2008 Astros Season Preview: The Starting Pitchers

Astros pitching. The one phrase that doesn’t strike fear in the heart of opposing teams, but causes Astros fans to cringe.

It’s no secret that the Houston pitching problem was an afterthought for new general manager Ed Wade during the offseason. Houston was bad on both offense and pitching last year, but the pitching staff was in far worse shape than the bats were. Instead of trying to bolster both divisions through free agency and trades during the offseason, Wade instead chose to focus exclusively on offense and put the hurlers on the backburner. He even traded away two of our top pitching prospects, Matt Albers and Troy Patton, to Baltimore in the deal for Miguel Tejada.

The Patton aspect of the trade has seemingly worked out on our end, because it’s not really a sure thing that Patton will ever throw a pitch in the majors again because of his lingering arm issues. I think Albers had electric stuff, and when he was on top of his game he was a dominant pitcher. The truth about Albers, though, is that he was highly inconsistent and apparently had clubhouse issues with the rest of the team. Wade also threw in Luke Scott, one of my favorite players on the team and a guy who I think is going to do great things for the Orioles.

The horrid pitching of the Astros is the major reason they’re not even typically predicted to rank in the top 3 of the Central Division, much less be a contender for the playoffs. In this preview, I’m going to break down each starter in the rotation, give you some projections from Baseball Prospectus, and close it out with a look at the bullpen. I can’t imagine that his preview will be nearly as long as the Batters Preview, because I just don’t know what say about most of the pitchers on the staff. If Woody Williams hadn’t been cut last weekend and retired, I may have gone off on a 2,500 word rant about that subject alone.

THE ROTATION

1. Roy Oswalt — This is a tough one for me, because I love everything about Roy’s pitching. It’s a travesty that he hasn’t won a Cy Young award yet, because he’s been one of the best pitchers in the game this decade. I just have this sinking feeling that Roy is going to experience a slight drop-off this year, and I’m not sure why. BP projects a 12-10 record, 198 innings pitched, 3.79 ERA with 138 K’s and a 1.30 WHIP, which is a definite decrease from recent years. The thing that worries me the most is the 41% Collapse projection, which means there’s a 41% chance that he’s going to dramatically decrease in terms of overall performance this year. The worst part about the percentages is that there’s a 2% chance of a breakout year and only 17% chance of improvement. Roy also posts a 33.1 VORP (value over replacement player), which is quite good. I realize they are just projections, but PECOTA (the BP projections system) is almost scary accurate. I hope this one of the cases where it’s completely proven wrong, and I’ll be cheering for Roy to get his 20 wins and a Cy Young. I also have a feeling he’s going to lose quite a few games because of the bullpen.

2. Brandon Backe — This is where the rotation falls of a cliff. Backe is projected at 4-6 with only 79 innings pitched, so PECOTA fully expects him to be injured at some point this year. Which, of course, is a very real possibility for a guy coming off Tommy John surgery. PECOTA expects a 5.35 ERA, 50 K’s and a 1.56 WHIP. They’ve also got him at a 58% Collapse, so the projections don’t look too hot. I’m a Backe backer, though, and I’m hoping that this is one situation where PECOTA is dramatically proven wrong. Backe’s VORP is -0.3, so he’s actually worse than a completely average player would be if you put him in the same spot and took Backe out. Not a good number for your #2 starter.

3. Wandy Rodriguez — I’m terrified of Wandy. Nolan Ryan has been saying for years that Wandy is an outstanding pitching prospect, but we’ve yet to see it consistently. When the Astros are on the road, Wandy is a complete dog, posting something like a 7.81 ERA last season. At home, it’s a different story. I saw Wandy pitch at the Juicebox a few times last year where he was completely unhittable. It even got to the point where someone on the team remarked that they needed to take Wandy’s bed from home on the road so he could sleep comfortably and feel like he’s at home. PECOTA projects a 4.74 ERA over a 7-9 record with 138 IP and 105 K’s with a 1.46 WHIP. The comforting thing is that PECOTA likes him for a 29% Breakout and 58% Improve, which means he’s one of the top pitchers in the majors this year in terms of breakout potential. I hope to God he does break out, because the Wandy I saw getting shelled by the Tigers on Friday night would barely qualify as a #5 starter anywhere else in the league except Pittsburgh. He’s got a 8.7 VORP. I will go on record as saying that I think Wandy will actually have a breakout year and will be the #1 starter in the rotation by the end of May or the All Star break at the latest.

4. Shaun Chacon — Chacon comes to us from the Pirates. He’s spent quite a bit of time bouncing between AA, AAA and the majors over the past two years. The best part about Chacon is that he’s incredibly versatile; he’s been a starter, a middle reliever and a closer throughout his career, so he can pretty much do whatever the Astros want him to do. For now, he’s going to be the cleanup guy in the rotation, but I have no idea how long he’ll stay there. The Baseball Prospectus projections for Chacon are pretty limited since they have him only throwing 79 innings at 90% playing time, but I’ll update this when they update their own projections.

5. Chris Sampson — Sampson rounds out the rotation by virtue of Woody Williams just being awful enough not to make it. The spot belonged to Williams before spring training, and he lost it, so Sampson competed with Brian Moehler for the spot and won it in the closing days. Sampson started 19 games last year in place of the injured Brandon Backe, and posted a 4.59 ERA while going 7-8 and striking out 51 batters. He throws hard and often is a great pitcher, but more often than not he’s completely average, which is what BP projects for him again this year. They’ve got him improving his ERA to 4.73 and striking out 44 over 98.1 innings; he’ll easily beat that innings projection if he stays healthy. Again, this is a case of BP not being up to date with the projections, as none of these numbers take into account Sampson being a starting pitcher. I’ll update this post whenever BP updates their projections for Sampson.

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