The past few seasons have been a whirlwind for the Astros and their fans. In 2004, the team made its first National League championship series appearance against division rival St. Louis Cardinals and lost in seven thrilling games. In 2005, they made their first World Series appearance against the Chicago White Sox in what turned out to be one of the closest sweeps in World Series history. The Sox swept the Astros four games to none, but outscored the Astros by a mere six runs in the series.
Last season, was a bit of a let down as the team failed to live up to expectations and some of the players that were crucial in their World Series run a season before struggled offensively. The team had a furious finish, but was unable to overcome the inconsistent play that plagued them the majority of the season.
The pitching that helped them weather the storm last season took a few hits as well. Andy Pettitte, the 6 foot 5 inch, 225 pound finesse pitcher from Deer Park, defected back to the New York Yankees in the off-season. Future Hall-of-Famer Roger Clemens, now 44, will make the Astros wait until May to find out if he will be coming back to pitch for them around midseason. Playoff stud Brandon Backe had Tommy John surgery and will likely be out all of 2007.
With that in mind, the Astros’ brass knew that they would have to make some moves in order to stay in line with the likes of the Cardinals and the Chicago Cubs, who had made some moves of their own. The Astros acquired two pitchers with Texas ties to replace the two that they lost. They signed free agent pitcher Woody Williams, 40, a University of Houston product, to a two-year contract. They traded fan-favorite Willy Taveras and pitchers Taylor Buchholz and Jason Hirsh to the Colorado Rockies for Baylor alum Jason Jennings.
On offense, they made a big splash by inking free agent outfielder Carlos Lee to six-year, $100 million contract. In split action last season with the Milwaukee Brewers and the Texas Rangers, Lee had a .300 batting average with 37 homeruns and 116 RBIs He should provide slugger Lance Berkman with the protection that he sorely lacked in the lineup last season. They also signed versatile, veteran infielder Mark Loretta, who can play any of the infield positions and will likely spell Biggio later in the season.
The fate of the bullpen hinges on the right arm of closer Brad Lidge. In 2006, he struggled mightily, with an ERA over 5.28. Lidge struggled again this spring and there are some questions over whether he will ever be an elite closer again. If he falters, Dan Wheeler could assume the closer role, as he did last year when he saved nine games for the Astros.
The beautiful thing about baseball is that it is such a long season and it is really hard to predict who will win the World Series. Who would have predicted that the team who would go on to win it all, the Cardinals, would finish the regular season with only 83 wins? The NL Central should be wide open once again, with none of the teams really superior to one another. A big factor could be how the Astros fair in September, when they play 21 games against division rivals.