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ONLY ONE plane left Houston's George Bush Intercontinental Airport on Sept. 14, 2008. On board were the Astros, jetting north to play a "home" game against the Cubs in Milwaukee that night. Left behind were their families and the destruction of Hurricane Ike. First baseman Lance Berkman and several of his teammates wouldn't have electricity in their homes for two weeks. "Most of Houston was still in shambles," says Berkman. "Guys were still trying to get their families situated."
Before Ike hit, the Astros had won six in a row and 14 of 15, had surged to within three games of the wild-card lead and owned the same record as the eventual world champion Phillies. Whether or not the Astros were distracted by the damage and dislocation at home, the two days of postponements, the partisan crowd from nearby Chicago or the wear of traveling and playing on the same day, they were awful. The Cubs' Carlos Zambrano no-hit the Astros that night. Ted Lilly and three relievers one-hit Houston the next day, and after flying to Miami, the Astros found unkind hosts in the Marlins, who outscored Houston 27--4 in a three-game sweep. "We were headed to the playoffs until the storm came through," says manager Cecil Cooper. The hurricane was a turning point, but there were signs of trouble before that—a 6--12 start and an 11--27 early-summer swoon, for instance—in an 86--75 season. "In baseball you are who you are," says Berkman. "That was about an 86-win team last year." And perhaps even that is generous: with a -31 run differential, the Astros played more like a 77-win team.
That the Astros were in postseason contention at all was because of two July trades that were initially mocked. Lefty starter Randy Wolf came over from San Diego with a 4.74 ERA, and righty reliever LaTroy Hawkins was at 5.71 with the Yankees. But the Astros were 10--2 in Wolf's starts and Hawkins allowed only one earned run in 21 innings. Despite the poststorm collapse, Houston finished with the NL's best second-half record (42--24), held together by an improved pitching staff whose ERA after the trade deadline (3.99) was 0.56 lower than before it, and a sure-handed defense that committed a major-league-record-low 67 errors for the season.
The bullpen, featuring two-time NL saves leader Jose Valverde, returns intact, and the defense will be slightly better with Geoff Blum replacing Ty Wigginton at third base. But the starting rotation after Roy Oswalt, baseball's winningest pitcher since 2001, is suspect. Oswalt and Wolf had a 3.55 ERA in their 44 starts; the rest of the staff had a 5.01 mark in 117 outings. Unable to retain Wolf because of the failing economy, the Astros added only reclamation projects Mike Hampton and Russ Ortiz to join Wandy Rodriguez and Brian Moehler. "Their rotation is 1-5-5-5-6," says an NL scout. "If they're smart, they'll trade Oswalt to a contender to get some young players and reshuffle the deck."
The scout's recommendation would not only replenish what is considered by many baseball people to be the game's leanest farm system, but it would also save the team money, an increasing concern. The Astros were nearly limited to a 2009 payroll of about $95 million, which would have required dumping another salary, says general manager Ed Wade, but owner Drayton McLane blessed a payroll just north of $105 million to keep the team competitive, which is historically not that hard in the NL Central.
The one-two punch of Berkman and Carlos Lee was baseball's second most dangerous last year, trailing only the Cardinals' Albert Pujols and Ryan Ludwick in OPS+ among teammates with at least 450 plate appearances. Shortstop Miguel Tejada, who pleaded guilty to lying to congressional investigators in a probe into steroid use and received a year's probation, can now focus on his sinking on-base percentage (.314 last year) and rising propensity to ground into double plays—32, tied for third most in baseball history. Add rightfielder Hunter Pence, and there are four productive bats, but it's a precipitous drop after that. It all adds up to another stormy season in Houston.
CONSIDER THIS A Modest Proposal ...
The Astros need Michael Bourn covering the vast expanse of Minute Maid Park's centerfield. What they don't need is his low on-base percentage crippling the top of their lineup. Bourn (left) can fly (41 stolen bases in '08), but he had a terrible .288 OBP last year, drawing only 37 walks, and his low contact rate (111 strikeouts in 467 at bats) won't allow him to reach the .300 batting average that would justify his place near the top of the order. Instead of hitting second, Bourn should bat eighth, where his low OBP will do the least damage until he shows improvement in his walk and strikeout rates (not an impossibility considering his solid .377 OBP in the minors). Rightfielder Hunter Pence, no OBP machine himself but an improvement over Bourn, can bat second between leadoff man Kaz Matsui and Lance Berkman.