Spring training questions: Houston Astros

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Over the next couple of weeks, I’ll be looking at a few of the questions facing each team this spring.
1. Will the Astros get anything at all out of the catcher position while waiting for Jason Castro?
GM Ed Wade opted against spending any cash to upgrade at catcher over the winter, leaving him with ex-prospect J.R. Towles and career backup Humberto Quintero to battle for time behind the plate. Towles, who was a bust after claiming a starting job in 2008, was hurt for much of last season and didn’t show much in 14 major league starts at the end of the season. He has a 609 OPS in 234 major league at-bats. Quintero is at 600 in 548 career at-bats, but that does come with a nice defensive reputation. Ideally, Towles would impress in March, claim the starting job and play well enough to allow the Astros to keep Castro in the minors until September. Castro, though, figures to get plenty of work with the Astros’ starting pitchers this spring just in case he’s needed earlier. Maybe a lot earlier.
2. With Jose Valverde and LaTroy Hawkins gone, can the rebuilt bullpen hold leads at the end of games?
The Astros will have three returnees who pitched very well last season (Alberto Arias, Tim Byrdak and Jeff Fulchino), plus the emerging Sammy Gervacio, so the bullpen as a whole might be solid. However, the closer candidates inspire less faith. Brandon Lyon ended up undergoing minor shoulder surgery not long after signing one of the most criticized contracts of the winter (three years, $15 million) and Matt Lindstrom is a complete wild card. Lyon will probably be reliable, but with his modest strikeout rate, he’ll never inspire the kind of confidence that Valverde did, and it’s safe to assume that Lindstrom isn’t going to match the 1.71 ERA that Hawkins had in his year and a third with Houston. Gervacio just might prove to be the best reliever of the whole bunch.
3. Will the talented Felipe Paulino get a chance to show what he can do in the rotation?
The Lyon contract had nothing on Wade’s baffling decision to pick up Brian Moehler’s $3 million option for 2010. After all, Moehler is 38 and he had a 5.47 ERA last season. Odds are that he would have had to settle for a minor league contract on the open market. The stunning commitment suggested that Moehler would have to be penciled into the 2010 rotation. The Astros, though, later added Brett Myers, giving them three pitchers for the final two spots. Bud Norris should have a big edge for one based on his performance last year, so that leaves Moehler and Paulino for one opening. Paulino came out of last year 3-11 with a 6.27 ERA, but he had an impressive 93/37 K/BB ratio in 97 2/3 innings and he has the talent to take a giant leap forward. If the Astros are going to be a surprise contender this year, Paulino would likely have to be a big part of it. The Astros need to see what he can do and treat Moehler as a fallback.

Royals hold on to beat Astros, even up ALDS at 1-1

Alcides Escobar
AP Photo

The Royals kept their foot on the pedal, rallying late to take down the Astros in Game 2 of the ALDS by a 5-4 score. The series is now evened up at one game apiece in the best-of-five series.

Ben Zobrist broke a 4-4 tie in the bottom of the seventh, ripping a single to left field to plate Alcides Escobar, who had led off the inning with a triple to right-center.

The Royals were down 3-0 after the first two innings and 4-2 after three. Astros outfielder Colby Rasmus accounted for two of the runs with an RBI double in the first inning and a solo homer in the third. Catcher Salvador Perez opened up the scoring for the Royals with a solo homer in the second.

Royals starter Johnny Cueto started off poorly but was able to rebound in the latter half of his six innings. Overall, he gave up four runs on seven hits and three walks with five strikeouts. Relievers Kelvin Herrera, Ryan Madson, and Wade Davis each pitched a scoreless inning behind Cueto to seal the deal. Davis benefited from replay review to secure the second out of the ninth inning, picking off pinch-runner Carlos Gomez at first base. He replaced Preston Tucker, who had walked with one out.

For the Astros, starter Scott Kazmir wasn’t able to escape the sixth inning, leaving with one out in the frame. He ultimately allowed three runs on five hits and a walk with four strikeouts. Lefty reliever Oliver Perez came in after Kazmir, but gave up two singles and a walk as his inherited runner scored. Josh Fields relieved Perez and allowed one of Perez’s runners to score on a bases-loaded walk.

The Royals are the first home team to win so far this post-season. The visiting Rangers beat the Blue Jays in both ALDS games played thus far, while the visiting Astros and Cubs both won in the Wild Card games.

The two squads will travel to Houston. Game 3 resumes on Sunday at 4:00 PM EDT with Dallas Keuchel taking the hill for the Astros and Edison Volquez toeing the slab for the Royals.

Cardinals take early 1-0 lead over the Cubs in Game 1 of the NLDS

Matt Holliday
AP Photo

Cardinals outfielder Matt Holliday staked his team to an early 1-0 lead with an RBI single in the first inning of Game 1 of the NLDS against the Cubs. Rookie Stephen Piscotty had doubled with one out against Cubs starter Jon Lester, putting himself in scoring position ahead of Holliday’s single.

Starter John Lackey tossed a scoreless top of the first inning and reprised the performance in the top of the second, so the Cardinals have a small lead to open up their post-season.

Holliday, 35, posted an .804 OPS during the season but missed a significant amount of time in the second half due to a Grade 2 strain of his right quadriceps.

Video: Rougned Odor gets the benefit of the doubt upon replay review

Rougned Odor
The Associated Press

Rangers second baseman Rougned Odor appeared to luck out when a replay review was upheld in the 14th inning, ruling Odor safe at second base. Odor had beaten out an infield single to put the go-ahead run on base in a 4-4 game, then scampered to second base on Chris Jimenez’s single to right field.

Odor rounded the second base bag a little too hard and had to retreat quickly as Jose Bautista fired a laser to shortstop Troy Tulowitzki. To the naked eye, Odor appeared to barely get back in safely, but replays showed Odor’s foot coming off of the bag following initial contact as Tulowitzki applied the tag. The initial safe call was upheld as there ostensibly wasn’t overwhelming evidence upon which to base a decision to overturn.

The call would immediately prove important, as Odor came in to score the go-ahead run when Hanser Albert ripped a single to center field. The Rangers took a 5-4 lead in the game and would tack on one more before the frame was over, helping them move to a 2-0 AL Division Series lead over the Blue Jays.