When his career is over, Lance Berkman will be remembered as one of the greatest players to wear an Astros uniform and one of the best quotes in the clubhouse. So who better to turn to for a question-and-answer session about the upcoming season?
Berkman, 34, is beginning his 11th full season in the Major Leagues on the disabled list, and is expected to miss the first few games of the season while he recovers from knee surgery. His health and his return to the lineup are crucial to the team's chances of contending this year.
Last year, Berkman hit .274 with 25 homers and 80 RBIs, and missed nearly a month of the season with a strained calf. The numbers were below his career averages, and Berkman knows he'll have to have a great season when he returns.
Berkman spent some time with MLB.com and talked about the season on topics ranging from everything to his expectations, the health of the club and new manager Brad Mills.
MLB.com: You've played for several managers since you've been with the Astros. What's your opinion of Brad Mills?
Berkman: Brad has been great. I mean, he's come in and I think he's impressed everybody with not only his attitude and positive energy he brings, but his organization. He's definitely a take-charge kind of guy and I think to be a manager, you've got to have that in your bag of tricks. He's very meticulous in his preparation. So far he's been great, and there hasn't been anybody that has a bad thing to say. He's impressed everybody in here.
MLB.com: Not many people are giving the Astros much of a chance this year. Do you feel people are overlooking the team?
Berkman: I think obviously based on our performance last year and we return a lot of the same personnel -- we didn't make a huge splash in the offseason adding any huge names -- but I do think that first of all, we're a better team than we played last year. I think part of the perception of our team is based on a faulty representation of the season last year, and if we can just play up to our capabilities and if guys perform like they've performed in the past and we're able to avoid significant injury, I think we'll be competitive. Really in our division, there's no reason we can't win the division.
MLB.com: What do you think are the team's biggest question marks entering the season?
Berkman: I think obviously we've got young players behind the plate. We're going to count on a young guy to be our everyday catcher [J.R. Towles], we're going to count on a young guy to be our shortstop [Tommy Manzella], and those are two critical positions, defensively. It's very important to be strong up the middle. It's not that they can't do it, because I think they can. It's just a matter of it being an unproven commodity and also, you know, I think in our rotation health is a big question mark. We need Roy [Oswalt] to bound back from his back injury and we need Brett Myers to stay healthy and we need Wandy [Rodriguez] to pitch up to the way he pitched last year. To me, those are the biggest question marks we have.
MLB.com: Do you think it would be possible to compare this year's club to some other Astros teams you've played on in the past 10 years?
Berkman: It's going to be hard to get a feel for that until we get a little bit further down the road. Obviously, in camp you have a lot of guys and you're not even sure who's going to be on the team yet, so it's hard to say 'Well, this is most similar to, you know, whatever year you to want to pick.' I think that really the two years that stand out to me were '04 and '05. Coming into '04, we signed Andy [Pettitte], and then Roger [Clemens] signed right after him and that was big, and you could tell a marked difference in the team that year. But as far as like this year, we really don't have that kind of impact that we signed in the offseason, so we just have to kind of wait and see.
MLB.com: The Astros has gotten off to poor starts, as you know, several times over the past few years. Why do you think this is, and how important is it this year to have a good April and good May and even build going into the All-Star break?
Berkman: I can't really put a finger why we've struggled coming out of the gate. It's certainly been a trend we need to reverse, because it's hard when you put yourself in that sort of a hole early in the season to dig your way out of it. I think it is important to get off to a good start. I don't think anybody's going to throw in the towel if we don't, but it makes it a lot easier if you can come out of the gate solid. Even if we're not great, as long as we don't put ourselves in a big hole in the division, I think we'll be in good shape.
SHAPING UP THE SCHEDULE
Early schedule The Astros play 22 of their first 31 games at home, but that doesn't necessarily mean things will be easy. They open against Tim Lincecum and the Giants, and then play host to two-time defending NL champion Philadelphia
Houston's first road trip to division rivals St. Louis and Chicago, and road series against the Cardinals, Giants, Dodgers, Brewers and Reds in May will make getting off to a good start on the road challenging. The Astros have a nine-game homestand against Florida, Pittsburgh and Cincinnati at end of April.
Interleague Play In addition to the annual Lone Star Series against the Texas Rangers (June 18-20 in Houston and June 25-27 in Arlington), the Astros make their first visit to new Yankee Stadium June 11-13 and will follow that with a series at the Kansas City Royals, June 15-17. The Tampa Bay Rays, featuring Houston natives Carl Crawford and Jeff Niemann, make their first trip to Minute Maid Park in six years, May 21-23.
Key home dates:
April 9-11.The two-time defending National League champion Philadelphia Phillies make an early visit to Minute Maid Park. The teams didn't meet until September last year, with the Astros winning six of eight games. Houston won only three other games in the month.
May 21-23.The Tampa Bay Rays make their first trip to Minute Maid Park since getting swept in three games in 2003. The Rays have a strong Houston flavor, with Carl Crawford and Jeff Niemann from Houston, pitching coach Jim Hickey formerly of the Astros and former Houston GM Gerry Hunsicker in the front office.
July 9-11. Albert Pujols and the division-rival St. Louis Cardinals make their first visit to Minute Maid Park to cap the first half of the season. Houston held Pujols in check last year, but how will a new manager handle pitching to the slugger?
MLB.com: You and Oswalt have been teammates longer than just about anyone else in the league. Do you guys feel any pressure to win a World Series championship before your careers are over?
Berkman: As you get older, that becomes something you think about more, like, 'I'm running out time to get it done.' But I think the other side of it is we've been around it long enough to know it's going to take more than just us. Two guys or three guys can't win a championship. You've got to have 25 guys, really, pulling together and playing well together, and so I don't really put pressure on myself, saying I've got to do something extra special. That's counterproductive. Then you end up putting too much pressure on yourself and it ends up negatively effecting your performance. So Roy and I obviously are aware the clock is ticking and I think that we have the makings of a team that can accomplish the goal of winning the World Series, and it's just a matter of going out and doing it.
MLB.com: Considering a lot of the key players are aging and the health problems in Spring Training, how big of a concern is the health of this team?
Berkman: I think that's the No. 1 concern, really -- can guys stay healthy? That's the problem when you have older players, you start to break down a little bit. It's going to be a priority for us to keep guys on the field, because if we can do that, like I said, we're going to be very competitive.
MLB.com: Do you feel people made too much of your season last year, talking about numbers, when some of your numbers were still pretty good, such as on-base percentage, slugging percentage and things like that?
Berkman: Obviously, I was not pleased with the way last year went. The big part of that was missing 100 at-bats [with a strained calf]. Obviously, that's a big chunk of the season that you don't have to make up some ground if you struggle in certain parts of the season. Overall, I look back on it and am not happy with the way it turned out. Obviously, I'm a lot more capable than the numbers showed last year. I do think, like you said, there were some positives and some things. The percentages when I was in there were pretty decent, and it's just a matter of me staying on the field and getting back to that 150-plus game level I've been at for most of my career.
MLB.com: I know you're a big believer in pitching, and you've said in 2004 and '05, the reason you won was because of pitching. When you look at the staff this year, do you think it's a staff -- you've kind of answered this -- but what do you think of the pitching as a whole, and can it improve over last year?
Berkman: I think we're already a lot better in the rotation this year than we were last year. I think adding Brett and a guy that can throw 200 innings and can give you some quality work in the No. 3 spot is big. The keys for us and the staff is Wandy's got to continue to develop. Last year was a big step forward for him, and I feel like he's got to maintain that level of performance for us to be successful. I think Bud Norris' development is going to be key for us, because if he can sort of follow Wandy's footsteps and make that next step forward in his development as a quality starting pitcher, then you have four really, really top-notch quality starters, and that goes a long way toward helping your bullpen. Whether they decide to go with [Brian] Moehler or [Felipe] Paulino in the fifth spot -- if they decide to go with Moehler, he's a veteran guy that will definitely give you good work, and Paulino's got an arm that's very exciting, and I know the organization is excited about his stuff. And so, heck, if either of those guys is your fifth starter, you've got a pretty good rotation.
MLB.com: The National League Central seems pretty wide open. What team or teams concern you the most when you think about contending in the division?
Berkman: I really think there's five of the six teams in the division that could win the division. I really think that St. Louis and Chicago and Milwaukee, us or the Reds could win the thing. It's a tough division. It's a much tougher division than people give it credit for. On paper, I think the Cubs have the best team going into the season. They have the best rotation top to bottom, they have a good bullpen. Their everyday players are solid, but as with them and all of us, it's a matter of [staying] healthy. I know that [Ted] Lilly's coming back from an injury and Aramis Ramirez is coming back from an injury, so they've got some question marks there. St. Louis is the reigning [division] champion, so they're always tough. Any time you have [Chris] Carpenter and [Albert] Pujols, you're going to have a tough team to deal with. They're good and I do agree with your assessment. It's wide open, and anybody can win it.
Brian McTaggart is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.