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.

Brandon Morrow injured his back taking off his pants

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The Cubs’ bullpen got into trouble in the ninth inning on Tuesday afternoon during the first game of a doubleheader. Justin Wilson started the inning with the Cubs leading 3-2, normally a situation for closer Brandon Morrow. Wilson issued a leadoff walk to Austin Barnes, then gave up a single to Justin Turner. Morrow wasn’t warming up, curiously. Wilson ended up giving up a go-ahead two-run double to pinch-hitter Kyle Farmer and the Cubs went on to lose 4-3.

We now know why Morrow wasn’t available. He says his back tightened up taking off his pants early Monday morning, MLB.com’s Carrie Muskat reports. Morrow said, “It’s frustrating any time you can’t get out there, especially when you can’t go for something as stupid as taking your pants off.”

Morrow, 33, has been terrific in the closer’s role this season for the Cubs. He owns a 1.59 ERA with a 25/9 K/BB ratio in 22 2/3 innings. He is also not available for the back end of Tuesday’s doubleheader, but it sounds like he won’t need to go on the disabled list.