With the playoffs seemingly more and more like a fleeting memory for Astros' fans, the 2009 off-season is becoming more and more the topic of conversation around TCB. It's safe to say that this year's squad has played reasonably well considering the constraints (payroll, injury and lack of talent) that were omnipresent from day one of Spring Training.
A good number of questions have been answered in my mind as well. Could Michael Bourn prove himself to be a viable centefielder? Yes. He's done that and then some, in my estimation. What about Wandy Rodriguez? Is this the season he finally puts it all together? You bet he has. For the first time as a major leaguer, luck has been on Wandy's side, as evidenced by his high LOB% and his FIP, but still- he has pitched like a top 20 NL starter. Paired up with Roy, Wandy should be able to pitch at this level for another 3-4 seasons. Which is perfect, because then the reinforcements come in from the low minor leagues (knock on wood).
While those questions have been answered in the affirmative, there are unresolved questions as well. What about the bullpen, are any of these guys worth bringing back for 2010? Ed Wade did a good job of grouping together a reliever corps around the big salaries of Jose Valverde, LaTroy Hawkins and Doug Brocail. Pitchers like Chris Sampson, Alberto Arias and Jeff Fulchino have pitched well until recently, when the invisible ceiling of innings pitched seems to have affected them adversely. Wesley Wright is too versitile and young to give up on, so I would expect him to be given every opportunity to earn a spot in spring training next season. Tim Byrdak has not done his job as a LOOGY this season and is 34 years old. Bud Norris is a wildcard- will he remain a starter, or will the Astros shfit him to a late innings role as a reliever?
The other question I want to focus on is concerns Hunter Pence. It's getting to be that time in his career where the Astros need to decide whether or not to extend him, pay him more in salary arbitration or trade him. Pence plays a good right field, is a fan favorite and has improved his plate discipline at the detriment of his power numbers. While he's definitely above average, he is not a super star, and I doubt he has the potential to approach that status.
This isn't to say that Hunter doesn't have value. He does. It just depends on what kind of value you're talking about. With Wandy and others due a raise in 2010, Pence ranks in the bottom half of all RF in terms of wOBA. Again- his being ranked 17th may seem unimpressive, but to an offensively challenged team like the Astros, his value is greater than you may initially think. That fact, coupled with his relative youth and ability to improve further are factors the front office would weigh when deciding what to do with Mr. Pence in 2010 and beyond.
What would really interest me, is if the Astros would at least consider trading Hunter Pence for an infielder who can play in the middle or 3B. I don't know what kind of value teams place on RFs compared to infielders, but I would assume that outfielders are easier to come by. Defensively, those positions are harder to play than RF, which forces a team to concern themselves with more than just a player's bat.
Another factor that is important is the state of the Astros' minor leagues. Brian Bogusevic, Drew Locke, and Jonathan Gaston are three OFs who will all be in the mix I would imagine in the upcoming seasons to be contributors on the major league level. Those constraints I mentioned earlier- specifically age, and contracts will keep them all from playing significant time.
On the flip side, I could not find one infielder in AAA or AA that jumps off the page and screams "middle infielder of the future". Jiovanni Mier is finding early success in professional ball, and scouts like his makeup and potential. He would be a huge answer to our infield problem if he can continue on his current path. The Texas Rangers' Elvis Andrus is a big leaguer at age 20, and is someone that Mier has been compared to. I'm projected out a few seasons, and a lot can happen in the meantime, but I have faith in Bobby Heck.
While it's doubtful that Hunter Pence would be traded, I at least think it's an interesting option, and one that the Astros potentially would have the luxury to make if a few minor league OFs continue to produce.