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What could I say about the future of the Houston Astros that won’t make me sound like a hater?

Well…

You can still probably get away with calling Carlos Lee “pudgy” instead of “obese”. Does that count?

The 2008 Houston Astros was the oldest squad in the National League. Out of those who accumulated at least 200 ABs last season, only Michael Bourn and Hunter Pence were younger than 30. Wandy Rodriguez was the only 20-something pitcher who started at least four games – and he was 29. If you’re this old, then you’d better be good. But the Astros weren’t. Sure, they won 86 games but they were outscored by their opponents by 31 runs for the year. This was very much a run-of-the-mill team except for the fact that the vast majority of their roster are on the downsides of their careers. And with their last remaining prospects dealt away in the Miguel Tejada trade, there’s no help in the pipeline. Their short term future is mediocrity, which will be immediately followed by awfulness. Unless, of course, they do what they should have done a year ago and blow up the team.

After a great season, Lance Berkman’s value is not going to be this high ever again. The Big Puma (he looks more like a bear to me… Can we just call him the Bear instead?) turned in one of the best offensive years of his career with a line of .312/.420/.567. That’s not to say that moving him will be easy. Berkman’s contract is guaranteed until 2010 with a team option in 2011. However, he also has a full no-trade clause. Would guaranteeing that 2011 option year plus playing for a contending team be enough to coax Berkman into waiving that no-trade? It’s possible. But whomever takes that deal will pay him $44M over the next three years, so the guy’s not cheap. Furthermore, he’ll be 33 come Opening Day which should give teams pause before pulling the trigger. When it’s all said and done, however, Berkman will be more valuable to another team than he’s going to be in Houston over those three seasons.

A similar case could be made for Ty Wigginton, who unexpectedly had an OPS+ of 128 while primarily playing third base. Unless Chipper Jones becomes a free agent this offseason, Wigginton would probably attract far more interest than any other third baseman on the market.

As for the other big names, taller obstacles would need to be cleared. Ace Roy Oswalt is still among the best in the National League but his contract is long and huge (that’s what she said). The 31 year-old is due $45MM over the next three seasons plus a team option and no-trade. And with his slight frame (listed at 6 feet, 170lbs), there will be questions regarding future durability. Tejada only has one year remaining on his deal, but it’s for $13MM and he hit like an average shortstop as an Astro with subpar defense thrown in. Plus, Carlos Lee is an immovable object, literally and figuratively (although I don’t know which is which). Two years ago, the Astros signed him to an absurd $100MM deal that runs through 2012. Lee is still expected to be an offensive contributor for the near future, but I just cannot fathom someone taking on that contract.

Will this fix everything? Absolutely not. For one, Ed Wade is their GM so I can’t be confident that he’ll be able to get anything worthwhile in return even if he were to wheel and deal. And this is an organization with no young cornerstone players (although Pence has a shot to fill that role) so it’s going to be a long climb back into contention. Perhaps I am being too bullish about the NL Central next season but I just cannot foresee a scenario where the Houston Astros have much of a shot.

If you were to twist my arm, however, and dare me to give this team and their fans a reason to hope in 2009, here’s what must happen.

It would be a given that all of last year’s contributors would have to stay healthy. Ones of the J.R.s – Towles or House – would have to become at least a good option at the catcher’s spot because Brad Ausmus is awful and should not be brought back. Miguel Tejada needs to reverse his decline and prove that his poor season was a fluke. Hunter Pence needs to learn how to take a pitch and raise his OBP above .350 to be considered a good player in my book. And although I’m not a fan of his defense, Pence also ought to be moved back to centerfield. His defense won’t help you much, but his bat will profile better there than at the corner OF spots. Why is the defensive hit worth it? Cuz’ Michael Bourn should never start. Ever. He’s a defensive replacement until he proves otherwise. Or they can go out and sign Jim Edmonds. Although a repeat of his Chicago success is unlikely, the guy’s convinced me that he’s not quite done yet. At the very least, if he can repeat his plate discipline and defense, he’d be an upgrade.

On the mound, the Astros have two above-average pitchers in Oswalt and Wandy. But beyond that, there’s not much. Bringin Randy Wolf back is a possibility, but his past performances indicate that his numbers in Houston last year are simply unrepeatable. Chris Sampson is an underrated arm and he can solidify the back of a rotation. For the other spots, Wade should be looking for pitchers who can keep the ball down against right-handed hitters since the short left field porch at Minute Maid Park is a killer (another reason why Wolf is probably a bad match). Why not take a crack at Brad Penny on a one-year deal? Their division hopes are a roll of the dice anyway. May as well make this one a high-risk pick.

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