Season Preview: The Houston Astros

Continuing our look at the National League Central is a preview of the Houston Astros' upcoming season.

With Roger Clemens leaving much to be desired in the way of stability, the unquestioned leader of the Astros pitching staff is none other than Roy Oswalt, who went 15-8 last season with a 2.98 ERA. Jason Jennings and Woody Williams will fill up the next two spots, with a variety of others vying for the remaining two. Left-hander Wandy Rodriguez may be the best candidate for the fourth slot, considering his 2 years of big league experience and the possibility of being the lone lefty in the rotation. The pool of candidates to round out the order include right-handers Chris Sampson, Dave Borkowski, Matt Albers, Fernando Nieve and Brian Moehler, who recently signed a Minor League deal and received an invitation to Spring Training.

The back end of the bullpen is set with Brad Lidge, who struggled through a 5.28 ERA season at closer, followed by Chad Qualls and Dan Wheeler, with Trever Miller as the only left-hander available.

The remainder of the vacant spots could go to a number of pitchers, depending mostly on who emerges as better suited for relief or the rotation. Borkowski and Sampson are candidates for both with Moehler competing as well. Invitees Kevin Walker and lefty Scott Sauerbeck will also audition for a relief job to complement Miller along with veterans Rick White, Ben Weber and righty Miguel Asencio, who was acquired with the Jason Jennings trade.

At least two candidates will head into camp prepared to fight for the starting job in right field - the only outfield position readily available. While Luke Scott appears to have the best chance, lefty bat Jason Lane could be given a shot also. As for the other two outfield positions, they're solid. Chris Burke will begin the season in center field, and the clubs' new $100 million man, Carlos Lee, will roam left.

All eyes will be on 41-year-old Craig Biggio as he marches toward his 3,000th hit - only 70 hits away while holding down second base. Last year, he played in 145 games, which included 13 pinch-hit appearances, but this year, with the versatile Mark Loretta available to fill in at all infield spots, manager Phil Garner will certainly give Biggio even more time off.

The shortstop position will remain unchanged, but it may bring some controversy as slick-fielding Adam Everett's defensive prowess doesn't match up with his offensive shortcomings. Eric Bruntlett will be set to fill in along with Loretta.

Morgan Ensberg will be the leading candidate to man third base on Opening Day, with Mike Lamb also having a chance. While Jeff Bagwell is golfing in the tropics, Lance Berkman is set to be the everyday first baseman.

Another spot that isn't up for grabs is that of starting catcher. Brad Ausmus, the longest-tenured backstop in club history, will begin what could be his last season in a Houston uni going into the final season of his two-year contract. Humberto Quintero and Hector Gimenez are the leading candidates for backup.

The Astros finished 2 games above .500, a game-and-a-half behind the World Series Champion St. Louis Cardinals, but only 2 games ahead of the Cincinnati Reds. It will take some work to stay on top, but the Astros have what it takes to keep the NLC interesting through September.

Depth Chart