HOUSTON -- Brandon Backe looked very sharp in a simulated game on Monday at Minute Maid Park, a promising sign for a right-hander who is returning from Tommy John elbow ligament replacement surgery last August.

Although Backe had to rest his elbow for approximately six weeks earlier this summer due to soreness, he's now almost a year removed from the surgery and remains on track for a Sept. 1 return to the active roster.

"He threw very well," manager Phil Garner said of Backe's 64-pitch performance. "He's where I expected him to be. I feel like he's been coming along very well. He felt strong and felt real good afterward.

"He's trying to ramp this up as much as he can like a real game. He's close to a point now where he needs to jump up and face real hitters."

Garner said Backe will throw another simulated game on Saturday before setting out on a Minor League rehab stint beginning the following Saturday. The Astros hope to give Backe six Minor League starts in August to prepare him for his return to the Astros' rotation in September.

On Monday, Backe threw against Chris Burke, Luke Scott and Orlando Palmeiro, and he received very positive reviews. Backe's only blemish came when Scott drilled an opposite-field home run with two runners on base and two outs in the first simulated inning.

"He threw pretty good," Scott said. "His fastball had a lot of late movement on it, and his slider bit hard. He's got good stuff.

"His pitches had depth and some late movement to them," Burke said. "I think he threw well. He looks like he's ready to roll."

Center or right: Team owner Drayton McLane said over the weekend that the Astros were looking at about four different trade scenarios in regards to center fielders, leaving some to speculate that the team has decided Hunter Pence's long-term future is in right field.

But that's not necessarily the case, according to general manager Tim Purpura. It's just one option based on Pence's flexibility.

"We had a discussion with our scouts about [Pence's defense in center] today," Purpura said. "I made the comparison of where Hunter is today, compared to where Willy Taveras was after his first year. A lot of people after Willy's first year said 'Oh, I don't know if he can be a center fielder.' But a lot of people who worked with him in development said people get better. And Willy did get better.

"I think Hunter has done a pretty good job in center, and I think he'll get better, as well, as he learns the parks. I don't count him out as a center fielder at all. I think he's got all the speed and the instincts, and he's a pretty darn good center fielder right now."

But should the Astros make a deadline deal for a young center fielder that gives Houston a much needed top-of-the-order presence, Pence's offensive production makes him a legitimate candidate for right field, as well.

"I think because of his power potential, you have the luxury of putting him into the corner if you do come across a pure center fielder," Purpura said. "He gives you flexibility because he can be a run-producer and he has power. He projects better than some as a corner outfielder, because there are some guys who are going to be strictly center fielders."

Purpura said that he's continuing to have dialogue with other clubs on a regular basis. But he warns that the Astros aren't sellers in a traditional sense, because even if they do decide to unload potential free agents, they're looking for talent in return that can help in 2008, at the latest.

"I wouldn't call it a seller's market right now," Purpura said. "If you're willing to take on A-ball or Double-A-type prospects, it is. But it's not our objective to take on those types of players. We've got a good nucleus here with star-type players, and our goal is to surround them with complementary players that will help us [in the near future]."

While Houston is still looking at several deals, including many for the aforementioned center fielders, nothing is imminent.

"The key is, of those four, five or six [center fielders] you've got earmarked, you have to wrestle them away from other clubs," Purpura said.

"It's not that easy to do. It's not rotisserie baseball. It's not just take your low-level players and turn them into top-level players. It just doesn't work that way. Everybody's got good scouting staffs and everybody's got special assistants that are watching games. You do the best you can with the information you have, and you set out on a course to make your team better."

Bumps and bruises: Lance Berkman returned to the Astros' lineup on Monday after missing three consecutive games with a swollen and bruised left hand.

The first baseman had the knot taped and padded in an attempt to prevent any further damage, and he warned that even though he's back in the lineup, the problem hasn't gone away.

"It's going to take some getting used to it," Berkman said. "As a hitter, anything wrong with your hand, that's a major deal with how you swing the bat. But now it's gotten to a point where we can manage it a little bit."

While X-rays taken last week were negative, Berkman will undergo an MRI exam at some point this week to rule out the possibility of a stress fracture or anything out of the ordinary.

Coming up: The Astros will take on the Dodgers in the second game of a three-game set on Tuesday night at Minute Maid Park. Slumping right-hander Jason Jennings (1-6, 4.76 ERA) takes the hill against Dodgers left-hander Mark Hendrickson (4-5, 4.54) at 7:05 p.m. CT.