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Pressing questions for Astros

Pressing questions for Astros

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HOUSTON -- On the proverbial eve of pitchers and catchers reporting to Spring Training, we're taking a look at 10 pressing questions for the 2009 season. On Monday, we ran the first five questions, and now, we present the final five, which addresses second base, the lineup and young pitching.

6. Who bats second? Fifth? Sixth?
Anyone not named Kazuo Matsui (leadoff), Lance Berkman (third) or Carlos Lee (fourth) -- stay tuned. Manager Cecil Cooper is playing with a bunch of scenarios, and we could see Miguel Tejada hitting second, or maybe Hunter Pence, or maybe Darin Erstad, when he plays. Michael Bourn could get a look there as well, but it's more likely he'll start the season hitting lower, where there's less pressure and fewer expectations.

The reality is somewhat bleak: The Astros have many hitters who would fit well into the six and seven spots, but not so many who can hit second and fifth. This could be problematic if Berkman or Lee start slowly.

Prediction: Pence hits second, Tejada fifth, Geoff Blum/Aaron Boone sixth and Bourn seventh. If Cooper sticks with his earlier promise to give Tejada days off this season, the shortstop could be productive in the second half. Cooper needs to stand strong on this one and not let Tejada sway him to play when he really needs a day off.

7. Will hurlers Felipe Paulino and Fernando Nieve finally prove themselves healthy and worthy of a place on the 25-man roster?
It's high noon for both of them, as general manager Ed Wade has said. They've long been two of the most coveted arms in the system, but they're also two of the most injury prone. Nieve had Tommy John elbow ligament replacement surgery two years ago, and last season he had hamstring issues that prevented him from really competing for a job in Spring Training. Had Paulino had a good spring, he could have pulled off the upset and won a starting job. Instead, he was done early, suffering an upper arm injury that ultimately kept him out for the entire season.

Both pitchers will compete for rotation jobs to start out. Nieve is on the provisional roster for the Venezuelan World Baseball Classic team, but it's probably in his best interest to stick with the Astros through Spring Training so that he's not passed up by other rotation hopefuls in camp.

Prediction: Nieve, who is out of options, doesn't make the team out of Spring Training but clears waivers and is sent to Triple-A, where he'll be groomed as a back-end reliever. Paulino, who didn't pitch in winter ball after the Astros balked at his club's desire to use him as a starter, won't have enough time to build arm strength to be stretched out to be a starter and will also begin the year in Round Rock. He'll be one of the first in line should someone in the Astros' rotation need to be replaced, however.

8. How will Cooper fare in his second full season as manager?
This could be an interesting season for Cooper, who is going into the final year of his contract without an extension -- an unusual course of action for the Astros, who for at least the past decade have always extended their managers, even the ones who were dismissed the following year. Cooper recently admitted he feels much more relaxed going into this season, considering he's had time to settle in and the roster consists of many players who were here last year.

Prediction: Too hard to predict this one. It's difficult to envision Cooper's job being safe if the Astros are at the bottom of the standings by the All-Star break, especially since they appear to be in no hurry to offer a contract extension. Don't forget, Wade didn't hire Cooper.

9. Will any of the young farmhands be a factor for the Astros this year?
Bud Norris will audition for a bullpen role during Spring Training, though he likely won't make the club when it breaks camp in April. But consider this a warmup. The right-hander appears to be the most coveted pitcher in the team's Minor League system, and the Astros would like to see if he can contribute sooner rather than later. Sergio Perez is another interesting one -- he'll be stretched out as a starter this spring, and considering how lacking the Astros are in starting depth, Perez could be a factor in '09 as well.

Third baseman Chris Johnson is highly regarded, and while the Boone signing probably means there won't be room for Johnson from the outset, he could find his way to Houston via injuries or inconsistencies from the current cast. Same goes for Mark Saccomanno, who isn't on the 40-man roster but could end up in Houston as a backup corner infielder.

Prediction: Norris is called up at some point this season as a reliever.

10. Will any bargain opportunities emerge before, during or after Spring Training?
Don't get your hopes up -- it's highly unlikely the Astros are going to be able to spend any extra money on a free agent as they did when Shawn Chacon was available after Spring Training started last year. But with the massive numbers of free agents still looking for work, who knows how far prices will drop in another week or two, when panic among unemployed Major Leaguers starts to set in. Publicly, the Astros are saying they're tapped out in terms of payroll, and that's likely the truth. But it's quite possible that they're leaving the door open -- even if it's just a smidgen -- that if an intriguing name is still out there and the price is right, owner Drayton McLane may be able to be swayed. Stay tuned.

Prediction: The Astros won't make an early Spring Training signing, but could pounce toward the end. A slew of big league players are probably going to have to sign Minor League contracts, and many may have "out" clauses if they're not on the Opening Day roster when camp breaks. The Astros could find a diamond in the rough that way. Don't underestimate Wade's ability to move in, under the radar, at precisely the right time (again, if the price is right).

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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