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.

Video: Albert Almora, Jr. saved by the ivy

Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images
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The ALCS had a weird play in Game 4 on Tuesday night, but Game 4 of the NLCS did as well. This one involved Cubs outfielder Albert Almora, Jr. and his attempt to spark a rally in the bottom of the ninth inning against Dodgers reliever Ross Stripling.

After Alex Avila singled, Almora ripped a double to left field, past a diving Enrique Hernandez. The ball rolled to the ivy in front of the wall. Most outfielders there would’ve put their hands up, which would have alerted the umpires to call an immediate ground-rule double. Hernandez didn’t, instead fishing the ball out and firing it back into the infield. Avila had stopped at third base, but Almora kept running. Much to his surprise, he pulled up into third base to see his teammate standing there, resigned to his fate as a dead duck. Third baseman Justin Turner applied the tag on Almora for what he thought was the first out of the inning.

Almora, however, was then sent back to second base after the umpires correctly called a ground-rule double.

Unfortunately for the Cubs, the lucky break didn’t help as closer Kenley Jansen came in and took care of business, retiring all three batters he faced without letting an inherited runner score. The Dodgers won 6-1 and now lead the NLCS three games to none. They’ll try to punch their ticket to the World Series on Wednesday.