Nightmare on Crawford Street

added 12/27/2000 by Matthew Becker

Jeff Bagwell’s new contract creates great expectations in the organization. I’m afraid that these expectations extend to his health, and if he gets hurt, the entire team could fall into a tailspin. Looking at the lineup and the depth on this team, if Bagwell sustains any type of serious injury, the chances of Houston winning any reasonable amount of games (not to mention any shot at the division) are completely flushed down the toilet.

First of all, any Astros fan must realize that this team revolves around hitting. The relief pitching improved drastically during the offseason, and the starters should only get better this year, but if the bats hit the wall, so does this team. No matter what Hunsicker and Bagwell tell us, the bullpen is still a bit shaky, especially with three relievers coming off serious injuries (Wagner, Powell, and Jackson), and with great expectations placed on Nelson Cruz after only one year of service. Let’s not forget that Cruz will turn 29 years old next year. The starting pitching appears just as shaky. Remember that the best ERA on the team last year belonged to Scott Elarton, at 4.81. With Reynolds out for the beginning of the season, the team cannot afford to rely on this young staff to produce consistently.

Putting myself in Dierker’s shoes, let’s say that Bagwell becomes injuried for two months. You might say, “But Matthew, Houston has two quality first basemen in Ward and Berkman to replace him!” Here’s where the question of outfield depth haunts this franchise once again. With what amounts to a four-man rotation in the outfield, with Hidalgo, Berkman, Ward, and Alou, if one player goes to another position, the fourth outfielder becomes Glen Barker. If one of the four original outfielders gets hurt after Bagwell goes down, Barker then becomes an everyday player. Basically, Barker is replacing Bagwell. Defensively, this change is a wash. The gain of Barker’s defense in the outfield is nullified by the change from Bagwell to Ward at first. Also, the outfield becomes even more fragile, as any type of injury (even day-to-day!) would devastate this team.

However, even Derek Bell would realize these are not the major problems with Barker replacing Bagwell in the lineup. Taking career-average statistics for both players, and prorating them to 2 months, you can really see the offensive detraction. For Bagwell, the average two months would produce a .304 average, 12 homers, and 34 RBI. For Barker, the same two months would give the Astros a .257 average, 4 homers, and 23 RBI. Also, their difference in OPS is about .400 for their respective careers. This change would cost the Astros dearly in run production, and exchange a very smart baserunner for Barker, who likes to steal third with two outs (remember 1999?).

The “fun” of losing Bagwell for two months still doesn’t really begin until the consideration of the fragility of the Houston outfield comes into play.

Does anyone really expect Barker, a bench player for his entire short career, to come off the bench and play every day?

Can Hidalgo’s knees hold up enough to play everyday?

Can Alou play the outfield every day after 3 different career-threatening injuries over the past 7 years?

If you answered “no” to any of the previous questions, then the trouble really begins. When Bill Spiers is forced to become an everyday outfielder, more glaring holes appear in the depth chart. First of all, Spiers is nowhere near a solution in the outfield. If you’re thinking about Julio Lugo in center, forget about it. He has barely any professional experience at that position, which makes that change too scary to think about for now. Now, Spiers may be a stopgap in an emergency, but that’s as far as it goes. Also, what happens when one of the outfielders (or Ward) needs a rest? That would put Biggio in left again!

The nightmare doesn’t stop there. With Spiers in the outfield, Chris Truby becomes the team’s only true third baseman. Also, it creates a situation in the infield where Lugo is the only capable backup. That leaves Lugo, Eusebio, and a bunch of minor leaguers on the bench for Dierker to use in pinch-hitting roles. Is this the kind of team that you want to see take the field every day?

This entire column is not designed to scare you, but only to make you realize how important Jeff Bagwell is to the Houston franchise. No other team in baseball relies so heavily on one player. Put this as a tribute to McClane, after all the crap he’s taken over the past two years. He knows how important Bagwell is, and he did everything he could to keep him an Astro. For all the complaints I’ve had about Drayton over the years, he certainly impressed me with this signing. Forget everything Ray said about the Hall of Fame for a minute. Does anyone want to trade him to Boston now? 85 million dollars is chump change. The Astros can't afford to lose Bagwell, at any cost.