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The Facts
Head Trainer: Dave Labossiere
Player Days Lost, 2007: 691
Dollars Lost, 2007: $5.89 million
Three-Year Rank: 8

Since nothing else seems to be going right in Houston, maybe having their health is something to give them a bit of a pickup. Or maybe not. The team has actually been solidly in the middle of the pack over most years, though their longer-term stats have been held down by things like Jeff Bagwell‘s shoulder, Andy Pettitte‘s elbow surgery, but helped by the flukish timing of Lance Berkman’s knee injury. In their World Series campaign that seems so long ago now, the Astros were healthy enough to get there, but fell apart at the end of the season. Bagwell lost most of the year to shoulder problems, Roger Clemens‘ hamstring gave out, and the team was just generally beaten up. I’m not sure it was enough to keep them from having a shot at beating the White Sox–although the series between them was the most competitive sweep in history–but now, with expectations and opportunities much lower, how will health affect the Astros 2008?

Honestly, not much. There’s a lot of yellow here, the type of medium-risk players you find everywhere in baseball. Berkman’s knee, Tejada’s age, Lee’s weight, Bourn’s ankle; they’re all the type of thing that could act up, cost a couple weeks, maybe a month, and not really get noticed. The concept of “injury stacking” (a series of injuries at one position) or a “death spiral” (where the load of dealing with acute injuries causes a loss in focus on prevention) are the real dangers facing the Astros medically. The worst case isn’t having one of the above players go on the DL, it would be to have a bunch of them on the DL at once, because there’s absolutely nothing behind them. There’s no farm system to make trades with in a desperate situation or to use to fill in their gaps. If Darin Erstad sees more than 200 plate appearances, things will have gone horribly wrong.

Dave Labossiere and Rex Jones should be known for being more than bit players in the Roger Clemens hearings; they’re two solid, experienced trainers that have provided stability for a franchise that hasn’t had much this decade. They’re not as recognizable as Jeff Bagwell and Craig Biggio–well, maybe Jones is, with his distinctive mustache. Still, Astros fans should cheer them or at least acknowledge their contribution to putting the team in the World Series, and perhaps keeping them out of an abyss.

The Big Question
The bloggers from Crawfish Boxes ask: “Will Brandon Backe’s arm fall off?”

You mean physically detach? No, probably not. Backe’s situation doesn’t approximate a Tom Browning or Dave Dravecky situation. Seriously, though, what they’re really asking is if Backe can hold up. The answer to that is maybe. Pitchers coming off of Tommy John surgery have a honeymoon period of about five years where the elbow seems less likely to be the weak link in the kinetic chain. Several pitchers have had to have re-dos, some even a third procedure, but it’s usually the changed mechanics that affect the shoulder that you have to worry about. That’s something we’ve seen recently in Randy Wolf, and normally happens very quickly. Backe is a converted infielder, and these seem to have a higher than expected injury rate, making many wonder if there’s some unknown value in building up to a full workload that simply can’t be done in a couple years. Backe should get back near his level, which isn’t actually saying much.

C J.R. Towles Yellow light: Towles’ yellow is moderated by the presence of Brad Ausmus Yellow light. The likely job-sharing arrangement will help keep the young catcher from taking too much abuse.

1B Lance Berkman Yellow light: There’s still a lingering knee issue that’s coloring the system’s view of Berkman. Moving to first permanently helps him, but it also implies a lack of mobility that we haven’t really seen from Berkman. It’s a low-grade yellow, like most of these, so I’m not too concerned.

2B Kazuo Matsui Yellow light: Maybe Matsui just had a longer adjustment period than other Japanese players, or maybe he really was a Coors illusion. At least he’s been healthy enough over the last couple years to generate the argument. That shouldn’t change too much now that he’s in Houston.

SS Miguel Tejada Yellow light: The surprise certainly isn’t that he got traded, but that he got traded here and stays at shortstop for now. The defensive dropoff is likely to be noticed more by the pitchers than the fans, but injuries and age are starting to take an offensive toll that will get more attention.

3B Ty Wigginton Green light

LF Carlos Lee Yellow light: The issue of Lee’s weight is a bit overblown, but it does need to be taken into account. He’s a better athlete than he’s given credit for, and certainly more than he looks. The longer-term concern is that the extra weight will rest too heavily on his knees and back in ways that will hasten his decline.

CF Michael Bourn Yellow light: He’s a speed player with a history of ankle injuries, so I’d imagine Astros fans saw this one coming. I think he’ll be the type of player that has something small go wrong–a sprained ankle, a sore quad, a painful toe–once a year.

RF Hunter Pence Yellow light: Watch out for that… oh, too late. Pence’s adventure with a sliding glass door really doesn’t affect his injury outlook, but reminds us that players are always one step away from disaster, and that he’s lucky it’s such a minor hurt. My system isn’t nearly as sophisticated as PECOTA, and I think Pence and other young five-tool players confuse it.

SP Roy Oswalt Yellow light: There’s still a remnant of his chronic leg problems in here, but, as his record shows, Oswalt is not an ordinary pitcher, and a system that seeks to describe a probability simply doesn’t know how to deal with an outlier like Oswalt. The declining strikeout rate is a bit of a concern.

SP Woody Williams Red light: At 41, no one is asking if Williams is juicing. He’s hanging around on the chance that he’ll be average. Jay Jaffe would call him an innings-muncher, but I’d call him a placeholder. He’s there because there’s nothing better, and because even Ed Wade isn’t going to give Kyle Lohse a big wad of money.

SP Wandy Rodriguez Yellow light: Rodriguez might not have been here if not for the Tejada deal, which sent Troy Patton and his shoulder problems to Baltimore. Rodriguez is that odd mix of durable (in that he’ll make his starts), but not strong enough to go a lot of innings. The signing of Shawn Chacon Yellow light might affect Rodriguez’s status as much as anyone.

SP Brandon Backe Red light: See today’s Big Question.

SP Chris Sampson Green light: This green is partially because the system doesn’t project him to make 30 starts. With Chacon and Felipe Paulino in camp, that seems right.

RP Jose Valverde Red light: Just because he had a good 2007 doesn’t mean that he’s any less risky. The shoulder is still a problem, his history still indicates that he’ll have occasional breakdowns, and closers are flammable to begin with. Volatility isn’t the same as risk, but we don’t have a Sortino ratio on closers.

RP Oscar Villarreal Yellow light: He’s never had a defined role, so making him a set-up man makes sense in the Astros’ little slice of reality. He wore down badly in the second half of last year, and the last time he was worked that heavily, he ended up having to have his elbow fixed.

Lineups courtesy SportsBlogs Nation.

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