Looking at the Astros’ roster for 2011 does not bring about visions of championships, but there are some positives here. Despite low expectations, Houston has an improved roster over last season. National writers do not give Houston much of a chance this season, but national writers have paid less and less attention to the team in recent years (with the exception of the big trades of 2010).
The one player that has had the most impact on the roster is Joe Inglett. Houston’s newest acquisition is more than just a left-handed pinch hit option. He makes the rest of the roster fall into place. Signing Inglett allows Jason Bourgeois to remain as an outfield reserve and justifies moving J.B. Shuck to Triple A. It works out the best for everyone because Bourgeois makes the active roster and Shuck gets to play every day – something he would not be able to do in Houston. Bourgeois has paid his dues in the minors and is a seamless defensive transition in center when Michael Bourne needs a day off. I have not given up on Tommy Manzella, but Matt Downs’ play in spring training merited a roster spot. He has some power and plays all infield positions with the exception of catcher. In the final Florida Spring Training game he played short stop. Downs was bent in half as Placido Polanco tried to break up a double play. Downs completed the double play, dusted himself off and jogged back to the dugout. With Downs and Inglett at the infield reserve slots, Manzella did not have a spot on the roster once Angel Sanchez was named as the starter for Opening Day. In a line up with a lot of questions, Sanchez is more of a certainty at short than Manzella. He has a reliable bat and seems to have straightened out the arch on his throws to first.
Having two reliable reserves in the infield (Downs and Inglett) and outfield (Jason Michaels and Jason Bourgeois), Brad Mills is able to carry an extra arm in the bullpen. Enter Enerio Del Rosario. He opened a lot of eyes in Spring Training with an electric arm and a propensity to create bad swings with late movement on his pitches. The Astros have parted ways with Ryan Roland-Smith, who will be replaced by Fernando Abad. I was surprised to see that Gustavo Chacin was moved off the active roster. Even without a second lefty in the pen, the balance of the pitching staff is far improved over previous campaigns.
Turning to the moves that the Astros did not make: not signing a catcher after losing Jason Castro for the season was the right thing to do. Humberto Quintero is a serviceable stand in for Castro in the short term. He calls a great game and has the ability to hold runners at bay with an above average arm behind the dish. I believe that J.R. Towles will be able to hit enough this season to make up for any offensive production that was expected of Castro this year. The Astros have a history of making too big signings, selling the farm in some cases to get top players. Carlos Lee’s 6-year $100 million contract (largest in Astros’ history) has handcuffed the franchise*. Miguel Tejada was a good player in Houston, but it took too much to get him. Houston’s current offseason signings have not done anything to support their roster spots. Luckily, Bill Hall’s .175 batting average will disappear (hopefully for good) on April 1st**. In Clint Barmes’ defense, it is hard to justify a roster spot from the disabled list. His fractured arm comes on the tails of three acquisitions that I call "The Colorado Curse". In seasons past, Astros fans have seen Jason Jennings, Shawn Chacon and Kaz Matusi all leave Houston under less than stellar (in Chacon’s case illegal) circumstances. I am pulling for Barmes to have a successful 2011 when he comes back and dispel my wariness towards Astros who resided in Colorado the previous season.
The roster as a whole is very balanced. There is a better lefty/righty balance on the roster across the board. Astros reserves can play multiple positions and give a depth to the roster that was missing last season. I find it hard to say anything negative before Houston plays an in-season game. Even if the Astros are not necessarily successful, they will be competitive. I am certain of that.
** http://houston.astros.mlb.com/stats/sortable_player_stats.jspc_id=hou&baseballScope=HOU&subScope=pos&teamPosCode=all&statType=Overview&timeSubFrame=23&sitSplit=&venueID=&Submit=Submit&timeFrame=1 3/31/2011