Lance Berkman and Carlos Lee each fell off their customary pace a year ago. Berkman “only” hit 25 home runs, though he still slugged .589. Lee’s drop was a little steeper, as his OBP fell to .343 and he slugged .489. What Houston fans can take heart from is that last year’s decline is not part of a multi-year trend, so hopes for bounce-back are not wishful thinking.
In this same vein, although of lesser import, Kaz Matsui could use a bounce-back year at second base. His offensive production was non-existent last year, and while he’s never going to be a huge threat, he is capable of more, as proven both here and in Colorado. He absolutely needs to improve his bat somewhat, because he’s a problem defensively. Defense, in fact, is something that’s a problem with the entire team. Only Lee rates as a good defender using the zone rating stat (found on ESPN.com), that measures range rather than just the ability to avoid errors (i.e., fielding percentage). New third baseman Pedro Feliz, over from Philadelphia has a reputation as a big-time glove, but that’s not a reputation born out by the facts. Houston is faced with the reality that its best defender is their left fielder, and that’s not something that’s comforting to the pitching staff.
The starting rotation has some possibilities. Roy Oswalt is another big name looking for a bounce-back, although here the problems have been ongoing. He hasn’t had a big-time season since he electrified the National League on the ‘Stros run to the 2005 NL pennant. But he can still be good, and he needs to pull the ERA back into the mid-3s, away from the 4.12 he finished at last year. And he needs to stay healthy, as he reports to camp struggling with a minor back problem. Wandy Rodriguez is very reliable behind him and is probably this team’s true ace now. The wild-card is Brett Myers, also picked up from the Phils. If he stays healthy, Mills will have a nice 1-2-3 combo, more than enough to at least win more than he loses in a soft division.
If the key offensive players bounce back and the trio of starting pitchers come through, Houston will be competitive. Whether they take the next step will depend on who the ball gets handed to in the late innings, and right now this is an ugly picture. The closer role is a mess, with Matt Lindstrom, he of the 5.89 ERA in 2009, projected as the man. Things could get better if Brandon Lyon can recover from shoulder problems and get the job, but that’s a risky bet. Setup, with Tim Byrdak and Jeff Fulchino is adequate, but nothing spectacular. No one’s going to be dreading the arrival of the seventh inning when they come to Houston this year.
Up Next: Cleveland Indians tomorrow
Final NL Central Picks & Preview: March 30