added 10/1/2010 by Bob Hulsey
Everyone was heartened to see the Astros have a great second half of the season after an awful first half. Brad Mills deserves a lot of credit for holding the team together during the rough times and keeping his young squad enthused during the surge. Ed Wade should be proud of the work he did this season to infuse the ballclub with youth and upside while putting a competitve club on the field. Attendance was way down but they'll return soon enough. Owner Drayton McLane also deserves credit for eating some large contracts and investing money in draft choices and development.
The 2011 budget now looks promising with probably $10-$12 million room to spend after arbitration raises and re-signings takes place this winter. My advice to Wade: save your money.
There are a lot of fans chomping at the bit to get this team back to the top of the Central Division and spar with the Reds and Cardinals for first place. The key to their optimism is a starting rotation of Brett Myers, Wandy Rodriguez, J.A. Happ and Bud Norris which performed as well as any rotation in baseball that had less than two Roys down the stretch. The bullpen has the potential to be solid and Mills is not afraid to play small ball to get runs home.
The offense, however, is not a contender yet and may not be for a couple of years. Nobody is sure if rookies Chris Johnson and Angel Sanchez can maintain their production of this year or if fellow rookies Brett Wallace and Jason Castro will make significant strides at the plate next season. Brian Bogusevic is another rookie who could see significant playing time.
We have to give those players time to see what they can develop into. There's a nucleus there which can propel the Astros back to contender status if everything goes well. However, baseball fields are littered with the bones of prospects who couldn't sustain major league stardom and we can't predict which, if any, of these players will reach that level. All we know is that we won't know unless we let them try.
Most offenses rely on the four corner positions - first base, third base, left field and right field - to supply much of the pop in the lineup. The middle positions - catcher, second base, shortstop and center field - usually support the others but defense is more important in their jobs. A big bat is considered a bonus.
Wade has the four corner positions filled in Wallace, Johnson, Carlos Lee and Hunter Pence. Unless Lee is traded (an iffy proposition at best), you won't be able to upgrade those positions this winter. Some feel that Lee could be shifted to first while Wallace returns to AAA, but the free agent options won't really replace Lee's power in left.
Carl Crawford, a native Houstonian, is the player many fans lust after but Crawford, while bringing speed and a high average to the lineup, doesn't offer much of a power bat. He's apt to get paid like one though and you can bet both the Yankees and Red Sox will bring their checkbooks out to get him away from the division-rival Rays.
Jayson Werth (warning: a soon to be Phormer Phillie) is another option but he had a long homer drought this summer and also is expected to be overpriced. Adam Dunn, from New Caney, certainly brings lots of power and a high OBP but his defense is almost as bad as Lee's at roughly the same price. If Lee is traded, these players all become possibilities but, in my opinion, it makes more sense to give Bogusevic a shot in left and save the cash for next year.
Where the Astros need to upgrade the offense is in the middle positions. Michael Bourn's defense and ability to manufacture runs with his speed, makes his low OBP almost tolerable. He'll be 28 next season and there's hope he can push himself above his 2009 output with some better plate discipline. Jeff Keppinger may have had a career year this season but he's as good an option as we have at second for next year. Sanchez and Castro need more time to see how they'll produce, as will Tommy Manzella, the Wally Pipp of the infield.
While the starting four of the rotation should be a bright spot again in 2011, and Felipe Paulino will likely come back as the fifth starter and hope to finally put together the season everyone believes he's capable of, it wouldn't shock me at all to see Wade sign another starting pitcher this winter.
The reality is that all five projected starters have an injury history and most teams will use 7-8 starting pitchers over the course of the season. While the Astros received a nice boost from Nelson Figueroa during the second half, I'm convinced he's better suited to the swingman role that Brian Moehler held and should not be a mainstay of the rotation. Keeping Figueroa allows Wade to cut loose Moehler, who has been a mixed blessing as an Astro.
The type of signing I envision here is another late-January signing - a rehab candidate like Brandon Webb or Ben Sheets or perhaps somebody who doesn't qualify as a Type A or Type B free agent. In other words, someone like Myers was last winter.
The bullpen is Wade's baby and it's unlikely he won't tinker with it while crafting an effective pen. If anyone is signed, it probably won't be a name player although I wouldn't mind an effort to talk closer Billy Wagner out of retirement and into one more hurrah before the Houston fans. You could add him to Brandon Lyon, Matt Lindstrom and Wilton Lopez to have a pretty solid group - which is important since none of the starters have done well at lasting beyond seven innings.
Wade and McLane have mentioned that they plan to spend as much next season as they did this year but I feel they would be smarter to hold tight this winter. If the rookies appear to be ahead of schedule next spring, Wade can always add some mid-season trades to bolster the lineup and play for a title push.
Ultimately, the 2012 crop of free agents have more of what the Astros need where we need them and Wade will have had more time to see which rookies are worth keeping and which ones are clearly not the answer. Rushing into 2011 thinking we need to compete with the Reds and Cards is likely to retard some of the development of the rookies and they are the ones we need for 2012 and beyond.
There's also the temptation to make a PR splash with a big name signing but, frankly, few big names are going to be available this winter and most of them will cost more than they'll ultimately be worth. The Astros need to keep their eye on the prize and that is to be great a few years from now, not get suckered into taking short cuts to make a title run for next year.
Great meals need time to cook and the 2011 Astros should be a slow-rising souffle, not a microwave dinner.