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Around the Horn: Rotation

Around the Horn: Rotation

The following is the fifth in a series of weekly stories on MLB.com examining each Major League club, position by position. Each week until Spring Training camps open, we'll preview a different position. Today: Starting rotation.

HOUSTON -- There's an old saying in baseball lore -- "Spahn and Sain and pray for rain."

This phrase emerged sometime after World War II, when the Boston Braves supposedly had only two good pitchers -- Warren Spahn and Johnny Sain. After that, the pickings were slim, and apparently, the talent level beyond their two aces left fans and perhaps even teammates hoping the skies would open up right around the same time the national anthem was wrapping up.

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For fans in Houston, the old Spahn and Sain diddy may have popped to mind from time to time this offseason. There appears to be a general feeling that beyond Roy Oswalt, the starting rotation is in a bit of disarray.

But let's skip the attempts to come up with a modern-day version of the old Spahn and Sain jingle, for three reasons. First, nothing rhymes with Oswalt. Also, the Astros play under a roof and therefore would gain very little from a Houston rainstorm.

And, most importantly, the Astros don't agree that their rotation consists of one ace and bunch of unspectacular options, even if that appears to be the popular opinion in Houston these days.

"It's Oswalt, and good arms behind him," general manager Ed Wade said.

Those arms belong to Brandon Backe, Wandy Rodriguez, Woody Williams and Chris Sampson. More hopefuls will audition for the rotation during Spring Training, including Felipe Paulino, Jack Cassel and Runelvys Hernandez.

While all of the rotation mainstays have had varying degrees of success in their Major League careers, they also have one other thing in common -- each has run into his share of roadblocks at some point in recent history.

Backe is returning from his 2006 Tommy John elbow ligament replacement surgery, which was followed by a year-long recovery process that concluded with his making five rather impressive starts in September.

Rodriguez was largely untouchable at Minute Maid Park last year but performed poorly on the road, giving him a very mediocre overall record in '07.

Williams, who as an opposing player dominated the Astros at Minute Maid Park, was a disappointment after he signed on to pitch for his hometown team in '07.

Sampson provided solid innings at the back end of the rotation but landed on the disabled list for a month with elbow issues. Fatigue was the likely culprit, and Sampson was eventually shut down for the year in mid-September for precautionary reasons.

The rest of the crew -- Cassel (six big league appearances), Paulino (three Major League starts) and Hernandez (5.38 career ERA) have had their issues as well.

At the risk of stating the obvious, perhaps the rotation is lacking in the one area vital to any healthy franchise -- depth.

Manager Cecil Cooper does not share the same concerns.

"I think we have enough depth to get it done," he said. "Not only from a starting standpoint, but also from a bullpen standpoint. We have enough guys to be able to manage. And we'll do that."

Houston Astros
Catchers: Towles stakes his claim
Corner IF: Veterans to anchor corners
Middle IF: Fresh faces up middle
Outfielders: Bourn's speed fills need
Starters: Oswalt leads the way
Bullpen: Hurlers set to compete
DH/Bench: One spot up for grabs

Wade is also optimistic, citing Backe's health, Rodriguez's progress over the last year and Williams' determination to atone for what the right-hander has repeatedly called an "embarrassing" 8-15 season in 2007.

First, Backe. The right-hander gave strong indications that he's up for the challenge of returning strong when he compiled a 3-1 record and 3.77 ERA over five starts late last season, pitching without his best control or tip-top arm strength.

"My understanding is he's 100 percent healthy," Wade said. "I know that when I served as general manager of Philadelphia, we tried to acquire the healthy Brandon Backe numerous times and couldn't get him. I'm excited about having Brandon here. I hear people talking about how he's a big-game pitcher. Every fifth day's going to be a big game. He's going to have a significant role in our rotation."

Rodriguez was a Jekyll and Hyde episode for much of 2007, excelling when pitching in the comforts of home while stumbling away from Minute Maid Park. In Houston, the lefty was 6-3 with a 2.94 ERA. On the road, he was 3-10 with a 6.37 ERA. Overall, his 9-13 mark with a 4.58 ERA was one of many reasons the Astros did not contend in '07.

"Based on the conversations we've had internally, people feel that Wandy is ready to take the next step at this point, to figure out how to get past maybe one bad inning a game," Wade said. "Sometimes, that's just a case of some minor adjustments and a little bit more experience."

Experience obviously is not an issue for the 41-year-old Williams, who enters his 16th season in '08. Signed through the upcoming season, the veteran right-hander will have to provide results that merit keeping him in the rotation.

"Woody himself has said that he's embarrassed about the way the last season turned out," Wade said. "But if you look at it in a different direction, here's a guy who if he hadn't surrendered his spot in the rotation in September, he still would have pitched 200 innings."

Although the rotation is relatively set heading into Spring Training, it could have a much different look as the season progresses. Wade is quick to point out that Fernando Nieve, who underwent Tommy John surgery in May, could rejoin the rotation sometime in the first two months of the season.

"He's shown great work ethic," Wade said of Nieve. "I talked to Cecil Cooper the other day. He had just seen him do a side session here and we were really excited about what he saw. We think he's going to be ready late April, early May. We talked about the starting rotation and if we can add a solid young arm, that would be huge for us."

The rotation has garnered the most criticism from outside observers this offseason, but Wade is comfortable with his projected rotation and his backup options.

"Every club in baseball can say, 'Well we've got our five,'" he said. "But you better have more than five. Nine would be good. It would be nice to have Oswalt, [Andy] Pettitte and [Roger] Clemens -- that was a pretty good trio. But those opportunities don't come down the pike very often.

"Sandwiched around what seem to be question mark guys are two horses. You've got a chance two out of five nights for the bullpen to be fairly quiet. We feel we have at least that with Oswalt and Williams. And the potential is there for the other guys to do the same thing."

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

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