There are a couple things that jump out from the roster above. First, despite being an older team, the Astros lineup is a reasonably healthy one. Only one player has a light, and that’s a freak incident that we don’t yet have a handle on. Second, the pitching staff looks worse than it is, but could do well. Finally, despite making one of the bigger signings of the off-season and trading away a highly touted prospect, the team isn’t appreciably better.
With Jeff Kent coming in to man the keystone, and Craig Biggio moving to an indeterminate spot in the outfield–reports vary, I guessed he’d be in left, but there’s just as much chance at center–the Astros should look better than they do, but something’s missing here. Adding the best second baseman in the NL should help, but by moving Biggio rather than replacing him, as he declines, evens things out. The Daryle Ward trade is another one of those where it took so long to pull the trigger that value was lost. Both Biggio and Kent are advancing in age, but neither have much injury worry; we’re reasonably sure that free car washes were part of Kent’s deal. One concern might be Biggio’s play in the outfield. He’s just the type that might go Dykstra on us, diving and blasting into walls. It’s not enough to give him a yellow light.
Richard Hidalgo is a much bigger concern. The Astros are publicly saying that despite muscle and nerve damage suffered as the result of a gunshot, Hidalgo is expected not only to play, but also to return to previous levels of success. It’s not out of the question, but it’s certainly not something to put money on.
Several other players make it just under the yellow threshold. Jeff Bagwell is reaching an age where injury becomes more of a concern, but he’s been very healthy since figuring out how to not break his hands every year. Julio Lugo is returning from a broken forearm, but fractures seldom cause long-term problems. Brad Ausmus is also reaching an age where injuries are a concern, but his lack of hitting makes injury almost a positive.
With the positives in the field, the negatives on the mound look even more inexplicable. The Astros have had as much success as any team in developing young arms, but very little success in keeping them healthy. Some will point to the loss of Vern Ruhle and Larry Dierker; others to the Astros penchant for drafting short pitchers. I am a medhead, not a stathead, but the answer lies in the numbers. The Astros rely on young pitchers to fill their rotation and we know that just over half of all pitchers under 26 will end up on the DL. With only Shane Reynolds over that number, the Astros can expect to lose two of the other four if they’re just average.
That said, while Reynolds–the lone ‘grizzled vet’ of the bunch–may be older, he’s certainly not healthier. After UTK outed his injury last year, Reynolds had back surgery that ended his season. He was able to rehab extensively and compared to Kevin Brown, who had very similar surgery, I like Reynolds chance of a healthy return over that of Brown. Still, back surgery gets Reynolds a red.
I debated the red light on Roy Oswalt extensively. It was probably pretty funny to watch me pace back and forth, staring at the numbers, the comparables, and being clutched by the hunch that Oswalt is one of the great pitchers we’re going to see flame out this year. A major league pitching coach pointed out to me that slight or short pitchers have a smaller margin of error when it comes to mechanics. “If a guy throwing mid-90s like Oswalt is off even a bit, he’s going to have to work a lot harder to crank it up there than a Johnson or Schilling,” he said. That extra effort combined with a very heavy workload makes me worry. I’ll raise a big flag of waffling here–if Oswalt isn’t injured, he’s likely to be every bit as good a pitcher as he has been. Think of Oswalt in much the way we do about Pedro–if he’s healthy, he’s nearly automatic–just have a backup plan ready.
Giving Carlos Hernandez a red light isn’t particularly prescient. Hernandez has been injured the entire off-season. He delayed surgery in hopes that rest would heal him, but his surgery became inevitable when he couldn’t throw at all without pain. The surgery was delayed until February 4th due to problems in getting out of the strife-torn Venezuela. Hernandez is likely done for the year after his visit to Dr. Andrews, so look to Peter Munro or Kirk Saarloos. It’s interesting to note that the Astros appeared very patient with the course of treatment Hernandez has undergone. According to GM Gerry Hunsicker in the Houston Chronicle, “we tried the conservative approach for almost two years with Carlos, and unfortunately at this point, that hasn’t proven successful.” This means that nearly from the time Hernandez debuted in Red Brick/Orange Juice Park, he was injured or fated to be in Birmingham.
Friend of UTK John Volusius made me take a harder look at Wade Miller than I had after a recent discussion at NetShrine.com. Miller’s been a better pitcher than I’ve given him credit for, despite missing time with neck, back and shoulder injuries. If anything, the injuries have kept his workload reasonable and he always seems to come back sharp. Miller treads that fine line between “banged-up” and “injury-prone.” His history and age give him a yellow light, but one season where he makes it through unscathed could be the breakout.
Tim Redding has also been unable to stay healthy, but he never seemed to have any trouble in the minors. This is a pattern some guys follow, suddenly clicking after two to three years. Tony Armas Jr. is the first example that comes to mind. Again, this may be the year that Redding clicks and pitches well, or he could stay nicked and Peter Munro might get several of Redding’s starts. Redding may be the personification of why young starters are like coin flips–half will end up injured in any given year.
The Astros have made moves, but like a coach once said about my running, there’s a lot of motion, but not a lot of movement. They appear to have a good chance in a weak division, but injuries–as with any team–could take them to the cellar. The Astros are going to have to figure out what’s causing all the breakdowns in their pitchers or figure out what the few healthy ones are doing right in a hurry or all their development is worthless.