2004 Houston Astros Preview
Wednesday, March 03 2004 @ 10:39 AM EST
Contributed by: Jordan
The Houston Astros might be the best franchise never to win a World Series. That should change this year.
Yes, that’s high, out-on-a-limb praise, but as Lou Brock once said, show me a man who’s afraid to look bad and I’ll show you a man you can beat every time. As my track record of predictions has clearly established, I have absolutely no fear of looking bad, repeatedly so in fact. All the same, the 2004 Astros have the look of a team that’s geared for a championship run. They need do only three things to achieve greatness: win the season series with the Cubs, fire their manager in May, and bench their incumbent centerfielder in June.
|87 wins, 75 losses||Runs scored: 805, 4th in NL|
|Finished 2nd in NL Central||Runs allowed, 677, 3rd in NL|
|Missed playoffs by one game||Pythagorean record: 94-68|
|Astro Are’s||Astro Nots|
|RHP Roger Clemens||LHP Billy Wagner|
|LHP Andy Pettitte||LHP Ron Villone|
|RHP Dave Veres||RHP Rick White|
|RHP Brandon Duckworth||RHP Pete Munro|
|RHP Brian Moehler||RHP Jared Fernandez|
|RHP Tony Fiore||OF Orlando Merced|
|RHP Brandon Backe||OF Colin Porter|
|OF Orlando Palmeiro||C Gregg Zaun|
|OF Phil Hiatt||C Mitch Meluskey|
|OF Willy Taveras||3B Geoff Blum|
|IF John Valentin|
The biggest winter news for Houston, of course, was the addition of a couple of ex-Yankees to a starting rotation that threw the fewest innings of any major-league team last year. These new Astros will be a great boost during the regular season and, more importantly, will help form a lethal starting combination in the playoffs.
Roger Clemens’ unretirement to join the Astros for $5 million and a Humvee has been analyzed ad nauseam elsewhere. There’s no denying that the Rocket brings serious presence to a rotation that already had some powerful homegrown horses. Houston fans were over the moon about this signing, which seemed to bring a confidence and even swagger to the organization that has been noticeably absent in the past. Whether or not Clemens’ pitching can actually make the Astros championship-calibre, his arrival has made the club believe that it’s championship-calibre, and that can be almost as good.
But it’s not just his “presence”; any team would benefit from the 200 solid innings the Rocket should provide (note: there is no way Roger Clemens is going to be a part-time pitcher). He isn’t coasting: his 2003 season (211 IP, 199 H, 58 BB, 190 K, 24 HR) would be remarkable for any starter, but for a 41-year-old, it’s incredible. Power pitchers who take care of themselves can age very well - cf. Nolan Ryan - but Clemens is remaking the mould.
There will still be adjustments for the Rocket this year, of course: a new league, unfamiliar hitters and ballparks, taking his turn at bat, running the bases, and facing a media circus in pretty much every city he visits. But based on what we’ve seen from him in the past, he should take this all in stride. You don’t have to like Roger Clemens – I don’t, particularly – but it would be foolish not to recognize and appreciate the twilight of probably the best pitching career of the last 50 years. He will help the Astros during the season, and once they get to the post-season, he’ll be invaluable.
Notwithstanding the Rocket’s impact, his acquisition might not be as interesting as the signing of Andy Pettitte to a three-year, $31M contract. Even though he arrived first, Pettitte will start the 2004 season as merely the footnote to the Clemens story, the once and future teammate whose presence prompted Clemens to end his two-month retirement. Judging from Pettitte’s remarkably low-key tenure in the Bronx, this will probably suit him just fine: he seems like a guy not particularly interested in or suited for the ace label and the spotlight that accompanies it. But by the year’s end, I think Pettitte will have numbers that measure up to, if they don’t surpass, those of his rotation mates.
Three years ago, Andy Pettitte found his groove. He had been a very successful pitcher before then, of course: 100-56 after just six years, one of the best winning percentages of any young pitcher. But his ERA, a career-low 2.88 in 1997, stayed above 4.00 the next three years, and his walk and strikeout rates were looking like this:
Year K/BB K/9 BB/9Not bad, but not great, either. The walks kept rising and the strikeouts kept dropping – not what you want to see out of a lefty in his mid-20s. You could perhaps understand why George Steinbrenner wanted to deal Pettitte to the Phillies around that time (although I very much doubt George even knew about these numbers). But Joe Torre intervened and helped keep Pettitte in pinstripes, and lucky for George that he did. Because in 2001, something clicked:
1996 2.25 6.57 2.88
1997 2.55 6.21 2.43
1998 1.67 6.03 3.60
1999 1.35 5.67 4.14
2000 1.56 5.49 3.51
Year K/BB K/9 BB/9Pettitte started turning about 40 or 50 walks a year into strikeouts, and his peripheral numbers surged as a result (though it was only last year that his improved performance netted him more than 15 wins). In fact, his last three seasons were all better than his breakout ’97 season with the sub-3.00 ERA. Only Barry Zito, Mark Mulder and Jamie Moyer have been in Pettitte’s class as American League lefties recently, and few NL southpaws can match up either. It’s hard to believe that a Yankee with four World Series rings could be underrated, but perhaps because of his quiet nature and third-starter role, that’s Andy Pettitte.
2001 4.00 7.38 1.80
2002 3.03 6.48 2.07
2003 3.60 7.74 2.16
The really good news from the Astros’ perspective, however, is that there’s an excellent chance Pettitte will actually improve in Houston. While his walks were falling and strikeouts were rising, Pettitte’s hits allowed continued to be his only real Achilles’ heel. Not since ’97 have his IP outnumbered his hits allowed; every full season since his rookie campaign has seen at least 215 safeties leap off opponents’ bats. Happily for him, few of those hits (no more than 20 since ’96) have been home runs, partly because Pettitte is a strong groundball pitcher: a 1.76 GO/FO ratio in 2003, consistent with his career 1.74 ratio (granted, Yankee Stadium's deep left field didn’t hurt either).
Now, if you’re a left-handed groundball pitcher, who’s the single most important defender on the field? That’s right – your shortstop.
Here are three measures of defensive skill (range factor, zone rating, defensive win shares) for each of the three key infielders (third, short, second) of the 2003 New York Yankees and the 2003 Houston Astros:
Player RF ZR DWS
Ventura 2.56 .778 3.49
Boone 2.86 .781 2.71
Zeile 2.74 .771 1.39
AL Avg 2.67 .754
Jeter 3.75 .791 1.36
Almonte 4.14 .647 0.30
AL Avg 4.54 .843
Soriano 4.82 .811 6.67
AL Avg 4.94 .826
Player RF ZR DWS
Ensberg 2.87 .786 3.05
Blum 2.45 .758 2.74
NL Avg 2.74 .762
Everett 4.96 .862 4.94
NL Avg 4.52 .842
Kent 5.11 .802 4.54Both teams had above-average defenders at third base and below-average defenders at second – for a lefty, though, third base is the more important position. With the trade of Geoff Blum, the Astros have handed third base to Morgan Ensberg, whose superior glove is more than a match for Mr. Basketball, Aaron Boone. But it’s at shortstop that Andy Pettitte’s world gets a whole lot brighter. Instead of hugely overrated defender Derek Jeter, who brings all the range and cat-like quickness of a chesterfield set, Pettitte will be backed up by glove wiz Adam Everett, who was almost as far above league average last year as Jeter was below it.
NL Avg 5.12 .826
As mentioned, Andy Pettitte’s GO/FO rate last year was 1.76; but he was once a more extreme groundballer, with ratios in the low 2.00s, reaching a high of 2.22 in 1998 that had slipped to a low of 1.34 by 2002. Is it only coincidence that his GO/FO rate has been slipping at about the same rate as Derek Jeter’s range factor has been slipping (from 4.41 in 1997 down to 3.75 last year)? Is it possible that Pettitte changed his pitching style to account for a shaky defence? I wouldn’t be surprised to see Pettitte's GO/FO ratio vault back into the 2.00s, now that he has a shortstop in whom he can have confidence. His hits allowed should drop as well, as grounders that bounced through the left side in the Bronx should be gobbled up at Minute Maid Park. Altogether, Andy Pettitte is looking like a far more solid acquisition than perhaps even the Astros anticipated.
Clemens and Pettitte will be flanked by fellow starters Wade Miller and Roy Oswalt. Miller’s 2003 ERA shot up nearly a full point from his fine 2002 season, and his final numbers (14-13, 4.13) reflect one of the streakier pitchers in the majors. But his underlying numbers in 2003 (187 IP, 168 H, 77 BB, 161 K, 17 HR) were not only perfectly fine, they were in line with his previous two seasons, which produced sub-3.50 ERAs. Expect Miller to have a solid comeback season. Oswalt, a pre-season Cy Young favourite, spent three separate stints on the disabled list last year with a groin injury that eventually required off-season surgery (he’s expected to be 100% for spring training). But even Oswalt’s injury-marred seasons are brilliant (10-5, 2.97, 127 IP, 116 H, 29 BB, 108 K, 149 ERA+); the only blemish was his 15 HRs allowed, more than he gave up in twice the innings in 2002. Back to full health, there’s every reason to expect Oswalt to post the best numbers of this starry staff.
With this front four, the Astros will hardly need a fifth starter; but as it happens, they have themselves maybe the best one in baseball. Last month, the team named Tim Redding to be the Stu Sutcliffe of the Houston rotation. Redding (10-14, 3.68, 176 IP, 179 H, 65 BB, 116 K, 16 HR) continued to mature into a solid pitcher in 2003, finding greater consistency with his two low-90s fastballs, curve and slider. His W-L record reflected the fact that he received the worst run support of any qualifying National League pitcher – don’t expect to see that happen again. Redding would be a solid #3 guy on a lot of teams.
Not many teams can trade away the best left-handed reliever of the last 20 years and think their bullpen might improve. But the Astros, who dumped Billy Wagner’s $9M salary on the Phillies in exchange for three young pitchers, could be that team.
Wagner’s loss should not be underestimated: he was a force at the end of the Astros’ bullpen, one of the best in the game, and you don’t simply replace someone like that. Except that’s exactly what Houston is going to do, because they have a guy named Octavio Dotel. Observe:
Year IP ERA H/9 K/BB K/9
2001 62 2.73 6.39 3.95 11.35
2002 75 2.52 6.12 4.00 10.56
2003 86 1.78 5.40 4.57 10.99
Octavio DotelOne of the best relievers in the game for the last three years, playing Duane Ward to Wagner’s Tom Henke, Dotel will now be rewarded by receiving those lucrative save opportunities that turn merely great relievers into very rich closers. As the numbers demonstrate, not only was Dotel Wagner’s equal for the last three seasons, he was in some respects arguably superior. The Astros should not miss a step in the closer role transition.
Year IP ERA H/9 K/BB K/9
2001 105 2.66 6.75 3.09 12.43
2002 97 1.85 5.40 4.37 10.91
2003 87 2.48 5.49 3.13 10.03
But every time you push a Duane Ward into the closer spot, you need a Mike Timlin to step up and fill the setup role. And that’s why the most important guy in the Astros’ bullpen in 2004 might well be Brad Lidge.
Lidge was rated Houston’s #3 prospect by Baseball America coming into 2003, and he didn’t disappoint. He made the team out of spring training and posted a fine rookie campaign: 6-3, 3.60, 85 IP, 60 H, 42 BB, 97 K, 6 HR. His numbers might have been even better but for an awful two-game stretch in June (1 2/3 IP, 8 ER), and a tough August (10.03 ERA) that could possibly be blamed on a low gas tank (though he did rebound with a solid 3.18 ERA in September).
Lidge has a solid fastball and a good change, but his slider is his salvation, a devastating pitch that’s often unhittable. If Lidge can manage to refine his command by about 10 or 15 walks a year, he’ll be overwhelming. His downside, though, is that he’s been injury-prone throughout his career (pulled abdominal muscle, torn knee ligaments, three separate surgeries) and shouldn’t be treated like a workhorse; the 85 frames he posted last year ought to be his high-water mark. The Astros’ bullpen may well hinge on Lidge’s ability to adequately replace Dotel’s performance as primary setup man, if not his innings.
Lidge will have plenty of help, at least. For one thing, Dotel is no ordinary closer: with nearly 300 innings under his belt the last three years, he needn’t be restricted solely to starting the ninth; he can and should be brought in whenever the game is on the line. Further, the ‘Stros re-signed Dan Miceli, who’s now pitched for ten teams in his stormy ten-year career (including four last season), but who still managed to have one of his best overall seasons in 2003. Fellow right-hander Ricky Stone doesn’t strike out a lot of guys, but he gets the job done. And in January, the Astros signed veteran reliever Dave Veres to a minor-league contract. Veres’ tenure with the Cubs last year was spoiled by two bouts of shoulder tendinitis; if he’s healthy, he’ll be in the major-league bullpen and eating lots of innings. Together, these three guys should take 6th-, 7th- and 8th-inning duties and help set up both Lidge and Dotel. Rookie surprise Mike Gallo, who leaped all the way from Double-A Round Rock to become a legitimate lefty killer, should start the year as the designated LOOGY.
Those five starters and these six relievers will leave the ‘Stros probably one pitcher from which to choose for long relief/swingman duty. As it happens, the team will have an embarrassment of riches at this position too. Southpaw Jeriome Robertson, bumped from the rotation by the free-agent acquisitions and still learning his craft, will battle it out with fellow lefty Carlos Hernandez, righty Kirk Saarloos, and trade-acquiree Brandon Duckworth for probably the deepest set of long-relief options in the game. These guys would be a decent starting front four on more than a few major-league teams; those who don’t make the bullpen in spring training will post gaudy numbers at Triple-A New Orleans, or more likely, be dealt away. Astros GM Gerry Hunsicker ought to be seriously considering trading one or two of these guys for young offensive help, which the Astros could use in their farm system. For added depth, former Devil Ray Brandon Backe, ex-Twin Tony Fiore, and journeyman Brian Moehler will also get looks this spring.
Altogether, this is very probably the best pitching staff in the National League, one that could sweep away many opponents in a three- or even four-game series. If Clemens can provide another 200 innings and Oswalt’s groin troubles are in the past, this group might be close to untouchable. The irony, of course, is that the only rotation that could seriously rival this bunch plays its home games at Wrigley Field. The Astros-Cubs pitching matchups this year should be stellar, and likely will determine the NL Central crown.
The Houston offence in 2003 can reasonably be broken down into three categories: the young, the old and the ugly. It’s the middle group that will really tell the Astros’ fortunes this year and next.
First, the good news. Houston has three powerful bats in the prime of their careers, two in the outfield and one at third base. We’ll start with the infielder.
An early favourite for 2002 Rookie of the Year, Morgan Ensberg disappointed the organization with a slow start that season. Considering the whole team was in an offensive funk at that time, it perhaps wasn’t too surprising; but in one of the more short-sighted moves by a normally sensible organization, Ensberg was made the scapegoat and sent back down to New Orleans, where he posted a .400 OBP, but with just 22 extra-base hits in 83 games.
Getting another chance in 2003, Ensberg found himself in a platoon with Geoff Blum, an adequate third baseman but one whose ceiling has been well-established at something less than Sistine Chapel dimensions. Ensberg caught fire a few weeks into the season, however, and by the All-Star Break he was sporting an OPS well over 1000. He was bound to come back down to earth, and he did (a 771 OPS after the Break), but he still finished the year with a breakout .291/.377/.540 line, with 25 home runs in just 385 at-bats. Showing off a good eye at the plate and the power he had displayed in the minors, Ensberg also flashed a solid glove; overall, he showed signs of finally putting it all together and becoming one of the elite third basemen in the National League.
Astros fans should note a couple of caveats, however. For one thing, Ensberg is no spring chicken: he turned 28 in August, and seems unlikely to improve greatly on his 2003 totals. For another, Ensberg’s home run barrage actually hid a relative lack of power: he had only 15 doubles and 1 triple to accompany his 25 round-trippers. In fact, Ensberg scarcely has more career doubles than homers, in both the minors and majors, so those 2003 power readings may be a little hollow. The organization should be thrilled to get another 900 OPS season from their third baseman; an 850 total, however, might be more realistic.
If Ensberg was the Astros’ 2003 surprise, Richard Hidalgo was their Comeback Kid. Three seasons after his stunning breakout 2000 (.314/.391/.636, 42 doubles, 44 HRs), Hidalgo found himself with a lot to prove (811 and 734 OPS campaigns in the interim, with injuries and fights with management thrown in for good measure; maybe we can blame the Baseball Prospectus cover jinx). But prove himself Hidalgo did: his .309/.385/.572 season in ‘03 featured a power resurgence with 28 HRs and, perhaps more importantly, 43 doubles. He spearheaded the offence as Houston’s most dangerous and most consistent hitter, and the Astros are crossing their fingers that he has rediscovered his stroke for good.
But Hidalgo still gives the organization worry lines: he’s slated to make $12M in 2004, an amount that causes Drayton McLane some anguish, even though he’s one of the few high-priced Astro batters who figures to produce close to his salary. Talk of the Astros dealing Hidalgo has never really gone away this off-season, and if the right (that is, affordable) offer comes along, Hidalgo could well be traded; the Dodgers are often mentioned. That would be a very risky move: not only would it cut the legs out from under the momentum built up by the Pettitte and Clemens signings, it would rob the lineup of one of its most potent bats in a season that has the earmarks of a championship campaign. Should Houston deal Hidalgo for anything less than equal offensive value, their playoff odds lengthen.
Keeping with the theme of Surprises and Comebacks, the Astros’ 2003 Disappointment would likely be left fielder Lance Berkman. Picked by many as the next great slugging NL superstar, Berkman was coming off back-to-back MVP-type seasons (.331/.430/.620 in 2001, .292/.405/.578 in 2002) and was heading into his mythic age-27 year. But the Astros, along with a lot of fantasy owners, were surprised and baffled by his 2004 power outage (.288/.412/.515, a drop from 42 to 25 HRs). There was no evident injury problem for Berkman, aside from a variety of niggling discomforts, but his home run power dried up nonetheless. Now, it’s not like Berkman went all Pat Burrell on the Astros or anything; this was still a very solid season, and Houston management shouldn’t be concerned going forward. Berkman’s peripherals remained the same as in his excellent 2002, including 35 doubles and another 100+ walks. Berkman may never see .331 again, or the mind-boggling 55 doubles from 2001, but it’s reasonable to expect a bounceback to a .290/.410/.570 MVP-type campaign.
These three hitters, while on the far side of 25, still represent the youth movement on an Astros’ squad that is getting long in the tooth elsewhere, and worrisomely so. Houston needs Ensberg, Hidalgo and Berkman to perform at or above their 2003 levels in order to reach the playoffs in 2004, because the next three hitters in this lineup have bats that are each becoming less valuable than their names and their salaries.
The Killer Bees are losing their sting. At one time the soul of the Astros’ franchise, Jeff Bagwell and Craig Biggio are well into the downside of their careers.
Jeff Bagwell is a first-ballot Hall of Famer: he’ll finish his career with more than 500 home runs and a deserved reputation as the best first baseman of his generation (apologies to White Sox DH Frank Thomas). But at 36 next May, it’s not hard to see which way his production is trending.
Year OPS+Three NL first basemen (Todd Helton, Jim Thome and Richie Sexson) finished ahead of Bagwell last year in OPS, a category he once owned, and Derrek Lee was nipping at his heels. Among all position players, Bagwell was 18th in league OPS, and his 88 walks and .278 average were his lowest marks in those categories in eight years. That’s not to say he’s not useful – a 900 OPS is just dandy, thank you – but after nearly 2,000 games, Bagwell has declined from great to merely very good, and it won’t be much longer before he’s just okay. That’s soon going to become a problem for the Astros, because Bagwell is slated to receive $13M this year, $15M the year after that, and $17M the year after that. If he can arrest the decline in his numbers, then 35-40 HRs and a .400 OBP will be very good value for his salary; but if not, and if his OPS continues to slide down to the 850 or 860 level, then the Astros will be stuck with a Jason Varitek clone at first base, at $13 million and rising.
If Jeff Bagwell’s decline has been graceful but steady, Craig Biggio’s has been jerky and erratic.
Year OPS+Biggio, who also should walk into the Hall of Fame on his first try, has even more mileage on his odometer: 2,200 games, most of them in brutally demanding positions behind the plate or at second base; a season-ending knee injury in 2000 slowed him down markedly. Added to his various cuts and bruises, there’s an incredible 241 HBPs – though detractors might say that Biggio’s body armour, which absorbed a lot of those plunkings, will deserve a HOF spot along with him. Biggio is no longer hurting the Astros in the wallet: the two-year extension he signed last January paid him $8M in 2003 but pays only $3M for 2004, and the club holds the ’05 option of $3M. But there is no doubt that Biggio is hurting his team on the field.
Having switched to centerfield to accommodate Jeff Kent, and to relieve his knees from more pounding, Biggio ranked 9th out of 12 regular NL centerfielders in OPS last year. Trailing him were Juan Pierre (who hit 40 points higher and stole 65 bases), an injured Mark Kotsay playing in a pitcher’s park, and the redoubtable Endy Chavez. Now granted, OPS isn’t the best measure for a leadoff hitter, but Biggio’s problems are more fundamental: his batting average has reached .270 just once in the past four years, his OBP has dipped to the low-to-mid .300s, and his walk rate is now just one in every ten at-bats. Worse again, although he topped all CFs in fielding percentage, Biggio ranked second-last in range factor and fourth from the bottom in zone rating. In brief, Craig Biggio was one of the three or four worst centerfielders in the league last year, and even giving him credit for learning a new position on the fly, it still seems unlikely that at 38, he’s going to become the next Jim Edmonds.
Biggio’s blockade in centerfield is all the more bothersome when you consider who he’s blocking. Two-time minor-league MVP Jason Lane has been ready to play in the big leagues for a couple of years now. The organization’s second-ranked prospect (Baseball America) after a 2002 line of .272/.328/.472 with the Triple-A Zephyrs in hitter’s graveyard New Orleans, Lane topped that with a .298/.374/.452 AAA campaign during which he was bothered by an abdominal strain. He played center for the Zephyrs, showing off fine range and a solid arm.
At 27, Lane is starting to rot away in the minors, and the team owes itself and him the opportunity to see what he can do. But with Biggio, as popular a player as has ever donned a uniform in Houston, entrenched in center, he’ll have to sit one more year, though at least this year it’ll be on the major-league bench. One would hate to think that Craig Biggio’s performance might cost the Astros a playoff spot this year, but a man who was once the backbone of the team is now one of its weakest links.
So what about the man who moved Biggio to the outfield? Jeff (Easy Rider) Kent, as well-known for his pugnaciousness and creativity as for his bat, came to the Astros last winter on a two-year, $17.5M contract that will pay him $8.5M in its second half. Some expected Kent’s numbers to rise with the shift from pitcher’s haven Pac Bell to hitter-friendly Minute Maid in Houston. In fact, however, Kent’s numbers declined somewhat from 2002 (.313/.368/.565) to 2003 (.297/.351/.509), and he missed about 30 games with various injuries, including a few critical weeks with a wrist injury. In fairness, though, Kent’s production was almost exactly consonant with his career numbers (.289/.352/.503), and Minute Maid, while favouring hitters, isn’t exactly Coors, Texas: the Diamondbacks, Rockies, Expos and even Pirates all benefited from stronger home hitters’ environments than the Astros.
Kent’s offensive production, moreover, was very good in context: only Jose Vidro and Marcus Giles posted higher OPS totals in the keystone position, and his 22 HRs led all second basemen. He even held his own with the glove, posting league-average results in fielding percentage and range factor (though ZR had him dead last in the league). Overall, Kent was a solid addition to the lineup in 2003, and although he’ll be 36 next year, he should have one more strong season left in him. In this case, at least, the Astros knew when to draw the line on contract length.
Including the pitcher’s spot, which will not be greatly improved with the addition of two lifetime American Leaguers poking at bunt attempts all season long, the Astros have an ugly bottom third of the order.
It might be somewhat unfair to place young shortstop Adam Everett in this group. He posted a respectable .256/.320/.380 line in 2003, quite decent for a glove man and a great comfort to the Astros, who had seen Everett bat a spindly .193 in 40 games in his previous season. His 700 OPS did place him below the median among NL shortstops, however, along with higher-profile company like Alex (Pretty Boy) Gonzalez and Jimmy Rollins. But Everett doesn’t bring Gonzo’s 20 HRs or Rollins’ 20 steals to the table, and has little power or plate discipline; he’s never cracked a 715 OPS even in the minors. If Everett can duplicate his 2003 season with the bat while maintaining his stellar defence, the ‘Stros should consider themselves remarkably fortunate; a backslide to a .240/.300/.350 season, however, is not out of the question.
Duplicating 2003 is not what the Astros want to see from the real black hole in their lineup, though: Brad Ausmus. By posting a wretched .229/.303/.291 line in 450 painful at-bats (leading more than a few HACKING MASS squads to glory), Ausmus had the worst season of his career, though not at all inconsistent with his previous years’ totals. At the age of 34 and with more than 1,300 games behind the plate, Ausmus would appear to officially be ready for the backup stage of his career.
In a move that puzzled onlookers, however, the Astros re-signed Ausmus to a two-year deal worth $4 million. Partly this was because Ausmus is apparently a clubhouse favourite, especially of political heavyweight Jeff Bagwell, who has had a hand in more than a few on-field personnel decisions. But in their defence, the Astros didn’t really have many good options available. Top catching prospect John Buck struggled at Triple-A with slumps and injuries (.255/.301/.358 at New Orleans), and figures to be a year away from the big leagues at this point. Assuming that Buck can make the necessary adjustments this year, he has a good chance of breaking camp in 2005 in at least a job-sharing role with Ausmus.
The Houston bench, a weakness for much of last season, should actually be a strength this year. In the outfield, Jason Lane figures to start 2004 in Houston, hoping for an injury to a starter, contenting himself with pinch-hit appearances otherwise. The Astros also brought in dependable fourth outfielder Orlando Palmeiro after one season in St. Louis, replacing fellow-Orlando Merced; together, these two should help spell Biggio more often in the outfield and to give the two younger guns in the corners some rest as well (if Lane gets the full-time CF job, the Astros should catch fire). On the infield, Jose Vizcaino brings his veteran bat and glove back to the bench – and assuming he stays there, rather than taking over for Everett following a 1-for-25 slump, then his presence should be welcomed. The Astros also signed one of the game's more intriguing off-season projects: John Valentin, who capped off his recovery from a terrible knee injury with a stellar winter in the Puerto Rican League. It remains to be seen if he’s ready to return to the majors. Other bench possibilities at this stage include infielder Eric Bruntlett, former outfield prospect Phil Hiatt, and speedy Rule 5 outfield acquisition Willy Taveras; Raul Chavez figures to be Ausmus’ caddy behind the plate.
In their last ten games of 2003, the Astros went 4-6. In their last ten games, the Cubs went 6-4, and thus finished the year with a one-game lead and the Central Division Championship. A final-weekend split with the awful Milwaukee Brewers sealed Houston’s fate. It was the second straight near-miss for the Astros under manager Jimy Williams, who in 2002 replaced Larry Dierker and his four division titles in five years. This leads us to take a closer look at Williams’ managerial career.
Williams is well-known in local baseball circles, of course, and we needn’t recap his unhappy tenure in Toronto. After several years as a coach for Bobby Cox in Atlanta, Williams resurfaced in Boston as manager for five years and guided the Red Sox to two wild-card playoff berths, out of which they were quickly chased in the first round both times.
Williams’ quirky relationships with the media and his own players have been well documented. His personnel decisions, which have been characterized as everything from idiosyncratic to a smaller word using the first four and last three letters of the previous one, are certainly a factor. His refusal to give Morgan Ensberg more playing time last season was just the latest in a long series of moves that have mystified many, a mystification that Williams has never sought to clear up beyond a tight-lipped “Manager’s decision.” Odd traits don’t lead us to determine whether he’s a good or a bad manager, though.
So maybe a quick look at his teams’ Pythagorean records could be illuminating. For those unfamiliar, a Pythagorean record reflects the number of wins and losses a team ought to have had, based on its runs scored and runs allowed. Other factors normally considered equal, it’s one of the few ways in which a manager’s success might be statistically evaluated, albeit in a rough fashion.
Year Team PythagOver the course of his managerial career, Williams’ teams have lost 23 more games than statistically they ought to have. True, some of these margins are so close to even as to make no difference; nonetheless, nine of ten seasons below Pythagoras doesn’t seem entirely a product of chance. Considering that the margin of missing the playoffs in a few of those seasons was only a game or two, this has to make you wonder a little bit. And it actually leads me to hope that the Astros get off to a slow start this season, with their high-profile starting rotation and high-priced sluggers. A managerial change in Houston should be the considered the National League’s worst nightmare.
1986 Toronto -2
1987 Toronto -4
1988 Toronto -3
1997 Boston -2
1998 Boston -2
1999 Boston +2
2000 Boston -1
2001 Boston -1
2002 Houston -3
2003 Houston -7
By the end of the 2004 season, Jeff Kent, Craig Biggio and Richard Hidalgo will all be free agents, and Jeff Bagwell’s salary officially shifts into the stratosphere. Add to that Roger Clemens’ one-year deal, which will probably not be extended beyond this season, and the Astros are looking at the end of an era, a change in the identity and character of the team. Considering that four of their most important cogs are in the twilight of their careers and without contracts past October, the Astros have to look upon this as their make-or-break season. With this stellar pitching staff and a more-than-capable offence, Houston must be considered the favourite to take home the Central Division championship, or at least to seize a wild-card slot. And once the playoffs start, very few teams can match the quality of the talent that the Astros can place on the mound every single game. In a short series, Houston will be deadly.
Beyond 2004, though, things should change rapidly. If management is smart, it will say a fond farewell to Craig Biggio and give centerfield to Jason Lane full-time. Jeff Kent will be sent into the waiting arms of the marketplace, to be replaced by 2001 first-round draft choice Chris Burke. Brad Ausmus should begin at least splitting time with John Buck at catcher. Should Roger Clemens choose to actually, finally, really retire, there is no shortage of great arms to replace him, from Robertson to Hernandez to Saarloos to Duckworth to prize prospect Taylor Buchholz, who came over from Philadelphia in the Wagner trade. This will not be a championship-calibre team in 2005. But with the money saved from the departures of Kent and others, the team should be able to sign Richard Hidalgo to a more reasonable long-term deal, and to start making plans to keep Lance Berkman in the fold as well. The organization’s main weakness – position prospects in the minors – can be addressed by dealing one or more of the many promising arms in the system.
If Houston plays its cards right, it can shorten its organizational winter and bring the team back up to contender status faster than most clubs could. But if it makes all the wrong moves – extending Biggio again, dealing Hidalgo, renewing Kent – then things will get ugly very soon thereafter. It’s a watershed year for the franchise: the 2004 season and off-season will set the organizational tone for the balance of the decade. A World Series win would make it all the more meaningful.