Jim & Bob's Palatial Baseball Blog

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Houston Astros 2008 Preview: Houston, We Have a Whole Pot Full of Problems

2007...the year that sucked/was groovy (pick one)

After a run of ten winning seasons in eleven years which included a World Series appearance, the Houston Astros turned the 2007 season into a preview of a spy satellite gone bad. Their trajectory started well, playing .500 ball at 21-21 as late as May 19. Orbit immediately decayed from that point as they lost ten straight and fell permanently out of the pennant race. They were double digits to the rear by June 20 and had only one winning month, August, when they played a rousing 15-14. Rather than begin to rebuild, management allowed zombie Craig Biggio to remain in the lineup for 141 sub replacement level games in order to achieve a personal milestone before retiring, and obtained 32 year old former star Miguel Tejada and 30 year old mediocrity Ty Wiggington to replace the left side of the infield and 32 year old Kaz Matsui to replace Biggio.

They can put it on the board, yes! no! maybe!

The Juice Box is known as a hitters park, but was actually a big help to pitchers in 2007, reducing offense by about 5%. Astros hitters didn't really notice; they were bad at home and on the road. The Astros finished 13th in the league in runs scored despite having four regulars who each slugged better than .500. How is that possible, you might well ask? Start by looking in the direction of Biggio, who wa permitted to bat leadoff much of the year despite a .285 on base percentage, in order to maximize his chances of reaching 3000 career hits. Remember that the next time that team management tells you that it's wrong for players to be more concerned about personal numbers than about the success of the team. Shortstop Adam Everett hit .232/.281/.318 and catcher Brad Ausmus, whose continued employment by a major league team defies any logical explanation, batted his usual .235/.318/.324.

CF Michael Bourn
2B Kaz Matsui
SS Miguel Tejada
1B Lance Berkman
LF Carlos Lee
RF Hunter Pence
3B Ty Wiggington
C J. R. Towles

Bourn, obtained from the Phillies, has little no power but can get on base and run like the wind. Matsui was signed by a management team completely oblivious to the fact that his "comeback" season of 2007 was entirely driven by Coors Field; he batted .330/.381/482 at home and .249/.304/.333 on the road. Oh, and he's got a three year contract. Let us know how that works out for you, Astros. Pence was one of the top rookies in a very strong 2007 NL class. Wiggington looks much better as a utility guy than he does in a starting lineup; telling me that you have Geoff Blum to pick up platoon at-bats with Wiggington doesn't exactly fill me with confidence. Towles is a very fine young catcher with offensive and defensive skills; best of all, he's not Brad Ausmus.

Pitchers, or belly itchers?

Even a helpful boost from their home park couldn't disguise the dismal performance of the Astros 2007 staff. Mediocre at home (sixth in runs allowed), they were awful on the road, allowing more runs than anyone except the Pirates. Being mentioned in the same breath with the Pirates is not a good thing. The Astros had (and have) one of the five best starters in the NL in Roy Oswalt. Wandy Rodriguez, a decent number three or four on a good team, was forced up into the number two spot here, results varied. Woody Williams was brought in at age 40 to be the number two guy; he allowed 35 homers and 216 total hits in 188 innings. Luckily, management signed him to a two year contract, so he'll be back for more this year. The Astros had high hopes for Jason Jennings, but he was a disaster health wise and performance wise, going 2-9 with a 6.45 ERA and was allowed to walk away over the winter. Brad Lidge and Chad Qualls were good relievers; neither is back in 2008.

SP Roy Oswalt
SP Wandy Rodriguez
SP Brandon Backe
SP Woody Williams (ouch)
SP Shawn Chacon (ouch)

CL Jose Valverde
RP Doug Brocail
RP Geoff Geary

This will end in flames. Not only are Oswalt, Rodriguez, and Valverde the only three guys capable of pitching for a good team, there isn't any depth on the major league roster and nothing in the high minors to replace the likes of Williams and Chacon and Brocail when they melt down. If the Juice Box returns to it's previous ways as a hitters park this team could allow 850 runs.

Witnesses for the defense

The Astros were eleventh in defensive efficiency and allowed the ninth most errors of any NL team. Hey, come on, they were playing a 2000 year old man at second base. Matsui will at least provide some value for his defense at second. Bourn can cover a lot of ground in center; he moves Pence to right, which is another improvement. Tejada will be a step down defensively from Adam Everett.

Farm aid

Not much. Towles is a terrific prospect. Felipe Paulino is a righthander who needs more work in triple A before he's ready for a rotation spot. That's it. Nothing else to see here folks, move along.

Watch out for that tree!

With the retirement of Biggio and the replacement of Ausmus, the Astros don't have anyone really, really washed up in the lineup other than Williams. Tejada has begun to decline both offensively and defensively but most likely has another year or two of being a good player left. Matsui is an excellent candidate to be one of the worst contracts given out this winter. Lee, like Tejada, can probably remain a good player for another year or two, but a 235 pound outfielder without a lot of secondary skills isn't a candidate to play well into his mid thirties.

I can make a hat, or a broach...

The Astros have a lot of good players. Berkman and Oswalt are two of my favorites and remain among the best at their positions. Pense was one of the best newcomers of 2007; Towles will be one of the best of 2008. Rodriguez could take another step forward and become a true number two. Tejada, Lee, Valverde, and Bourn should be good players who can contribute. But the other half of the team is dreadful, and the poor farm system offers no opportunities for replacement either through bring up younger, better players or through trades. With good years from their better players the Astros could hang around the .500 mark this year, but within two years this could be the worst team in the NL.

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