Better late than never.
With this version of the Houston Astros, that might just be their motto. Filled with aging stars, they’re relying on two pitchers that have been to the promised land again and again to show them the way. While I’m not aware of any study that proves the “veteran effect,” adding two premier pitchers is certainly a plus. All that could be standing between the Astros and October is health.
Most of the focus on this team will be on the staff. Led by the two former Yankees, Clemens and Pettitte will team with two potential aces and a quality starter in Tim Redding. This rotation is as deep as any in the league, including the Cubs and Red Sox–Dayn Perry’s made a very good case that I should be including the Yankees in that discussion. Among these four, all are subject to depth questions…except the Astros. More than any other team, the Astros can handle even a season-ending injury to a starting pitcher.
With names like Carlos Hernandez, Brandon Duckworth, and Jared Fernandez available, the Astros had so much depth that they dealt away Jeriome Robertson and could perhaps make a deadline deal if needed. Of the current pitchers, I am most worried about Wade Miller, who spent most of last season hiding an elbow injury. Once it was discovered, the Astros did their best to deflect reports of a frayed UCL, but given the information we have, that’s the most likely diagnosis. Calling it “dead arm” just doesn’t fit, since his velocity never tailed off significantly.
Miller’s problems happened in early July, around the time he logged 120- and 115-pitch starts. If you’ll notice from the game log, the strikeouts never reduced, but his control and pitch efficiency was compromised. His control didn’t seem completely back in spring training, so Miller’s elbow has not answered the questions yet.
Andy Pettitte is a pitcher who occasionally seems on the edge of breaking down. Having watched him closely over the past few years, I’m reasonably convinced that Pettitte is an incredibly quick healer, both recovering from injury and fatigue much faster than the average pitcher. Twice in the last five years, Pettitte has needed a short DL stint for elbow pain, but come back quickly to ace-level effectiveness. Sure, his luck might run out some time during this contract, but I’m not willing to say that it will be this year.
There’s plenty written about Roger Clemens elsewhere, but that he’s pitching at this age with this effectiveness is simply amazing. Were it not for Jim Andrews back in 1986, Clemens would have been just another failed Longhorn pitcher. Instead, he’s one of the best pitchers of all-time. The Astros will make some concessions to Clemens’ desires. That’s a big positive: Any extra rest should work much like it did for Nolan Ryan–fewer starts, but more effectiveness in those starts.
Finally, we’ll deal with Roy Oswalt. Throughout 2003, Oswalt fought a groin injury, costing the Astros at least the one-game difference that could have changed their season. Surgery has corrected the groin tear, so Oswalt should return quickly. Mike Hampton had similar surgery and has since shown no ill effects. Oswalt will need to focus on his mechanics early in the season; he altered them significantly to make it through last season.
That Craig Biggio has made it as long as he has with his style of play and position changes is nearly unprecedented. Still, he’s clearly struggled over the past two seasons. Given the large, odd dimensions of Minute Maid Park, Biggio’s more at risk, and there might be some value to pushing Lance Berkman back to center. Then again, there’s probably more value in pushing Biggio to the bench and giving Jason Lane a chance.
Jeff Kent and Lance Berkman have both gone through minor injuries. Berkman has successfully washed his truck a few times without injury, but both players dealt with wrist problems last season. Both lost power to the injuries, and more problems this season would mark these conditions as chronic.
Jeff Bagwell is almost a red light. His arthritic shoulders are the primary concern, but this is a problem he’s dealt with for several seasons. There’s been no problem at bat and the team has adjusted to his shortcomings. If you like what you got from Bagwell the last few seasons and can put up with a slight decline, you’ll like Bagwell’s 2004.
There are some concerns with the bench and bullpen, but only Brad Lidge is worth mentioning. The former first-round pick finally found a role in 2003, but wore down under the heavy usage. He’ll need a lighter touch from Jimy Williams and pitching coach Burt Hooton to avoid a late-season breakdown.
The Astros may not be quite as talented as the Cardinals in the field or the Cubs on the mound, but this team has fewer questions than either. If the team stays healthy, the city of Houston might end up hosting two big sporting events this year.