Can the 2010 Astros be competitive?

I'll admit from the outset that this depressing for me to write for two reasons.  One, of course, being that it's depressing that I can't find anything worth writing about the 2009 Astros and two being that I am left wondering how the 2010 Astros can do better than their 2009 version.  This ominous thought has been lurking in the back of my mind since I did an interview with Fred Fauor a few weeks ago in which the topic of how the 2010 Astros should assemble themselves left me clawing for any semblance of hope (which is a sports fan's best friend in times like these).

The logical place to start this conversation is payroll.  A team can't build something if it can't afford to buy the requisite building materials.  Everytime I have tried to account for the dollars and cents of the core of the Astros roster for next year I've totaled $75 to $82 million.  This roster includes (with best guess efforts for arbitration bonuses and salary escalation):

This would be a young Astros team compared to their previous few versions, so there is of course the ability to infer hope from it because the projections for many of these players has a wide range of variance.  But is that the kind of hope that we as Astros fans—especially most of the regulars here, who all have a far more sharply objective view of baseball—want claim? Can we even claim that as hope?  I guess the answers to that are personal and subject to one's own preferences.

Unfortunately (or maybe fortunately) for you, the readers, I get to work out my thought process in front of you.  For those who just want to move past this discussion, I'll do this after the jump.

If we have learned anything from the 2009 version of the Astros it is this: A seemingly stacked offense is not a good way to build a baseball team.  The fact of the matter is, and will continue to be, that the core of our line up has skill set that is high slugging percentage relative to on-base percentage.  This, as we now are so painfully aware of, does not an offense make.  There's just no consistency in such a skill set and that fact was exacerbated by poor managerial strategy by the man at the helm of the offense, Cecil Cooper.

Even if the Astros front office decides to spare us the indignity of having Cecil Cooper continue to pull all the levers of the 2010 Astros, offense will not be our strong suit.  This leaves us to the lesson we all learned in 2005: If you've got pitchers who pitch well, the team will perform well.  As of right now, the only starting pitcher I put on the list above who I have confidence in is Wandy Rodriguez.  I hope that Roy Oswalt will pitch well on a consistent basis in 2010, but his continued climb into his thirties, combined with his worrisome back issues, don't fill me with the confidence that the Wizard once inspired.

Dratyon McLane has already announced that payroll in 2010 will be lower than payroll in 2009, and has cited attendance this year as the motivation for this reduction.  If payroll is scaled down to match in the loss in attendance revenues this year, than would place the Astros at somewhere within a million or two dollars of $90 million.  That doesn't leave a lot of dough to fill out the bench and bullpen, while also buying the services of another top-tier pitcher to complement Roy and Wandy.  

That leaves the likely candidates as Bud Norris, Feliepe Paulino, Yorman Bazardo, and Brian Moehler.  However, it's hard to say that all aren't question marks in my mind.  I doubt that our starting rotation will include more than two of the above to start the season, as I am sure there will be some manner of reclamation project scooped up by Ed Wade this winter.  I also doubt that this unnamed pitcher will be more than a giant question mark in my mind as well.  How can I be so confident that whatever Ed Wade pulls off the scrap heap will be a question mark? Just take a look at the options.

Bud Norris has flashed brilliance this season, but Wandy Rodriguez had a long and torturous journey to consistently being brilliant, so it's hard for me to place too much hope in Bud.  Were Bud Norris to speed up his learning curve and provide legitimate number three services, then the Astros would have a strong rotation.  Not 2005 strong, but strong enough to inspire confidence, and dare I say it, hope.  Were Bazardo, Moehler, Wright (who'll be auditioned as a starter this spring, allegedly), and whoever is Ed Wade's reclamation project, to be relegated to the four and five slots, then they're imperfections and questions marks wouldn't matter as much.  2009 has been dismal mainly because 3/5 of the time there's no reason to expect good things from the guy taking the mound.  At times, when injury has felled Wandy and Roy, there's almost no reason to hope for anything other than an offensive explosion to mask the deficiency in pitching.

So I've talked myself to this point: Should Bud Norris be an effective starting pitcher next year, I think that the 2010 Astros can be competitive.  Do I have hope? There's a glimmer of it.  Am I being unduly pessimistic? I'll leave that for you to decide.  Have I missed/glossed over something? Probably.  Again, tell me where I went wrong.

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