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Posted: Tuesday March 16, 2010 6:27PM; Updated: Tuesday March 16, 2010 6:27PM
Albert Chen
Albert Chen>INSIDE BASEBALL

Spring Postcard: Astros turn to Pence to carry team forward

Story Highlights

Hunter Pence may be ready to take his game to the next level

It's unclear how much longtime stars Lance Berkman and Roy Oswalt have left

With Brandon Lyon out, the Astros need to find someone to be their closer

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Postcards From Camp
 
Location: Kissimmee, Fla.
 

Hunter Pence
Hunter Pence made great strides at the plate and in the field in 2009.
AP
MLB Team Page

This spring, SI.com writers are filing postcards from all 30 major league camps. To read all the postcards, click here.

Three Observations

1. Hunter Pence is ready to lead

One day this winter at Minute Maid Park, Astros general manager Ed Wade ran into right fielder Hunter Pence, who was at the ballpark, like most days this offseason, working out with some teammates. Wade and Pence started talking about their expectations for the upcoming season. "I know my time is coming," Pence said. Wade looked at his watch. "No time like the present," the GM said.

Pence had a fine season in 2009, making his first All-Star team,improving his walk rate and hitting 25 home runs for a second straight year. He has also developed nicely in the field; he finished second to Ichiro in right-fielder voting in the annual Fielding Bible Awards for last season (an award that's proved more legitimate than the Gold Glove). And yet there's a feeling that Pence has not quite lived up to expectations; that he has been good in an Astros uniform, but not great. Wade, who before last year correctly predicted that Pence would earn an invite to the All-Star game, thinks the sharp 27-year-old -- a finance major, he made the Dean's List at the University of Texas at Arlington -- is now ready to take it to the next level, to become the 30-home run, 100-RBI producer that longtime Astro Lance Berkman has been for so many years. "I think he's going to have a big year," says Wade. "He's in his fourth season now, and at 27, entering the prime of his career. The biggest thing is that he's improved his plate discipline. This spring he's already looked just locked in." Adds Wade, "He always plays at such a high intensity level. I remember hearing stories about Hunter in the minors going into the manager office in tears because he was so upset about losing."

With old guard of Berkman and Roy Oswalt perhaps nearing the end of their run in Houston, Pence knows all eyes are him to lead the franchise into the new decade. "The biggest difference for me is my confidence," he says. "The difference, even between this year and last year, is night and day. I know there are high expectations of me, but I have high expectations of myself."

2. Ed Wade loves those ex-Phillies

As one Phillies blog pointed out, "You could field an entire team with Ed Wade's ex-Phillies." In January, Brett Myers became the 11th player from Philly to be signed by Wade since he took over the Astros in September 2007. Wade, who was the GM of the Phillies when they drafted Myers in 1999, says all his scouts reported that Myers still had the stuff to be an effective starter in Houston, where he will slot behind Roy Oswalt and Wandy Rodriguez in the rotation. Myers' one-year, $3 million addition is a good low-risk, high-reward deal for the Astros. You could argue that the Astros are the fifth best team in the division, behind the Cardinals, Cubs, Brewers, and upstart Reds, but if Way-Rod is the pitcher he was last year, if Oswalt rebounds from the worst season of his career, and if Myers is the pitcher Wade thinks he can be, then the Astros have a chance to be respectable with a solid 1-2-3 in the rotation.

3. The offense is going to be a problem

The Astros were a poor offensive team last year, ranking 14th in the National League in runs and 13th in slugging. Over the winter they lost Miguel Tejada, who had an underrated offensive year, and now Lance Berkman could miss the start of the season after he underwent arthroscopic surgery last weekend to remove loose cartilage from his left knee. Berkman, who doesn't profile as a player that ages well, had a solid season last year -- he posted a .907 OPS -- but is now 34 and missed time last year with a strained calf. Berkman has been one of the game's most consistent hitters over the last decade, but those days are over.

Team Strength

Defense

In Pence, they have an outstanding fielder in right field, and in Michael Bourn, they have a very underrated one patrolling the treacherous center field at Minute Maid Park. This year the Astros will get a big boost defensively with the addition of slick-fielding third baseman Pedro Feliz, as well as new shortstop Tommy Manzella, a rookie that a scout calls "as good with the glove as Adam Everett" -- which is to say, very good.

Prospect to Watch

Jason Castro

Castro is a rare gem in a minor league system that's regarded as one of the worst in baseball. The 10th overall pick in the 2008 draft, Castro has had a nice spring, but J.R. Towles has the inside track on the opening day job. Castro, though, has the higher upside -- "above average defensively with the potential to hit .300 in the big leagues," says a scout. Castro spent a lot of time in the weight room this winter after feeling exhausted down the stretch last season, a year in which he hit .300/.380/.446 in 511 plate appearances split between high Single-A Lancaster and Double-A Corpus Christi. He will likely start the year in Triple-A but could be up starring in Houston as soon as May.

Wish You Were Here

A Closer

The Astros' signing of Brandon Lyon to a three-year, $15 million deal was one of the worst deals of the winter. And that was before Lyon had minor surgery on his shoulder a few weeks before spring training. Last weekend, Lyon experienced stiffness after facing live hitters for the first time and may not be healthy enough to start the season. Matt Lindstrom, who had 15 saves for the Marlins last season and has impressed thus far in camp, is the Astros' guy in the ninth ... for now.

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