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Original Issue


The few stars would be best used as trading chips to replenish a depletedfarm

ONLY ONE planeleft Houston's George Bush Intercontinental Airport on Sept. 14, 2008. On boardwere the Astros, jetting north to play a "home" game against the Cubsin Milwaukee that night. Left behind were their families and the destruction ofHurricane Ike. First baseman Lance Berkman and several of his teammateswouldn't have electricity in their homes for two weeks. "Most of Houstonwas still in shambles," says Berkman. "Guys were still trying to gettheir families situated."

Before Ike hit,the Astros had won six in a row and 14 of 15, had surged to within three gamesof the wild-card lead and owned the same record as the eventual world championPhillies. Whether or not the Astros were distracted by the damage anddislocation at home, the two days of postponements, the partisan crowd fromnearby Chicago or the wear of traveling and playing on the same day, they wereawful. The Cubs' Carlos Zambrano no-hit the Astros that night. Ted Lilly andthree relievers one-hit Houston the next day, and after flying to Miami, theAstros found unkind hosts in the Marlins, who outscored Houston 27--4 in athree-game sweep. "We were headed to the playoffs until the storm camethrough," says manager Cecil Cooper. The hurricane was a turning point, butthere were signs of trouble before that—a 6--12 start and an 11--27early-summer swoon, for instance—in an 86--75 season. "In baseball you arewho you are," says Berkman. "That was about an 86-win team lastyear." And perhaps even that is generous: with a -31 run differential, theAstros played more like a 77-win team.

That the Astroswere in postseason contention at all was because of two July trades that wereinitially mocked. Lefty starter Randy Wolf came over from San Diego with a 4.74ERA, and righty reliever LaTroy Hawkins was at 5.71 with the Yankees. But theAstros were 10--2 in Wolf's starts and Hawkins allowed only one earned run in21 innings. Despite the poststorm collapse, Houston finished with the NL's bestsecond-half record (42--24), held together by an improved pitching staff whoseERA after the trade deadline (3.99) was 0.56 lower than before it, and asure-handed defense that committed a major-league-record-low 67 errors for theseason.

The bullpen,featuring two-time NL saves leader Jose Valverde, returns intact, and thedefense will be slightly better with Geoff Blum replacing Ty Wigginton at thirdbase. But the starting rotation after Roy Oswalt, baseball's winningest pitchersince 2001, is suspect. Oswalt and Wolf had a 3.55 ERA in their 44 starts; therest of the staff had a 5.01 mark in 117 outings. Unable to retain Wolf becauseof the failing economy, the Astros added only reclamation projects Mike Hamptonand Russ Ortiz to join Wandy Rodriguez and Brian Moehler. "Their rotationis 1-5-5-5-6," says an NL scout. "If they're smart, they'll tradeOswalt to a contender to get some young players and reshuffle thedeck."

The scout'srecommendation would not only replenish what is considered by many baseballpeople to be the game's leanest farm system, but it would also save the teammoney, an increasing concern. The Astros were nearly limited to a 2009 payrollof about $95 million, which would have required dumping another salary, saysgeneral manager Ed Wade, but owner Drayton McLane blessed a payroll just northof $105 million to keep the team competitive, which is historically not thathard in the NL Central.

The one-two punchof Berkman and Carlos Lee was baseball's second most dangerous last year,trailing only the Cardinals' Albert Pujols and Ryan Ludwick in OPS+ amongteammates with at least 450 plate appearances. Shortstop Miguel Tejada, whopleaded guilty to lying to congressional investigators in a probe into steroiduse and received a year's probation, can now focus on his sinking on-basepercentage (.314 last year) and rising propensity to ground into doubleplays—32, tied for third most in baseball history. Add rightfielder HunterPence, and there are four productive bats, but it's a precipitous drop afterthat. It all adds up to another stormy season in Houston.

CONSIDER THIS AModest Proposal ...

The Astros needMichael Bourn covering the vast expanse of Minute Maid Park's centerfield. Whatthey don't need is his low on-base percentage crippling the top of theirlineup. 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 (111strikeouts in 467 at bats) won't allow him to reach the .300 batting averagethat would justify his place near the top of the order. Instead of hittingsecond, Bourn should bat eighth, where his low OBP will do the least damageuntil he shows improvement in his walk and strikeout rates (not animpossibility considering his solid .377 OBP in the minors). RightfielderHunter Pence, no OBP machine himself but an improvement over Bourn, can batsecond between leadoff man Kaz Matsui and Lance Berkman.



Stolen bases theAstros had in 2008. Manager Cecil Cooper vowed that his team would run more,and they swiped 49 more bags than they did in '07. However, they were caught 52times, or in 31% of their attempts, the fifth-worst efficiency in the NL. Sucha low success rate—70% is the industry standard—further slows an offense thatalready makes plenty of outs at the plate (.323 OBP) without giving awayadditional ones on the base paths.

The Lineup

Manager CecilCooper

[This articlecontains a table. Please see hardcopy of magazine or PDF.]

[This articlecontains a table. Please see hardcopy of magazine or PDF.]

*2007 stats
B-T: Bats-throws
WHIP: Walks plus hits per inning pitched
PVR: Player Value Ranking (explanation on page 69)


August 16, 1994

On an April night in 1965, the Astros flew from theirspring training home in Cocoa, Fla., to Houston, where they bused directly tothe brand-new Astrodome to drop off equipment. Larry Dierker, an 18-year-oldrookie, bounded from the clubhouse into the concourse-level seats that night,taking in the multiple miracles before him: the air conditioning, the grassgrowing indoors (artificial turf was not laid until the following year), thetranslucent roof (greenhouse by day, planetarium by night)—the wholeotherworldly quality of this $32 million marvel on the Texas prairie. "Itwas," Dierker says, "like walking into the next century."

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LONE STAR Beyond Oswalt, who's averaged 17 wins over the last five seasons, the rotation is full of No. 5 starters.