Another year, another 82-80 record. It's uncanny how they do it.
The 162 game season began in 1961 when the American League expanded to ten teams; the National League followed suit when it expanded to ten teams the following year. In the forty plus years since, major league teams have played a cumulative total of 862 seasons consisting of 162 games. That's 862 season records, and exactly twenty-two of those seasons went 82-80.
The Astros have four of those twenty-two seasons. Needless to say, that's more than anyone else. (four teams - Twins, Mets, Angels, and Padres - have two apiece.)
Twenty-six of those seasons went 81-81, and the Astros have four of them as well. That's also more than anyone else. Only two other franchises - the White Sox and the Senators/Twins - have as many .500 seasons as Houston, and they've had an extra sixty years to work on it.
There's a pattern here.
It must be so frustrating to be an Astros fan. Last year, I somehow got interested in all-time franchise records (here, and updated after the season here.) The Astros, as you might expect, come about as close to .500 as you could reasonably expect from a team that's played more than 7000 games. If you look at all-time franchise records at baseball-reference.com, you will see exactly one team with a .500 mark, and would you care to guess which team that might be? The Astros, at 3579-3583 (which means they're actually at .49972), are four games away from .500, a deficit they can make up by having a good week. (OK, OK, the Rochester Broncos went 63-63 in their only season, and the Arizona Diamondbacks are just two games away from .500, but obviously over a much shorter timespan - they're .49931 overall). Houston's early expansion ineptitude put them in a huge hole - their general competence since then has erased most of it. On April 22 2006, for the first time since April 1962, the franchise actually rose above the .500 level, although they couldn't quite maintain it (they needed an 84-78 season last year, and didn't quite make it.)
The process of erasing that initial deficit has been achieved in the same way a mountain is washed to the sea - by erosion. The Astros, who have rarely had truly bad teams, have seldom had really good ones. They have posted six 90 win seasons in their history, and three of those came during Larry Dierker's five year term as their manager. (Dierker presumably had to be terminated because that sort of thing just isn't the Astro way, even if he was also the author of the immortal "It Makes a Fellow Proud to be an Astro" back in the day.)
On the other hand, since getting over their grim beginnings as an expansion team, fending off the mosquitoes at old Colt Stadium, then playing on the dead grass and then the green-painted dirt (really!) at the Dome before the artificial turf was invented and installed - since those strange days, the Astros have never had a really terrible team. They have never lost 100 games in a season; they have just three 90+ loss seasons since emerging from the expansion era almost thirty years ago. They did lose 90+ games in each of their first seven years - but even then, thanks to the colossal ineptitude of the equally new Mets, Houston only finished last one time in those first few seasons (just three times in team history.) Hey, they even managed to finish ahead of the Cubs twice during those early years, for whatever that might be worth. Then or now.
But of course the Astros were completely overshadowed by the Mets for most of this time. The Mets had Casey and the Polo Grounds, they had Marv Throneberry and Choo Choo Coleman, and most important of all, they had all those New York-based baseball writers on their side. The Astros had a glitzy new stadium, and no one was quite sure what to make of it.
In 1969, both the Astros and Mets finally made the leap into respectability. Both teams headed into September just 4.5 games out of first place. The Mets charged past the Cubs, won the World Series, and forever afterward became The Miracle Mets. The Astros? They closed to within two games of first place, and then faded badly down the stretch. They lost 16 of their final 22 games, to finish up at... 81-81.
How do they do it? In 1963 - just their second season of operations - three very young players made their major league debuts in Houston uniforms. The Colt 45s opened the season with a first baseman who had turned 19 just a week earlier. His name was Rusty Staub, and he would play almost 3000 games in the majors and rap out more than 2700 hits. In mid-summer, they added a 21 year old outfielder named Jimmy Wynn - the Toy Cannon would become one of the 15 best centre fielders in history. And then in September, two days after his 20th birthday, a second baseman named Joe Morgan made his major league debut. Yes, that Joe Morgan.
Somehow, if you can come up with three guys like Staub, Wynn, and Morgan in the same season - and the Astros did keep them around for a while- shouldn't you eventually win at least one pennant? This is also the organization that more recently pulled off one of the greatest, most lopsided trades in the history of the game - acquiring Jeff Bagwell, no less, in exchange for a 37 year old middle reliever one month away from free agency. A year after that remarkable transaction, they decided to try shifting their all-star catcher to second base, which is not something that's been done too often. That move didn't merely work; it gave the Astros two of the top top ten players ever to play their positions, side by side in their infield for more than a decade.
Now there were some dreadful misfortunes along the way - the suicide of Don Wilson at age 29, after two no-hitters and an 18 strikeout game. The stroke that ended J.R. Richard's career in mid-season at age 30 (he was 10-4, 1.90 at the time). The Mike Torrez fastball that derailed Dickie Thon's career, when he seemed headed straight for the Hall of Fame while collecting a MVP award or two along the way.
And part of the team's problem may have been the very odd ballpark they called home for more than thirty seasons. Two things regularly happen to any team whose home park has an extreme impact on the baseball that is played there. First, it seems to become very difficult for management to accurately assess their own players' strengths and weaknesses. The Astrodome gave 2.50 ERAs to otherwise marginal pitchers, while making great hitters look downright ordinary.
Second, if the team finds something that works at home, it doesn't work on the road. In recent years, the team with the biggest home-road split of all has been the Colorado Rockies, who play in the most unique environment of all. Back in 2005, when I actually crunched these numbers, I found the Rockies had played .542 ball at home and just .387 ball at home. The AL team with the biggest home-road split was not the team that played in the Metrodome - but it was the team that played deep in the heart of Texas (the Rangers, natch.) For three decades, the Astros combined both these factors: they were playing in a unique environment, and they were playing in Texas. (Texas is hot - right, Mick?). And over their time at Astrodome, the Astros had an enormous home-road split. They played .564 ball in their Dome, but were a .440 team on the road (not as lopsided as the Rockies, but it's a bigger split than the Rangers of recent vintage.)
Ah well. What does destiny have in store for them this year?
More of the same, no doubt, but in the National League Central that makes you a contender, and Houston was still fighting for the division title on the last day of the season. A nine game winning streak sent Houston into the final weekend trailing by just half a game, but the Astros split two games in Atlanta while the Cardinals were taking two games from the Brewers. When the Astros lost to John Smoltz on the final Sunday, it no longer mattered what St. Louis did. (They didn't even have to make up a rain-out against the Giants.) The Astros finished 1.5 games behind the world champion Cardinals.
This year's edition will see some changes in the starting rotation and the outfield - otherwise, it's generally the same crew as last year. Behind the plate, Brad Ausmus returns for the last year of his contract. He hasn't decided whether to keep playing beyond that, although he has said that the only cities he'd be willing to play in are Houston and San Diego. Ausmus has also mentioned that every retired player he talks to about the matter points out that once it's over, it stays over. So it's a good idea to play as long as they'll let you. Ausmus is still very well regarded defensively, and the Houston pitchers in particular swear by his work. Otherwise, of course, he'd have no business being in the major leagues. The man's offensive line looks like something from 1906. It's not too often these days that you see a player whose On-Base is higher than his Slugging, unless it's some 160 pound speedster. Not a 38 year old catcher. Who will be backing him up is something that will probably get sorted out over the next 30 days or so. Last year's backup, Eric Munson, is in camp on a minor league deal. He's got a great name for a catcher. Unfortunately, while his bat resembles that of Ausmus, his defense does not. The other backup candidate is Humberto Quinteros, who has accumulated 64 games over four seasons with San Diego and Houston. Another candidate, Hector Giminez was a September callup last year, but shoulder surgery will keep him out of action this year. The prospects - Max Sapp and Lou Santangelo - are at least a year away. Ausmus will get most of the work this year, and if anything should happen to him the Astros don't really have a Plan B.
The news is better at first base. Jeff Bagwell is gone, but Lance Berkmann settled in and ripped off his seventh outstanding season in a row. This one featured career highs in HRs (45) and RBI (136). He's one of the three best hitters in the NL, and one of the three best first basemen in the game. And just when did the NL end up with all the great first basemen? Because that's where they are. Berkmann did play a little outfield last year, but those days are probably behind him now.
The last of the original Killer B's, Craig Biggio is back to collect the 70 hits he needs to get to 3000, which should guarantee his Hall of Fame ticket. He's ridiculously over-qualified already, but padding those counting figures isn't going to hurt his case. Unfortunately, running him out to second base every day isn't going to help the team that much. Biggio returned to the infield in 2005 because he simply can't do an adequate job covering the immense center field space at Minute Maid Park (I know, it'll always be Enron Memorial to me, too.) Over the last four years, Biggio's On-Base figures are .350, .337, .325, and .306. This is what the scientists call a Disturbing Trend. He was once an outstanding defensive player at second-base; now he's adequate at best. The plan this year is to give him a lot more rest than he's received in the past, hoping that if his workload is cut back to 110-120 games, some of his production will bounce back. That makes a lot of sense to me. Through July 31 of last season, Biggio was hitting .272/.333/.434 - he had 11 HR and 39 RBI. That's acceptable production from your second baseman. However, Biggio had also played in 97 of the Astros 105 games, and he went right off the cliff in the second half. He hit just .193 in both August and September, to finish up with the worst full season numbers of his remarkable career. They have to get him some help.
However, the Astros seem more concerned with their situation at third base. They don't know quite what to expect from Morgan Ensberg, and I can't blame them. The man has yet to put together two consecutive seasons that even remotely resemble the one before. In 2005, he was an MVP candidate (actually finished fourth in the voting.) Last year... last year, he wasn't. There were some extenuating circumstances. Ensberg came charging out of the gate in April, hitting .329 with 9 HR and 19 RBI. His average took a dive in May, but he still provided plenty of power, and on June 9 he was hitting .259 with 18 HR and 38 RBI. On that day, Ensberg hurt his shoulder diving for a foul ball. He missed a week, then stepped back into the lineup and tried to play through the pain. It didn't work. Over the next month, he hit .150 with just one homer before he finally acknowledged that the pain was too great to deal with. The Astros, by the way, were quite ticked that he didn't tell them sooner how much he was hurting; they had all kinds of other options if Ensberg was unfit to perform. They had (and still have) Mike Lamb, who certainly would have been able to fill in until Ensberg was healthy. (They also picked up Aubrey Huff last season, and he played some third while Ensberg was on the DL.) Anyway, while predicting what Ensberg will do from one year to the next is a fool's game, assuming he's healthy he should be much closer to the top of his game in 2007. Even last year, he wasn't completely horrible - he still knocked 23 homers and drew a career best 101 walks in just 127 games (although that also speaks volumes about the bottom third of the Astros lineup.).
Shortstop Adam Everett might be the best defensive player in baseball - that anyone could possibly believe that the 39 year old Omar Vizquel is a better shortstop than Everett staggers the mind. And as good as he is already, Everett's glove work is getting better. Alas, the same can not be said for his bat. That's a problem on a team that's already playing Brad Ausmus regularly - Everett actually is the number seven hitter in this lineup. And now you know why Morgan Ensberg walks so often. Everett's unlikely to ever be a good hitter. He has Dick Schofield disease - a power hitter's cut, but no power. Every now and then, someone gets through to these guys - they cut down their swing, they take the outside pitch to right field - and suddenly they cease to be a black void in the middle of the offense. For some reason, it seldom lasts more than a few months - and then they revert back to their old bad habits. But that's what they're trying to get Everett to do this year.
For infield depth, the Astros have Mike Lamb coming back to provide support at the corners - with Berkmann still playing some outfield last year, Lamb saw quite a bit of time at first base. He's also insurance in case Ensberg struggles again, and a lefty power source off the bench. Pinch-hitting is obviously extremely important to the Astros - Brad Ausmus and Adam Everett are normally in the starting lineup, which means that late in a close game, they have to have someone hit for the 7, 8, and 9 hitters. Which doesn't bother Phil Garner ("...is the man who manages this crew"), who loves the whole business of managing in the NL - pinch hitters, pinch-runners, sac bunts galore, and a zillion relief pitchers.
The Astros also signed Mark Loretta as a free agent - you can expect to see him spelling Biggio a great deal, especially on the road. Over the last three years, Biggio has hit in the .290s each year at home; but his road averages during the same period have gone from .270 to .235 to last year's .178. He also has much more power at home, where he's hit 34 HRs the last two years while hitting 13 on the road. Loretta can play all four infield positions, of course, although he's probably not up to any extended time at shortstop. But all the Astros expect to need from him there is an inning or two at a time after Everett is pinch hit for. Eric Bruntlett can play anywhere in the infield or outfield, and even managed to hit .277 (with a .351 On-Base last year.) He's an ideal 25th man for any roster, even if he's on the bubble to make the team out of camp this spring.
The Astros opened their saddlebags this winter - hang on, let's drop this metaphor. Houston's not a cowboy town. Houston is a Big Money town. It's one of the largest markets in North America, and from time to time, the people running the ball club remember to act accordingly. Giving Roger Clemens $22 million for half a season is not my idea of thrift. Anyway, there are more Fortune 500 companies in Houston than anywhere except New York, and the newest of them is the new Astro left fielder. Carlos Lee makes this offense a whole lot better - with Ensberg struggling and Biggio getting old, it was basically Berkmann or Bust in 2006. Not anymore. Lee takes over the at bats that were given to Willy Taveras last year. Taveras hit .278 in 149 games, with a measly 25 extra base hits, 1 of them a home run. Lee hit .300 with lots and lots and lots of extra base hits - 37 doubles and 37 homers. It's a big whopping upgrade.
The new centre fielder will be Chris Burke, whose eventual destiny is to take over second base when Biggio is done. When that day comes, the Astros expect that Hunter Pence, their top draft pick in 2004, will be ready to take over in centre field. That day could arrive as early as this season, but not as early as next month. So in the meantime, the plan is to stick Burke in centre and let him roam around out there. The vast centre field area at Enron Memorial, replete with rolling hills and everything, demands someone who can motor out there - while Jason Lane is probably the Astros best defensive outfielder, they're not sure he's up to the task of covering all that ground. So Burke gets the call, end of story. With the stick, Burke is best remembered for that 18th inning homer against the Braves in the 2005 playoffs. Nevertheless, he made some progress last year, and if he can post another .276/.347/.418 line, the Astros will be quite satisfied.
There is one major position battle that will be settled this spring, and it's in right field. There are three candidates, but the pre-season favourite is Luke Scott. He is the left-handed hitter who posted an utterly unexpected and downright eye-popping .336/.426/.621 line last year. Unexpected? Sure - if anyone had really thought Scott was capable of such a performance, I think he might have had more than 80 major league at bats by the turn he turned 28. It took Scott a couple of years to adjust to pro ball after coming out of college. But something clicked when he made it to AA in mid 2004, and he's been hitting up a storm ever since. There are two other contenders. As already noted, Jason Lane is the best defensive outfielder on the team - unfortunately, his offensive game swerved to avoid a collision and went right off the cliff last season. After hitting .267 with 26 homers in 2005, he dropped all the way to .201 last season. He should make the roster, however - he's the only conceivable backup in centrefield, and he can give Scott some relief against lefty pitching. Which will probably leave Richard Hidalgo, the prodigal son, out in the cold. Hidalgo is trying to restart his career in the one place where he actually had some success. It wasn't that long ago (2003 to be exact) that he was hitting .309 with 28 homers and a .572 slugging percentage. He's still only 31 years old, and he was outstanding in Venezuelan winter ball this year. But I think he needs to decisively outplay Lane this spring, or see someone else go down with an injury. I can't see the Astros carrying six outfielders, and one spot is already set aside for Orlando Palmeiro. Palmeiro doesn't actually play much in the field anymore - his main job is to pinch hit, and he's good at it. He will be on the roster. Which is bad news for Hidalgo.
Andy Pettitte has returned to the Bronx, and Roger Clemens is weighing his options. I suspect Clemens won't pitch again, but even if he does, I think it'll be in the American League. I think he'll look at the AL East standings in June and then decide. At any rate, the Astros are planning for Life After Rocket, which is prudent and wise.
They still have their ace. Roy Oswalt remains one of the best pitchers in the National League. After two straight 20 win seasons, his record fell to 15-8 last year, but he was just as good as ever. Oswalt gives nothing away. He doesn't walk people - just 1.55 per nine innings last year, fourth best in the majors (behind Schilling, Halladay, and Lieber), and he doesn't give up home runs (only 18 last year in 220.2 innings.) This is what he has always done, except he's getting even stingier with the walks as he gets older. Every one of his seasons in the majors has been almost monotonously excellent. His health record is outstanding. He turned 29 last August, and I have an almost superstitious belief that great right-handed pitchers often have an off-year around that age, but until Oswalt actually does have an ordinary season there's no reason whatsoever to expect anything except the usual brilliance.
The Astros gave up a lot to get Jason Jennings - their centre fielder plus two 24 year old pitchers who could both be in the Colorado rotation as early as this spring - but they get a 28 year old right-hander coming off his best major league season. Jennings pitched a CG shutout against the Mets in his major league debut back in 2001, and he went 16-8 as a rookie the following year - but 2006 was his finest season, the 9-13 record notwithstanding. He posted career bests in ERA (3.78) and Ks (142). He gave up just 17 HR in 212 IP (also a career high). Alas, he's come nowhere near duplicating the .306 batting average (with 11 RBI) he racked up as a rookie, but the Astros don't care much about that.
The third starter will be an old friend. Not too many men who played for the 1993 Blue Jays are still around. Carlos Delgado and Shawn Green have been reunited in Flushing. Mike Timlin goes on forever in Boston. And Woody Williams, at age 40, has returned to his home town. At this stage of his career, Williams is still an effective pitcher; the problem is that he doesn't go very deep into ball games, and he'll probably miss a start or two along the way. But still... last year, Jennings and Williams made 56 starts and went 21-18 with ERAs of 3.78 and 3.65. The men they're replacing, Pettitte and Clemens, made 54 starts and went 21-19 with ERAs of 4.20 and 2.30.
After the top three spots, all is Uncertainty. Brandon Backe will miss most of the season as he recuperates from Tommy John surgery. He might be available in September. Wandy Rodriguez is back after a 9-10, 5.64 season that saw him banished to AAA for a while in mid-season. The best things he has going for him are his two years of major league experience and the fact that he's left-handed. He's got a head start, but he's by no means a sure bet. A swarm of more or less unproven right-handers are also in the mix, and what happens this month will settle the matter. The guy whose chances I like best is a 24 year old Venezuelan right-hander named Fernando Nieve, who got into 40 games with the Astros last year and acquitted himself nicely (3-3, 4.20). But there's also Chris Sampson, who was drafted by Houston back in 1999 as a shortstop. After a year in Rookie ball, personal issues drove Sampson to leave the game for several years. He returned in 2003 as a pitcher, and made it to the majors last year at age 28, where he was extremely impressive in a limited role (2.12 ERA in 34 IP). Dave Borkowski is a 30 year old journeyman who's been up and own since 1999 - he spent almost all of 2006 in the Astros pen and chipped in 71 league average innings. Matt Albers started out last season by completely overmatching hitters in AA (10-2, 2.17), which earned him a mid-season call-up. He didn't get much of a shot with last year's Astros, and went back down, this time to AAA. He's definitely in the mix this spring, but I suspect Houston would first like to see if he can do to AAA hitters what he did to AA hitters. Brian Moehler is also in camp as a non-roster invitee after an ugly (7-11, 6.57) 2006 season with the Marlins. Moehler hasn't actually pitched well anywhere in about seven years, but Phil Garner knows him from Detroit. Still, he has to be regarded as a long shot. Right now I'd say Rodriguez and Nieve will be in the rotation, Sampson and Borkowski will be in the bullpen, Albers will be in AAA, and Moehler will be on the telephone looking for work.
The Astros will carry either six or seven relievers, so Sampson and Borkowski will join the four holdovers whose jobs are set. Brad Lidge is still the closer, although he hasn't been quite himself since that fateful pitch he threw to Albert Pujols in the 2005 LCS, has he? Last year was pretty horrible on the face of it. He did save 32 games, but he also went 1-5, 5.28 after posting ERAs of 1.90 and 2.29. It's hard to see what went wrong. There certainly doesn't seem to be any problem with his raw stuff. He still has that high hard one and that unhittable slider - he punched out 104 batters in just 75 IP. He was a little easier to hit than in the past, but he still surrendered less than a hit per inning. But his walks were up (36 last season) and he gave up twice as many home runs as he normally does. Getting the ball to the closer will be up to Dan Wheeler and Chad Qualls. Wheeler has simply been outstanding since the day arrived from the Mets in August 2004, and if Lidge struggles again he could once more find himself finishing games. Qualls hasn't been quite that brilliant, but he's put together two fine seasons of his own. Trever Miller returns to face a left-handed hitter here and there, and he's getting better at it as he gets older. Garner uses his bullpen a lot - five men made more than 70 relief appearances for Houston last season. (Lidge, Qualls, Miller, Wheeler, and Russ Springer) and another pitcher (Borkowski) made 40 relief appearances. If the Astros carry a seventh reliever it could be Rule 5 pick Lincoln Holdzkom. Also in the mix are some veterans in camp on NRIs - Scott Sauerbeck and Kevin Walker. Rick White is also signed to a minor league deal, and Brian Moehler could stick around in this role as well. The Astros are very high on Miguel Asencio, a hard thrower acquired from the Rockies along with Jason Jennings, but he's probably bound for AAA.
So how's it going to turn out? Another year around .500, another off-season of frustration... missed it by that much?
Probably. The Astros certainly can win this thing - they were just one win behind last year's champs, Carlos Lee is a big offensive upgrade, and Jennings-Williams really isn't a big step down from Pettitte-Clemens. But this spring, for no apparent reason, everywhere I look I keep seeing teams that look more or less even to me until we look at the rotation. I'm probably hallucinating (ohmigawd! - flashbacks from my misspent youth?) - but there it is. Right now, I like Milwaukee's rotation better than Houston's.
But I'll give the Astros this. At least they're not going to have yet another 81 or 82 win season this year.
84-78, second place.