… That was the last time the Astros went to the playoffs, and the only time in franchise history the club made it to the World Series (one that ended in a sweep suffered at the hands of the White Sox).
Now, after finishing in second-to-last place and 17 games out of first place in the National League Central, Houston will have a new manager (Brad Mills), back end of the bullpen (Matt Lindstrom and Brandon Lyon), third baseman (Pedro Feliz) starter (Brett Myers) and shortstop (Tommy Manzella).
Let’s examine their two biggest changes …
For the last 13 years, the Astros have had one go-to ninth-inning man — Billy Wagner 1997-2003), Brad Lidge (2004-07) and Jose Valverde (2008-09). Now, for the first time in a long time, they are unsure. It could be Lyon with Lindstrom setting up; it could be vice-versa; and it could be a platoon situation in the ninth.
I examined this in my MLB.com story
. But here’s a question for this blog: With the ink barely dry on Lyon’s three-year, $15 million contract, is it Lindstrom who’s in an uphill battle right now? Each pitcher brings something different to the table (Lyon is more finesse, Lindstrom more electric), and each has their flaws (Lindstrom’s been inconsistent as a closer, Lyon doesn’t have quite the upside).
But is that figure attached to Lyon’s name something that favors him at this very moment? Mills and Wade have stressed it’s an open competition all throughout camp, and Lindstrom and Lyon each said the right things on Tuesday. So, if it is, it will remain a secret.
I asked Lindstrom, who’s making $1.625 million, if he feels he is indeed in an uphill battle because of Lyon’s salary.
Here’s what he said: “Not really. Not an uphill battle. I’m just excited to be here with a new organization, new club, and I think we can have success this year if we just go out there and play hard and play together. I don’t really worry too much about contract stuff and things like that.”
To be fair, Lindstrom (pictured stretching below) has his own issues to worry about — like how he’s going to bounce back from a 5.89 ERA — so he can’t afford to be sweating that kind of stuff. But it’s worth a thought …
That’s where another one of the Astros’ most drastic changes will come. It’s a position Miguel Tejada held down the last two years, and a position a 26-year-old prospect, Manzella, will handle now.
Like Lyon and Lindstrom, Tejada and Manzella are pretty much opposites. The 35-year-old Tejada doesn’t really have the range needed to be an everyday big league shortstop (as evidenced by the Orioles making him their third baseman), but he can hit (a .313 batting average with 14 homers and 86 RBIs last year ain’t too shabby). Manzella, on the other hand, should be pure joy to watch defensively this year, but his offense (a .268 batting average with a .321 on-base percentage and 21 homers in five Minor League seasons) is questionable.
Defense is obviously a priority at shortstop — more than any other position, I think — but how much offense are you willing to sacrifice for great defense? Does Tejada make up for his lack of range with how effectively he still produces runs? Or does Manzella make the Astros better because of his run production, even though he isn’t projected to produce much at the plate?
Perhaps it varies team-by-team. Well, the Astros will rely on three relative question marks in the middle of the order this year in Lance Berkman, Carlos Lee and Hunter Pence. Could they have used Tejada’s bat and sacrificed some defense on the left side (where Feliz is a solid defensive third baseman and may make up for some of that), or do you take the defense of Manzella instead?
Here’s what Mills said when I asked him how much offense he’s willing to sacrifice for defense from his shortstop: “I think we’re going to have to wait and see what transpires because of that. You’d hate to have this guy, his rookie season, step in and put a lot of weight on him. A lot of it is going to depend on the guys around him — how they’re swinging the bats and how many runs are scoring and so forth. And people will talk about [Manzella], that he has problems swinging the bat, but you know what, you look at his past history, he swung the bat pretty well where he’s been at the Minor League level. And there’s no reason to think he won’t do that now where he’s at. So I’m not ready to resolve that this guy is just a glove man.”