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.