These are not the greatest of times for the Houston Astros . The club finished in the middle of the pack in the NL Central last year and has posted losing records in consecutive seasons for the first time in two decades.
Still, there is some hope for the true believers in Houston. The Astros finished strong last season — they went 59–52 after June 1 under first-year manager Brad Mills — and the addition of Clint Barmes  and Bill Hall  should help an offense that was among the worst in baseball last season. In addition, the Astros’ starting pitching was among the best in the NL in the second half of last season.
On paper, the Cardinals , Brewers  and Reds  are the frontrunners in the Central, but if everything falls into place, the Astros believe they can be a factor in the seemingly always wide-open division.
Brett Myers , who got a contract extension last July after a career season in his debut with the Astros, returns as the anchor of a starting rotation that posted a 3.42 ERA after the All-Star break last year. That was third in the NL behind the Phillies  and Giants . Myers is now the ace of the staff with Roy Oswalt  in Philadelphia, but the Astros have a deep rotation that features veteran lefthander Wandy Rodriguez , steady lefty J.A. Happ  and up-and-comer Bud Norris . Rodriguez was among the best pitchers in baseball in the second half and combines with Myers for a formidable 1-2 punch. Happ, traded from the Phillies in July, is healthy and could be in store for a breakout season. Norris struggled early last year, but once he got healthy in the second half of the season, the quality starts began to mount, along with the confidence of the young righthander. The fifth spot is up for grabs, with Ryan Rowland-Smith , Nelson Figueroa , hot shot prospect Jordan Lyles  and Rule 5 draft picks Aneury Rodriguez and Lance Pendleton among those who will be battling in spring training.
With Brandon Lyon  showing in the second half of last year he was a capable closer and the Astros needing to save some money, they traded Matt Lindstrom  to the Rockies  in December for a pair of prospects. Lyon, who saved 20 games in 22 chances last year and posted a 3.12 ERA, goes into the season as the clear-cut closer, unlike last year when he and Lindstrom were vying for the spot. The emergence of Wilton Lopez , a waiver claim, has also strengthened the back of the bullpen. Lopez will likely start the year as the team’s setup man after having a 2.96 ERA in 68 games. Mark Melancon , who was traded from the Yankees  in the Lance Berkman  deal, is another solid arm at the back of the bullpen. From there, the Astros have a handful of young arms who could play key roles, including Jeff Fulchino , Henry Villar , Fernando Abad  and Enerio Del Rosario . Alberto Arias  is recovering from shoulder surgery and could contribute.
The Astros traded for Barmes from the Rockies and signed Hall to a one-year deal to play second base in an offseason effort to step up run production. The Astros managed only nine homers in the middle of the infield last year, but Barmes and Hall both have some pop and are steady defenders. Jeff Keppinger , who went from super sub to starter last year, is coming off the best season of his career but will be back on the bench with the addition of Hall at second base. Still, he’s a versatile player who makes contact and can play several positions. Tommy Manzella , last year’s starting shortstop to begin the year, will have to find a way onto the club, and Angel Sanchez , who ended the year at shortstop, also returns, although he has limited range and a weak arm, which limits how the club can use him.
Youngsters Chris Johnson  and Brett Wallace  are back to man the corner infield spots this year. Johnson had a terrific rookie campaign, hitting .308 with 11 homers and 52 RBIs after being called up in late June. The Astros are hoping he picks up in 2011 where he left off last year. Wallace, acquired in a secondary trade following the Oswalt deal, struggled in his major league debut as the starting first baseman. Wallace is a big, strong kid with a track record of being a solid run-producer throughout the minor leagues, so the Astros are going to give him every opportunity. If he needs more time, they’re prepared to move Carlos Lee  in from left field to play first base like they did often last September.
With Lee in left field, two-time Gold Glove winner Michael Bourn  in center and Hunter Pence , a budding star, in right, the outfield is in pretty good shape. Bourn, who has led the league in steals the past two years, can run as well as anyone and is a great defensive player, though the club would like him to get on base as much as he did in his breakout season of 2009. Pence brushed off a sluggish start last year to post his third consecutive 25-homer season and has become the anchor of the lineup. Lee’s coming off a down year, but still has the ability to drive in 100 runs. Jason Michaels  is a reliable backup who has some pop. Brian Bogusevic , a former first-round pick as a pitcher, and speedy Jason Bourgeois  are among the fifth outfield options.
Jason Castro  will go into the season as a starter. He made his big league debut last year and struggled at the plate, but the team needed to find out what he brought to the table. This year will go a long way in determining his future. Humberto Quintero , who led the major leagues with seven pick-offs last year, returns as the backup. He doesn’t bring much to the plate offensively, but he’s a rugged backstop and was the catcher of choice for Myers.
The Astros have several players on their bench capable of starting, which gives Mills more options. Michaels can play anywhere in the outfield and can hit the ball out of the ballpark, while Keppinger can play three positions and was the club’s most consistent hitter last year as the starting second baseman. Matt Downs , Manzella and Sanchez could all factor into the infield mix, while Quintero has made a nice career as a dependable back-up catcher with a strong arm.
Mills goes into his second year with a new contract and rave reviews from GM Ed Wade and his players. Wade has been preaching the importance of player development since he was hired in 2007, and the Astros are making huge strides. But with the club up for sale, he wasn’t able to make any big splashes via free agency this winter.
The Astros aren’t going to be anyone’s pick to win the division, but they’re an interesting team. By adding Hall and Barmes to a lineup that includes Lee, Pence, Bourn and Johnson, they should score runs. The pitching staff could be one of the best in the NL, but they’ll need Myers to repeat what he did last year and Rodriguez to be consistent. They could have thrust themselves into dark horse contender mode with another quality starter and another solid bat during the winter, but they did enough in the offseason to remain relevant.