Scouting the competition: The Astros

Here's a look at the Houston Astros, who are in the middle of a big turnover with a new Manager and a new General Manager.

The Houston Astros are in a time of change. They no longer have Roger Clemens and Andy Pettitte anymore, and now General Manager Tim Purpura and Manager Phil Garner are gone. Interim Manager Cecil Cooper had his Interim labeled removed and will be the permanent manager, while former Phillies' GM Ed Wade got the job to replace Purpura.

And on top of that, Craig Biggio, the face of the franchise since the start of the 1990s, retired at the end of the season. So these Astros will have a much different look in 2008.

Houston finished 73-89 this past season, the first losing season since 2000. Injuries were a factor, along with a roster that got old really quick. The Astros were pretty much bad in every category, finishing 13th in runs scored (723), 12th in batting average (.260), and on the pitching side 12th in ERA (4.68).

The rotation suffered from no Clemens or Pettitte and no one to really step in and take their place. There's a lot of young pitching that may be available, but they just were not ready to make a contribution in 2007.

Houston does have the luxury of having a true ace in Roy Oswalt, who was 14-7 in 32 starts and remains one of the best starters in the game. But behind Oswalt, with Clemens and Pettitte gone, there's quantity but the quality is in question. The Astros are going to have to go find a number two starter this winter.

They do have Woody Williams, who was 8-15 in 31 starts, but they'd really prefer the veteran to be the fourth or fifth starter. Wandy Rodriguez was 9-13 in 31 starts and could be an effective number three starter.

Brandon Backe is coming off Tommy John Surgery. He made five appearances late in the year and did pretty well to give the team hope for his future. Backe will be 30 next April and the Astros would love for him to return to his 2005 form when he won ten games. If he can, that would give them a solid middle-of-the-rotation starter.

Jason Jennings was brought in from Colorado to be a number two behind Oswalt, but arm trouble and ineffectiveness made him someone the team can't wait to get rid of this winter. He's a free agent, and Houston will allow Jennings to leave for another team.

And then the Astros have at least six candidates to round out the rotation. Chris Sampson started 19 games last season and was 7-8. Matt Albers started 18 games and was 4-11. Those two might have an advantage, but there are four younger players who will also get a look in spring training.

Felipe Paulino is a 24-year-old right-hander who was 6-9 in AA in 21 starts and then made three starts in Houston. Troy Patten is a southpaw that split the season between AA and AAA (10-8, 3.51) before making two starts in the big leagues. Juan Gutierrez got three starts in Houston after posting a 5-10 record in AAA, but he must improve some control issues before being a serious candidate. And the Astros are hoping Fernando Nieve will be healthy enough to get a look as well.

The bullpen will always be a question mark as long as Brad Lidge is still there. You wonder if the Astros will finally cut bait with Lidge, who did have 19 saves in 2007. Chad Qualls had 21 holds in 79 games and might be a candidate to replace Lidge if he were traded. The Astros would probably not mind bringing Trever Miller back, who could cash in as a free agent after a decent season.

Dave Borkowski pitched in 64 games and should return. Mark McLemore (29 games) and Stephen Randolph (14 games) will also get a look in spring training. And Dennis Sarfate came over from Milwaukee and made a positive impression with his blazing fastball.

The Astros will probably have a new starting catcher in 2008. Brad Ausmus started 101 games there, but he's a free agent and will probably only return as the backup. The team has offered him a new deal, so he'll probably come back as the reserve. J.R. Towles is a 24-year-old who hit .287 with 11 home runs and 62 RBI in the minors before getting a 14-game tryout in the big leagues. Towles will probably win the job next March.

Lance Berkman will return as the starting first baseman. He will combine with left fielder Carlos Lee and second-year player Hunter Pence to give the Astros a pretty good trio in the middle of the order. Lee had a great season in the first year of his big new deal (.303, 32, 119), while Pence would have been the Rookie of the Year if he had not gotten hurt.

Pence played mostly in center, but he could move to right if the Astros feel that Josh Anderson is ready for everyday duty. Anderson stole 40 bases in AAA and played 15 games late in the season in Houston.

Luke Scott might get pushed out of a job if Anderson is ready. Scott hit 18 home runs and drove in 64 this past season. He could be used as trade bait to get a pitcher.

As for the new second baseman, Chris Burke will get the chance to replace Biggio. He started 31 games at second last season, but he hit only .229 on the season with 6 home runs and 28 RBI in 319 at bats. But the Astros might look around this winter to see if there are any better veteran options available.

Adam Everett should return at shortstop after missing part of the season with a broken leg. And Ty Wigginton should be back at third after coming over from the Devil Rays in a midseason trade.

Houston needs some more help in the rotation and another reliever or two, and if there is a way to get some better options with the two middle infield spots they'll check into that as well.

The Astros might express some interest in Atlanta shortstop Edgar Renteria, but it's doubtful they would have the pitching that would interest the Braves. As for Houston's free agents, the Braves could see what it would cost to sign Mark Loretta, who can play all four of the infield positions. He's a veteran player who might be good insurance for Chipper Jones at third base. Mike Lamb can play first, third, and occasionally the outfield, so he might be a free agent the Braves investigate this winter.

Eligible for Free Agency: Brad Ausmus, Craig Biggio, Richard Hidalgo, Jason Jennings, Mike Lamb, Mark Loretta, Trever Miller, Brian Moehler, Orlando Palmeiro, Chan Ho Park, Scott Sauerbeck

Eligible for Arbitration: Brandon Backe, Dave Borkowski, Eric Bruntlett, Chris Burke, Adam Everett, Brad Lidge, Eric Munson, Chad Qualls, Stephen Randolph, Cody Ransom, Ty Wigginton

Bill Shanks is the author of Scout's Honor: The Bravest Way To Build A Winning Team, a look inside the Braves‘ traditional scouting and player development philosophies. He can be heard on 680 the Fan in Atlanta and 105.5 the Fan in Macon. Email Bill at

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