The Kids Are Alright

added 8/14/2009 by Bob Hulsey

The Astros embraced "geezerball" this year, trotting out the oldest team in the majors and they are approaching September as if they need one of those motorized scooters to get around. Once Aaron Boone makes an appearance this September, as he surely will, the Astros will likely be the first club in baseball history with two players who have had open heart surgery (Boone and Doug Brocail) on the same roster. Amazingly, the Astros have so far avoided the catastrophic injury that so often plagues teams but there's been just a handful of players who haven't needed a trip to the disabled list or, at least, a long stay on the bench due to various ailments.

Even more absurdly, three of the players who have not suffered any significant down time are three of the guys you would have most expected it from when the season began - Carlos Lee, Miguel Tejada and Ivan Rodriguez. Lee was coming back from a hand injury that ended his 2008 season early. Even though he can be timed from home to first using a sundial, Lee has missed just one game. Tejada, who was supposed to be given periodic rests after he tired last season, has sat just twice and leads the National League in hits. Rodriguez, as a catcher, is rested periodically but he has not missed significant time despite the beating he takes behind the plate.

But lurking beneath the surface is a new generation of Astros that have turned in very good seasons which I hope are springboards for more success to come as the Astros transition in the next few years from a team of long-in-the-tooth veterans to one that will peak around 2012 or 2013 to give Houston a legitimate title threat.

Start with Michael Bourn who, at age 26, has finally arrived. Last year, he hit .228 with an unacceptable on-base percentage for a leadoff hitter of .288. This season, he's brought his batting average up to .289 (through Wednesday) and his on-base percentage up to .365. While that's good, I think he can get even better once he learns better pitch selection. A season above .300 with an OBP in the .380s is within reach. He also leads the league in triples (9) and steals (44), showing he has great speed he has yet to fully harness. Defensively, he saves run with his quickness and surprising arm strength.

Hunter Pence, 26, also took steps this season towards a better future. His average (.291) is better than last year's (.269). He's walked more (42, already surpassing his 40 of last season) and shown improved plate discipline, although it could be still better. His power numbers are a bit down from last year but his OPS is 50 points higher. Despite making the All-Star team, I feel there's another level he can reach if he maintains better focus at the plate.

The Astros see their catcher of the future in Jason Castro, 22, who is hitting over .300 at AA Corpus Christi and is penciled in to arrive in Houston no later than 2011. Should an opening develop in the outfield, Brian Bogusevic, 25, a converted pitcher, could find a home at Minute Maid. He's batting .279 at AAA Round Rock and is making a crash course of becoming a professional hitter.

The infield is lacking in top prospects right now but the franchise is high on 3B Chris Johnson, 24, who has power but is still raw and had trouble staying healthy this year. Jiovanni Mier, 18, is a shortstop who was the Astros' first-round pick this year.

On the mound, injuries have already forced some young pitchers to make an appearance. Bud Norris, 24, has a 3-0 start to his big league career with an ERA of 3.00. Yorman Bazardo, 24, who is with his fifth organization, was recently called up and credits Round Rock pitching coach Burt Hooton with getting his career back on track. Felipe Paulino, 25, could also have a bright career if he improves his control.

Further down on the farm, the Astros are expecting big things from 2008 draft picks Jordan Lyles and Ross Seaton, both 19. They could reach Houston by 2012 or 2013.

In the bullpen, some shrewd moves by General Manager Ed Wade have brought Wesley Wright, 24, Alberto Arias, 25, and Jeff Fulchino, 29, to Houston that have already paid dividends. Sammy Gervacio, 24, is also getting a second chance to impress the Astros this year.

Young players are known for their inconsistency and fans will have to endure their ups and downs, showing patience as they learn how to be effective at the major league level. But a nucleus is there to make the Astros competitive while staying affordable. Veterans Wandy Rodriguez, Roy Oswalt and Lance Berkman are likely to still be around for a few more years, perhaps joined by Lee and Tejada.

The Astros should not be afraid to embrace these young players and let them cut their teeth while the 2009 season seems to be slipping away from them. It makes more sense than to trot out veterans who aren't producing much and may not be around next season. If the sub-.500 Houston club uses this time to develop their youngsters, they'll be better positioned for 2010 and can field a team that fits the economic realities of the next few years.