Baseball Season Preview: Houston Astros

For the third consecutive season, we are proud to introduce the Deadspin Baseball Season Previews. Yes, baseball is awfully close now; it's spring training, after all.

Every weekday until the start of the season, a different writer will preview his/her team. We asked a gaggle of writers, from the Web, from print, from books, to tell us, in as many or as little words as they need, Where Their Team Stands. This is not meant to be factual, or dispassionate, or even logical: We just asked them to riff on why they love their team so much, or what their team means to them, or whatever.

Today: The Houston Astros. Your author is Whitney Pastorek.

Whitney Pastorek is a senior writer for Entertainment Weekly magazine. Her words are after the jump.

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A brief anecdote, if you'll permit it:

On May 22 of last year, I drove to San Francisco to see the Astros play the Giants. The game itself was nothing to remember — my scorecard says it was a 4-2 loss, a three-run Giants rally in the 6th nailing our offense-averse coffin shut — but the dude sitting five rows in front of me on that sunny, cool day will be forever burned on my brain. He'd taken notice of my Biggio jersey, and his taunting started with something light and predictable: The Astros sucked, and could I please show him my tits.

I politely ate my garlic fries, and tried not to encourage him. But by the middle innings, the hundred or so patrons seated in our narrow, isolated splashdown gallery were paying more attention to that dude's hollering than to the game itself, because he was unrelenting. At some point in the 7th — or maybe the 8th, I was too irritated to write it down — Dude tired of insulting the current Astros lineup/my anatomy, and moved on to an impressive historical soliloquy involving Houston icons from eras past. "Mike Scott scuffs balls!" he yelled, over and over. "He's a ball-scuffer! Mike Scott scuffs balls!" Against my better judgment, I lashed out to defend my childhood in the only way I know how: "Your mom scuffs balls," I said. The gallery exploded. "Ooooooooooooh!" they cried. Dude sat down and shut up, finally, finally, finally. Somewhere in Texas, I like to think Mike Scott smiled.

I've never had a particularly good experience in San Francisco, honestly — the next day, I returned to the former PacBell to see the Astros lose again, this time by eight runs in front of an entire stadium full of asshats, the kinds of dudes who taunt Morgan Ensberg for kicks; I mean, who taunts Morgan Ensberg?? — but I tell this story to illustrate an important point w/r/t this season's Houston Astros. You see, for the first time, I think I understand the root of the Bay Area's hostility, and I'd like to personally apologize to all Giants fans for judging them without fully comprehending their angst. I now know just how hard it must have been to find your joy with that Barry Bonds guy running around, and I forgive you for lashing out. Because the exact same thing is happening to my Astros, and I think it's making me into a not-so-nice person.

In fact, I'd argue that hacking through the choking media jungle of an ongoing steroids investigation is worse for us Astros fans, because for so many seasons we've been able to happily mind our own business, situated both metaphorically and geographically below the radar. We spent a decade or so accumulating one of the best records in baseball, but still got treated like some mid-market franchise followed by trailer-dwelling methnecks. We drew over three million fans a year, but all anyone saw was the Bush family behind home plate. We made it to our first World Series after a miraculous late-season comeback, and all anyone cared to point out was the slightly racialist lack of African-Americans on the team. Our Hall of Famer second baseman retired, and all anyone knew about him was that he got plunked a lot. But the more I think about it, this debased existence was actually preferable to what's happening now. Now, I log on to my hometown newspaper's sports page, and the only pertinent information about the 2008 Houston Astros' baseball-playing roster is relegated to a side column entitled "Astros Notes." Astros NOTES??

So I'm not going to specifically address the hubris-riddled pitcher who's hanging around like Wooderson with a national press corps in tow. I'm going to save my rant about our too-loyal owner and his tendency to reject common sense for the next time I'm in a Texas sports bar. I shall not address the trade that brought a Mitchell Report-named shortstop to our city a suspiciously short 24 hours before said naming. And I will certainly not go off on a long tangent about congressmen who would rather poke about the checking accounts of athletes than worry about this little war project they started a while back, or sports columnists who waste valuable inches debating who did what to whom in the Billiard Room with Colonel Mustard and a syringe when there are 53 men in Kissimmee, Florida, warming up to play a new season of a wonderful sport that we all love, despite its faults.

Twenty-eight of the 53 players who reported to the Astros' spring training facility this year are new. If you are good at math, you will see that this is more than 50 percent of the roster. I don't know if that's a normal thing for other teams, but it is not often in the modern Astros era that we fans have been asked to throw ourselves behind a group of total strangers. For the majority of my adult life, Biggio and Bagwell have been there to keep us anchored, and it is really—I cannot emphasize this enough—REALLY bizarre to think that the Killer B's will no longer buzz at the Juice Box. The phrase "end of an era" was invented for times like these.

Add to my growing hostility a tremendous sense of confusion, for plenty of other, more recent constants are gone as well: our rotating bench of weak-hitting utility men with four-letter last names; our fragile, broken closer; the entire left side of our infield. Brad Ausmus is hanging in there, but not for long. Roy Oswalt and Lance Berkman are, I suspect, pretty damn lonely. Geoff Blum came back, so that's something. It never hurts to have a Jose Cruz on your team. But our starting rotation looks like it was cobbled together in the final round of a very drunken and not-particularly-astute fantasy draft, and, like, Darin Erstad? Where the hell did he come from? Am I looking at the Angels roster by mistake? Who are these people?

Here's the weird thing, though. If I put my optimism hat on for a second — and it ain't easy, but I'll do it for you, Deadspin readers — I can see a decent lineup. Roll with me now: Michael Bourn is an unproven entity, but he's got exciting potential and blazing speed. Kaz Matsui is coming off a strong season in Colorado, having at last shaken off the ghosts of his frustrating Mets career. Speaking of former Mets now using their powers for good, Ty Wigginton turned in a decent second half after joining us last July. Carlos Lee is solid as a (giant, lumbering) rock, and Berkman should bounce back if he can stop pulling weird muscles. Hunter Pence should continue along his superstar trajectory if he can stop walking into sliding glass doors. J.R. Towles shows promise behind the plate, and I've got faith that Ausmus will be a terrific mentor for both him and the awesomely-named Humberto Quintero in the months to come. (Just don't let Brad near batting practice.)

Finally, Miguel Tejada is, my god, MIGUEL TEJADA. I don't care if he's eating babies to keep his stats up, so long as they stay up.

Another important factor to consider: We had the best pitching in the league for a couple years there, but we couldn't hit our way out of a T-ball tournament. We've now flipped that equation. If Oswalt stays in character, and Backe comes back strong, and Wandy learns to pitch in cities other than Houston, and Woody Williams sells his soul to the devil, and Paulino continues to mature, and Shawn Chacon—well, never mind so much about him—I think they can maybe hold down the fort long enough for our offense to do some damage. And then they can hand things off to our shiny new bullpen, a bullpen that is guaranteed to work better than last year, when it wasn't so much "closer by committee" as it was "a bunch of pitchers whose reliability hovered somewhere between a drunk Lindsay Lohan and a 1962 Chevy Corvair." Now we've got an exciting setup guy, Oscar Villarreal, and an even more exciting (if totally batshit insane) closer, José Valverde, to bring us home. I don't know if they're Pujols-proof, per se, but I think the days of wanting to shoot myself in the 7th inning are over for the time being.

The 2008 Houston Astros, in other words and despite all the chaos it took to get us here, do not look that bad on paper. Of course, no one can get hurt — and I swear to god, Berkman, if you even think about playing flag football this summer, I will come down to Second Baptist and lock you in the bowling alley myself. But if everyone plays at the top of their potential, I see no reason why we can't put together a winning record with the tools at hand. Most prognosticators have us ranked third or fourth in the division, but if there's one word you can use to describe the NL Central, it's "sucky," and so as far as I'm concerned, anything is possible. I think we've got a real shot at pulling this off. Maybe. I called a couple of my sources. They do not think I am completely off the mark with this assessment. I think they're just as confused as I am.

So, um, let's go 'Stros! You may be getting decimated in Spring Training, but I'll still see you in San Diego for Opening Day. Hopefully by that time, the Steroidal Eye of Sauron will have turned its gaze elsewhere, and we can get back to the simple pleasures of hitting and catching and running and spitting and scratching. I'll be there every step of the way, even if I don't know the first thing about most of you guys. I like meeting new people! And when I make my annual pilgrimage to San Francisco this summer, Giants fans, garlic fries are on me. I will not show you my tits, but garlic fries are on me.