More production needed from lineup
Rebound years from Berkman, Lee key to Astros' success
HOUSTON -- So much has been written and said about the substantial changes undergone by the Astros' pitching staff this offseason that it's easy to forget the club will have somewhat of a different look on offense as well.
Tommy Manzella, a career .268 hitter in the Minor Leagues, will start at shortstop, with Feliz bumping Geoff Blum into a utility role after Blum was forced to start 94 games last year at third. The other change to the offense is at catcher, where either former top prospect J.R. Towles or former first-round pick Jason Castro will start.
The departure of Tejada punches a rather large hole in the lineup, but new Astros manager Brad Mills believes his club still has a chance to be better with the bats.
"You lose a guy like Tejada and close to 200 hits, we're going to miss him," he said. "We're not asking [Manzella] to be Tejada or a frontline offensive shortstop this year. We just want him to be himself, and I think that's a pretty good hitter besides being a very good shortstop. And Feliz has proven he can drive in runs."
Houston ranked eighth in the National League in batting average last year at a respectable .260, but it was 14th in runs scored (643) and 12th in home runs (142). Getting runners on base wasn't a problem, but getting them in was. The Astros led the Majors by hitting into 153 double plays.
Perhaps more than anything, the Astros' chances of improving their offense this year hinge on the rebound of veteran sluggers Carlos Lee and Lance Berkman, both of whom saw their numbers dip in 2009. If Lee and Berkman bounce back and young outfielders Michael Bourn and Hunter Pence continue to improve, Houston's offense could be vastly improved.
Bourn, the team's Most Valuable Player from a year ago, is a catalyst at the top of the order and led the NL with 61 stolen bases in a breakout 2009. Pence continues to make strides offensively and is looking to build on the up-and-down 25-homer, 72-RBI season of a year ago.
"I think we've got a good offensive club," Astros general manager Ed Wade said. "A year's more experience from Bourn and Pence will serve both of them very well. Michael opened the season hitting eighth, and it wasn't until an appreciable amount of time into the season he was moved into the leadoff position.
"I think hitting first the entire season will serve him well. Hunter continues to make adjustments and we expect good things out of him, and I do think that Lance and Carlos had good, not great, years and are capable of having a great year because of the standards they've set for themselves."
The success of Feliz also will play a key role. The 34-year-old doesn't get on base at a high rate and isn't considered a slugger, but he still managed 82 RBIs last year in a potent Philadelphia lineup. He could hit sixth in the order behind Berkman, Lee and Pence, giving him plenty of RBI opportunities.
Feliz is going from a good hitters' park in Philadelphia to a better hitters' park in Houston, where the close left-field wall could have the right-hander flirting with the 21 homers he averaged from 2004-2007.
"Feliz gives us a guy capable of knocking in 85, 90 runs at third base, and I think we have the ability to keep him productive in the fact we have Geoff Blum that can play a lot of games over there as well," Wade said.
The Astros also want more out of second base, where Kaz Matsui is entering the final year of his three-year deal. Although Matsui played in a career-high 132 games last year, he batted just .250 in 2009. Don't be surprised to see Blum get some playing time at second if Matsui is struggling.
"Kaz is in the last year of his contract and certainly we expect him to step up," Wade said. "If not, we've got Blum and [Jeff] Keppinger who could both go over and play second base. We're certainly hoping Kaz goes out there and plays the lion's share of the games at second, but we do have an alternative."
But big seasons by Berkman and Lee could be the difference, especially considering the unproven bats of Manzella and whoever starts at catcher.
Lee hit .300 with 26 homers and 102 RBIs last year, but his OPS of .831 was down significantly from the .937 he posted in 2008. Berkman shook off a terrible start to finish with a .274 average, 25 homers and 80 RBIs, but those are well below his career averages.
"If Lance and Carlos are doing what they've done throughout their careers, that makes the opposing pitcher pitch differently to our lineup and gives great opportunities to whoever's hitting in front or behind them," Wade said. "Whatever way Mills decides to set the order, the big guys in the middle are capable of making everybody better."
Brian McTaggart is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.