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March 12, 2009

Team Health Reports

Houston Astros

by Brad Wochomurka

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HOUSTON ASTROS
Team Audit | DT Cards | PECOTA Cards | Depth Chart

Head Trainer: Nathan Lucero
Days Lost: 412
Dollars Lost: $7.7 million
Injury Cost: $9.4 million

Trend: Positive. Nathan Lucero has his work cut out for him in his first year on the job. Under Dave Labossiere, who retired at the end of last season, the Astros have been one of the healthiest clubs in baseball in recent years. This is Lucero's 17th year with the organization, so he should have plenty of insight into what's worked in the past. One thing they do well is to get players back on time; most of the key members of this team that have hit the DL in recent seasons have come back quickly and have been effective. With many of their best players coming into their early-to-mid thirties, Lucero's biggest challenge may be to find new ways to keep guys with relatively good track records on that same path as they hit the second halves of their careers.

The Shape of the Season:

graph

The Big Question: Robert Henslee, Sports Director at Sports Radio 610 in Houston asks, "Are the Astros crazy to rely on Mike Hampton to be a regular part of the starting rotation in 2009?"

In a word: Yes. Hampton is a walking medical experiment who recently added an irregular heartbeat to his long list of problems. You'll remember he was on track to finally be a part of the Braves' rotation at this time last year, but he couldn't even stay healthy long enough to get through spring training, so we've heard this song and dance before. He at least has the satisfaction of making it back onto a major league mound after not pitching since 2005, but to expect anything more than he gave the Braves last year may be expecting far too much. Factor in Brandon Backe's recent setback, and there are some huge questions regarding the Houston rotation. With retread names like Russ Ortiz, Jose Capellan, and Fernando Nieve next in line for starting slots, it just makes it seem that much crazier that the Astros are relying on Hampton. To end on a high note though, here's one cool stat: Hampton started at least one game for six different teams during his return to "health" last year. At least he'll have plenty of material for the memorabilia shows in his future.

Fantasy Tip: One thing I like about the Astros is that you know what you're getting with Lance Berkman, Carlos Lee, and, to a lesser extent, Roy Oswalt. None of them are big health risks, and they always produce. If you play in leagues that factor in OBP or penalize for strikeouts, Berkman and Lee are even more valuable (look at Lee's incredible K:BB ratio in recent years). I also really like Jose Valverde; he's led the NL in saves two years running, he piles up strikeouts, and he stays healthy. I know he can be prone to the long-ball, but take away two meltdowns, and his numbers look much better. Valverde allowed a run in just three of his 34 appearances over the final three months of the season. I'm not paying top dollar, but he is at the top of my second tier.

2B Kazuo Matsui: Red light The oft-injured Matsui outdid himself in '08 when an anal fissure forced him to the DL to begin the season. Toilet humor aside, it was just another injury to add to the lengthy list of those that have plagued the 33-year-old during his major league career. More back and leg issues forced him to the DL twice during the season, and, unfortunately, almost all of his value is in his legs. Generally, as those go, so goes Matsui. Back, hamstring, and groin injuries all tend to linger as a player get older, so it's hard to envision Matsui staying off of the DL in '09.

C J.R. Towles: Red light Remember a year ago, when people were debating whether Towles or Geovany Soto would be the young breakout catcher of '08? Hopefully you were on the Soto side of that debate. Right now it's a no-win situation for Towles; the system looks at his dismal production in '08 (his first pro season of more than 100 games) and sees a player who can't hold up as an everyday backstop, yet even if he could, he hasn't shown that he can be productive long enough to prove it.

PH Darin Erstad: Red light Erstad's a likable guy who was fun to watch once upon a time with the Angles, but to borrow a word from Saturday Night Live's Seth Myers, "Really!?" Really, Erstad is still here? Really!? He's 34 years old, has a long history of injuries, and he just isn't very good anymore. It's hard to imagine there aren't better options out there for the Astros, and they may need to find one in '09, as Erstad's next injury could be his last.

SP Mike Hampton: Red light See today's Big Question.

CF Michael Bourn: Yellow light Bourn is the ultimate speed player, and any lower body injury is going to impact his risk factor. He dealt with a sprained ankle in the second half that contributed to his big drop in steals after the All-Star break. The good news is that it wasn't a muscle injury, so the chances of a recurrence or any carry-over aren't as great.

RF Hunter Pence: Yellow light Pence really isn't that much of a risk, and I'd probably consider him a green. He grades out as a mid-range yellow because the system wants to connect his running through a sliding glass door last spring with his terrible first half. I'm not sure I buy that connection. Isn't it possible that Pence was just bad during that stretch? He only missed a week of spring training, and the cuts healed fine. I'm seeing that as a prolonged slump, and I'm seeing Pence as a good bet to stay healthy.

SP Wandy Rodriguez: Yellow light While Rodriguez has been able to avoid major injuries, he's the type of guy that always seems to run across a minor ailment or two during the course of the season. Last year it was a DL stint due to a minor groin injury, and then he missed starts because of an oblique strain. It's already happening this spring, as Rodriguez missed time with a strained rib cage muscle. He was a quietly effective pitcher from a fantasy standpoint last year, but be careful; he's showing a classic pattern of injuries that can snowball into much larger issues.

CL Jose Valverde: Yellow light He's led the NL in saves for two straight seasons on his way to becoming a very solid closer option. He has appeared in a lot of games the past four years, so his workload and closer status make him a bit of a risk, but he's been healthy since shoulder issues in 2004. He'll hit 30 this year, but as mentioned above, I think he's a first-tier option at a second-tier price.

1B Lance Berkman: Green light Yes, he's green, but there is some risk here, as Berkman is just one point below the yellow threshold. He does have the knee injury in his history, so that's something to keep in the back of your mind as he ages. Still, for a 33-year-old who's done some position shuffling throughout his career, Berkman has held up very well. Just don't expect those 18 steals again in '09.

SS Miguel Tejada: Green light He's been one of the most durable players in the game for years, but at what point does his age (35 in May) become a factor? He replaced Alex Rodriguez at third base for the disappointing Dominican Republic team in the WBC. Maybe the Astros should take notice. At this point, he's much more of a gamble at shortstop than he is when run through the injury system at third base.

3B Geoff Blum Green light

LF Carlos Lee: Green light Lee missed the final two months of the season due to a fractured pinkie, but it shouldn't be an issue in '09. Traumatic injuries like that don't tend to recur. What remains a concern for Lee is his size and lack of conditioning. With Lee turning 33 in June, it's something that the team will have to monitor closely.

SP Roy Oswalt: Green light Oswalt has pitched through several injuries in recent seasons (groin, sports hernia, back), but his arm has always been healthy. He just keeps going out there and putting up 200-plus innings every year. You get the sense that he literally may do it until there is no feeling left anywhere in his body. Remember, this is the guy that claimed he wanted a bulldozer more than anything else a few years ago.

SP Brian Moehler Green light

SP Brandon Backe: Green light After a successful return from Tommy John surgery, Backe is another player, like Berkman, who just missed being yellow. That was before his latest injury-Backe strained a muscle in his ribcage Sunday, and there's no set timetable for his return to the mound. I'd call him yellow at this point, as his rotation spot is now in serious jeopardy.

RP LaTroy Hawkins Green light

Brad Wochomurka is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
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