Quiet off season offers little excitement

‘ If the Houston Astros look back on the end of the 2008 season, they will remember winning 14 of 15 games leading up to Hurricane Ike, but Ike ultimately threw off the Astros’ rhythm and their hopes of a postseason berth.

In recent years, the Astros have been playing better baseball towards the end of the season. However, they would not blame losing five out of six games after Ike hit Houston on the storm.

Instead, the rescheduling of home games against the Chicago Cubs to Milwaukee, basically a home game for the Cubs, fuels the Astros to play even better this season. It drives them to get back to the World Series and win a title.

For Astros fans, it was a quiet off season. Houston lost veteran catcher Brad Ausmus to the Dodgers, as well as third baseman Ty Wiggington and starting pitcher Randy Wolf to free agency. The front office wasn’t too busy, signing veteran third basemen Aaron Boone, outfielder Jason Michaels and former Astros pitcher and oft-injured starter Mike Hampton.

Non-roster invitees heading to Kissimee, Fla. include veteran pitcher Russ Ortiz, who has 110 career wins in the big leagues, utility catcher Toby Hall, who has a career .262 batting average, and outfielder Reggie Abercrombie, who hit .309 in 34 games last season for the Astros.

In a free agent off season that was dominated by the New York Yankees’ signings of pitchers C.C Sabathia, A.J. Burnett, Andy Pettitte and first basemen Mark Teixiera, the Astros are not making any excuses to explain why they cannot play better than the big spenders in New York.

Astros star player Lance Berkman had a MVP-level season last year, smacking 29 home runs and 106 RBIs. The team also welcomes back left fielder Carlos Lee, who missed the last 47 games in 2008 with a left pinky injury.

Lee and his pinky are back to full health, and ready to begin camp in February. Lee, the big free agent signee from a few seasons ago, has 70 home runs and 219 RBIs in less than two full seasons with the club.

The Boone family tree is now in Houston, as the Astros have Aaron sharing third base duties with switch hitter Geoff Blum to provide some pop in the bottom of the lineup.

Roy Oswalt will anchor the Astros rotation once again, and possibly the rotation of the United States team in the World Baseball Classic in March.

Oswalt went 17-10 last season with 165 strikeouts in over 200 innings. His ERA was a solid 3.54, and he is clearly the best pitcher in the Astros’ thin starting rotation.

The addition of Hampton as a possible fifth starter does not bring a sigh of relief to Astros fans. Hampton has started only 25 games in the past four seasons due to injuries and did not even play in 2006 and 2007.

The Astros realize this, but they have not forgotten the 22-4 record and 211.2 innings Hampton pitched for the ballclub in 1999. Hampton has struggled to stay healthy, so any amount of starts and production will be a bonus for the team.

Although they have a thin rotation, the Astros also have an excellent bullpen. The anchor will be closer Jose Valverde, who had 44 saves and a 6-3 record last season. Reliever Doug Brocail, who appeared in 72 games last season and notched a 7-5 record, will give the Astros a reliable 8th-inning arm.

The Astros open up their season against the hated Cubs on April 6 at Minute Maid Park. The Astros hope to use this series to get revenge for the rescheduled games during Ike, and to make a season-opening statement.

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