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Houston Astros

SI Rank: NL Central (4) | MLB (19)
To regain his old form -- a development crucial to the team's hopes -- Lidge spent a week working on mechanics with Nolan Ryan.
To regain his old form -- a development crucial to the team's hopes -- Lidge spent a week working on mechanics with Nolan Ryan.
David J. Phillip/AP
fourth season with Astros
Team Page | 2007 Schedule
.336 Batting average for rightfielder Luke Scott in 214 at bats as a rookie last season. The 28-year-old Scott, who had never batted .300 in five years in the minor leagues, was helped by an abnormally high .385 BABIP (Batting Average on Balls In Play). Expect his BABIP to drop closer to the league average of .301 with a corresponding drop in his overall average.
Catcher Brad Ausmus once provided enough defense to make up for a lack of stick, but those days are over, and the Astros would be better off relegating him to a bench role. Ausmus's Value Over Replacement Player (VORP) -- a Baseball Prospectus metric that calculates the number of runs a player contributes above those that the average Triple A replacement at the same position would -- was -17.5 last year, one of the lowest of any regular in baseball. His throwing arm has declined too; Ausmus nailed only 22% of prospective base stealers in '06. Humberto Quintero, expected to be Ausmus's backup, looks like the best candidate to replace him. PECOTA projects that Quintero would produce 17 more runs than Ausmus given the same amount of playing time, and his work behind the plate is considered nearly as good.
2B CRAIG BIGGIO R 175 .246 21 62 3
CF CHRIS BURKE R 202 .276 9 40 11
1B LANCE BERKMAN S-L 11 .315 45 136 3
LF CARLOS LEE R 9 .300 37 116 19
3B MORGAN ENSBERG R 153 .235 23 58 1
RF LUKE SCOTT L-R 125 .336 10 37 2
SS ADAM EVERETT R 267 .239 6 59 9
C BRAD AUSMUS R 318 .230 2 39 3
INF MIKE LAMB L-R 231 .307 12 45 2
OF-1B JASON LANE R-L 256 .201 15 45 1
INF MARK LORETTA R 292 .285 5 59 4
RH ROY OSWALT 2 15 8 166 1.17 2.98
RH JASON JENNINGS 101 9 13 142 1.37 3.78
RH WOODY WILLIAMS 77 12 5 72 1.29 3.65
LH WANDY RODRIGUEZ 171 9 10 98 1.60 5.64
RH FERNANDO NIEVE 213 3 3 70 1.33 4.20
RH BRAD LIDGE 85 1 5 32 1.40 5.28
RH DAN WHEELER 149 3 5 9 1.15 2.52
RH CHAD QUALLS 164 7 3 0 1.17 3.76

The three dirtiest words around Astros camp this year: World Baseball Classic.

Last March, nearly four weeks before he normally would pitch in a meaningful game, closer Brad Lidge was called on to close a first-round game against Mexico in the inaugural WBC. Those close to Lidge say that in his haste to prepare for the preseason tournament he sped up his delivery and never found his normal rhythm during the season. "The [WBC] set him back, no question about it," says Hall of Famer Nolan Ryan, who as a friend to Lidge summoned him to Houston in late January to help with his mechanics. "Pitchers need time to have a normal spring training."

Lidge went on to have a 1-5 season with six blown saves and a 5.28 ERA, and the Astros finished 1 1/2 games behind the division-winning Cardinals. But Lidge chooses his words carefully when discussing the impact of the tournament on his 2006 performance. "I won't use that, or anything else, as an excuse," he says. "I got into some bad habits early last year. My front shoulder flew open early, which meant hitters saw the ball longer and my control was way off."

A return to his old form -- in 2004 and '05 Lidge had a combined 2.07 ERA and converted a total of 71 of 79 save opportunities -- is crucial to Houston's playoff hopes. With an already sketchy starting staff made weaker by the defection of lefthander Andy Pettitte to the Yankees and the uncertainty of whether Roger Clemens will return for another season, a deep bullpen is more important to the Astros than in recent years. If Lidge gets off to another bad start and manager Phil Garner has to move Dan Wheeler (1.11 ERA after the All-Star break) into the closer's job, one of the best setup men in the majors will have to be replaced. Houston's staff isn't deep enough to survive the domino effect that another Lidge collapse would set off.

Three seasons ago, relying on his fastball and slider, Lidge emerged as one of the game's top closers. He should have been even better last year with the addition of a cut fastball, but no matter how hard he tried -- in side sessions and during games -- he never regained his command. "Starters can experiment in games when they're having trouble," general manager Tim Purpura says. "There's no such thing as trial and error with a closer, because almost every pitch he throws can decide a game."

If you're looking for a hopeful sign of a rebound, consider that Lidge's strikeout rate (12.5 per nine innings) remained excellent last year. But compared to 2005 Lidge gave up five more homers and 13 more walks in '06, when he pitched only 413 more innings. At the same time Houston went from winning 89 games and reaching the playoffs two years ago to winning seven fewer games last season.

Just as he doesn't blame the WBC for his struggles, Lidge also denies that his playoff meltdown in '05 -- when the Cards' Albert Pujols slammed a game-winning homer off him in Game 5 of the NLCS -- weighed on him last year. "As long as I'm the closer here, I'm going to face Pujols five to eight times a year," says Lidge. "He's a great hitter. He's going to win some, I'm going to win some. I can promise you, I don't even think about that at bat unless someone brings it up to me."

At Ryan's Elite Pitchers Camp at Minute Maid Park, Houston pitching instructors Dave Wallace and Dewey Robinson also worked with Lidge and monitored his progress. While practicing his mechanics, Lidge focused on making sure that he didn't begin his move toward home plate until his back pocket faced the batter. "That's how I know I'm staying back and not rushing," he says.

In spring training Lidge remained focused on mechanics, not blowing away hitters. "Brad will rebound, I'm sure of it," says Ryan. If he doesn't, the Astros won't either. -- Peter King

Issue date: March 26, 2007