The 2011 Astros are not too different from the team that went 32-27 in the final two months of last season.
After trading away veterans Roy Oswalt and Lance Berkman prior to the trading deadline, a younger team gave the city of Houston a little hope looking ahead to the 2011 season, which opens Friday for the Astros in Philadelphia.
There is still only a little hope for the Astros, who have not reached the playoffs since 2005 when they won the National League pennant.
While other NL Central contenders made big trades and free-agent signings, general manager Ed Wade failed to make any major moves during the offseason.
The announcement that owner Drayton McLane was trying to sell the team and the Astros’ late-season mini-surge are the main reasons the team has not changed much since October.
Last season’s streak in August and September was powered by pitching. Starters Brett Myers and Wandy Rodriguez got on a roll. The newly acquired J.A. Happ and rookie Bud Norris also performed well enough to make up for the Astros’ struggles at the plate.
The starting rotation will be no different than the way it finished last year, with veteran Nelson Figueroa rounding it out with the fifth spot.
The Astros will once again have to rely on their pitching, because the offense made little improvement during the offseason. The biggest additions were new middle infielders Bill Hall and Clint Barmes. Hall is expected to start at second base and bring a little more power to a team that finished last in the NL in home runs. Barmes was supposed to be the starting shortstop but suffered a broken hand last week and will miss the first month of the season.
Barmes’ injury was minor compared to starting catcher Jason Castro’s torn ACL from a spring training game. Humberto Quintero is expected to replace him as the everyday starter.
The team will depend on right fielder Hunter Pence as the main run producer as the third batter in the lineup. Pence, who is now the face of the franchise with Oswalt and Berkman gone, has consistently hit around .280 with 25 home runs the past three seasons.
Left fielder Carlos Lee returns and looks to get his offensive production back to where it was in the prime of his career. Now a .287 career hitter, Lee’s numbers have continued to decline since he arrived in Houston in 2007. He hit .246 last season and is still a defensive liability, even in Houston’s shallow left field.
Outside of Lee and Pence, the Houston lineup is mostly a handful of unknowns to the common baseball fan.
Third baseman Chris Johnson and first baseman Brett Wallace are back for their second season as big leaguers. Johnson was a rare offensive spark in the Astros’ lineup last season. In 94 games, Johnson hit .308 with 11 home runs and 52 RBIs. The Astros need a similar performance from him to balance out the middle of the lineup.
It is still unknown what Wallace is capable of. He came in as a result of the Oswalt trade and immediately started at first with hopes of becoming the next Berkman. In only 51 games, Wallace hit .222. He struck out often and only walked eight times. He is still a work in progress and a part of Houston’s youth movement.
The Astros are expected to finish among the worst teams in baseball. There are question marks at every position. At the same time, they have potential. It will be a season of ifs for Houston. If everyone stays healthy and Wallace, Johnson and Lee have solid seasons, things should be all right. If Rodriguez and Myers return to their 2010 form, Houston should win more games. If they don’t, Minute Maid Park will be empty come the hot months of the Texas summer.