Extended Spring Training

added 4/24/2009 by Scott Barzilla

My last piece was a little more chipper, but I don't want people to think of this as a downer. When you beat the best team in the National League two out of three times you should be somewhat optimistic. The thing is that while this offense is still capable of putting up big numbers on occasion, they are also capable of getting handcuffed more often than most. I don't want to take anything away from Chad Billingsley. He's a good young pitcher with a bright future. The thing is that getting outs shouldn't be quite that easy for anyone.

Of course, this breaks the spirit of what I just mentioned. 2009 isn't really about 2009 at all. This is probably the reason why Manager Cecil Cooper's contract was extended in the first place. Somewhere along the way, Astros management realized that judging him on this year wasn't entirely fair. If they are going to fire him before the end of the season, he should at least have a pretty good going away present.

I know what you're thinking: how could I possibly write them off this early after all of the miracle comebacks? Call it the blessing and curse of looking at things rationally. I wrote a piece similar to this earlier, but all of this became crystalized when Felipe Paulino made his 2009 debut. Spring Training is about the season within the season. No one cares what the final record is ultimately, but they do care about individual performances.

Seeing Doug Brocail on the disabled list also confirmed something else. A lot of these guys are old. With the exception of Wesley Wright, everyone in the bullpen is over 30 and everyone that was good last year has had some struggles. In fact, if you had to build your bullpen around one guy right now it would be LaTroy Hawkins. If you are a fan of baseball you know how dangerous that is.

Possible Expiring Salaries

Miguel Tejada     14.8 million
Jose Valverde      8.0 million
Latroy Hawkins     3.5 million
Doug Brocail       2.5 million
Brian Moehler      2.3 million
Mike Hampton       2.0 million
Darin Erstad       1.8 million
Brandon Backe      1.6 million
Ivan Rodriguez     1.5 million
Geoff Blum         1.2 million
Tim Byrdak         1.0 million
Total          40.2 million

Obviously, the Astros won't literally have 40 million dollars to spend next season. There are a lot of factors that will whittle that down. First, you have whatever cutbacks will come from the economy. You undoubtedly have noticed a few empty seats at the ballyard this year. Add that up with fewer corporate sponsors and you get an inevitable budget crunch. Second, we'll get some of these guys undoubtedly back in the fold. Likely candidates could include Erstad, Blum, Hampton, and maybe Byrdak. Finally, you also have salary arbitration hiking the salaries for the likes of Wandy Rodriguez and Hunter Pence. Add all of that up and you might see this number cut in half.

Don't get me wrong, 20 million is still enough to get some significant players (two or three), but it isn't enough to cover every hole this team has. The best chance they have to compete in 2010 is to use 2009 to answer some of those questions. As usual, these questions usually start and end on the mound, but the recent performance by Felipe Paulino might provide some answers. Naturally, it was only one start, but the questions might change as we see him pitch more.

If he is able to continue to go deeper into games then he might be an answer for the question of who is going to fill out the rotation. Roy Oswalt and Wandy Rodriguez are the only starters to definitely be back in 2010. So, that leaves a few holes. At the same time, the back end of the bullpen could be completely empty as well. Some have looked at Paulino's stuff and pegged him for the bullpen. If the club can keep him here this year they could possibly find out which one he'd be better for. The same is true for another young live arm in Bud Norris. He is currently in Round Rock and could be slated for either the rotation or the pen. If both qualify for the rotation then they can get by without spending big bucks on a pitcher. The same is true for the pen if the reverse is true.

2009 also is a good time to look at other live arms down on the farm like Brad James, Sammy Gervacio, and Polin Trinidad (to name a few). Will any of them help out in 2010 or will we need to look outside the organization again. A few (like Gervacio) have looked quite good while others (like James) have struggled as of late. Throw in some additional prospects and you get something to focus on instead of the daily grind.

In terms of the lineup we are mainly looking at three positions for the coming season. Centerfield might be the most pressing for the time being because 2009 appears to be a make or break year for Michael Bourn. So far, the results are mixed. He is performing better than last season, but his average is dipping into the .250s. Is that a sign that he will regress or will he bounce back? Then, you get the progress of Brian Bogusevic in AAA. Could he be the centerfielder of the future?

Finally, you get the catcher position and shortstop position. Both are manned by aging veterans that likely won't be back. Will J.R. Towles be good enough to take over in 2010? Will there be anyone in the organization good enough to take over at shortstop in 2010? These questions are all good ones and ones that will dictate how that money gets spent. If they are lucky, youngsters will step up to fill enough holes. If not, it could be another long season next year. I certainly anticipate paying more attention to these things than the team's overall record in 2009.