Starting rotation is great unknown

Astros' starting rotation is great unknown

The Houston Astros are in an interesting position. Like last year, they're aiming for the World Series. Like last year, they have question marks that point to young players. But unlike last year, the uncertainty lies in the starting rotation, rather than the offense.

A year ago, the Astros had no idea what to expect from Jason Lane, Willy Taveras, Chris Burke and Luke Scott. Three will make the pending Opening Day roster, minus Scott, who will be the first one called up in case of injury.

The starting rotation, on the other hand, was considered tops in the league one year ago. Roy Oswalt, Andy Pettitte and Roger Clemens were in a class of their own. Two return. Clemens does not. That's a problem.

Never mind that the Astros couldn't score for the Rocket. He soaked up innings, had a career year, and kept the Astros in every game. In his absence, Brandon Backe moves up a notch. Wandy Rodriguez, a 10-game winner with a 5.54 ERA, assumes the No. 4 spot and a rookie, Taylor Buchholz, takes over No. 5.

Could be great. Could be a problem. Like last year's offense, the pitching staff has questions on top of questions.

"The biggest issue we face is, is our pitching going to give us good innings and winning innings?" manager Phil Garner said. "Last year, we didn't know how Willy, Jason or Luke Scott, how those guys were going to turn out. We had those kids that we didn't know how they would do and they ended up doing great. This year, we've got kids in the pitching corps that we don't know how they're going to do. Different faces, same question marks."

General manager Tim Purpura is more optimistic. Remember, he was one of the few who believed in the young players last year and chose to give them time to mature instead of blowing up the team and starting over halfway through the season.

So it comes as no surprise that he has the same intentions this year. His conversations with other general managers in the last week or so have gone something like this:

Purpura: "We're trying to sort through our candidates and decide on a fifth starter. We've got some candidates internally."

Other GM: "Candidates? We'd take any one of those guys. Some of your fifth starter candidates would be our third starters."

Purpura has confidence in Buchholz. He senses Carlos Hernandez's optimism is at an all-time high. He sees Fernando Nieve as a big part of this club's future.

"As guys progress in their careers like a Backe, like a Wandy, they'll hopefully step up and take a bigger role on the club," Purpura said. "And certainly, Brandon's going to be the linchpin in that. He's going to be tested."

Backe, a former outfielder, is still relatively new to pitching, and this year will be only his second as a full-time starter. Purpura pointed to Backe's terrific numbers in the postseason as a basis for what he can do, even if he hasn't produced the same results consistently over a full season.

"Is he going to have the lowest ERA in the league?" Purpura said. "No, I don't expect that. I do expect he is going to go out there and compete every single start, just like he did in the World Series. He's been there. He knows what it takes."

Rodriguez has been there, on a lesser scale, but Buchholz is brand new to the big leagues. Purpura plans to exercise patience. Garner may not have such a long leash.

"Young people are going to have to produce," Garner said. "If we're going to win, they're going to have to produce. As I explained to these kids when we sent them out [cut them from camp], 'We want to get you back to the big leagues. But you don't have any wiggle room. The guys that [make the team], if they don't perform well, we'll make a move."

In other words, to those who were recently sent to the Minors, be ready.

"If you come up here [to the Majors] and say, 'I wasn't pitching my best,' you're going to go right back," Garner said.

Still, Garner has reasons to be optimistic. He has two of the best starters in the league in Oswalt and Pettitte and a bullpen he'd gladly pit against any in the league. Garner liked the offense even before Preston Wilson signed in January, and he's confident that last year's young hitters are more mature after going through the stress and anxiety of the best postseason run in club history.

"We had issues last year with [Lance] Berkman [not] starting the season," Garner said. "And the kids -- they've been through the heat. They managed to get through a whole season. Most young players fatigue. I fully expected our guys to fatigue last year.

"Our kids didn't. As a matter of fact, they played their best ball at the end of the season. Willy and Jason and Chris played their best baseball at the end of the season."

Now they just have to play well enough early so that the games at the end of the season matter. Their fate rests largely on a rotation too young to remember that the Astros have been in a division race every year but one in the last decade.

"We want to win," Garner said. "It's our goal, our marching orders, from Señor Drayton [McLane]. They're going to have to mature quickly."

Alyson Footer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.