve."
But Cooper likes the makeup of the bullpen, which figures to have at least two relievers -- Chris Sampson and Geoff Geary -- who can pitch multiple innings, multiple days in a row. That should mask at least some of the weaknesses of a thin starting staff, while the back end -- Doug Brocail, LaTroy Hawkins and Jose Valverde -- has a chance to be one of the better trios in the league.
As optimistic as he is about '09, Cooper is equally as realistic about where the Astros are with their payroll issues. He'd like to keep the club intact but is ready for whatever the future holds, even if it weakens the team.
"I am aware that we have to make some adjustments," Cooper said. "I think every club has to make some adjustments. We're aware of it and we've talked about it. Even doing that, there are still ways to improve your club."