Astros expect strong spring competition
Several players coming to camp to try to win big-league jobs
HOUSTON -- While the core of the Houston Astros roster is very much intact, general manager Tim Purpura has several decisions to make during his seven-week stay in Kissimmee, Fla., which begins in less than two weeks.
The offense is in good hands with Lance Berkman and Carlos Lee anchoring the middle of the order, and the top of the rotation should fare well with Roy Oswalt and Jason Jennings at the helm. But several pitchers, catchers and position players will arrive to Osceola County Stadium intending to win jobs, and until the roster is set the night before Opening Day, anything can happen.
Several pitchers will vie for the two available spots in the rotation, while three catchers will compete to be Brad Ausmus' backup. Right field is Luke Scott's to lose, but he'll have Richard Hidalgo and Jason Lane breathing down his neck, and while Morgan Ensberg is the incumbent third baseman, Mike Lamb and Mark Loretta are strong possibilities, too.
Healthy competition awaits, and every general manager would agree that it's better to have too much to choose from than too little. Plus, battles between teammates are fun to watch.
"It's really important in Spring Training to have some competition ongoing," Purpura said. "It's good for the club, interesting for the fans and it gives us options to choose from. It gives us options to trade, too, if something comes along that can help us."
Behind the plate, the Astros have three options: Humberto Quintero, Hector Gimenez and Eric Munson. The first two are both out of contract options, so whoever doesn't make the club would have to clear waivers before going to Triple-A. Munson, a Minor League Spring Training invitee, spent the most time of the three at the Major League level and could challenge for the job of Ausmus' backup.
Whoever is selected as the No. 2 catcher can expect to receive considerably more playing time than just the once-a-week assignment Ausmus' backups have endured the last two seasons. Although Ausmus is still the No. 1 catcher, his offensive shortcomings will force manager Phil Garner to look to the backup to provide some pop at the plate.
Ausmus hit just .230 last year, the lowest average among regular starting position players. His work behind the plate is unparalleled, especially in the eyes of the pitching staff, but it's likely he won't play in 139 games as he did in '06.
Right field is another point of interest. Scott, coming off a half-season performance that produced a .336 average, 10 homers and 37 RBIs, is clearly the favorite. Upon his All-Star break callup, he hit .335 and .339 in July and August, respectively. His dropoff in production in September, during which he hit .268, can probably be attributed to a painful knot he developed in his left Achilles tendon that forced him to adjust his stance.
Assuming Scott is healthy, the Astros could benefit from his left-handed power bat in the middle of the order. He's slated to hit sixth, but he could switch with projected No. 5 hitter Ensberg, which would give the Astros a lefty-righty pattern beginning with No. 3 hitter Lance Berkman.
Lane and Hidalgo, however, are hoping to unseat Scott in right. Purpura, though leaning toward Scott, is keeping an open mind.
"Obviously, Richard has background and pedigree so to speak, and he's got the most experience," Purpura said. "The nod for experience goes to him, the nod for the most recent performance goes to Luke. And Lane had a down year but showed he could play the position in the past."
Purpura and Garner have both given their endorsements for Ensberg, who they feel has a good chance to make a comeback from a very disappointing season, during which he recorded full-season career lows in hits (91), RBIs (58) and batting average (.235).
"Morgan comes in with a chance to be the everyday guy," Purpura said. "He went through a lot last year with injuries, with poor performance. From a projection point of view, as an everyday third baseman at the Major League level, he has the best resume for anyone on the club -- particularly when you look at third base as a power position, which we certainly do. He has a chance to win the spot and be the everyday third baseman, and I expect him to do that."
But clearly, if Ensberg falters, the Astros have options: Lamb and new signee Loretta, who is expected to move regularly around the infield.
"That's what we ended up doing last year," Purpura said. "We used Lamb and [Aubrey] Huff. Fortunately we have the luxury of having Loretta on board, and he can certainly play over there. Lamb as well."
Throw in the battle for the final two spots in the rotation, and the Astros can expect an interesting Spring Training. While the Grapefruit League season is fun for the fans, it's all business for the players, especially those vying for jobs.
"Times have changed," Scott said. "Spring Training's a lot different. You've got guys battling for a job, battling for a roster spot. When you get into Spring Training, it's full bore. It's serious."
Alyson Footer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.