Thursday, October 26, 2006

Looking Ahead: Houston Astros

2006 W-L Record: 82-80
2006 pW-pL Record: 83-79
Runs Scored: 735 (12th in NL)
Runs Allowed: 719 (1st in NL)

Free Agents: Jeff Bagwell, Craig Biggio, Roger Clemens, Aubrey Huff, Andy Pettitte, Russ Springer

2007 Projected Lineup:
1B -- Lance Berkman/Mike Lamb
2B -- Chris Burke?
SS -- Adam Everett
3B -- Morgan Ensberg
LF -- Lance Berkman/Luke Scott
CF -- Willy Taveras
RF -- Jason Lane
C --Brad Ausmus

2007 Proj. Rotation:
Roy Oswalt
Fernando Nieve
Jason Hirsh
Taylor Buchholz
Wandy Rodriguez/Matt Albers/?

2007 Proj. Closer: Brad Lidge

The Good News:
The Astros were better at preventing runs than any other team in the National League by a significant margin. Their pitching staff was fabulous, headed up by Roy Oswalt. Oswalt is in the running for the Cy Young Award this year, but then he's a Cy Young candidate every year he's healthy. The Astros recently signed him to a hefty contract extension (5 years, $73 mil.), but if anybody's worth it, it's him.
The Astros will be losing a great deal of their pitching this offseason, with both Roger Clemens and Andy Pettitte departing as free agents. My guess is, though, that if the team fails to re-sign either player, they will go after someone either via free agency or a trade. With Clemens and Bagwell especially, the 'Stros will be dropping a lot of salary in the off-season, giving them plenty of room to maneuver.

Although the loss in depth behind Oswalt is disturbing, the Astros do have some young arms coming up that could help mitigate the problem. While guys like Buchholz and Rodriguez are little more than placeholders, Nieve and Hirsh both have the potential to become quality big-league hurlers. But neither man has yet established himself in the majors. Nieve debuted with 100 decent innings in 2006, while Hirsh only managed a 44.2 inning cup of coffee late in the season. Neither man is a lock for quality production in 2007, which is why the Astros may look outside the organization to add depth while these two continue to develop. The loss of Brandon Backe to Tommy John surgery hurts, but not as much as people think; Backe is a postseason hero, but has a career 4.71 ERA in 317 major-league innings. Matt Albers could get himself a shot for the simple reason that he's not as bad as Wandy Rodriguez; this would give me the continued satisfaction of yelling out, "Hey, hey, hey! It's Matt Albers!" every time he enters a game. (If I do nothing else with this blog, I would like to add at least one nickname to the big-league lexicon.)
It should also be noted that the Astros' pitchers were helped by one of the best defenses in the game. The guiding lights here were shortstop Adam Everett and center fielder Willy Taveras, both of whom are among the league's best at their position. Morgan Ensberg is a quality third baseman, and the Astros also have the benefit of above-average, athletic role-players in the outfield corners.
The Astro lineup is weak, but they have the benefit of a few big boppers out there. Lance Berkman is probably the most underrated player in baseball; he hits like an MVP every year (career 304/416/567) but only twice has he finished in the top 5 in the MVP voting. Berkman will be just 31 next year; he's making a heap of money, but he still hits for a high average and is more athletic than he seems, meaning he's still got a lot of great hitting left in him.
Third baseman Morgan Ensberg is another underappreciated hitter. Injuries hampered Ensberg in '06, leaving him with a final batting line reminiscent of Adam Dunn (235/396/463). Ensberg is a quality third baseman, and while his inconsistency can be maddening, he's a true asset to the team.
Offensively, the only real bright light for the Astros was the flashy debut of Luke Scott. Scott had been knocking around the minors for six years before finally reaching the majors for good in 2006. He'd shown off some good-hitting chops in the minors, but his 336/426/621 performance in 65 major league games this year was a giant surprise. At age 28, it's not a surprise that we're ever going to see again, but it's a refreshingly good story from amongst the horde of weak-hitting outfielders the Astros have developed in recent years. Organizational blue-chipper Hunter Pence had a fine year in Double-A, but he isn't likely to crack the majors until at least the middle of next year unless the team gets desperate.

The Bad News:
The Astros are a team with a barely adequate offense that can't afford to lose any of its good pitchers. It's very hard to imagine the Astros coming up with anybody to replace the innings and effectiveness that Clemens and Pettitte have given them. They could try and make it up by improving their offense, but that's also unlikely. The team has made overtures toward some free agent hitters, but this team is so full of holes that's it's probably more than just one hitter away from .500 ball.
The holes mentioned above are primarily shortstop, catcher, and the outfield. At shortstop, the Astros have one of the best defenders in baseball in Adam Everett. They will most likely just live with his anemic bat and seek to improve elsewhere, which is wise.
The best place to improve would be catcher, where the Astros have an equally impotent hitter who is nothing like the defensive asset that Adam Everett is. The trouble is that the Astros have convinced themselves that Brad Ausmus is a defensive asset; how else would you explain signing a 36-year-old backstop to a 2-year, $7.5 million contract after hitting 258/351/331 in 2005? Especially when you consider that, for Ausmus, 2005 was a career year -- he's a lifetime 253/326/347 hitter. But the Astros are stuck with the Ausmus millstone for at least another year, because they somehow think he's saving millions of runs as a catcher. Sorry, folks -- not true. And it's hard to win when you've got what amounts to three pitchers hitting 7-8-9 in you lineup, as anyone who saw the 2005 World Series will attest.
The other big zero is center fielder Willy Taveras. Taveras is pretty much a .280 hitter, but he does steal a lot of bases. Therefore, he hits leadoff. But no one with a .333 OBP (career .329) should hit lead-off. You'd have to steal about 300 bases a year to make up for all those outs (410 this year), I don't care how good a bunter you are. Taveras also has no power, which makes him a further liability.
The Astros are therefore somewhat hamstrung in that their two biggest defensive assets are also their two biggest offensive liabilities. It's for this reason that the Astros have to maximize what they get from every other spot in the lineup to compensate. Thus keeping Brad Ausmus and Craig Biggio (who hit 246/306/422 at age 40) around is a luxury that the Astros really can't afford; not if they want to contend in 2007. Because if you're getting less than a .330 OBP from five spots in your lineup guaranteed (2B, SS, CF, C, P), it doesn't really matter if you have Lance Berkman at first or Lou Gehrig.
The Astros do have a whole lot of talent on their bench, but too much of it is seeing regular playing time. Players like Chris Burke, Eric Bruntlett, and even Jason Lane have proven a poor solution to the team's corner outfield problems.
That said, the Astros have compensated for this terrible offense in recent years by putting together a dynamite pitching staff. This hasn't gotten them more than 92 wins yet, but it did get them a couple of unlikely Wild Card berths (including an equally unlikely pennant in 2005). But that pitching -- which is what kept this team in contention for three years -- is taking a big hit this offseason. They've got a huge drop-off in talent after Oswalt, which they can only somewhat fix through free agency or a trade. They certainly don't have the money to fill two holes, and even filling one hole wouldn't replace Clemens and Pettitte.
With the arrival of some good young talent, the future does look brighter. And the Astros have the advantage of playing in baseball's most winnable division; their chief rivals, the Cardinals, have the exact same problems: no depth in pitching after the #1 starter, good defenders clogging up the lineup with their terrible hitting, and only a few true stars, most of whom are aging. So the Astros, provided they can get good support from their young players, might actually be contenders in the NL Central after all. But that's more an insult to the NL Central than it is a compliment to the Astros.

Offseason Game Plan:
Don't get rid of Brad Lidge. Lidge's poor season (5.28 ERA) doesn't really jibe with his peripheral stats (36:104 BB:K ratio in just 75 IP). Although he is allowing more HR (10, after giving up just 5 last season), that's not enough to explain the ERA.
While I can't dismiss the issues surrounding Lidge's confidence, his strikeout numbers lead me to believe that he's still a good pitcher. He didn't earn an ERA over 5.00 last year, and he should rebound to something closer to his 2.29 performance in 2005. This is the worst possible time to trade Lidge; his return value will be at its lowest. There's no reason to trade someone this good, especially when you won't get anything really worthwhile in return. Lidge will earn his arbitration money, mark my words. And if the Astros trade him, it will be to one really lucky team.
You have to do something significant to improve your offense. Under ideal circumstances, it would mean replacing your least valuable player in Brad Ausmus. But the Astros have an emotional commitment to Ausmus that belies logic, so that won't happen. In that case, you have to milk everything you can out of the corner outfield spots. You got rid of Preston Wilson; don't make the mistake of replacing him with someone just as worthless.
Commit to your youth movement. You just missed the playoffs this year and despite your mediocrity, should be contenders again next year. There's no reason to shoot the moon and go for it all this year, not when you've finally got a little promise for the future. You've got money to spend, but should spend it wisely; that normally goes without saying, but of course, it too often goes unheeded.
Don't panic. You're up there with the Cardinals and Brewers among the top contenders in your division and don't need to ruin the future to try and pass them.

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