If You Ever Get to Houston…
Tonight the Cardinals begin their first road trip of the year. First stop: Houston, where they take on the new-look Astros. They play tonight, and at 7:05 p.m. on Tuesday and Wednesday.
The Houston ballclub that will take the field tonight is not the Astros team we've gotten used to the last few years. Not only are many of the faces new, but the construction of the team itself is completely different from years past. The previous few iterations of the Astros have been weak offensive teams, largely propped up by a dominant, top-heavy pitching rotation. This year's model is nearly bereft of pitching, at least compared to recent rotations, while far stronger on offense than usual.
You'll forgive me if I editorialize a bit here. The Astros' plan this year is a very bad idea.
The rotation is a disaster. Roy Oswalt returns to anchor the starting corps. Oswalt is a consistent stud, ranking near the top of the leader board in ERA and wins nearly every year. There are some concerns, though, over Oswalt's health going forward, as he's not the biggest guy, and he throws over 200 innings year after year.
After Oswalt, things drop off rather quickly. Brandon Backe, a converted outfielder with a 4.68 career ERA, is the de facto no. 2 starter. Wandy Rodriguez, Chris Sampson, and Shawn Chacon round out the starting five. There's a reason you don't know who those guys are, and it's not because they're up-and-coming stars who haven't had their moment in the limelight yet.
The offense should be stouter than in years past, with a strong middle of the lineup and some speed at the top. Lance Berkman, (aka Fat Elvis) returns, along with Carlos Lee and second-year sensation Hunter Pence.
The club's big acquisition this winter was Miguel Tejada, for whom the Astros traded away five solid prospects, a fleet of stealth bombers and the Hope Diamond. Tejada, of course, was named in the Mitchell Report two days after being acquired from Baltimore.
The 'Stros acquired young, speedy outfielder Michael Bourn from Philadelphia to lead off, and new second baseman Kaz Matsui will join him at the top of the lineup. Houston should score some runs this year, but they're going to struggle mightily to hold on to leads.
Former Cards' menace-turned-Albert-Pujols-casualty Brad Lidge is gone to Philly, along with Chad Qualls, removing the Astros' most potent weapons at the end of the game as well.
Here's another Pujols moment in Minute Maid from 2005. Classic line: "Go back to St. Louis!" yelled by an Astros fan at the visiting St. Louis fans.
The good news for the Cardinals this particular series is that they'll miss Oswalt.
The other bit of good news is that they're playing the Astros. This is not a good team, and it's not going to get much better for a while, considering how much of the farm system Houston sold off to build this particular squad.
The Houston brass, realizing that it could be a rough year for attendance, have begun brainstorming ideas for ways to increase interest in the team. They're planning a Lance Berkman Impersonator Day at midseason, with various incarnations of late-life Elvis Presley represented. A Miguel Tejada Special Edition Syringe Giveaway Day is being billed as ''family fun for all,'' and the 'Stros are planning to allow any fan to be a relief pitcher for a day during the month of July.
Kept closely under wraps until now, the Astros have also decided that their stadium is just too bland. Today's modern sports consumer demands more than just a ridiculous left-field box section, fireworks after every run scored and a giant train filled with oranges that treks around the park after every homer. In order to spice things up a bit, they're planning a series of modifications to attract attention over the summer. Thanks to my intrepid reporting, I can bring you an artist's rendition of the project:
Overall, this year's version of the Astros is not much like the team we're used to. For a Cardinal team attempting to build up its own confidence level along with its victory total, that's probably a good thing.
(Thanks to Mr. Alex Fritz for use of his artistic talents.)