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Astros Opening Day outlook

Astros Opening Day outlook

Putting their turbulent 73-89 season from a year ago behind them was a pretty easy task for the Astros, considering how many players on this year's roster were elsewhere in '07.

General manager Ed Wade set out to reshape a team that needed help in every area, and he improved where he could. Gone are Brad Lidge, Chad Qualls, Chris Burke and Adam Everett, who were replaced by Jose Valverde, Oscar Villarreal, Kazuo Matsui and Miguel Tejada.

The bullpen is largely unrecognizable, and the lineup is stronger than it's been in four years. Now, it's time to watch this new cast of characters come together to start what the Astros hope will be a turnaround season in '08.

Calling card
Manager Cecil Cooper was faced with a problem this spring every big league skipper would love to have -- too many middle-of-the-order hitters and not enough spots for them.

While questions abound for this year's Astros team, no one doubts the strength of the lineup. The 3-4-5 combination of Lance Berkman, Carlos Lee and Tejada is one of the tops in the league. Add Hunter Pence, either in the second or sixth spot, and it'll be difficult for opposing pitchers to get around the meat of the order.

Projected starting lineup
1. CF Michael Bourn
2. RF Hunter Pence
3. 1B Lance Berkman
4. LF Carlos Lee
5. SS Miguel Tejada
6. 2B Mark Loretta
7. 3B Ty Wigginton
8. C J.R. Towles
Projected rotation
1. RHP Roy Oswalt
2. RHP Brandon Backe
3. LHP Wandy Rodriguez
4. RHP Shawn Chacon
5. RHP Chris Sampson
Projected bullpen
Closer: RHP Jose Valverde
Setup: RHP Doug Brocail
Setup: RHP Oscar Villarreal
Middle: RHP Dave Borkowski
Middle: LHP Wesley Wright
Middle: RHP Geoff Geary
Long: RHP Brian Moehler
Achilles' Heel
The starting staff just isn't that strong to begin with, so to say it has no margin for error is probably an understatement. Brandon Backe appears headed for a successful comeback season, and Shawn Chacon will provide a nice anchor at the back end of the rotation. But the staff has only one proven horse -- Roy Oswalt. None of the remaining projected starters have ever logged a 200-inning season.

You'll know they're rollin' if...

Berkman

The offense wreaks havoc on opposing pitchers as expected. The pitching staff is going to give up runs, but the Astros hope an improved lineup will keep them in games.

You'll know they're in trouble if...
The Astros lose a lot of high-scoring games early. A strong offense means nothing if the pitching staff can't minimize the damage on the defensive side. They can't wear out the bullpen in the first half and expect to contend down the stretch.

Testing, testing
The Astros have an eight-game stretch in April where they're playing either teams that went to the playoffs last year or missed the postseason by one game. They'll travel to Philadelphia for a three-game series with the Phillies from April 15-17, then they'll return home to host the NL champion Colorado Rockies from April 18-20. The Padres, who lost to the Rockies in a one-game playoff to decide the Wild Card, will be in Houston for a short, two-game stretch April 21-22.

Interleague Play
The Astros have been lobbying the league for years to schedule the Red Sox and Yankees to play at Minute Maid Park, and this year, they'll get their wish. The Yankees will visit the Astros from June 13-15, while the Red Sox will be in town June 27-29. Interleague competition will be tough for the Astros this year, seeing as they're slated to play the powerful American League East. Two of the weaker teams in the division, the Orioles and Rays, will host the Astros during the week of June 17. The Lone Star Series continues for an eighth season, when the Astros and Rangers play a home-and-home series, with the Astros traveling to Arlington on May 16-18 and the Rangers returning the visit June 24-26.

The Bottom Line
This season will start in cross-your-fingers fashion. With so many new players, and a pitching staff that is undoubtedly suspect, no one is sure where this team is headed. If the starters prove everyone wrong and put together a solid April, this club could have a chance to contend.

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

{"content":["opening_day" ] }
{"content":["opening_day" ] }