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Pressing questions for Astros

Pressing questions for '09 season

HOUSTON -- With less than two weeks remaining before Astros pitchers and catchers report to Kissimmee, Fla., it's time for Hot Stove rumors to go away and real baseball to take over.

General manager Ed Wade and his staff have a large task ahead of them over the seven weeks of Spring Training, during which 57 roster hopefuls will prepare for the season together at the Osceola County Stadium complex. Some players are, of course, locks (Lance Berkman, Roy Oswalt, et al), while others -- including Brandon Backe, David Newhan and Felipe Paulino -- are going to have to fight for jobs.

So what are the most pressing issues heading into Spring Training? We came up with 10 that appear to be on the front burner, and we'll analyze them in the form of a two-part series. The first five questions [and predictions] run Monday, the second five on Tuesday.

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1. Can Mike Hampton stay healthy?
When he's healthy, Hampton is very, very good. Problem is, health has eluded him for the better part of four years, including parts of 2005 and '08 and all of the two seasons in between. Hampton passed an extensive physical that included an MRI on his left elbow prior to signing with the Astros, who, after watching his strong finish last season, believe the left-hander is in sound physical condition.

Armed with Brad Ausmus' uniform No. 11 and a determination to relive his glory years from his first tour with the Astros 10-plus years ago, Hampton is more mature and realizes he needs to concentrate on pitching while tempering some of his previous acrobatic undertakings that wore on his body. Hampton's goal is to contribute 30 starts and slide into the No. 2 role currently up for grabs.

Prediction: Hampton will have a decent season but will fall slightly short of 30 starts. One nagging, but not debilitating, injury will sideline him for a short time.

2. After Oswalt, is the rotation strong enough to keep the Astros in contention?
The rotation is projected to include Oswalt, Hampton, Wandy Rodriguez, Backe and Brian Moehler. Of the group, Oswalt is the only sure thing, even though the others have had their moments of reliability in the past.

Rodriguez's contributions in 2008 ranged from fantastic to maddening. Injuries prevented him from putting in a full season, but when healthy, he was often one of the club's best pitchers. The disparity in Rodriguez's home-road splits was still somewhat dramatic -- he had a 2.99 ERA at home, as opposed to 4.11 on the road -- but it wasn't as drastic as the previous season. The 30-year-old left-hander will begin his fifth Major League season, and the Astros are hoping this will finally be the year he puts it all together.

Arbitration-eligible Backe was signed to a contract earlier this year, but that doesn't guarantee him a spot in the rotation. He signed the deal with the understanding he will audition for the fifth-starter job, but unlike last year, he'll have to earn it. Entering his second season since undergoing Tommy John elbow ligament replacement surgery, Backe will have to prove not only that he should win a job during Spring Training, but also that his fade down the stretch last year was an anomaly and not validation that he isn't able to handle the workload of a full 35-start, six-month season.

Moehler, who was a non-roster invitee last year, ended up taking over a starting job when Rodriguez went on the disabled list. He kept it even after Rodriguez returned, knocking Chris Sampson to the bullpen. The 37-year-old Moehler earned a contract extension before the season was over last year, and the Astros now have to hope his performance in 2008 was a preview of more to come in '09. Moehler was one of the Astros' most durable pitchers last season, and they could do worse than him as their No. 4 or 5.

Prediction: Oswalt, who quietly battled nagging injuries last season that likely contributed to his slow start, will return to All-Star form and will be on pace to win 20 games. If the Astros fall out of contention in the first half, expect to hear trade rumblings surrounding the ace right-hander. (That said, are the Astros ever really out of it?) Backe will have a strong first half but will tire down the stretch, and Moehler, perhaps the poster child of under appreciated veterans, will put together another nice season, winning 12 games with an ERA of around 4.

3. Will the third-base platoon of Geoff Blum and Aaron Boone be enough to make up for the loss of Ty Wigginton?
Power-wise, the answer is obvious: no. This will be a straight platoon situation, with the left-handed-hitting Blum likely to receive more starts and Boone on hand to face lefty starters. Boone has a career .247 average against lefties, while Blum has a career average of .255 vs. righties. The Astros may miss Wigginton's power production -- he's averaged 23 home runs over the past three seasons, while Blum and Boone have combined to average just 13 over the same period of time. That said, Blum had a nice season offensively in 2008, hitting 14 home runs in a part-time role in 114 games.

Prediction: With regular playing time, Blum will be surprisingly productive. Blum's defense is a strong suit and will be an upgrade over Wigginton. But the combination of Blum and Boone will not produce the power numbers normally expected from the third-base position.

4. Who will emerge as the front-line catcher?
Four catchers are gunning for two spots, with Humberto Quintero coming to camp with a slight edge over the rest of pack for the starting job. The Astros, however, don't appear to be sold on any of their options, so Spring Training will be important for Quintero, along with J.R. Towles, Rule 5 pick Lou Palmisano and veteran Toby Hall.

Prediction: The early guess is Quintero will secure one of the spots, with the final one going to either Hall or Palmisano. If Palmisano doesn't break camp with the team, he has to be offered back to his original club. If he shows any offensive promise at all during Spring Training, he could get the nod. Towles has options remaining, which makes him expendable.

5. Can Kazuo Matsui stay healthy?
Matsui had a number of injury problems in 2008 that limited him to 96 games. The good news is when he played, he played well, hitting .293 while providing spectacular range at second base. Matsui was hampered by recurring back issues toward the end of the season and went to great measures with his conditioning this offseason to rectify that. He saw a back specialist and began a stabilization program that he hoped would be a better alternative to surgery. Wade is confident Matsui has been diligent with the program and expects the second baseman to be healthy when he reports to Spring Training. If that assumption doesn't pan out, Newhan is a formidable fill-in, and Drew Sutton could be an option as well.

Prediction: Matsui isn't healthy the entire season, but he will be for most of it. Pencil him in for 120 games, 24 more than last season.

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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