Astros Revisit Rookie Lineup

added 8/23/2010 by Bob Hulsey

On the first day of their road trip, the Astros - who have spent parts of their season getting in touch with their history - accidentally got in touch with another moment from their past. They started an all-rookie infield to go with a rookie catcher.

Around the horn they had rookies Chris Johnson at third base, Tommy Manzella at shortstop, Angel Sanchez at second base and Brett Wallace at first with Jason Castro behind the plate. On the mound, they started J.A. Happ who had been a rookie the year before. Patrolling the outfield were old-timers Michael Bourn, Hunter Pence and Carlos Lee, the Grandpa Walton of this bunch at age 34.

It marked an amazing transition for a team that started the year with Lance Berkman, Kaz Matsui and Pedro Feliz on the infield, all in their mid-30s, to go with Roy Oswalt on the mound. All four are now elsewhere.

Back on September 27, 1963, the Colt .45s fielded an All-Rookie lineup as part-publicity stunt and part-preview of coming attractions. Among that starting nine were a future Hall-of-Famer, Joe Morgan, and four future All-Stars in Morgan, Jim Wynn, Rusty Staub and catcher Jerry Grote. Shortstop Sonny Jackson had a sparkling rookie season in 1966 before fading into a long coaching career. Third baseman Glenn Vaughan and outfielders Brock Davis and Aaron Pointer had a cup of coffee in the majors that didn't last long. Sadly, starting pitcher Jay Dahl would die in a traffic accident two years after his big league debut.

One major difference between the 1963 group and today's is their ages. The Colts' lineup were kids ranging in age from 17 (Dahl) to 21 (Wynn and Pointer). Most likely, those players would be in A or AA if they were that age in today's system. The youngest rookies on today's Astros are 23 (Castro and Wallace, who turns 24 on Friday).

Those 1963 all-rookie Colts were blasted by the equally hapless but veteran New York Mets, 10-3. The 2010 version lost last Friday to the youthful Florida Marlins, 9-0.

As any parent can testify, youth brings equal amounts of fascination and frustration. You're joyful when children do things for the first time, such as their first steps or their first words. But you also quickly tire of changing their diapers and cleaning up their messes.

Fortunately, the Astros' coaches won't need to change diapers but they will have to live with bad errors, mental mistakes and batting slumps while these players learn to walk the big league walk.

They are a good nucleus for fans to watch and we can look forward to soon adding a few more to the mix, like pitcher Jordan Lyles who, at 19, has already risen to AAA and could make his big league debut in September, although I wouldn't mind if they took their time getting him to Houston.

Johnson has certainly made a good impression although his glovework is still scary at times. His .337 batting average (all stats through Sunday) is likely to decline but his power numbers (six homers) look to improve over time.

Wallace perhaps has the most star potential. After a good debut, Wallace has slumped down to .203 and looks befuddled by breaking pitches. Scouts look at his sweet swing and feel it will only be a matter of time before he puts it all together. Under Jeff Bagwell's tutelage, Wallace probably has the most to live up to but the most upside of any of the current rookies.

Castro, too, had a nice start to his big league career but is batting just below Mendoza (.190) now. He's been outstanding at throwing out runners and provides average defense behind the plate but Houston fans are waiting for him to break out with the bat. He's had slow starts at other stops up through the minors and was probably rushed to Houston a year early but the tools are there. Once his bat begins to click, he should become the best catcher in franchise history - which isn't that high a bar given that title probably now belongs to Brad Ausmus or Alan Ashby.

Angel Sanchez (.280), profiled in last week's column, has maintained a high average and could be our shortstop for the next few years if it's not Manzella, who will need to hit better (.214). Neither has star potential but they can provide good defense at a position where that is critical. As a 2B-SS combo, I don't think they bring enough offense to the table. In a couple of years, a power-hitting second baseman like Dan Uggla or Rickie Weeks would be a good free agent addition to make up for some of the lack of power throughout the rest of the order.

Bourn and Pence look to be around Houston a few more years although Bourn's batting regression this year is worrisome. His defense is great but a top-of-the-order hitter with a .328 on base percentage won't cut it for too long. Lee is contractually obligated to stay an Astro through 2012 unless he will agree to be traded. Lee has spent some time at first base lately which will provide another option for the Astros. As much as some fans want to see Lee traded, the Astros need his power in the lineup for now since Pence and Johnson are the only other ones offering any home run threat.

The scary part about this group is that I have a hard time ranking any of them in the top five at their position in the National League. Perhaps Johnson, Wallace and Castro will grow into that but, for now, this lineup still lacks the talent to contend.

Fortunately, the trades of Berkman, Oswalt and Feliz have provided some room on the payroll to bring in free agents to upgrade the roster. I wouldn't expect any headliners to come here but I could see some players providing depth and versatility that doesn't exist now.

Like many fans, I like the overall direction of the ballclub and I'm awaiting this team having gained experience and added a few more kids from the farm to be like the young contenders we watched in the early 1990s that grew into division winners in the latter part of the 1990s and the first half of the 2000s. Yet, like parents, we will have to wait through a lot of 9-0 losses first.

Front-running fans with no patience ought to follow Berkman and join the Yankees. The re-tooling Astros are going to be a work in progress for awhile. Hopefully, with more shrewd personnel moves, they'll be ready to hoist banners around Minute Maid again by the middle part of the decade.