State of the Astros

Despite the flurry of activity, it’s hard to see this off-season as being positive for the Astros. Naming Ed Wade as the new GM before the end of last season demonstrated that Drayton McLane and president Tal Smith remain unconvinced that the latest generations of GMs, who have been influenced more by Bill James than by veteran scouts, are capable of running our major league team. I wonder if the experience of our most recent GMs had anything to do with the decision to hire Wade, a retread who failed to achieve anything of significance in Philly. Hunsicker had a reputation as a sharp dealmaker who chafed under McLane’s heavy hand. Purpura, the former farm system director, stayed loyal to the players he had shepherded through the minors for too long. His deals were few and almost uniformly bad. Worst of all, under both our previously stellar farm system descended to the bottom of the major league, at the same time that lavishly funded teams like the Yankees and Red Sox were refocusing their efforts on developing talent from within.

So here we are, a team with two superstars, Oswalt and Berkman, an All-Star hitter in Carlos Lee who has probably peaked and is certainly more suited to a DH role, a couple of promising young players in Hunter Pence and J.R. Towles and the rest of the roster filled with league-average players or below. We do have a number of young pitchers, but while all of them have showed promise at one time or another, none of them has performed well-enough recently that the club doesn’t feel the need to search for more pitching via another deal.

Luke Scott remains something of an enigma. Left-handed power hitters are certainly valuable, and he seems like the player that we may regret trading away, but his inability to stay healthy and perform consistently in limited playing time probably mean that he won’t be with the club next spring.

The less said about the recent signings of Kaz Matsui and Geoff Blum, the better. The thought of Matsui penciled in the lineup as the starting 2B for the next 3 years is discouraging. At least with Biggio there was a sentimental reason why we had a 2B who could no longer hit or get on base. We seemed to have pursued Matsui because Chris Burke has fallen out of favor with the organization. Either Drayton McLane decided he’d had enough of him after he failed to perform well at the beginning of this year, or Ed Wade came into the job with some kind of grudge against him. It was pretty clear from the steps they took this off-season that they don’t intend to give him a chance. Blum is just a waste of a roster spot. At least it’s only a million bucks for one year.

What is to be done with this team? To “rebuild” now would waste the prime years of Berkman and Oswalt. The two of them, plus Carlos Lee or Chad Qualls are probably the only assets we have that would bring back top quality young players. All of them, except Qualls, have no-trade clauses which further limit our flexibility. With the weakness of the NL Central it’s not out of the realm of possibility that we can contend for a playoff spot, but that weakness disguises to a certain degree the poor foundations our franchise is built on. The Brewers have a good young team, but they’re flawed and certainly not unbeatable. The Cubs have plenty of money and talent, but reliably sabotage themselves. The Cardinals seem to be in the same mess as the Astros. The two teams have been the class of the division for most of the past decade, however they’ve declined consistently over the last several years, with their World Series victory being a fluke of gargantuan proportions. They seemed to have been mismanaged in similar ways; mortgaging their future at the expense of the present.

Next season, I would expect the Astros (73-89) to improve by several games, with the majority of the improvement on the offensive side. Matsui, all his faults aside, should be closer to league average than Biggio was, and therefore a slight improvement. Replacing most of Brad Ausmus’ at-bats with J.R. Towles will presumably help as well, although Towles is a rookie. He has hit well for a catcher at each stage of the minors and didn’t appear overwhelmed at the end of last season. Ty Wigginton, one of Purpura less disastrous trades should maintain the level of production at 3B. Finally, the outfield defense should improve by adding Bourn in center and shifting Pence to RF. Offensively, Bourn brings little to the table and will only help the team if he can reach base at a clip commensurate with a good lead-off hitter. He showed some promise, but he’s not a great bet.

A full season by a healthy Brandon Backe will help, but other than Roy Oswalt, there is little settled about our pitching staff. Woody Williams will probably start the season in the rotation, but there’s a good chance he will pitch himself off the team, if he starts out like he did last year. Wandy Rodriguez might surprise me and maintain his performance from last year, but I would be shocked if that happened. Then we have Chad Qualls in the bullpen and a series of question marks a mile long. Lidge is gone, but it would be hard for our closer to be much worse than the performance we got out of that spot last season. We offered arbitration to Trevor Miller, so he may return as our lefty who can’t retire lefties. We picked up a couple of middle relievers in trades who will start spring training with an inside track for jobs. Doug Brocail is signed to be the Veteran Presence™. Then we have a bunch of names; pitchers who have yet to prove they’re more than AAAA quality. The top of the list comprises Troy Patton and Matt Albers. Depending on what happens with trades before next year, they may compete for a 5th rotation spot. Then we have Felipe Paulino, Paul Estrada, Juan Gutierrez, Dennis Sarfate and Chris Sampson who might figure into the rotation mix, but are more likely headed for the bullpen. Any chance of a surprise likely comes from this list of names.

Who knows? We could get lucky. That scenario would probably look something like this. Oswalt and Berkman rebound from slightly down years last year to put up numbers closer to what they’re capable of in what should be their peak years. Lee and Pence basically replicate what they did last year, while remaining healthy. Bourn manages to post a .370 OBA and the trio of Matsui, Townes and Wigginton all post an OPS > .750. Adam Everett rebounds from utterly inept at the plate to almost below-average. I’m fairly confident the first two things could happen. Any of the last three happening individually is probably a long shot. All three of them happening, or even two out of three would be a sucker bet. You’re better off putting your money on 13 in roulette.

Assuming an improvement from the offense and a mild bump in the pitching staff, I’d guess our record is most likely in the .500 range, maybe a game or two above or below. That would put us at 3rd in the division. A disappointing season and without much hope for improvement in the immediate future.

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4 Responses

  1. I think Bourn’s minor league OBP numbers show real promise, coupled with his speed, the Astros just got themselves a very cheap Juan Pierre or Willy Taveras.

  2. talk about damning with faint praise.

    I think the jury is still out on Taveras, but he hasn’t yet reached the status of being an above average leadoff hitter. It’s a stretch to call him average and that’s after a year at Coors field. There might have been a few years when Juan Pierre’s production was something to aspire to, but not recently.

    I have a fan’s optimism about Bourn, and the minor league numbers you mention do give some cause for hope, but it’s nothing close to a sure thing.

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