What the Astros need to find out this spring

Astros manager Brad Mills has been in Kissimmee, Fla., since Friday, so he’s probably already learned a few things. The wind blows constantly, the sky is high and bright and the traffic on Highway 192 should be avoided at all cost.

Mills was joined this week by general manager Ed Wade and his staff as players are slowly trickling into the facility at Osceola County Stadium. Astros pitchers and catchers will work out for the first time Saturday morning and will soon be joined by position players.

Like most teams, the Astros come to Florida full of question marks. Their hope is to leave Kissimmee with most of those questions having been answered. Here are some of the things Mills and Wade would like to see resolved by April 1:

1. Find a starting catcher: Unless the Astros bring in a veteran catcher on a non-roster deal, J.R. Towles or Jason Castro will be the starting catcher. Humberto Quintero is slotted as the backup, meaning Towles and Castro are essentially playing for a spot on the Major League roster.

Castro, 22, has yet to play above Double-A, so it might be asking too much for him to make that jump to the Majors. The Astros’ worst fear would be if neither Towles nor Castro stepped up at the plate this spring. They need someone to win this job in impressive fashion.

     Prediction: Castro starts at catcher.

2. Sort out the rotation: Let’s assume Roy Oswalt is healthy, Wandy Rodriguez stays on track and Brett Myers is healthy. Realistically, the No. 4 spot in the rotation is Bud Norris’ to lose. Unless he falls on his face, which I don’t believe he will, he will be in the rotation.

The wild card is Felipe Paulino. Last year it was “high noon” for Paulino and Fernando Nieve to prove they’re capable big-league pitchers. Well, it’s about 11 p.m. for Paulino, so it’s probably now or never. If he builds on his bright spots from last year, he could be a huge boost for the rotation.

If not, Brian Moehler will be doing his usual inning-eating, bang-up job at the bottom of the rotation, though Wesley Wright, Yorman Bazardo and Wilton Lopez could be heard from

     Prediction: Norris and Moehler will have the final two slots.

3. Find a closer: This isn’t something I would be too worried about if I were an Astros fan. Either Matt Lindstrom or Brandon Lyon – both newcomers – can handle the job, and one of them will be the closer. I was leaning towards Lyon because of his experience, but considering he’s going to start a little behind his fellow pitchers because of the cyst he had in his right shoulder, that could give Lindstrom a leg up.

Lindstrom has electric stuff and could win this job by throwing strikes and keeping the ball down. The truth is either one of these guys can handle the role. The Astros would much rather have Lyon or Lindstrom closing this year than Jose Valverde, considering the financial ramifications.

     Prediction: Lyon is the closer.

4. Identify a No. 2 hitter: Michael Bourn is entrenched as the lead-off hitter, and Carlos Lee and Lance Berkman will hit somewhere in the meat of the order, 3-5. Ideally, the Astros would like Kaz Matsui to fill the No. 2 spot in order because he can run a little bit and can handle the bat, but Matsui’s on-base percentage of .302 is troublesome.

Pedro Feliz’s OBP of .308 isn’t much better, and he doesn’t run as well as Matsui and is more of a run-producer, so I think we’ll see him hitting lower. He never hit higher than sixth last year. Tommy Manzella or the starting catcher will also hit down in the order. That leaves Hunter Pence.

Pence hit all over the lineup last year, with the exception of first and fourth. He saw most of his time at third, fifth and sixth, starting 82 games as the No. 6 hitter. The lower he hit in the order, the better his batting average: .238 in second, .257 in third, .290 in fifth and .291 in sixth.

His on-base percentage was a solid .346, but he needs to hit in the thick of the order so he can drive in some runs. If he hits second Berkman and Lee are third and fourth, the bottom five spots won’t scare anyone. That’s why Pence should hit fifth behind Berkman and Lee and stretch out the order a little bit.

     Prediction: Matsui hits No. 2.



Interesting predictions. What?s your reasoning behind Castro being our opening day catcher? As you said he?s never played above AA and the leap may be a bit too much. Is it because you really believe in Jason or because you have no confidence in Towles?
As far as the rotation, you have Moehler at #5. Is it because he has usually strong ST, or because you have no confidence in Paulino?

The only problem I have with Pence hitting 5th, instead of 2nd, is that over the course of a season you’re taking a significant amount of at bats away from Pence.

These predictions are so pessimistic! I have more hope from Paulino than I have from Towles to make the starting 25. I really do like what Paulino brings to the table, a really nice heater with a good off speed pitch. Towles would be really good if he learns to stay on the ball more instead of opening up so much.

Refresh my memory on the rules, but if Castro makes the opening day roster, doesn’t that mean he becomes arbitration-eligible sooner than if he started in AAA and got called up in May or June? If that’s true, then I can’t see him making the opening day roster, and realistically, it might be better for him and the team if he didn’t.

Also, I’d much rather see Paulino get a chance to prove he can’t do it than to hand Moehler a spot in the rotation. Paulino has upside, and I can just see him pitching lights out for another team if we give up on him too soon.

Pence at #2? Yeah, I think that’s the best option. Matsui sure hasn’t overwhelmed. But then again, a bottom of the order featuring Matsui, Towles, Manzella and the pitcher’s spot is pretty scary to fans, but definitely not to opposing pitchers.

Closer is the least of my worries about this team because I don’t actually see them being ahead that often. But I’ll take Lindstrom over Lyon. I view Lyon as more of a workhorse who could go 2-3 innings if necessary (provided he’s healthy, which is a big IF in my mind).

I think Towles is your starter for 2 reasons. 1. As wgr56 brought up, i wouldnt expect the Astros to bring up Castro and start his arbitration clock running. they can bring him up in June i believe it is, without the clock starting AND give him that much more seasoning at AAA before calling him up. 2. They need to find what they have in Towles and showcase him to the league for possible trade scenarios after Castro’s eventual call up.
Norris is your #4 and barring a horrible spring (or a dark horse such as Chacin winning it) Paulino is #5. Paulino is out of options so he makes the rotation or bullpen or is lost when placed on waivers. Moehler is more suited mentally to the long relief/spot starter role than Paulino and is your safety net should Paulino not be able to handle the #5 job.
Whoever has the best spring between Lyon and Lindstrom (and dark horse Chia-Je Lo) is the closer. My guess is Lyon.
I think Matsui hits second if he is healthy and playing. If not and Blum plays 2B, he goes to #6 in the order with Pence moving to #2 and Feliz to #5. If Keppinger replaces Matsui, i think he will take #2 with the rest of the lineup staying put.
1. Bourn
2. Matsui
3. Berkman
4. Lee
5. Pence
6. Feliz
7. Towles
8. Manzella
not that bad of an order
1. Oswalt
2. Rodriquez
3. Myers
4. Norris
5. Paulino
not that bad of a rotation
not that bad of a pen
well, a bench that could use a power hitter OF as the last member.
That leaves one slot open for either another bench player or (and this would be my choice), another arm in the pen. Arias or Chia-Je Lo.

you brought up an excellent point wgr56. I had forgotten about it. It makes even more sense for Castro to begin in AAA because of this arbitration clock.

The stupidest thing the Astros could do is hold Castro out of the opening day lineup in hopes of delaying his arbitration. Truth is: If they keep him in AAA for a couple months and call him up in the middle of May (for example), he’ll likely qualify as a Super Two and would hit arbitration the same year he would if he started the season with the Astros.

Hey TAG,

Has anyone confirmed that Carlos “El Caballo” Lee knows the correct date to report?

You know… Fool us once shame on Carlos.
Fool us Twice… Trade Carlos!

Good Stuff TAG. Have Fun in Florida.

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