Son of a Rocket The Astros drafted Koby Clemens, the oldest of Roger's four sons, in the eighth round in 2005. Koby, who had signed to play at Texas, his father's alma mater, signed instead with the Astros. The third baseman began the season with Greeneville (Tenn.) in the rookie Appalachian League, where he played in 33 games, hitting .297 with eight doubles, four homers and 17 RBIs.
United we stand Houston's relievers decided to change the team's luck last year after a 16–31 start. In a game in Milwaukee, the relief pitchers remained in the dugout for the first inning before walking en masse to the bullpen. Morgan Ensberg hit a three-run homer in the first to spark a 9–6 win, and the bullpen's first-inning stroll became a tradition for the rest of the season for this extremely close group.
Not a Rice graduate The charter buses were lined up outside Minute Maid Park while the city of Houston gave the Astros an official sendoff to their first World Series. Craig Biggio and Roger Clemens spoke to the fans while the rest of the team remained on the buses. One female fan held up a sign for Lance Berkman, "Merry Me Lance." Apparently she didn't attend Rice with Berkman.
No more Ash The Astros fired radio analyst Alan Ashby in December, resulting in scores of complaints from fans. With veteran Milo Hamilton cutting back to working only home games in 2006, Ashby hoped to pick up his play-by-play duties. Instead, the Astros hired two young announcers from out of town to be their radio team on the road.
Not enough Volunteers While Chris Burke continued with endless interviews following his 18th-inning homer to eliminate Atlanta in the playoffs, he was suddenly bear-hugged from behind by Roger Clemens. "It's amazing how you can be so low after a football game," said Clemens. Burke, who played baseball at Tennessee, was upset the day before when his Vols lost to Georgia.
Through the roof Commissioner Bud Selig ordered the roof left open at Minute Maid Park for Games 3 and 4 of the World Series, much to the chagrin of the Astros, who went 36–17 with the roof closed, and their fans. With Game 3 lasting until after 1 a.m., it turned cold and windy at the park, which upset some Houston fans more than the loss.
Before they signed free agent Preston Wilson in January, the biggest news the Astros had made in the offseason was firing radio analyst Alan Ashby. The National League champs still begin '06 with some questions: Will Roger Clemens sign after May 1 and pitch through his 44th birthday? Will Jeff Bagwell's shoulder be healthy enough to allow him to play regularly? Will Wilson supply the extra bat the Astros sorely need?
Even without Clemens, Roy Oswalt and left-hander Andy Pettitte are a solid 1-2 punch. An injury to either one, like Pettitte's elbow problems in 2004, could be a disaster. Brandon Backe, a former position player in the minors, could be a decent No. 3 starter. But then the talent falls off considerably. Lefty Wandy Rodriguez won 10 games last year as a rookie, but his 5.53 ERA was too high. Ezequiel Astacio, another rookie last year, needs to show he's good for more than five innings. Spring training will provide an opportunity for a rookie to earn a spot in the rotation.
Led by closer Brad Lidge, this has developed into an efficient unit. Lidge, who saved 42 games last year and made no excuses for his failures in the postseason, is as good as any closer in baseball. Dan Wheeler and Chad Qualls, a rookie in 2005, are both capable of filling the role of setting up Lidge, making the Bridge to Lidge a smooth road. Veteran Russ Springer is a middle reliever who brings experience and leadership to the pen. Left-hander Mike Gallo improved drastically last year. His ERA dropped from 4.74 in 2004 to 3.64 last season. Trever Miller, another lefty, was signed as a free agent in the offseason. Either Astacio, Rodriguez or a rookie who doesn't win a spot in the rotation will probably be ticketed for middle relief to round out the bullpen.
Craig Biggio, at 40, is back at second base, signed a one-year contract to play his 19th season with the Astros. He is not the All-Star second baseman of old, but he can still do the job. He altered his offensive game to take advantage of the shallow left field fence at Minute Maid Park, hitting a total of 50 homers the past two years. He has started the season well the past few years, but maybe age catches up with him in September when his batting average slips. After hitting .300 in May, Biggio's average dropped every month. Shortstop Adam Everett is excellent defensively and getting better every year. Offensively, he could contribute more if he batted second, where he could use his speed and bunting ability, rather than hitting seventh or eighth with no one to protect him.
Third baseman Morgan Ensberg avoided his traditional slow start and moved up to All-Star status in 2005, driving in 101 runs. He's above average defensively and could hit 40 homers this year if he stays healthy. First base is undecided. If Jeff Bagwell can throw just a little coming off shoulder surgery, he should start and add badly needed power. If not, then outfielder Lance Berkman, a switch hitter, becomes the first baseman with Mike Lamb as the backup at first and third. Berkman, who missed the first 27 game of last season after undergoing knee surgery, is pretty good defensively, but not what Bagwell used to be.
Center fielder Willy Taveras proved to be a solid major league outfielder as a rookie, although he occasionally misjudges a ball. His arm is strong. He won't hit for power, but his speed allowed him to lead the majors with 70 infield hits last year. He's also an excellent bunter. Jason Lane became the everyday right fielder in 2005. His arm is strong but not always accurate. The Astros, perpetually searching for offense, need Lane to increase his home run and RBI numbers. The addition of Wilson, who is expected to start in left field, will allow Berkman to play daily at first base if Bagwell's shoulder isn't healthy enough for him to play defense. Wilson should love Minute Maid Park's shallow left field, but how much were his previous numbers inflated by playing in Colorado? Chris Burke, a second baseman by trade who played left field last year, could become a valuable utility player. Luke Scott, who started in left to open last season but was sent down a month later after a terrible start, will get another chance to make the team, possibly as the fourth outfielder.
The Astros solved their catching problem when they re-signed free agent Brad Ausmus for two more years. Ausmus may be an inconsistent hitter, but he is still one of the best in baseball behind the plate. The pitchers respect him, and his knowledge of opposing hitters is invaluable. Raul Chavez, Humberto Quintero and rookie Hector Gimenez will compete for the backup job but won't contribute much offensively. Houston often uses its backup to catch Oswalt.
Eric Bruntlett will be tagged for bigger things this season after the Astros decided not to bring back utility infielder Jose Vizcaino. Bruntlett can play every position on the diamond. He won three games offensively last year, which is significant when you consider the Astros earned the wild-card berth by only one game. Ignore Lamb's season statistics for 2005. The power-hitting first and third baseman delivered in September and October when the Astros needed him most.
What do you do for an encore, Tim Purpura? Helping guide the Astros to their first World Series in your first season as general manager is tough to follow. When everyone said the Astros absolutely had to bring in another bat before the trade deadline last year, Purpura never panicked. When he couldn't get the deal he wanted, he stood firm and the Astros started winning with what they had. Losing astute former GM Gerry Hunsicker before last year could have dealt the franchise a blow, but Purpura stepped into the GM's job smoothly.
Clemens could ride in near midseason to rescue this team if it gets off to another slow start. He not only has to decide to sign with the Astros, but he must also stay healthy after a hamstring injury hampered him late last season. If the Astros open the season 15–30 like they did last year, that may prove to be too big a hole to hit their way out of with a lineup that is still short on power. The Astros have to score more runs to give the starting pitchers a chance. Houston stayed status quo in the offseason, which may not be good enough to garner a third straight wild-card spot behind runaway division favorite St. Louis.