The windup 

credit: RedHawks

The Houston Astros are expected to be one of the weakest teams in Major League Baseball this season.

But the Oklahoma City RedHawks, Houston’s Triple-A affiliate, could be one of the best.

Opening their home season Friday against Memphis, the RedHawks feature an experienced pitching staff — and that very well may be enough to get into the Triple-A playoffs.

The bad news is the on-field talent will be secondary chatter to what’s going on in the front office. In recent weeks, the Astros have talked about wanting a team closer to home. Owner Jim Crane mentioned the Woodlands, a suburb near Houston, would make for a better spot.

RedHawks owners say there will continue to be a team in OKC, but which team and its affiliation could change. Formerly known as the 89ers, the RedHawks were the Texas Rangers’ Triple-A affiliate for nearly three decades. The contract between the RedHawks and Astros runs through 2014.

This season, the RedHawks boast eight starting pitchers, all of whom could see time with the big-league club. The most notable, Jordan Lyles, is a 6-foot-4 right-hander who started 25 games last year for the Astros, threw a complete game and won five games with a 5.09 ERA.

John Ely, originally a third-round pick of the Chicago White Sox in 2007, started 18 games in the bigs in 2010 and has been up to the majors and down to Triple-A since. Many observers think he’ll be the first RedHawk called up to the Astros this season.

Dallas Keuchel, who pitched at Tulsa’s Bishop Kelley High School and last year started 16 games for the Astros, also will be one of this season’s top starters for OKC.

As good as the RedHawks arms are, there’s a chance it will be hard for OKC fans to get familiar with them. The Astros have been miserable the past few years, and this season, Houston has moved to the American League. Expect the Astros to regularly pick from the RedHawks roster; they’ll need to.

The pitching is certain to be the strength of the team, with hitting the likely weakness. Outfielders Trevor Crowe and Jimmy Paredes are the familiar names. Both are capable speed guys who have spent lengthy amounts of time at the next level.

Beyond those two, Jose Martinez at second base may be the best bet to get the call up to Houston. He drove in 84 last year and hit 13 home runs in 130 games. Shortstop Jonathan Villar has never played at the Triple-A level; he hit 11 homers and drove in 50 last season in the Double-A Texas League.

As always, the RedHawks feature lots of promotions, with fireworks following every Friday game, regular $1 beer nights and kids getting to run the bases after Sunday games.

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