Are We Having Fun Yet?

added 8/30/2010 by Bob Hulsey

When the Astros traded away Lance Berkman and Roy Oswalt, most observers assumed the Astros were giving up on the 2010 season. But a funny thing happened on the way to Pirateville.

The Astros got better.

With little to lose, the Astros started a bunch of kids and the kids are proving to hold their own. There's not much pressure on them so when they clobbered the Cardinals, 18-4, in St. Louis, it was considered one of those fluky things that happen in baseball. When they went 6-4 on a ten-game homestand, that was a testament to home cooking. But when the Astros went into Philadelphia and swept the defending National League champions in a four-game series, that got some national attention - most of it asking "what's wrong with the Phillies?"

When you're in the fight of a pennant race, August is a like an excruciating long march. When you're out of the hunt, August is usually a bad dream you'd like to forget.

However, the Astros are playing their most compelling and watchable baseball of the season. The offense is getting some clutch hits. The pitching has been very solid. Catcher Humberto Quintero is holding a clinic on how to nail baserunners. Brad Mills is working his magic mixing and matching pitchers and lineups.

While it's unlikely Houston will finish at .500 or above, it's not out of the question that they'll be contending for third place in their division. Nobody was predicting that back when the season began, or even at the All-Star Break.

And, as Frank Sinatra once sang, the best is yet to come.

The Astros have a solid nucleus of starting pitchers to begin 2011. Ex-Phillies Brett Myers and J.A. Happ provide a solid 1-2 punch with Wandy Rodriguez likely to be back for one final year before free agency and Bud Norris, who has been inconsistent but looks to be getting better.

Felipe Paulino would have the inside track on the fifth starter position. Swingman Nelson Figueroa, if he returns, would be a fine fallback option and might replace Brian Moehler on next year's club. Minor League phenom Jordan Lyles is another possibility, as is Wesley Wright. It would not surprise me at all to see Ed Wade bring in one more free agent castoff to fight for a job. Typically, a team needs seven or eight starting pitchers through the course of a season because of injuries and slumps.

Houston has numerous bullpen options, starting with Brandon Lyon and Matt Lindstrom for the late inning pressure situations. Lefties Tim Byrdak and Gustavo Chacin may or may not be back but, if they aren't, Fernando Abad seems ready to take their place. Righties in middle relief next year can come from Wilton Lopez, Jeff Fulchino, Mark Melancon and injury returnees Alberto Arias and Sammy Gervacio, among others. I suspect Chris Sampson will not be in the mix next season.

Quintero and Jason Castro are likely to share time behind the plate again. The Astros could give J.R. Towles one more chance to revive his career or they may sign another free agent but, no matter, the Astros have a catcher tandem for next year.

Brett Wallace and Chris Johnson are certain to start next year at the corner infield spots. Jeff Keppinger played well enough at second to deserve another season. The shortstop position should stage one of the more interesting duels in camp with Tommy Manzella and Angel Sanchez the chief competitors. Geoff Blum has a mutual option and it seems unlikely he would not return. Several other possible options may sneak onto the roster.

Next year's outfield ought to look familiar - Carlos Lee, Michael Bourn and Hunter Pence. The chances that Jason Michaels comes back next year are 50/50, which is also the case with Jason Bourgeois. The Astros have several outfield prospects at AA and AAA who may make a bid for the parent club.

Ed Wade has done a remarkable job this year, liquidating some big salaries and infusing youth while adding talent back into the farm system. This and three good drafts ought to quiet all the talk about a barren minor league system.

When you look at where the Astros were when the season began and where they are now, it's amazing how well the transition to youth has gone.

I've left the best news for last. By my calculations, the Astros will have a roughly $71 million payroll for next year plus about $9 million in dead money from the Oswalt and Berkman trades. That means that Wade will have about $10 million in open payroll for upgrading next year's team. And that's with no glaring needs like third base or closer fill. Don't expect any big signings but expect some nice role players to be brought in for depth.

Looking down the road, the one area I see the Astros suffering is with power. Lee and Pence provide some homers, as will Johnson and Wallace when they lock in. But the rest of the lineup has very little pop and nobody has 30-HR potential anymore.

To me, the cure for that is a second baseman with a solid power bat. This off-season won't give us anyone who fits that profile but the post-2011 free agency pool could include Dan Uggla and Rickie Weeks, two second basemen with proven home run power. We'll be able to afford one, particularly if we don’t spend big this winter.

It should be noted that the Astros may be disinterested in pursuing any Type A or Type B free agents while they continue to restock the farm system but Wade has taken the minors off the critical list and could opt for a big free agent if the price is right. I don't see it likely in 2011, but it could be possible for 2012.

Next year's Astros will go as far as their starting pitching takes them while some of the young hitters develop consistency. As usual, not everything will go smoothly but this team should be putting a progressively improving product on the field, enough to whet the appetites of many of their fans.