By John Donovan, SI.com
The Astros have been good, but not quite good enough, for most of a decade now. They've had one losing season in the past 10. They've made the playoffs four of the past six years. They won 102 games in 1998.
But they've never been out of the first round of the playoffs, and last year they missed the postseason altogether, finishing a disappointing 13 games behind the Cardinals in the National League Central.
Not quite good enough, clearly, is not good enough.
So the Astros continue to tinker here and there, pull out a part, stick in another, in hopes of getting over the hump. This year, they've landed one of the premier sluggers in baseball, ex-Giants second baseman Jeff Kent. His bat, especially in right-handed-hitter haven Minute Maid Park, should give the offense an instant bump.
The top of their rotation is solid, with righties Wade Miller and Roy Oswalt, and they have one of the best closing duos in baseball in setup man Octavio Dotel and closer Billy Wagner.
But the Astros still have their problems. The players who have carried them for most of this decade are aging, and they've lost young lefty Carlos Hernandez to shoulder problems, throwing much of the rotation into question.
They still have Biggio and Bagwell and Berkman. They're still good.
The question is, as always: Are they good enough?
It's not as if the Astros were counting on Hernandez, but it would have been nice. Now, after Oswalt and Miller, manager Jimy Williams will go with a starter who missed most of last season after back surgery (Shane Reynolds) and a seven-year veteran who is 50-56 lifetime (Brian Moehler). The final spot -- providing Reynolds and Moehler are OK -- could go to Pete Munro, Kirk Saarloos, Jared Fernandez or Tim Redding, all righties. Or, because everyone else is a righty, to lefties Jesus Sanchez or Jeriome Robertson.
There could be some swapping between the bullpen and the rotation, too, if Williams doesn't see what he likes at the Astros' new complex in Kissimmee, Fla. About the only for-sures in the bullpen are Dotel, Wagner and middleman Ricky Stone.
Morgan Ensberg, as he did last spring, could challenge for the third base job now held by Geoff Blum. And Adam Everett, if he can hit better than the .193 (40 games) he did last season, could challenge Julio Lugo at short. But the rest of the lineup is set, now that Craig Biggio has made room for Kent at second by moving to center field.
Jeff Bagwell has carried the Astros in a lot of ways for a lot of years, but he hasn't been able to carry them far enough. Last year, bothered by a shoulder slow to heal from surgery, he slumped, failing to drive in 100 runs for the first time since '95. His slugging percentage and his total bases were at their lowest point since that year, too. He should be healthier, and if he is, the Astros have a formidable middle of the lineup with Bagwell, hitting machine Lance Berkman and Kent.
With the starting rotation in so much trouble, lefty Robertson could make a difference. He was 12-8 with a 2.25 ERA in Class AAA New Orleans last season, won the Pacific Coast League Pitcher of the Year award, was a PCL All-Star and was selected for the Class AAA All-Star team. He mixes a changeup with a decent fastball, works in a sinker and has shown that he can handle adversity. (He was relegated to the bullpen for an entire year in the minors.) He may not make the team out of spring training, but if the Astros need a lefty in their righty-heavy rotation, they know where to find him.
Arrivals: 2B Jeff Kent (from San Francisco as a free agent), RHP Brian Moehler (from Cincinnati as free agent), RHP Jared Fernandez (from Cincinnati as free agent), OF Victor Hall (from Colorado in trade), RHP Ruddy Lugo (from Los Angeles in trade)
Departures: OF Daryle Ward (to Los Angeles in trade), RHP Nelson Cruz (to Los Angeles in trade), INF Mark Loretta (free agent signed with Padres), RHP Dave Mlicki (free agent signed with Brewers), LHP Pedro Borbon (free agent signed with Dodgers), RHP Doug Brocail (free agent), RHP Tom Gordon (free agent signed with White Sox)
Biggio to center will be the most heavily scrutinized move in Houston since Enron's trip to bankruptcy court. But he won't be the only one under watch. Take Richard Hidalgo, who has been sliding badly since he slammed 44 homers and drove in 122 runs in 2000, for example. Hidalgo hit only 15 homers and drove in only 48 runs last year, was shot in the arm in a carjacking attempt this winter and is a huge question mark for this team. As usual, this could be a good team. But, as usual, there are always questions.