Astros manager Brad Mills enters his second season at the helm and has already helped to write a new chapter in franchise history by steering the club in the right direction after the organization admitted to having a problem last season, thus leading to the trades of aging icons Lance Berkman and Roy Oswalt.
Owner Drayton McLane Jr. recognized the crucial need to get younger, which enabled general manager Ed Wade to begin rebuilding the club around established and young veterans, such as Michael Bourn, Carlos Lee, Brett Myers and Hunter Pence, with a talented core of up-and-coming ballplayers, including Brian Bogusevic, Jason Castro, Chris Johnson and Brett Wallace.
Slow starts have unfortunately become a tradition for the Astros, as evident with a 0-8 start to the regular season in 2010, followed by posting a 17-34 record over its first 51 games.
However, the collective group of veterans, young talent and also the players acquired (J.A. Happ, Mark Melancon and Brett Wallace) as the result of the Berkman and Oswalt trades clicked immediately and played with hunger, passion and confidence for Mills down the stretch by producing a 33-27 record.
The Astros players respect Mills and know their skipper has their back, and in return, they dish the respect back his way by giving 100 percent on the field and competing as hard as possible.
“I think we have a real competitive team,” Bourn said. “We finished strong last year. We have a team that’s ready to play everyday. We’ve got people like me, Hunter Pence and Carlos Lee, and a couple of other veteran guys that can help anyone out there that’s younger than us and who are ready to play.”
If the Astros want to contend in the NL Central for 2011, it comes down to the strength and balance of the pitching staff, overall consistency within the offense and being able to stay healthy.
The Astros will start the regular season with Myers, Wandy Rodriguez, Happ, Bud Norris and Nelson Figueroa as the starting rotation, with top prospect Jordan Lyles waiting in the wings at Triple-A Oklahoma City.
Overall, it’s a tough, gritty rotation capable of keeping the team in close ballgames that thrives under the direction of pitching coach Brad Arnsberg.
Myers posted a 14-8 record with a 3.14 ERA in 33 starts for the Astros last season after signing a one-year deal as a free agent on Jan. 8, 2010.
He emerged as a model of consistency by becoming just the fifth pitcher since 1920 to toss six or more innings in 32 consecutive starts.
Furthermore, Myers established a career best in ERA and innings pitched (223 2/3), and also tied a career high in wins and complete games (two).
Rodriguez, Happ and Norris all have the ability to win at least 15 games, with Norris being the potential dark horse, as long as he can utilize his talent, hit spots and avoid giving up the big inning.
According to Norris, the key to success for the Astros’ rotation revolves around a piece of advice he received from Oswalt during his rookie year in 2009 — focus on hitting the 200-inning plateau.
“You never want to get caught up in wins and losses as a pitcher,” Norris said. “There’s always a strong emphasis on stats, even though baseball is a team sport. Roy Oswalt taught me the goal of every starting pitcher should be to reach 200 or more innings. If you can reach that mark, it means you pitch deep into ballgames.”
Closer Brandon Lyon was criticized right off the bat due to signing a three-year, $15 million contract prior to last season, but he responded with 20 saves out of 22 opportunities while posting a respectable 3.12 ERA over 78 innings in 79 relief appearances.
Right-hander Wilton Lopez turned out to be a pleasant surprise with his ability to prevent inherited runners from scoring.
He’ll likely serve as the Astros’ setup option in the eighth inning, with Alberto Arias, Enerio Del Rosario, Mark Melancon, Jeff Fulchino, Lance Pendleton, Aneury Rodriguez and Henry Villar also representing viable right-handed options for Mills and Arnsberg.
Fernando Abad, Gustavo Chacin, Ryan Rowland-Smith and Wesley Wright are looking to break camp as the club’s left-handed option(s).
Ultimately, the bullpen continues to be a major strength for the Astros, especially with its ability to hold leads or keep the club within striking distance.
The Astros’ offensive woes were no secret throughout Major League Baseball in 2010, considering they finished last in the National League in home runs (108), total bases (1,974), on-base percentage (.303), slugging percentage (.362) and OPS (.665) while drawing the least amount of walks (415) and also averaging a league-worst 50.5 at-bats without belting a home run.
Although Wade acquired shortstop Clint Barmes via trade from the Colorado Rockies and signed veteran Bill Hall as a free agent, both players may help somewhat to improve the power department, but are unlikely to make a significant impact.
Major League Baseball teams don’t necessarily have to be the strongest offensively to win a high percentage of games, as evident with the 2010 World Series champion San Francisco Giants finishing eighth in the National League in total offense.
However, the Astros do need to climb out of the cellar in a number of categories in order to assist the pitching staff and win more ballgames.
It starts with the outfield trio of Bourn, Pence and Lee.
The two-time Gold Glove Award-winning Bourn, who was named to the NL All-Star team last season, must exercise more plate discipline in the leadoff role in order to utilize his blazing speed and increase his on-base percentage for the heart of the lineup.
Pence, the club’s 2010 MVP, is aiming for the 30 home run/100 RBI plateau after slugging 25 homers for three consecutive seasons.
Lee will look to bounce back after hitting a career-low .246 and failing to reach at least 100 RBI for the first time since 2004.
Johnson and Wallace represent the icing on the cake in the No. 5 and 6 holes with their ability to hit the long ball and drive in runs.
If Bourn, Pence and Lee can execute and avoid a slow start, with Johnson and Wallace also providing stability, it will help to offset Hall and Barmes if they struggle to hit for average — something that has been a common trend over the course of their respective big league careers.
Catcher J.R. Towles appears to be the favorite to start the regular season as the replacement for Castro, who underwent right knee surgery earlier in Spring Training, and is likely to miss the entire 2011 campaign.
It’s unclear if Mills plans to use veteran catcher Humberto Quintero in the starting role, a platoon situation or primarily as the backup.
There’s no doubt the Astros will play with hunger and desire on the field in 2011, but they need to execute their individual roles as part of a cohesive unit in order to be a contender in the NL Central.
Despite being labeled as a team of the future, Pence wants to see the Astros shake the youth label and step up with the goal of winning a World Series title.
“I think we have a great group of guys, young and old,” Pence said. “When you think about Bud Norris, Chris Johnson, Brett Wallace, Brian Bogusevic and Jason Bourgeois, we have a bunch of kids that are hungry and enthusiastic. I think we’re capable of doing something special this year. We’re coming in knowing our goal is to win the World Series. I feel like we have the ability to do that. So, there are no excuses we’re young or we’re missing this, that or the other. I think we’ve shown we can play with what we’ve got and we’re coming for a World Series title.”
Without the clubhouse presence of Berkman, Oswalt and Jeff Bagwell (served as hitting coach in 2010), Pence will carry the torch forward as the club’s leader, which has motivated him to work even harder and view the game in a similar, yet different light.
“My personal goal is to win a World Series and my team goal is to win the World Series,” he said. “That’s what I’m here for and that’s what we play this sport for. That’s why I’m working hard in every workout, every swing, and every throw. I finally understand that there’s really nothing else. That’s the only thing that matters. I’ve always thought that and have known that, but I think now is the first time I really know it. I’ve been here long enough to start to believe that. We can make it happen.
“It’s my turn to step up. We have a lot of guys who have been there before. Brett Myers has already been a big pitcher in the World Series. There are no excuses. There is nothing else we’re here for.”
hornface.com’s 2011 MLB Season Preview
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