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Thursday, March 30, 2006

Three Lingering Issues: Houston Astros

Heading into the 2006 season, the performance of the following three Astros will be most crucial as the Astros attempt to defend their National League pennant:

1. Morgan Ensberg: Coming off a 7-39 "streak" in the NLCS and World Series that was much more painful to watch than the numbers even indicate, the pressure is on the Astros' reigning clean-up hitter to produce like he did for most of the 2005 regular season. Ensberg's patience at the plate is a known strength (85 walks in 2005), but his strikeout total noticeably skyrocketed from 46 in 2004 to 119 in 2005. I am never one to put much emphasis on spring training numbers, but Morgan is currently hitting .149 in 47 spring training at-bats with 12 K's and only one extra-base hit. His incessant need to modify his awkward batting stance has always been a red flag that he lacked true confidence in his natural abilities at the plate and that any success that he enjoyed was more gimmick-based than talent-driven. The 2006 season will be a true test for Mo-E, and it will be interesting to see how long Garner sticks with his All-Star 3B if he gets off to a start in the regular season as miserable as his postseason and spring training performances were.

2. Brandon Backe: Backe continued to enhance his reputation as Houston's own "Mr. October" in the 2005 postseason by winning both of his starts in the NLCS and World Series and allowing a grand total of one run in 12 2/3 innings of work. Unfortunately, Galveston's favorite son has had difficulty repeating such performances between April 1 and September 30 throughout his young pitching career. Backe has never had a WHIP in the bigs under 1.45, and his K/BB ratio took a precipitous dive in 2005. Backe's spring his been forgettable to say the least: 8.87 ERA in 23+ innings, including 11 HR allowed and K/BB count of 11/10. By process of elimination and based on the flashes of promise in the postseason, Backe has been handed the #3 rotation spot, but if he does not start improving his control and missing opposing bats at a better rate soon, he may find himself sliding out of the rotation in Houston and into the rotation in Round Rock. Questions have also been raised about Backe's health by pitching coach Jim Hickey. The Astros' #4 and #5 rotation spots are shaky enough. They can ill-afford to have anything less than an effective #3 if they intend to compete for the postseason again.

3. Tim Purpura: The 2005 season was the most successful in franchise history, and it was also the first at the helm for GM Tim Purpura. Purpura certainly deserves his share of the credit based on his work in years past in the player development realm, but many rumblings were heard heading towards the trade deadline in 2005 as the Astros' hopes were fading and nary a move was made. Throughout the offseason, rumors floated about names like Miguel Tejada and Adam Dunn, but again, nothing truly materialized, aside from the "splash" signings of Preston Wilson and Trever Miller. Purpura does not have the luxuries of Roger Clemens in his rotation, Jeff Bagwell at 1B or lukewarm fan expectations heading into 2006. Clemens is sidelined until at least May, Bagwell is watching games at sports bars and the fans will be clamoring for a repeat of last season's magic. The Astros stockpile of young pitching prospects is well-publicized, and it will be very interesting to see how Purpura manages Patton, Hirsh, Nieve, Barthmeier & Co. during the summer of 2006.


Blogger Tim said...

Congrats on penning your first thoughtful discussion on the 'Stros. Some predictions in response to your musings...Mo will hit .280 with 30 HRs and 90 RBIs; Backe will fail miserably as a No. 3 starter and may be out of the rotation before June; and T-Poo's signing of Preston Wilson will be heralded as the bargain of the year when Wilson hits .270 with 30 HRs and 90 RBIs.

Thu Mar 30, 05:42:00 PM  

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