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The Astros are preparing for escrow

Tim Brown
Yahoo Sports
The Astros are preparing for escrow
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Owner Drayton McLane and GM Ed Wade are maintaining curb appeal while the Astros are for sale

Editor’s note: Yahoo! Sports will examine the offseason of every MLB team before spring training begins in mid-February. Our series continues with the Houston Astros.

2010 record: 76-86
Finish: Fourth place, NL Central
2010 final payroll: $90.1 million
Estimated 2011 opening day payroll: $80 million Offseason action

It looks like the Drayton McLane era in Houston will end with a couple Rule 5 guys – two minor leaguers he got for reliever Matt Lindstrom(notes), and, well looky here, two fellows he picked up named Barmes and Bill. A pair of B’s.

While that seems a bit sad – Craig Biggio, Jeff Bagwell, Derek Bell, Sean Berry, even Lance Berkman(notes) are memories now – McLane, 74 years old and selling off the franchise, should go out with a semi-complement of B’s.

Even if they’re stand-in B’s.

During the winter meetings, Astros officials insisted the club would not be stripped down so that McLane could fetch the greatest return on his $117 million investment from almost 20 years ago. And, thus far, it hasn’t been. Of course, the primary drain on the payroll is Carlos Lee(notes), who is immovable, in almost all ways. He is due $37 million over the next two seasons, and in that time, will account for nearly a quarter of the team’s salaries. He also doesn’t get around much in left field.

Limited, then, as far as free agent upgrades and married to a handful of young players whose time – he hopes – is now, general manager Ed Wade tinkered on the edges of a roster that was outscored by every team in the NL but the Pittsburgh Pirates last season.

He acquired Clint Barmes(notes) from the Colorado Rockies for Felipe Paulino(notes), whose potential and power arm had delivered a 6-21 record and 5.83 ERA over parts of three major league seasons. And he signed Bill Hall(notes) to a risk-free, one-year, $3.25 million contract. Barmes will play shortstop, Hall second.

Eh, we’ll give that a C.

Reality check

The usual abysmal first half from the Astros in 2010 gave way to the usual respectable second half (40-33), which gave way to McLane’s announcement that he’s ready to sell, none of which is going to help the Astros score runs in 2011.

They’re hoping Lee shows up in reasonable shape and does something about that batting average (.246), on-base percentage (.291) and slugging percentage (.417) – all career lows. Even if Lee gets back to hitting, however, he’ll need plenty of help.

Hunter Pence(notes) is solid, as is Michael Bourn(notes). Barmes is an upgrade over Tommy Manzella(notes) and Hall showed some life last season as a part-timer in Boston. Jeff Keppinger(notes) had foot surgery, likely won’t be ready for the start of the season, and returns to a utility role.

The difference between a presentable offense and another pitiful one lies in part with the Astros’ early 20-somethings, those being catcher Jason Castro(notes), third baseman Chris Johnson(notes) and well-traveled first baseman Brett Wallace(notes).

Wade and manager Brad Mills(notes) will have to decide in spring whether Wallace’s bat is big league ready. If not, there’s a chance Lee will move to first. Castro hit in the minors, and was capable against right-handers as a rookie, but was three for 43 against lefties. A platoon with Humberto Quintero(notes) seems likely. Johnson was strikeout prone, but batted .308 and has power potential.

The rotation – Brett Myers(notes), Wandy Rodriguez(notes), J.A. Happ(notes), Bud Norris(notes) and whoever wins the fifth spot (Ryan Rowland-Smith(notes)?) – is decent, the bullpen less so.

As it stands, the Astros have neither the offense nor pitching to stay with the NL Central’s three lead dogs – Cincinnati Reds, St. Louis Cardinals, Milwaukee Brewers – but are capable of making the Chicago Cubs feel bad about themselves again.

Astros in haiku

Once they were killers
How they swarmed, and how they stung
Houston, can this be?

Next: Los Angeles Dodgers