New season, old woes for Astros

HOUSTON A powerful revamped lineup.

The same old pitching problems.

Cecil Cooper starts his first full season as manager of the Houston Astros with a beefed up lineup that pairs new Astros Miguel Tejada and Kaz Matsui with Lance Berkman and Carlos Lee.

It looks like they'll have no problem scoring, but the question is how the rotation will shape up. They have their ace in Roy Oswalt, but things after that are a bit shaky.

Oswalt will set an Astros record with his sixth straight opening day start Monday in San Diego.

Brandon Backe looked good this spring and will start the season No. 2 in the rotation. He's somewhat of an unknown making just 13 appearances the past two seasons because of elbow ligament-replacement surgery.

The Astros are hoping he returns to his 2005 form when he was 10-8 with a 4.76 ERA in 25 starts and came up big during a playoff run to the franchise's first World Series.

Wandy Rodriguez, the only left-hander in the rotation, will be the third starter. His spring was tempered with an oblique strain, but he has recovered from that injury.

"We need somebody else to step up so we can rely on them," Cooper said. "Brandon or Wandy, one those guys needs to step up."

Rodriguez was great at home last season, posting a 2.94 ERA. Things didn't go so well on the road and he finished 9-13 with a 4.54 ERA. Cooper believes a year of experience has matured the 29-year-old and he can overcome his road woes this season.

A new addition to the rotation this season is Shawn Chacon, who spent time as both a starter and reliever in Pittsburgh last season. Rounding out the group is Chris Sampson, who was 7-8 with a 4.59 ERA as a rookie last season.

The Astros gave 41-year-old Woody Williams every opportunity to retain his spot in the rotation this spring. He was so awful they decided to put him on waivers Saturday despite owing him $6.5 million.

His 11.32 ERA in spring training followed last season's 8-15 record with a 5.27 ERA.

Oswalt, who was 14-7 with a 3.18 ERA last season, isn't buying into the predictions of gloom and doom.

"I feel good about it. We're going to be OK," he said. "A lot of people doubt us, but I think we're going to be a lot better than people think."

There's a bit of good news for the Astros pitching staff though with the addition of closer Jose Valverde to replace Brad Lidge. He had a major-league leading 47 saves for Arizona last season.

"When he's right, he's good," Cooper said. "If we get to the ninth, I feel like we're going to win with him. We went from an 'A' to an 'A-plus' at the end of the game."

A surprise of spring was the development of Rule 5 player Wesley Wright. The left-handed reliever was nearly flawless to nab a spot in the bullpen.

Cooper has the task of trying to turn the team around after manager Phil Garner and general manager Tim Purpura were fired near the end of last season when it became clear the Astros would miss the playoffs for the second consecutive season after going three times the previous five years.

The 58-year-old Cooper is trying to bring a new attitude to the team, a plan that is evident by the proliferation of signs with positive messages littering the walls of Houston's spring training facility.

"Effective leaders are great communicators," reads one. Another proclaims: "Great leaders have knowledge, conviction, vision, tough skin and are fearless."

"I just want to be a motivator," Cooper said. "Just keep the messages out there and stay positive."

The biggest offseason move Cooper and new GM Ed Wade made was adding Tejada, the 2002 AL MVP. The Astros don't appear too concerned that the FBI is investigating whether he lied to House committee investigators in 2005 when he told them he never took performance enhancers and had no knowledge of other players using or talking about steroids.

If Tejada is worried about it, he didn't let it affect his work on the field and made a smooth transition to his new team this spring.

"That's a real nice piece to add, an MVP-type player," Cooper said.

Added Lee: "I really like our lineup now, with me, Miguel and Berkman. It's very good."

Tejada's 18 home runs last season were his fewest since 1999, but Cooper thinks he's still an "awfully good player."

"He wants to prove to people that he is the Miguel Tejada of old," Cooper said. "He's got a lot of help here. That's got to rejuvenate him a bit. He doesn't have to be the man here."

Matsui replaces Craig Biggio at second base and his speed should upgrade Houston's offense. The Astros are putting a premium on base-stealing this season, and Matsui should be the key in that after swiping 32 last season.

He'll start the season on the disabled list while recovering from surgery to repair an anal fissure, but should return to the lineup quickly.

Another new speedster in the lineup is center fielder and leadoff hitter Michael Bourn, a Houston native who spent last season with Philadelphia.

Hunter Pence, who was one of the only bright spots in Houston's dismal 2007 season, will try and build on his rookie success. Pence set Astros' rookie records for extra-base hits (56) and doubles (30) and finished with a .322 batting average.

He'll move from center field to right field, a position he feels more comfortable with, to make room for Bourn. Cooper said the 24-year-old is already becoming a leader on the team because of his work ethic and expects more from him with a year of experience.

"I'm very happy because this whole puzzle from an offensive standpoint has really come together," Cooper said.

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