Baseball Toaster Bad Altitude
2005-06-27 19:53
by Mark T.R. Donohue

Since I did write about the Astros just two series prior to this one, I thought I'd take a bit of a different tack and play ghost of Christmas future for a little while. The Astros are definitely sellers this year, although the nature of their frontline talent makes their strategy going forward a little unique. Seriously, can you imagine Craig Biggio finishing his career anywhere else? And what about that Clemens guy?

1B: Look, it's sad, but it's true. Jeff Bagwell's career is effectively over. It might be nice for him to try and make a comeback next year only so he and Biggio can enter the Hall of Fame together, but his days as a difference-maker are gone. Killer B's, we hardly knew ye. Lance Berkman has been playing first while recuperating from an injury of his own, but past that on the major league level it's thing one (Mike Lamb) and thing two (Jose Vizcaino). As you would expect for an organization that's had a franchise guy entrenched at the position since 1991, Houston has nothing coming down the pipeline at first. The only guy Baseball America has in their top 30 prospects is Todd Self, a lefthanded-hitting guy with a terrific batting eye and no power whatsoever. Nonetheless, Self will probably get to hold down the position for at least a year as the Astros look to upgrade here through trade or the draft.

2B: Biggio is back at his first adopted position this year (who else has a baseball card of him as a catcher?) as the bizarre center field experiment thankfully only lasted half a season. Not as bizarre as Tony Womack in the outfield, but still, with that messed up 430-foot hill, what were they thinking? His heir apparent, Chris Burke, is already in the majors. Burke is 25 and has a reputation for being a high-average guy with a great glove. Like a lot of the Astros' younger players, he'll be useful but not a star. They're going to have to get lucky or aggressive somewhere.

SS and 3B: Adam Everett had a good year last year and has been terrible in '05, Morgan Ensberg has been the opposite. Ensberg already has nearly twice as many homers as he did last year in half as many at-bats. Both of these guys are young and for the moment cheap, although Houston better hope the '03/'05 version of Ensberg is the real deal or else they're going to have no power on the infield whatsoever.

LF: Likely Berkman's for as long as he wants it. The Astros have a tradition of laying out the big bucks to keep hometown guys hometown, and after Biggio, Bagwell, and Clemens ride off into the sunset, Berkman will be the only high-profile connection left to the Astros' (very brief) Second Golden Age. Minute Maid Park should serve to boost his power numbers swinging righty.

CF: Is Willy Taveras the second coming of Vince Coleman or of Alex Sanchez? No one doubts Taveras's speed, but whether he can convert that single tool into a useful big league career is under scrutiny. Taveras also isn't a wonderful centerfielder for his speed. As an isolated roster spot Willy looks like he could be of some help, but the Astros have to be very nervous about having an entire team of table-setters and no big boppers.

RF: Maybe the most obvious spot for improvement besides the first base vacancy. Jason Lane is a corner outfielder with a centerfielder's bat, and despite bully predictions in the prospect guides, he hasn't really put it all together in the majors yet. If he can start turning some of his doubles into homers (hey, worked for Brian Roberts), he'll stick around. More likely this is where Houston will choose to pursue a veteran stick. If not, Mitch Einertson is probably their most interesting hitter in the low minors.

C: In hindsight, giving up John Buck in the Carlos Beltran trade might have been a fatal mistake. The Astros have nothing in the minors and so could settle for several more seasons of Brad Ausmus, named by Baseball Prospectus this year as "the worst regular in baseball."

SP: Roy Oswalt and a bunch of question marks. Andy Pettite is younger than you think (33) but given his injury history and winning pedigree, who knows if he wants to hang around with a bad Astros team after his contract is up next year. Roger Clemens would be obvious trade bait if he was anyone other than, you know, Roger Clemens. As it stands Houston could make a lot of money and gird their future position by continuing to fill the stands at Minute Maid for a year or two more of Rocket starts. The young guys, Brandon Backe and Wandy Rodriguez, are probably not the future. Backe has a better national reputation than his numbers merit, and should be traded while that still remains true. Rodriguez is just a guy. It gets better in the minors, where Houston has Ezequiel Astacio and lower down some guys like Troy Patton. If they could make a trade for a handful more starting prospects this year it couldn't hurt, but it's hard to say whom they have besides Clemens who would be of value to any contenders.

RP: Oh, right, Brad Lidge. Somebody might want him. Lidge is having another dominant year but he's 28 with a history of arm problems. Dan Wheeler could certainly step in the closer's role gracefully much as Lidge did for Octavio Dotel. Somehow Houston always seems to come up smelling roses when it comes to relief pitching prospects. Chad Qualls and Chad Harville are fairly young swing-and-miss guys as well. It's hard to predict who in the farm system might be of service since so many major league relievers start games in the minors. Mark McLemore and Chad Reineke are the current names to know. Yes, you probably already know the name Mark McLemore, but like Luis Gonzalez, this is a different one.

Jamey Wright and Wandy tonight, Jason Jennings and Roger Clemens Tuesday, Byung-Hyun and Oswalt Wednesday. Let's go, Colorado.

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