March 02, 2006
2006 Houston Astros Preview
Houston Astros? Yes. I occasionally write for a Toronto-fixated website known as the Batters Box. We provide previews of every team, and Houston, Texas and Colorado are mine. What follows was originally published here.
Houston couldn’t best the White Sox in the World Series but had an equally amazing run. Can they do it again minus (for now) Roger Clemens?
On May 24th the Astros sported a record of 15-30, dead last in the NL Central, while future AL champ Chicago was cruising along at 32-14. Yours truly was shaking his head for predicting they would squeak out 83 wins. Minus the injured Lance Berkman and the departed Jeff Kent and Carlos Beltran, they had scored a paltry 2.6 runs per game on the road and 3.6 overall. I watched them on television occasionally. They looked hopeless.
Houston proceeded to win 42 of the next 59, vaulting into the lead for the Wild Card which they eventually captured with 89 wins. They played one of the most memorable games in baseball history, an 18-inning, 7-6 victory over Atlanta to clinch the NLDS. A win in a rematch against St. Louis placed Houston in the World Series for the first time in the franchise’s 45-year existence. They couldn’t manage a single victory against Chicago, but the shutout didn’t leave much bitterness. 2005 was a pinnacle for a well run organization with only one losing season since 1991.
How did Houston win? Pitching and defense. The Astros permitted a league-low 609 runs and also led in defensive efficiency. Offensively, only four teams had more difficulty scoring runs than Houston (after adjusting for park).
As with 2004, Houston participated sparingly in the winter market. GM Tim Purpura signed outfielder Preston Wilson to an interesting contract and former Devil Ray Trever Miller. They represent a step up from last year’s one signing of 64-year-old John Franco. Houston aims to follow last year’s strategy of relying on who they already have. Their farm system wants for upper-level talent, and AAA Round Rock teemed with long-in-the-tooth quasi-prospects in 2005.
Will Roger Clemens return from semi-retirement again? His absence places a burden on unproven Wandy Rodriguez and Ezequiel Astacio. Sad to say, the primary issue with Jeff Bagwell is whether an insurance policy will pay his contract. If he does play, he isn’t expected to contribute much.
Astacio should replace Clemens, assuming the Rocket does retire, and Wilson will take over for Chris Burke in the outfield. Elsewhere, Houston will field 2005’s lineup.
Player Pos Age Bat OBP OBP+ SLG SLG+
W Taveras CF 24 R .325 98 .341 82
C Biggio 2B 40 R .325 98 .468 112
M Ensberg 3B 30 R .388 117 .537 129
L Berkman 1B 30 S .411 123 .524 126
P Wilson LF 31 R .325 96 .467 112
J Lane RF 29 R .316 95 .499 120
A Everett SS 29 R .290 87 .364 87
B Ausmus C 37 R .351 105 .331 79
Center Fielder Willie Taveras presented a mixed body of work in his rookie season. He batted .291 and stole 34 bases, but that’s about all; he reached base at a substandard .322 pace (98 OBP+) for a leadoff hitter and eked out just twenty extra-base hits in a full season of work. Conversely, Taveras provided stellar defense in center. I doubt Garner will view him as an offensive liability as long as he can hit .280 with plenty of eye-candy bunt singles. Oddly, the greatest impact on his season could be the health of Jeff Bagwell, as shall be discussed.
Second Baseman Craig Biggio continued his bizarre aging pattern. The 39-year-old belted a career-best 26 homers alongside a career-worst 54 walks plus HBP. He even moved back to second after two years roaming the outfield and furnished passable defense. Biggio looked close to finished in 2002 and had faced questions about his status ever since. In 2006, he’s entrenched at second. He’ll collapse at some point, but as for this year I’d place my money on plain vanilla adequacy.
Morgan Ensberg rebounded from his depressing 2004 and gave Houston some badly needed production from the middle of the order. Houston needs him to avoid Saberhagen-like alternating of hot and cold seasons in order to return to the postseason.
Lance Berkman spent much of 2005 at first to ease the stress on his surgically enhanced knee. With Jeff Bagwell possibly out of the picture and the addition of Preston Wilson, Berkman could spend even more time in the infield. He can still defend an outfield corner, but Houston must do what is necessary to keep him in a lineup mostly lacking in plate discipline. Last year, he missed the first six weeks and suffered slight declines in his rate stats, but he still ranked among the NL leaders in OBP and OPS+.
Preston Wilson signed an odd contract to join the Astros: one year at $4 million with a three-year option at $8 million per. Wilson should represent a substantial upgrade over the 2005 version of Chris Burke, who faltered as a rookie (notwithstanding his NLDS Game 4 blast). Having said that, Wilson can’t play center well anymore and hits only slightly better than average for a corner outfielder. Further, he doesn’t provide an antidote for the low-average, low-OBP type Houston carries in surplus.
Right Fielder Jason Lane finally received a starting job at age 28 and performed respectably: .267/.318/.499. He enters 2006 unchallenged in right field, but if he starts the season in a slump and Berkman also plays in the outfield, he might lose at-bats to Taveras.
Adam Everett hasn’t progressed an inch as a hitter in three-plus years. Last year, he bottomed out at .248/.290/.364. Everett and Brad Ausmus partially answer the question of why the low-OBP Taveras leads off. Placing Taveras lower would force either him, Everett or Ausmus into the six-spot, an equally unpalatable option. Everett does defend his position exceptionally well, mitigating a healthy portion of his offensive infirmity.
I’ve badmouthed the hitting of Brad Ausmus in the past because the facts demand it, yet Ausmus didn’t hit all that terribly last year for a catcher. He revived his once considerable patience and drew a walk every nine plate appearances, enough to push his OBP to a nifty .351. He still doesn’t have any power and grounded into seventeen dips, but hey, .351! Alas, the forecast looks bleak for the 37-year-old with one halfway decent hitting performance in his last five years. Astro pitchers swear by his defense, and the stats back them up.
Houston will employ one of the two worst-hitting catchers on the planet to relieve Ausmus. Raul Chavez (career .215/.256/.292) at least offers defense to rival Ausmus. Humberto Quintero (career .221/.255/.309) is average behind the plate but does have acceptable AAA stats giving a glimmer of hope. Houston also signed former Bucs prospect J.R. House, who missed 2005 with rotator-cuff surgery. He won’t break camp with Houston and might need a move to first.
The Astros finally waived goodbye to Jose Vizcaino, difficult for an organization steeped in loyalty (and inertia). Eric Bruntlett could back up at short and practically everywhere else on the diamond. Bruntlett hasn’t hit much above A-ball; his advantages over Vizcaino consist of a smaller contract and a less dusty birth certificate. 26-year-old 2B/OF Chris Burke has shredded AAA pitching for two years but failed to impress in his first extended trial in the Majors. If he improves, he could usurp the everyday job at second in 2007, or sooner if Biggio falters. Mike Lamb’s OPS+ dropped from 121 to 83 last year. When on, he provides a badly needed lefty bat for a righty-heavy lineup. He serves as a warm body for any corner position.
Speaking of loyalty, Houston bestowed two years and $1.9 million on 37-year-old backup outfielder Orlando Palmeiro. Palmeiro had something of a career year in 2005, batting .284/.341/.431 including .288 as a pinch-hitter. He likely won’t repeat, but with Preston Wilson in the fold Palmeiro probably won’t approach last year’s 231 plate appearances. Too old to be a prospect, Luke Scott hit .286/.363/.603 for Round Rock but could only manage a line of .188/.270/.288 in Houston. Former Tiger Eric Munson signed with Houston in the hope of reviving his career.
On the whole, Houston has a mediocre bench. All have their talents, and Phil Garner doesn’t hesitate to use them. A rebound from Lamb would help immensely. Only Burke, or to be more precise, the player Burke might become, deserves more regular play.
Seventeen Million Dollar Question Mark
Much to the chagrin of owner Drayton McLane, Jeff Bagwell reported to camp. He’s currently spending most of his time in the batting cage. Bagwell won’t ever fully recover from his injured shoulder and has an uphill battle to play first regularly. If he does, he sets off a chain reaction that pushes Berkman to left, Wilson to center, and Taveras to the bench. This scenario unquestionably weakens the defense, and if Bagwell doesn’t hit well the offensive upgrade would be small.
Player Arm Age ERA ERA+ HR% BB% SO%
R Oswalt R 28 2.94 145 1.8% 5% 18%
A Pettitte L 34 2.39 178 1.9% 5% 20%
B Backe R 28 4.76 89 2.9% 10% 15%
W Rodriguez L 27 5.53 77 3.4% 9% 14%
E Astacio R 26 5.67 75 6.3% 7% 18%
Back in 2000, I witnessed two of Roy Oswalt’s starts as a member of the AA Round Rock Express. It reminded me of the Little League World Series, with Oswalt playing the role of the cheating 16-year-old throwing fireballs past helpless children. Relying mostly on a fastball and curve, he often makes grown men look equally helpless. The six-foot, 170-pound Oswalt entered the league with concerns about his long-term health, and he missed much of 2003.with a groin pull. Since then, he’s started 35 games each year. He can carry a team.
Andy Pettitte rebounded strongly from an injury-plagued 2004, pitching 222 innings with a career-best ERA+ of 174. He compounds that achievement by being a left-handed pitcher in a park that devours them. Pettitte should be good for another 200 innings with an ERA in the mid-threes.
Brandon Backe quietly moves up the ladder to #3, and here the ladder starts to wobble. Backe has pitched astoundingly well in the postseason but has yet to prove himself over the course of 162 games. Last year, his first as a full-timer, he missed several weeks with an oblique pull and also struggled with a sore elbow. He’s homer-prone and has an ERA of 4.62 as an Astro.
Wandy Rodriguez (given name: Wandy) survived a rugged inaugural season. He posted numerous six-inning, four-run starts that at least gave the Astros a chance to win. Houston went 12-10 when he took the mound. Rodriguez had good but not exceptional minor-league stats, and Houston needs him to progress to league-average status. Shaving his walks (3.7 per nine) will help.
Ezequiel Astacio is one year younger than Rodriguez and has a more impressive minor-league resume. He shuffled between Houston and Round Rock last season. Astacio offered a solid BB/K ratio of 2.6 but in 81 innings allowed an unsightly100 hits including 23 homers.
Should either Rodriguez or Astacio require more AAA seasoning, others who might receive a few starts include Fernando Nieve and Jason Hirsh, who dominated the Texas League last year. Houston also has former top prospect Carlos Hernandez, Taylor Buchholz, and Steve Sparks in camp.
Player Arm Age ERA ERA+ HR% BB% SO%
B Lidge R 29 2.29 186 1.7% 8% 35%
D Wheeler R 28 2.21 192 2.4% 7% 24%
C Qualls R 27 3.28 130 2.1% 7% 18%
R Springer R 37 4.73 90 3.7% 9% 22%
M Gallo L 29 2.66 160 1.1% 11% 14%
T Miller L 33 4.06 106 1.9% 14% 17%
In 2006 Houston fans learn about Brad Lidge’s resiliency. Lidge supplied another wildly successful regular season, barely allowing one baserunner per inning and striking out 35% of the batters he faced. His slider makes hitters weep in despair. Ah, but that postseason. Making his fourth appearance in five days, Lidge allowed Albert Pujols’s titanic ninth-inning blast in Game 5 of the NLCS. (My wife and I were watching the game at home with the windows open and could hear people shouting at their televisions down the street.) In his next appearance, he allowed a ninth-inning, game-losing homer to Scott Podsednik. Three days later, he permitted the only run in the Series clincher. Lidge should be fine, but fans will keep a nervous eye on him for a while.
Setup Man Dan Wheeler’s undistinguished career blossomed immediately upon arrival in Houston late in 2004. Last year he provided a closer-worthy performance of one baserunner and one strikeout per inning. Fellow reliever Chad Qualls originally bristled at having to pitch in relief though the results indicate he’s suited there. Russ Springer unretired in 2004 to pitch in Houston. He strikes out hitters comparably to Qualls and Wheeler but also allows more baserunners and homers. Mike Gallo joined the club in July and posted a 2.66 ERA with some dubious peripherals. He doesn’t strike out enough hitters to cover his high walk rate. Trever Miller is a garden-variety reliever who spent two years in Tampa Bay.
St. Louis weakened themselves by entrusting vital roles to Juan Encarnacion, Larry Bigbie, Junior Spivey and Braden Looper. Milwaukee has potential but hasn’t arrived yet. The Cubs did their usual flashy brand of water-treading in the offseason. Cincinnati could make some noise if their pitching improves from utter wretchedness to humdrum mediocrity. Pittsburgh… don’t make me write about Pittsburgh.
Houston could win the division outright after settling for the Wild Card the last two seasons. They’ll need two among Backe, Rodriguez and Astacio to pitch well, a similar bullpen performance, more age defiance from Biggio, and heroic, offense-carrying efforts from Berkman and Ensberg. Oh, and Roger Clemens would help. This outcome isn’t likely, but it’s also not a pipe dream.The more likely scenario has St. Louis holding on for another year and the Wild Card emerging from a stratified NL East. Houston retained its excellent defense but doesn’t quite have the pitching depth or hitting to reach the postseason again. I’m ignoring another late-season resurgence at my peril and predicting a middle-of-the-pack finish with 83 Clemens-free wins.
Posted by Lucas at March 2, 2006 06:24 PM