Evan Hochschild, a reader of this blog, wrote a comment several days back in which he disagreed with my belief that this year’s team is not particularly good as it is lacking in good pitching and and even league average defense and that the hitting most likely will not overcome the mostly not particularly good pitching. Evan was also not exactly sorry to bid goodbye to the players the Astros either traded away or did not re-sign.
“I guess you have this superior baseball knowledge so as to lambast this team at every turn. You (apparently by the grace of God) have a baseball blog. Regardless of your: sex, gender, socio-economic background- I am not impressed by your takes.
You seem to dislike every move this team has made. Perhaps they were risky, but ultimately, will it matter? We had no farm system to begin with. Estrada, Albers, Patton, etc: they weren’t true prospects! True, they were young, but they were not going to turn out to be anything of real value. You seem to be fixated with these farmhands of ours. Chris Burke! Oh, wow! A 28 year old positional vagabond! Be still my beating heart. I’ll concede he would’ve been more economical than Kaz, but what have you seen in him to justify any degree of faith in him. What tools does he have? His average at best defense? His average range? His less than average speed?
I appreciate your assertion that you will NEVER will unenthusiastic about your team. While I appreciate the sentiments, that claim on its face seems to be empty. I mean, you had to make that statement, right? Either way, I don’t come here for information, I come here more as a sadist- it’s entertaining for me to read your constant berating of this team.”
Funny, I thought that should have been “masochist” not “sadist,” but perhaps he means wannabe sadist, who knows? But anyway, I’m not closed-minded, perhaps I AM overly pessimistic, so I offered Evan opportunity to write a guest column rebuttal on this season’s Astros, explaining his optimism. You can see for yourselves if he has made his case. Here it is, unedited in any way by me.
Time to get Acclimated
I feel dizzy. My head is spinnin’.how could yours not be after this past off-season and spring training? Regardless of whether we can keep ours, balance will be the name of the game for the 2008 Houston Astros. GM Ed Wade came, saw, and he dismantled. Let’s lay out a few the pertinent facts of 2007, to see what faced Mr. Wade after Craig was carried off on the city’s collective shoulders:
Team Runs Scored: 723, 13th in the NL
Team OPS: .742, 11th in the NL
Team ERA: 4.68, 12th in the NL
Saves/Save Opportunities: 35/55 = 63.6%
Use any stat lines you’d like, the fact of the matter is that this team’s performance was abysmal in 2007. The Astros tried living off of their successes in 2004 and 2005 for too long, and in doing so, were forced to come to grips with a 73-89 record that marked just their second losing season in the past eleven.
Without re-hashing old mistakes or assigning blame, change was in order, and time was of the essence. Simply bringing in Carlos Lee and Woody Williams would not suffice this off-season. The man who built the Philadelphia Phillies team that made the dramatic (and concededly lucky) division title push, would be confronted with the challenge.
Determined not to overspend, and seeing no viable options in the trade market, the Astros head into 2008 with familiar faces, Roy Oswalt, Wandy Rodriguez, Brandon Backe and Chris Sampson as starters.
Wait a minute- aren’t we missing a certain aged Houstonian?? As our luck would have it, no we are not. Woody Williams was released not but an hour before this column was written. Ed Wade convinced Drayton to eat the remaining 6 million dollar plus left on his contract. Going 0-3, with an 11 plus ERA in the spring did not do much to help assuage fears that his 2007 season was a late career bump in the road.
Nevertheless, Shawn Chacon was signed to a reasonable one year contract and will be inserted as our fourth starter for the time being. Felipe Paulino will miss the first month of the season with a pinched nerve, but will surely be counted on to become part of this rotation before the season in over.
Starting pitching clearly will not be a strength in 2008. With a farm system that’s barren, and a trade market that was unwelcoming, not a whole lot could have been done in the area. We need only look north to the Texas Rangers to see what overpaying for free agent starters (Chan Ho Park, Vicente Padilla, Adam Eaton, Kevin Millwood) can do to a team’s ability to play winning baseball. Ed Wade took note of this and instead sought to make change where he could.
Ed Wade is known in baseball circles for his propensity to sign/trade for relief pitchers with the abandon of a Carlos Lee going after the last post game shrimp scampi. My attempts at humor aside, that tradition was not broken in his first off season in charge of the Astros. As touched on earlier, the 2007 Astros simply could not nail down games when push came to shove. A 64 percent conversion percentage by your team’s set-up men (in our case Mr. Qualls and Mr. Wheeler) and closer (Mr. Lidge) translates into inconsistent and ultimately losing baseball. Couple that with our less than stellar starting pitching, and a recipe for disaster was apparent.
If it’s consistency you desire in a set up man, then Doug Brocail is just what the doctor ordered. With a career ERA of 3.99, Brocail will be asked to preserve leads heading into the 9th inning. After having a rejuvenating year in the San Diego bullpen last year, Brocail enjoyed the expansive Petco parameters to the tune of a 3.05 ERA, while giving up only 66 hits in 76 and 2/3 of a inning.
Chad Qualls was and will probably remain a very good late inning pitcher. That cannot be debated. However, of his 82 hits given up last year 10 were home runs (the same number given up in 2006). Strikingly inconsistent at times, Qualls has the stuff to be among the best relief pitchers in baseball. His rate stats are impeccable (K/9 of above 8, and a K/BB ratio of above 3.0), but his mental makeup leaves more to be desired. Brocail himself gave up 8 long balls last year, but only a combined 13 in the last four.
The loss of Qualls was mitigated by the fact that, well, he was traded with positional vagabond Chris Burke for Jose Valverde. The NL saves leader this past season, Valverde was a catalyst for the Diamondbacks run to the top of the Western Division. His 47 saves (in 54 opportunities) mean that he blew less saves in twice the amount of opportunities than Brad Lidge. He is under contract with the Astros for at least the next two seasons.
The last major piece of bullpen change came about early in the off season. Josh “.650 OPS or bust” Anderson was shipped out to Atlanta for middle relief man Oscar Villareal. He was immediately signed to a multi year contract, and will be used as primarily a seventh inning pitcher, but has experience setting up the closer as well. Regardless of what happens with Villareal, Ed Wade turned a middling (that’s too kind.below replacement level? Yeah.that’s better) outfielder and came up with a reliever who can help solidify a part of this team that needs to be excellent in order to compete.
Relievers are not a dime a dozen, either in price or availability. There is nothing more frustrating than having a starter pitch well, only to have the lead given up by a guy who should be changing my coolant at Jiffy Lube. Brandon Backe, Chris Sampson and Shawn Chacon will not be expected or needed to pitch deeper into games than they are able to, either. The old baseball adage about making the game shorter with your bullpen is a proven method to winning, and hopefully it can be duplicated this season.
Geoff Geary (who came over in the Lidge trade), Dave Borkowski and Wesley Wright (Rule V draftee) have not been mentioned, but combine those three with the three new editions, and this bullpen should offer the flexibility and consistency that the team makeup demands in order to be a respectable 2008 squad.
What to expect at the plate
Like the bullpen, our everyday lineup has seen a near complete overhaul from 2007. Only Lance Berkman and Carlos Lee remain from last season’s opening day lineup. Fan favorites Luke Scott and Mike Lamb are no longer with the team. Opposing pitcher favorites Adam Everett (free agency), and Brad Ausmus (now a reserve) are either no longer with the team or can only hurt the offense in a limited capacity. Top to bottom, things should look like this:
(1) Homegrown outfielder Michael Bourn is set to take his career .340 OBP to the top of the lineup to serve as the main catalyst for the offense. After being a reserve/defensive replacement in Philadelphia, Bourn is here to get on base for the sluggers behind him. He will be able to use his speed (17 stolen bases in 18 chances in 2007) to put pressure on opposing pitchers as well. I am not a tremendous fan of the stolen base, but, with percentages like his, this is a high reward, low risk situation that is rarely seen in baseball. Although a majority of steals occurred while not being held on at first in late game scenarios, Bourn still stands to steal upwards of 40 bases this year. Additionally, he is fine defensive outfielder from most accounts, which is good, considering our leftfielder will never be confused with Barry Bonds circa 1993. Bottom line with this guy is that he’s 25, under our control for years to come and will only improve as he gets more experience. An OPS of around .720 is not out of the question. After two years of struggling to get men on base at the top of our lineup, Bourn will seek to prove himself ready and able.
(2) Due to circumstances beyond his control, presumptive number two hitter Kazuo Matsui will miss at least the first two weeks of the season after surgery for anal fissures? What? Did “The Onion” come up with this? Well, as it stands, Kazzy will be out for the count, letting Hunter Pence man the two spot. Arguably the lone on the field bright spot the Astros had last year, Pence smashed Astro rookie records for slugging percentage and extra base hits. He has everything lined up nicely for himself to surpass those numbers. As he begins his first full season as a major leaguer, Pence still has much to learn about how to be a big league hitter. This shouldn’t stop him from being a 25 HR/25 SB man. Couple that with 80-85 Runs and RBI, and Hunter stands as an unquestionable star in the making. Projected to max out in the OPS range of .890 in the next four to five years, his is a horse that this organization will hitch their wagon to for years to come.
(3) Ahhh, a familiar face. After all, is that what we as Astros fans like? Familiarity? Uncle Drayton (to borrow a phrase of Lisa’s) sure does. And from what we’ve learned this off-season, number three hitter Lance Berkman does as well.† He let it be known that he didn’t like having to acclimate himself to a new clubhouse. While Morgan Ensberg may have been a great gin rummy player, the fact remains that Lance’s new teammates in the lineup are improvements over the old stalwarts. I won’t go so far as to say that they will help “protect” him (a concept that contrary to Joe Morgan’s assertions, does not exist), but he should have more chances to knock in runs.† Lance cames off the most disappointing 30/100 season in recent memory. Unless it takes him two months to collect more than two doubles again this year, Lance will surpass his .880 OPS and be the super star performer that he has been in years past. An on base machine, Lance still has four good years left in him. Also, we wouldn’t have thought so after watching him flail about on Tal’s Hill in the past, but Lance is an above average defensive player. With fears of diminished range on the left side of the infield, Lance’s unsung talents at first base may be among his most important.
(4) Another familiar face, Carlos Lee is slated to bat cleanup for this year’s squad. Coming off another solid, if not spectacular year, Lee led the 2007 team in RBI, total plate appearances and hits. It is difficult to justify a 6 yr/$100 million dollar deal, but Lee did as much to approach that value as he could, given his career statistics. We all know the schtick against him: he is a poor (I’m being generous) defensive outfielder who also drew the ire of Craig Biggio after not always hustling to first base after hitting assumed ground ball outs. This is the man who will also see the largest regression in the next few years, as his “big man” skills will diminish more quickly than a more athletic player. So, yes, lambaste Drayton for overpaying for offense. But in the overall scheme of this team, like it or not, is to win now. I’m admittedly trying to shine the best light on Carlos, but as it stands, anything can and has happened. *(see: Cardinals, The St. Louis. 2006)
(5) How do you think the conversation went down? Maybe something like this:
The Scene: December 13th, 2007. A spacious office on Crawford Street, Houston, Texas. A content middle aged man surfs the internet while chatting on his cell phone. In walks an older associate with a grim look on his face.
Tal Smith: Hey, Ed. D’you get a chance to look at the Mitchell Report yet?
Ed Wade: Not yet. I haven’t done much yet today. After making the trade for Miggy yesterday, I’m pretty tuckered out.
T.S.: Yea speaking of Miguel- that’s sorta what I came in here for. You may want to check out the report.
E.W.: All right, all right. (Smith stands in the doorway as Wade sifts through the initial pages of the document. An exasperated look comes upon Wade’s face as he sees Miguel Tejada’s name mentioned more than forty times.)
E.W.: Do you remember where I put the receipt?
So, it may not have gone exactly like that, but the nature of the trade for SS Miguel Tejada had an odd element of timing to it. Tejada was traded for on December 12th, and was named the following day in the release of the Mitchell Report. Wade claims to have had no idea about the imminence of his outing, but no baseball fan worth his salt can truly believe him in this regard. As far back as 2003 when Rafael Palmiero attached his name to steroids, Tejada has been under a cloud of suspicion.
On the field, Tejada will be expected to improve on the Astros offense from the SS position (a house plant has a shot to nail this requirement down) and play well, just play defense. A still deadly pull hitter, the winner of the 2004 All Star Home Run Derby should again be able to find his stroke to the tune of a 25 HR season. On the books for the next years at nearly twenty million per, Mr. Tejada has much to prove. Adam Everett was a fan favorite. He was squeaky clean off the field, and a smooth defensive player on it. The fact that he couldn’t sniff a .700 OPS to save his life didn’t seem to matter. Perhaps his ineptitude was overshadowed by that of Brad Ausmus. Regardless, Miguel Tejada is still a thumper extraordinaire. We should be able to get another two near All Star caliber years out of him, and then send him on his way.
(6) Perhaps the least sexy Astros positional player, Ty Wigginton will begin 2008 as the Astros everyday third sacker. Gone are the days of the double headed attack of Mike Lamb and Morgan Ensberg. Lamb has moved on to greener pastures on the Astroturf of Minnesota, and Mo is dancing on the line between Yankee reserve and farmhand. Wigginton is a professional hitter, plain and simple. A man who’s splits (.287 against RHP and .269 against LHP) are much more reasonable than either of the aforementioned Astros, Wigginton will have the opportunity to play nearly everyday. Unspectacular yet efficient, a .800 plus OPS will be a treat from either the six or seven hole. Another pull hitter, the folks in the Crawford Boxes should expect more Landry’s gift cards courtesy of Ty.
(7) A breath of fresh air. The exuberance of youth. Whatever phrase you like, J.R. Towles is embodies that much and more. A September call up in 2007, Towles impressed with an 8 RBI performance against the Cardinals, while showing poise in his game calling. He still has a lot of room for growth defensively, but with Officer Ausmus showing him the ropes, he couldn’t have a better teacher. When it comes to hitting, it’s Ausmus who should have the notebook out. Towles has the stroke of a doubles hitter who should be able to find the gaps and use his superlative speed to take the extra base. Possibly the only catcher outside of Chavez Ravine who can hit double digit homers and swipe double digit bases, J.R.’s growth will be among the most important for the Astros in 2008. How he learns to handle the pitching staff, his ability to get on base at the bottom of the lineup and the leadership qualities he gleans from the veterans in front of him will be paramount in the future successes of this club. An OPS of .760 this year, with many years of over .800 in his future, Mr. Towles stands ready to take up the challenges of being a starting catcher in the bigs.
(8) We all know the story at second base. A man who needs no introduction. A standout at Seton Hall Unive -Sorry. Had to catch myself there. Taking the place of future Cooperstowner Craig Biggio are two familiar faces (Mark Loretta and Geoff Blum) and the aforementioned free agent addition Kazuo Matsui. Loretta and Blum are similar players both defensively (limited range) and offensively (will struggle to get on base). However much they may struggle to get on, it is very likely they will do so with greater propensity than Kaz Matsui. Kaz, he of the hyper-inflated home/road split, parlayed an excellent second half of 2007 into a big time free agent contract. Ed, I’ve defended you against the pack of wolves on this blog, but I cannot do so here. This was a move to attach the Astros to a bit of the magic that surrounded the Colorado Rockies’ run to the NL pennant. A simple search of his home batting average last season (.330) and road counterpart (.249) would indicate that the Coors Field affect is in full play with Kazzy. That being said, even Matt Holiday had a .780 OPS away from the park with the pine trees. Regardless, he’s here and he’s our second baseman. Matsui is a package that offers plus speed on the base-paths and range defensively. However, it’s difficult to deny the fact that Ed Wade overestimated his abilities, and this team will have to bite the financial bullet for this overestimation.
As for our reserves, Spring Training is basically the showcase for who will be a team’s bench contributors. Jose Cruz, Jr., Darrin Erstad and Brad Ausmus will be front and center in this regard. Cruz and Ausmus hit well in the Spring, and Erstad has a World Series victory to his credit.