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A Pine Story, Indeed, for the 2010 Astros

Earlier this week, Bernardo Fallas made a post on his blog that previewed the strengths and weaknesses of the Astros' by position. From the starting rotation to the bullpen, our offense and even Brad Mills, Fallas does a good job giving us a rough assessment of the Astros heading into 2010.

Comparing this season's team to last, I have to believe that the team has been built much better. Last season there were a multitude of positions that were filled by players that served no purpose beyond being warm bodies with the ability to perform baseball oriented tasks.

On the mound, Russ Ortiz, Mike Hampton, and Brian Moehler made up 3/5 of our starting rotation. Remembering that the Astros had over $100 million in payroll obligations in 2009, it's almost egregious that a trio such as this were expected to pitch a majority of the innings for our club. Hell, Hampton and Ortiz pitched nary an inning in 2008, and Moehler is the definition of dependability in the average, won't break your heart but won't get you excited sort of way. At this point, Bobby Heck had one good draft under his belt, but Jordan Lyles, Ross Seaton and Co. were still years away.

Fast forward a year, and gone are the retreads that couldn't help but fill Astros' fans with doubt. Brian Moehler is still around, but his rotation spot is less a sure thing than a long shot. Brett Myers, a proven commodity with a bit of an injury history himself has been signed to create some depth in this most important of areas. Jokes about Ed Wade's love of former Phillies aside, this was the move of the off-season that I think will tangibly and visibly help the team the most. If he can play up to his ability, this is the first time since 2006 that the Astros will have an actual number three starter rather than a just a starting pitcher who takes the ball the day after Wandy Rodriguez.

Unless you're the Yankees/Red Sox/Rays, there will be question marks making up a fairly sizeable portion of your roster. Bud Norris and Felipe Paulino are two such enigmas for the Astros. Each has terrific stuff, and each has drawn favorable comparisons with some of the best hurlers in the game. It's not so much that Ed Wade turned question marks into sure things, when comparing spring training 2009 to spring training 2010, but in Norris and Paulino, pitching coach Brad Arnsberg has the opportunity to refine what is raw and strengthen what is sound. Dewey Robinson had a couple of old dogs last season, and I don't need to finish the maxim for you to know we're standing on more solid ground today than a year ago.

The offense has been tweaked, and has lost is hit leader Miguel Tejada. Tommy Manzella is nearly a decade younger and can scoop 'em up but good at shortstop. Ditto Pedro Feliz at third base. One of the big reasons PECOTA has the Astros winning seven more games in 2010 than in 2009 is because of our defense. A full season with Manzella and Feliz, coupled with terrific outfield defense in center and right, and the Moneyball strategy of the new decade is certainly trending upwards for the Astros. Jason Castro's arrival would mean that only Carlos Lee (maybe Lance too) is a truly below average defender out of the non pitching defensive players.

That just leaves one major area neither Fallas and I touched on: the bench. Er, Fallas actually did state one line in his post that will likely be a harbinger of things to come in the immediate future for the Astros. When it comes to players outside of the starting lineup and rotation, Fallas opines:

They simply do not have players of comparable quality on the bench.

Such is the plight of a team whose history of drafting is well, bad. If you believe the research of Mr. Andrecheck, the dearth of young, cheap talent for the Astros is going to cost us a handful of wins starting in 2011. 

For this season though, what I can offer is a snap shot comparison of the Astros' "Sixth Man" compared to the other teams which inhabit the NL Central. Our most talented bench player, in my estimation, is Jeff Keppinger. In his first season as an Astro, he set career highs in home runs and walks, and is projected to do much of the same this year. A slight dip in contact % led to more strikeouts and a lower batting average, but he should improve in this area as well based on his career numbers and trends.

While Kepp is good enough to make just about any team's 25 man Opening Day Roster, he isn't quite Sixth Man material for a good or even above average team. I did say he had a career year last season for home runs, but even then he only smacked a whopping seven. A look our divisional foes and their sixth men and we can start to see the talent deficit the Astros are facing put into focus.

In general, the NL Central lacks the talent of other divisions, and their benches are no exception. Xavier Nady, Julio Lugo, Joe Mather, Brandon Moss, Chris Dickerson, and Jody Gerut are the main men of our rivals' that primarily enter the lineup in spot start situations. All of these players are useful in their own right, however, just as Cory Sullivan, Geoff Blum, Edwin Maysonet and even Jason Michaels (or so Ed Wade says) are.

Bernardo Fallas is correct though. The Astros are still a top heavy major league organization, with more riding on the performances of Kaz Matsui, Brandon Lyon and Brett Myers than most teams would probably like. My point is this: despite the lack of bench talent and the unproven nature of the back-end of the rotation, the ceiling for this year's cast is certainly higher than last year. Talent is a funny thing. If you don't have it, you can only fool yourself into thinking that your team is capable of competing. With it, you can don't have to fool yourself at all- it's easy to see the possibilities. The depths of losing in 2010 may very well end up close to what we had to make due with in 2009, but the glass ceiling hoisted by Ortiz-Hampton is something altogether different, as the Astros enter an eternally hopeful Spring 2010.