After reaching the World Series in 2005, the Astros took a step backward in 2006 by missing the playoffs. Injuries and sub-par performances were were big reasons the team was not able to rekindle the magic of its Series run. Nothing illustrated the Astros’ woes better than first baseman Jeff Bagwell’s lost season. He arrived at spring training against management’s wishes and opened the season on the disabled list. He never took the field and officially retired in December. Starting pitcher Roger Clemens sat out the first part of the season before re-signing with the Astros. Clemons pitched well (2.30 ERA, 102 strikeouts in 113 innings) but was the victim of poor run support and finished 7-6, his lowest sin total since 1985.
In the offseason, Houston set out to improve the offseason and maintain the starting pitching at a reliable level. The Astros accomplished the first goal with one signing, the addition of outfielder Carlos Lee, who hit .330 with 37 homers, 116 RBIs and 19 steals in 2006. His presence also should protect Lance Berkman in the batting order. Free-agent signee Jason Jennings will take Andy Pettitte’s place in the rotation. Jennings, a former 16-game winner in Colorado, finished last season with career highs in innings pitched (212), strikeouts (142) and complete games (three) and has steadily improved the past three seasons. Despite the addition of Lee, there are concerns with the lineup. Craig Biggio and Chris Burke will have to visit the base pads more frequently in front of Berkman, Lee and Morgan Ensberg.
Although the pitching staff lost Pettitte to the Yankees, Houston still has one of the NL’s top starters in Roy Oswalt. He didn’t match the 18-win season of 2005, but still posted a 15-8 record with a 2.98 ERA last season. Oswald, Jennings and Woody Williams should join forces to give the Astros a solid trio in the rotation. Left-hander Wandy Rodriquez and rookie Matt Albers are the favorites for the final two rotation spots. Brad Lidge again will be the closer and he must return to his All-Star form if the team hopes to overthrow defending champion St. Louis. Dan Wheeler and Chad Qualls are two of the best set up men in the league so they are solid as a rock in the bullpen. Veteran Brad Ausmus hit only 2.30 with two home runs and 39 RBIs last season, but the work he does behind the plate cannot be ignored. Ausmus is great at handling a pitching staff and still has an above average arm.
The re-signing of 19-year veteran Craig Biggio assures the Astros of one more season of record-setting performance at second base. Although Biggio’s average has steadily declined over the past three seasons, he still supplies some pop at the top of the order, and his leadership is contagious. If Biggio should falter, Mark Loretta was signed to supply some insurance. Switch-hitting first baseman Lance Berkman (.315-45-136) anchors one corner of the field and third baseman Morgan Ensberg will patrol the other. Smooth defender Adam Everett will be the shortstop and Mike Lamb will back up Berman and Ensberg on occasion.