When we last met the Astros pitching was solid. Not great, but solid. Everything is fine right? Well….
The Astros are lucky they are in the NL Central. In the American League this lineup is laughed at. In the NL East the Mets and Phillies point fingers and laugh. In the NL Central though this lineup gives the Astros a legit shot. If Carlos Lee and Lance Berkman are healthy the Astros will score a few runs. They need the Kaz Matsui and Michael Bourn tandem to get on base though. Matsui should be able to, but Michael Bourn was atrocious last year. If Bourn even sniffs league average this year he can push this lineup to a B+ overall. If Hunter Pence grows as a player he can push it to a B. This lineup isn't hopeless, and its only opening day. They have time to prove naysayers wrong.
It isn't a great lineup, but outside of the Cubs which NL Central lineup is significantly better?
Of the things wrong with the Astros this is the least fixable. The Astros are tied into contracts with key components of the team that either can't play their position adequately or are named Lance Berkman. Carlos Lee has been a DH for about 3 years. Hunter Pence is iffy in the outfield. Miguel Tejada? What can he possibly have left at short? 2008 was his best year at shortstop ever statistically at 34. What are the chances of him repeating that? Pudge Rodriguez's age doesn't really even need to be mentioned. Kaz Matsui wasn't even particularly good at secondbase either. The Astros have the track record to be average defensively, but they have the age to suggest they will be appreciably below average.
Grade: D+ Pitching and defense win championships so the Astros are halfway there.
The Astros begin 2009 against the Cubs tonight in what could be an important series come September. For the Astros to contend they need a strong start. The Cubs are built to bury the NL Central in a hurry if the rest of the competition isn't ready. Roy Oswalt faces off with Carlos Zambrano tonight in what should be a great game.
Ryan Dempster squares off with Wandy Rodriguez in game 2 of the series. Both pitchers had impressive 2008 campaigns. Dempster secured a large contract in the offseason so he will be looking to justify the deal while Wandy is still looking to make his place in the baseball world. 2009 is a key season for both pitchers. This should be quite an interesting matchup. Game 3 could get ugly though. The Cubs are throwing Ted Lilly out to fight Brian Moehler. Yeah. I can't imagine Vegas putting a pretty line on that game.
More importantly though, where will the Astros finish? I think a lot depends on April. If the Astros can hang in there through April they have as good of a shot as anyone. it all starts today though. They simply have to get out of the gate strong and play the Cubs straight up. One series doesn't make your season, but getting swept by the Cubs would set a bad tone for 2009.
1. Cubs 2. Astros 3. Brewers 4. Cardinals 5. Reds 6. Pirates
I don't think 1-6 will be seperated by more than 15 games. 1-4 might be seperated by 6-7 games. The Astros should be in it for a while, but ultimately I have them falling short of the Wild Card. I'll go with 84 wins.
Enjoy opening day, and Happy New Year.
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Written by Josh Lile