Cockcroft: Houston Astros preview

A second-place team for five consecutive seasons, and a playoff team in six of the past 10 years, the Astros appear to have reached a crossroads. "Killer B's" like Jeff Bagwell, Craig Biggio and Lance Berkman led the team for more than a decade, but Bagwell is now retired, while Biggio is more than likely entering his final season. Sure, Berkman remains, and he's in his prime, but the Astros now face the difficult task of trying to squeeze one more productive season out of their remaining veteran core.

To that end, the Astros added free-agent outfielder Carlos Lee, only 30 years old and coming off a season in which he set career highs in home runs (37), RBI (116) and OPS (.895), and starters Jason Jennings, now 28 and coming off a career year himself in ERA (3.78) and WHIP (1.373), and Woody Williams, who had 12 wins and a 3.68 ERA in 24 starts in 2006, to the core that won 82 games yet fell six games short of the wild card. They should help plug some holes, and in Lee's case especially, he should finally strengthen an offense that finished among the game's 10 worst in each of the past two seasons.

That offense, however, did lose center fielder and leadoff/No. 2 hitter Willy Taveras, shipped to the Colorado Rockies in the Jennings trade, leaving that job in the hands of Chris Burke, a downgrade in the speed and defense departments. Plus, the Astros received only a .228 batting average and 24 home runs out of their bottom three lineup spots in 2006, and they'll return the same Nos. 7 (Adam Everett) and 8 (Brad Ausmus) hitters this year. That puts loads of pressure on a heart-of-the-order hitter like Morgan Ensberg, who desperately needs to put forth a year closer to his 2005 than 2006. Hey, judging by the fact his best performances have come in odd years (2003, 2005), at least it's good that it's an odd year.