Carlos Beltran, Jeff Kent and Wade Miller are gone, but Roger Clemens, Roy Oswalt and Andy Pettitte are back, as are the Killer B's, so the Astros will still be competitive, The key to the season is an early return for Lance Berkman and the development of the outfielders who will replace him.
Worth Every Penny
After Octavio Dotel was traded to the A's last season, Brad Lidge went from being a dominant setup man to being one of the three best closers in baseball. He struck out 157 batters in 94 2/3 innings (a rate of 14.9 Ks per nine innings) and was 29 for 33 in saves chances -- a muted total since Dotel was the closer for the first two months of the year. Because the Astros have quality starters who go deep into games, Lidge will find himself with a slew of chances again. He'll challenge Eric Gagne and Armando Benitez for the league lead in saves.
About to Blossom
Last spring, outfielder Willy Tavarez was selected by the Astros in the Rule 5 draft from the Indians. He didn't make the team, and in April was offered back to Cleveland, which declined. So the Astros retained Tavarez, a blazing-fast outfielder who has stolen at least 50 bases in each of his last three minor-league seasons. With a sprinter's frame (6-foot, 160 lbs), Tavarez will get a look in center field while Berkman is on the DL. There's also little doubt that second baseman Chris Burke is going to be a top-notch major league player based on his minor-league credentials (.315, 16 HR, 52 RBIs, 37 SBs at Class AAA New Orleans) and that has made him the subject of numerous trade rumors this spring. Should the Astros make a deal, he's the likely one to go, especially since Craig Biggio prefers to play second base.
Mike Lamb challenged for the third base job last season and did a good job of it, securing a platoon with Morgan Ensberg. This year, however, Lamb is being looked at as a utility man. He'll play third, first and outfield, although he's also played some second base and even behind the plate. If you draft him, know you're getting a bench player, a very good bench player, but a backup nonetheless. But if Berkman's recovery is slower than expected, Lamb could amass 300-350 at-bats this year.
Do You Feel Lucky?
In 2001, Jason Lane hit 38 home runs for Class AA Round Rock and seemed destined to become the next great power hitter in Houston. But something happened on the way to stardom, namely getting stuck behind Richard Hidalgo, Biggio and Berkman in a crowded outfield. Fast forward to 2005 and Lane will be given an everyday chance for the first time. Lane has great power potential and by playing in cozy Minute Maid Park, a 25-30 home run breakout season is a distinct possibility.
You've already read about Tavarez, but also know that shortstop Adam Everett will be running much more under Phil Garner than he had under Jimy Williams. If he can play 150 games, he'll easily snag 20 bags.
If Something Should Happen To Brad Lidge
Lidge was the answer last season in this spot, especially since Dotel was a question mark as a ninth-inning man. This year, Lidge's job seems much more secure. If he's sidelined, however, Astros 2004 Rookie of the Year Chad Qualls has the ability and the pitches (mid-90s fastball and sinker) to step in, as does 2005 rookie Eziquiel Astacio, a power pitcher acquired in the Billy Wagner trade last offseason.
Don't Forget About
Biggio, Jeff Bagwell, Ensberg, Brandon Backe
Don't Bother With
Dan Miceli, Orlando Palmeiro, Jose Vizcaino, Brad Ausmus
David Sabino is the associate editor in charge of statistics at Sports Illustrated and the author of the book, Dominate Your Fantasy Baseball League (Muska & Lipman/Premier-Trade).