With a new year comes more new questions from the fans. Now that the coaching staff and manager are firmly in place and the reality of losing Miguel Tejada and Jose Valverde has sunk in, Astros fans appear to have other issues on their minds, such as Lance Berkman's weight.
Alas, there are a few fans who still want Tejada to come back. He was an incredibly popular player in his two years in Houston and always played hard, but it's not happening. It's time to look toward the future and a new year.
Now, onto the Inbox:
So there was a question last Inbox about Berkman and the likelihood that he will stick around for a couple more years. Quite frankly, I am more worried about Roy Oswalt. His contract ends in a couple of years and I know he wants to win. I don't think we can afford to lose him. What's the likelihood he stays in Houston? And if things go south, will they talk about dealing him?
-- Jack F., Oxford, Miss.
Both Berkman and Oswalt want to win and they want to win in Houston, and both have no-trade clauses as they come towards the end of the large contracts they signed a few years back. Neither has the trade value they had two or three years ago, especially Oswalt, who has been dealing with back problems the past three years. But I'm sure if the Astros are struggling in July, there will be a few suitors calling general manager Ed Wade to ask about Oswalt.
It wouldn't surprise me at all to see Oswalt ask for a trade at some point if he feels the window on winning is closing and he could go to another team with a better chance at a ring. Astros owner Drayton McLane wants Oswalt and Berkman to finish their careers in Houston, but I'm sure he's sensitive to both men's desire to get a ring, too.
With Nolan Ryan buying into the Rangers, any thoughts on what could happen to the Ryan-Sanders teams in Texas, namely Round Rock and Corpus Christi? Thanks.
-- Richard G., Austin, Texas
The Astros' player development contracts with both Ryan-Sanders owned teams at Triple-A Round Rock and Double-A Corpus Christi expire at the end of the 2012 season, and I have to believe Ryan and Rangers ownership will explore aligning with those affiliates. Texas' current Triple-A club is in Oklahoma and the Double-A club is in Frisco, just outside Dallas, so those actually make better sense geographically for the Rangers than Round Rock and Corpus Christi. But I wouldn't be surprised to see some affiliate changes in a few years.
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I noticed that Felipe Paulino worked out to lose weight and get in shape for 2010. Is there any way to get Carlos Lee and Berkman to do the same? They have become the epitome of what fans hate: Comfortable, content, fat players.
-- Joey W., Rowlett, Texas
Comparing Lee and Berkman is a mistake. I understand the weight criticism of Lee, who could certainly get in much better shape. Even at his weight, he's a talented hitter, but his size and slow footing is a problem in left field. Berkman may not always run hard like Craig Biggio did, but I have never considered him a fat or out-of-shape player. That's misguided.
Berkman jokes about eating ice cream and his lack of quickness, but I've been around the guy for six years and I can promise you he's in good shape. Certainly better than most of us.
What is your honest opinion of Wade? After initially coming to the Astros and speaking to numerous Phillies fans, I am worried. Look where the Phillies are to where they were with Wade at the helm. Also, I don't think the bullpen has strengthened at all. And defensively, losing Tejada to gain Pedro Feliz? Are we doomed to be a losing team as long as Wade is residing in Houston?
-- Joe D., Romford, England
The Phillies won the 2008 World Series with a nucleus of talented, young players that were acquired while Wade was there. He didn't get to enjoy the taste of champagne, but it's wrong to believe the Phillies got rid of Wade and then won. Sure, that's the timeline, but he built that club and deserves much credit.
I think you have to consider what Wade inherited in Houston -- an organization with a terrible farm system and a Major League club with high-priced veterans making a chunk of the money. Wade and assistant general manager Bobby Heck have made great inroads in scouting and player development, but it's going to take another year or so to start seeing the fruits of their labor in that department.
Wade pulled off a handful of trades when he was hired late in 2007, and I think most have worked out. Tejada was an All-Star for two years, Michael Bourn was the team's Most Valuable Player last year and Valverde was a dominant closer for two years. I don't think anyone misses any of the players that were given away in return.
As far as the bullpen being better, I agree. Losing Valverde and LaTroy Hawkins and replacing them with Matt Lindstrom and Brandon Lyon is a step down, but the Astros had to trim payroll somewhere. And Lindstrom and Lyon are still young enough to where they could have some very good years ahead of them. Let's see what they can do before you bury them.
If Tejada wanted to return to Houston for the same one-year, $4.5 million contract that Feliz signed, the Astros would have been thrilled. But Tejada wanted multiple years and more money, and the club passed. Feliz isn't as good of a hitter as Tejada, but he's a strong defensive third baseman. The defense on the left side of the infield with Feliz and shortstop Tommy Manzella should be vastly improved.
My point is the jury is still out on Wade. Let's wait until some of these young prospects hit the Majors and some of the high-priced contracts he inherited are off the books.
Due to the fact that, statistically speaking, a lot of Paulino's rough times last year can be attributed to some horrible luck with balls in play and fly balls turning into home runs, coupled with pitching coach Brad Arnsberg's strong reputation, where does Paulino stand right now in terms of winning the fifth rotation spot next year? It seems like he may be close to breaking out in a big way and being the next late-blooming starter, like Wandy Rodriguez was.
-- Brian S., Houston
I think this is a make-or-break year for Paulino, and he knows it. He's spent the offseason in Houston working out with strength and conditioning coach Gene Coleman to get in better shape to try to take advantage of the opportunity. He's going to be in the running for a spot in the starting rotation and showed some signs of turning things around last year.
Paulino has an electric fastball and can be dominant when he's on his game. And while it's true he was the victim of some bad luck last year, the bottom line is he didn't pitch well enough. He had a 6.27 ERA and lost 11 games. Still, in 29 1/3 innings from Aug. 23 through Sept. 20, the Astros did not score a run for him. That was the first streak of that kind in all of baseball since 1969, so that has to be taken into consideration when you evaluate his 2009 season.
I'm excited to see what Arnsberg and a new set of eyes and beliefs can do with some of these young pitchers, and Paulino is at the top of that list. If he stays healthy and can turn it around, the Astros could have themselves another Rodriguez.
How much longer do you feel it will be till we see Jason Castro in an Astros uniform?
-- Frank V., Houston
Not much longer. Pitchers and catchers work out Feb. 20, and Castro is coming to Spring Training with a chance to win a spot on the Opening Day roster. Even if he doesn't make the club out of camp, he'll go to Triple-A Round Rock and will probably be with the big club at some point this year. The Astros have pushed him at an aggressive pace and he's handled everything they've put in front of him. It's time to see if he can play in the Majors.
How much does Arnsberg have to do with the signing of Gustavo Chacin?
-- Matt S., Houma, La.
I asked that same question to Wade when Chacin was signed to a non-roster deal, and Wade said Arnsberg didn't have much to do with it. But Chacin had one pretty good season in Toronto in 2005 while working under Arnsberg's tutelage, so it will be interesting to see if he can resurrect the pitcher's career. Chacin was 13-9 with a 3.72 ERA in 34 starts for the Jays in 2005.
Is the Astrodome still a viable venue for baseball? It would be fun to see an exhibition series played there in the future just for old time's sake before it is ultimately converted to some other use.
-- Mike B., Nantucket, Mass.
I agree, Mike. As everyone knows, I love the Astrodome. It would be great to see the Astros play an exhibition game there, but I don't think it will happen. Not much is going on inside the Eighth Wonder of the World these days, and it hasn't hosted a Major League game in more than 10 years. I can't imagine it would be easy getting it ready to host baseball again.
Brian McTaggart is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.