Last Five Seasons:
2009: 74 – 88 (5th NL Central)
2008: 86 – 75
2007: 73 – 89
2006: 82 – 80
2005: 89 – 73
For two straight seasons, the Astros have outperformed their stats – which is to say that their record is better than the ratio of runs scored to runs allowed. In 2008, the Astros were 11 games over .500 despite allowing 31 runs more than they scored. In 2009, the Astros scored and allowed the same number of runs as Pittsburgh and yet won 12 more games. That can’t keep happening…
On the heels of a ridiculously over-successful 2008, some people thought the Astros might remain competitive in 2009. Instead, long time veterans fell off (Roy Oswalt, Lance Berkman), and eventually Cecil Cooper was fired because people didn’t think he knew what he was doing.
The Astros won an extra inning game on April 7th to pull to .500 with a win and a loss. Houston lost five in a row, and then would trade wins and losses for about a month never getting better than four games under .500 until late June. As the month turned into July, the Astros played their best baseball, winning 18 of 26 games. This got their record to 50 – 46 and into the the NL Central race, just two games behind St. Louis and tied with Chicago for second place.
What happened next was that the Astros ran out of mojo. A slow slide brought them back under .500, and despite sweeping the Phillies in four games the Astros could never get closer than two games under .500. When the clubhouse, management, and media turned on Cecil Cooper, knowing that season was over anyway, Cooper was let go. September was spent wondering what could have been, including a nine-game losing streak that knocked Houston into fifth place.
Were they really that good? Probably not. The Astros scored five runs more than Pittsburgh (743 – 738) and allowed two more (770 – 768). Houston was as lucky as Pittsburgh was unlucky – and should really have won about 67 games.
Wandy Rodriquez turned into an ace, winning 14 games, throwing nearly 206 innings, and saving his team about 28.5 runs over what an average starter might have given up. Roy Oswalt, admittedly having an off season, won just eight games but was still better than league average in his 30 starts. And that’s where it ends.
Last year, Brian Moehler got 29 starts, allowed nearly six runs per nine, and was bad enough to virtually offset Rodriguez. Mike Hampton returned to go 7 – 10, and he was 13 runs worse than the average pitcher over 112 innings. How many of you thought he would make 100 innings? Felipe Paulino was atrocious – 22 innings worse than average in just shy of 100 innings. Ouch. Russ Ortiz got 13 brutal starts. Yorman Bazardo went 1 – 3 and had an ERA of 7.88. Only rookie Bud Norris got a few starts and didn’t look lousy. No team is going to be successful with what amounts to 500 innings of horrific pitching unless the lineup is eight Albert Pujols.
What saved Houston was a remarkable bullpen. Jose Valverde had just 25 saves (injuries interruped his season), but he also was 12.6 runs better than the average pitcher in his 52 innings. LaTroy Hawkins had perhaps his best season ever – 63 innings and a 2.13 ERA. Jeff Fulchino was a stopper in middle relief, and Tim Byrdak allowed only 39 hits in his 61.1 innings. Sure, the rest of the staff was a mixed bag of arms, but four solid relievers can keep games in hand even when the starters get lifted – and these starters were regularly lifted…
For 2010, the big move was adding former Phillie, Brett Myers, to the rotation. A one-time starter, Myers can help here just by staying around league average. Moving Bud Norris into a full time spot (#4) would also help some. Sadly, Paulino and Moehler get to fight for that fifth spot in the rotation – or get starts that someone else might miss. Still – this could be a 30 run improvement on the defensive side.
For the bullpen, Jose Valverde is gone, as is Hawkins. Matt Lindstrom arrives from Florida with a 100 MPH fastball that has little or no movement. Brandon Lyon was signed to a three-year deal to set up Lindstrom. I don’t see how this is going to be better – and it could easily be 25 runs WORSE than last year.
Ivan Rodriguez was installed as the starter at the beginning of the year and was still solid – makes few mistakes, strong against the run, still reasonably mobile, but isn’t a run producer. After Pudge was allowed to leave for Texas, Humberto Quintero took over and was exceptional against the run though a bit more mistake prone.
One time prospect J.R. Towles gets one last shot at this job (one assumes that Jason Castro or Koby Clemens will be taking over soon enough) – with Quintero as his backup. Though Towles didn’t throw anyone out last year (one guy – he threw out one guy), he does have better overall skills. Overall, this might be five runs better, but I don’t buy it. Let’s call the overall production a wash.
Lance Berkman had his first off sesason after a long run of productive hitting. He’s still an offensive force, but he missed a month of games with injuries. Darin Erstad isn’t really good enough to take over here. If the Astros expect to win, Berkman has to play 150 games and he’s at the age where that gets harder and harder to do.
Kaz Matsui returns – a glove man who really doesn’t do much to keep the offense going. At this point, the Astros need to keep him because I don’t think Jeff Keppinger is going to do any better.
Miguel Tejada played a surprisingly solid shortstop, and kicked in with 199 hits and 46 doubles. He’s NOT a top flight hitter, but he’s been as dependable for hits as anyone and remains above average for the league and his position. He’s gone, though, to be replaced by rookie Tommy Manzella. Manzella hit .289 at Round Rock last year, but isn’t going to hit as well as Tejada. He MIGHT be 20 runs better defensively, but he may well hit about .260 with a little power, which will be about 30 runs worse offensively.
Geoff Blum had a rough season, to say the least. He was below average offensively (.247, 10 homers – 4.2 runs per 27 outs) and he cost his team another 21 runs defensively at third base. Enter Pedro Feliz, who had a monster season defensively and will be no worse a hitter.
On the whole, I see this group being about 40 runs better defensively, but lose 30 runs offensively.
Offensively, this is a strong unit. Carlos Lee in left remains a potent power source. Hunter Pence in right field has power, patience, speed, and provides good defense. Michael Bourn is a burner who gets on base, steals what he can, and can cover ground in center.
Defensively, Lee needs to be a DH – costing his team about 32 runs in left. He’s no longer mobile enough to cover any ground and he’s reaching the age where his bat might start to slip. Jason Michaels returns to play the late innings for Lee.
Looking over AAA Round Rock, other than Tommy Manzello, you have Chris Johnson. He’s a third baseman taken in the 4th round in 2006 out of Stetson. Right now, he looks like he’d hit as well as Geoff Blum and if he fields better might be a better option for 2010. At 25, Johnson has to step up now. Among pitchers, Bud Norris already got the call in 2009, as did Bazardo and Sam Gervacio, who might get a second chance some time in 2010. Gervacio showed power and control in AAA (58Ks, 21 Ws in 52.1 innings).
The best pitcher at AA Corpus Christi was Polin Trinidad, who walked just ten batters in 82.2 innings and earned a promotion to AAA mid-season. He’s still a year away, but I’d rather see him than, say, Brian Moehler. Drew Locke hit .338 with 20 homers there – but it’s taken a while for the former Dodger draft pick to get his career moving. He must be a brutal fielder. Catcher Jason Castro, the 2008 1st round pick, moved up to AA in 2009 and continues to hit for a decent average (.293) and work the count. He could make the roster in 2010, for sure he’ll be on the Astros in 2011.
Pitchers in Lancaster (A+) got slapped around a lot there, but a few stood out. Leandro Cespedes, Shane Wolf, and Fernando Abad all had decent control and strikeout numbers and are young enough to contribute a couple of years from now. I especially liked Abad, who walked only eight in 82.2 innings. He could be a future closer. Because hitting is so easy there, you have to take stats with a grain of salt, but catcher Koby Clemens hit .345 with power – probably the best of the lot.
2008 1a pick Jordan Lyles pitched well at Lexington in the SAL – 167Ks just 38 walks in 144.2 innings. Still a teenager, he’ll be in Lancaster and probably Corpus Christi soon enough. 2007 pick Collin Delome (5th round) has a lot of different skills, but needs to step up his batting average. He looks like Brady Anderson, only in AA. Meanwhile, top pick in 2006, Maxwell Sapp has yet to hit above. 241 in the minors and with two other catchers ahead of him, is not on the prospect lists anymore.
I don’t see the Astros being competitive in the NL Central. I see them struggling to score runs – about 610 runs this season – and despite the improved defense, still giving up about 725 runs. There are just too many holes to patch, and after two years of very lucky won-loss records, the system says no more than 67 wins and playing the under.