I don’t know how good this team will be, and that’s why I like it.

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I am asked almost daily for my prediction for the 2011 Astros. I am asked to guess how many games they’ll win and if they’ll contend, if they have enough starting pitching and hitting and a strong enough bullpen to stay afloat in the NL Central division.

My answer comes off as wishy washy, but it’s the honest truth — I don’t know. I really, really don’t know. And that’s why this team is going to be fun to watch.

When I look at this team, I see a very good starting rotation, and when you have good pitching, you have a chance. When I look at the lineup, I see a lot of players without long-term track records, and that’s why it is nearly impossible to handicap how this season is going to shake out.

Chris Johnson had a terrific rookie season. Jason Castro (pictured above, with Humberto Quintero) and Brett Wallace struggled offensively as they worked to acclimate themselves to the big leagues in a very short amount of time. The middle of the infield will have more pop than last year’s with the addition of Clint Barmes and Bill Hall, but we don’t know how that will translate over the course of six months.

I see interesting arms in the bullpen in Wilton Lopez and Mark Melancon and Fernando Abad, but again, so many of the Astros’ up-and-comers have little to no track record, and therefore, it is impossible to project how they’ll perform over the long haul.

So how good will these Astros be in 2011? I just don’t know. And to me, that makes them a very intriguing story. In 2009, the Astros had the oldest team in two categories: age, and service time. Those are the two distinctions no team wants. Over the course of two years, the Astros have gotten younger and better defensively, and while players who are just starting out are going to have their share of inevitable struggles, I sense it’ll be fun to watch them develop,
too.
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On the other hand, there are plenty of Astros who have been around a while. A long, long while — in many instances, more than three decades. Fortunately, they’re all members of the support staff and not the 40-man roster.

Twelve have been to at least 30 Spring Trainings, led by the grand daddy of them all, Matt Galante, who is participating in his 45th camp. The rest of the list: Special Assistant to the GM Jose Cruz (44), bullpen coach Jamie Quirk (39), bullpen assistant Strech Suba (34), traveling secretary Barry Waters (34), clubhouse manager emeritus Dennis Liborio (34), bench coach Al Pedrique (34), Oklahoma City pitching coach Burt Hooton (34), assistant athletic trainer Rex Jones (34), manager Brad Mills (33), strength and conditioning coach Gene Coleman (33), visiting clubhouse manager Steve Perry (32).

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On to the links…

MLB.com

Carlos Lee would like to put last year behind him and start anew

In this McTaggart notebook, we learn that Drayton McLane was surprised the club lost its arbitration case with Pence and that Alberto Arias is concerned about his right shoulder.

McTaggart also has some dandy photos from the first full-squad workout on Sunday in his blog.

Chronicle

Get to know your new hitting coach in this Justice column.

Hunter Pence labeled as the club’s hardest working player, possibly ever. Here’s why.

Could the Astros and Nationals be moving in together in a few years? Justice has the scoop.

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Check out Astros witticisms at AstrosOneLiners 

Questions? Send to afooter@astros.com  

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