Heading into the Hot Stove: Three things we know about the Astros

What we know:

1) The Rotation Is A Strength (Even If Ed Wade Doesn't Sign a Starting Pitcher)

The beginning of any discussion about a baseball team starts and ends with the starting rotation. It's one of those inescapable truths- like how what you're looking for is always in the last place you look and how if there are chips and salsa on a table you will eat at least five handfuls- the best teams are built from the starting rotation up.

Wandy Rodriguez, J.A. Happ, Brett Myers and Bud Norris are the top four entering the winter months, and Felipe Paulino at the moment looks to be the fifth member of the quintet. Not an ace amongst them, but none are even close to being a dud either. Maybe Nelson Figueroa works his way in to compete for a spot, or another veteran on the cheap (Ian Snell?) get invited to spring training.

With Happ and Myers almost guaranteed to regress in 2011, Wandy, Norris and Paulino will be expected to improve on strong 2010 efforts. Wandy will be due a pay raise via arbitration so his continued success is a must if payroll efficiency is desired.

2) Chris Johnson Is The Starter At Third

Barring an injury, CJ did more than enough to convince management that he deserves to head into next season as the starting third baseman. Taken in a vacuum, that statement would have been enough to excite any Astros fan a year ago.Taken in the context of the season he actually had in 2010, many Astros fans will be skeptical of his ability not only hold the job but to perform ably while doing so.

It won't matter much as his high batting average, decent power numbers and lack of a better option (adios Geoff Blum!) leave management with no choice but to back Johnson as the next great thing at third. He's young enough where even if he's just league average in terms of production, the bottom line will show a positive return. If you're optimistic enough to believe that the team can compete in 2011, you better hope our guy cuts down on the strikeouts and keeps up his line drive hitting ways.

3) Jason Castro Will Improve

I was trying to find a catcher that Castro compares to in baseball, in terms of size, skills, etc., but I just couldn't do it. At 6-foot-3 and 210 pounds, Castro has the build of an NFL quarterback, and perhaps not coincidentally the arm of one too. Defensively, our rookie catcher was everything the scouts said he would be, in terms of throwing runners out on the base paths. 18 of 49 stolen base attempts ended in Castro sailing a throw into third or second for an out. I think his defensive approach in terms of blocking balls, and just being a better receiver in the general sense for Astros pitchers, improved tremendously from his first start in June to the season's summation in September.

The other side of the coin with a catcher is really the "house money" side of things- can Castro hone the line drive swing that attracted Bobby Heck and Ed Wade to him in the Astros' draft room in 2008? His offense fell off a cliff during the 2009 Arizona Fall League, where he was actually called home after showing signs of wearing down to his back. Combine that with a luck filled 2010 season in the minors and Jason hasn't had as much success on offense as we would have liked thus far in his professional career. Still, it bears mentioning that he accumulated just 795 ABs in the minor leagues since being drafted. He's done as much as could have in the minors, but that doesn't take away from the fact that he didn't even complete his second season in the minors before having the mantle of catcher of the future hoisted upon him. So let's give the man a shot to let him figure out his swing on the major league level and pray his luck evens out. If these two things happen, we may get to see the best catcher the Astros have had in many years.

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