Tell Chester Charge to pack his bags. Astros are playoff bound.
added 1/9/2001 by Todd Brody
Very few people have ever called me an optimist (at least with respect to Houston sports teams). So it may come as a surprise to you when I tell you that the Astros are going to make the playoffs this upcoming season. Yes, the season is a long way away -- and the possibility of another freak injury looms over the head of every Astros fan like the sword of Damocles -- but right here, right now, I think that the Astros have the best everyday lineup, the best bullpen, and the best bench in the Central Division. I think that the Hun's acquisitions this off-season have been very savvy. And while the Astros' starting pitching is questionable, at best, I do not believe that any of the other teams in the division have such dominating starting pitching so as to render these other factors meaningless. Moreover, based on the acquisition of Randy Johnson, I believe that if the Astros are in competition for the playoffs around the trading deadline, they will make a move for another starting pitcher if they think that such an acquisition will push them over the top.
EVERYDAY POSITION PLAYERS: The Astros had a lot of problems last year, but none involved the starting lineup. Despite staggering injuries to Caminiti, Alou, Cedeno, and Biggio, the Astros set team records for runs, home runs, RBIs, and at .278, the team was only two percentage points off the team record for batting average. This will not change much from last year even with the losses of Ken Caminiti and Mitch Meluskey. The Astros will still continue to hit and score a lot of runs. The everyday lineup for next year features Jeff Bagwell (.310, 47, 132), Moises Alou (.355, 30, 114), and Richard Hidalgo .314, 44, 122), the three of whom were recently placed by ESPN in the top tier of threesomes in the league. But that is not where it ends for the Astros. I am confident that Lance Berkman, who now will be playing nearly every day, will bat for average and power on a consistent basis. I also believe that Biggio will be ready to start the season at the lead off spot and that he will be a .280 hitter with a .400+ OBP. While Biggio is no longer a stolen base threat, he is still one of the best lead-off batters in the league. Lugo (who I hope will start at short and bat second) and Truby (who I would like to see bat seventh) demonstrated last year that they both can hit at the major league level. Truby will hit 20+ home runs next year, and while he may never hit for average, he is not a bad person to have in the bottom of the order. The weakest spot in the lineup is Ausmus (69 BB, .357 OBP), but I would still rate Ausmus as the second-best hitting catcher in the Central Division, behind only Jason Kendall. Ausmus's offensive numbers will also improve slightly from last year's, simply because he is moving from Comerica, a severe pitcher's park, to Enron Field.
Can any other team in the Division match the Astros' lineup? I don't think so. St. Louis is probably the closest, and their lineup could be very good, but they have even more questions than do the Astros. Will Mark McGwire's back hold up for another season or will he retire? Will Jim Edmonds repeat what was a career year for him? Will Ray Lankford rebound after having an awful season? Will J.D. Drew, who will now start in right field, put together a good full season? In the end, this team will not have enough offense; losing Will Clark to retirement will hurt, and trading Tatis will turn out to have been a big mistake. Cincinnati has two tremendous hitters in Griffey, Jr. and Casey, but after that, their entire lineup is suspect. Larkin is old -- really old. Reese, after having one good season, demonstrated that he is a .250 hitter and no better. And I don't think that Aaron Boone, Jason LaRue, Michael Tucker, and Dmitri Young are particularly worth talking about. The Cubs have Sosa, Eric Young, and little else. Pittsburgh, who is counting on underachievers Derek Bell and Kevin Young to provide support for all-stars Kendall and Giles is in for a big surprise. Its funny, I actually like the Brewers lineup. With Sexson, Jenkins, Hammonds and Burnitz, the Brewers should be able to score some runs (at least when they are not striking out). But their lineup is not nearly as good as that of the Astros.
BENCH: One of the worst features of last year's team was the bench. Once you got past Billy Spiers, there was no other person on the bench that you wanted to come into the game to pinch hit in critical spots. I cringed every time I saw Russ Johnson, Matt Mieske, Tim Bogar, Glen Barker, (and a bunch of rookies in Truby and Lugo) trying to hit in key spots.
This was one of the major concerns that Gerry Hunsicker addressed during the off-season. By picking up Jose Vizcaino and Charlie Hayes, the Astros got a couple of good veteran batters who have proved that they can come off the bench and get big hits. The Viz was clutch for the Yankees last season and brings with him World Series experience. Hayes batted .300 in pinch hitting situations for the Brewers last year. And if Lugo or Truby are coming off the bench, I am a lot more confident with them both having a year of MLB experience behind them. There are no rookies on the Astros' bench. Spiers, the "all-world" backup returns for another season in Mud and Blood. Tony Eusebio (my personal favorite Astros and the player with the longest tenure on the team), probably the best backup catcher in baseball last year, is back. Daryle Ward, who had a pretty good season, although more as a starter than as a pinch hitter (52 ABs, 2 HR, 5 RBI, .212 BA), is also back. Moreover, there is great balance to the bench. Ward and Spiers are left-handed, Vizcaino and Barker are switch-hitters, and Eusebio and Hayes are right-handed. I believe that this is the best bench in the division (and it may be the best bench in the Astros' history). While the Cardinals just bought a bench this week with four unremarkable free agents, the players that they received are not as good as the players they lost in Eric Davis and Shawon Dunston.
BULLPEN: Here are some fun facts and figures. The Astros blew 25 saves last year. Marc Valdes led the league in letting inherited runners score. And this is my favorite: The Astros lost 24 games where they scored six or more runs. You can't just say that the bullpen sucked last year. Suck would be too nice a description, but given that Ray wants us to tone down the language of our columns, I can't really describe the bullpen in the manner in which it deserves. Maybe this will help: Yorkis Perez, Mike Maddux, Joe Slusarski, Doug Henry, Scott Linebrink, Marc Valdes, Wayne Franklin, Brian Powell, and Jason Green coming out of the pen on a regular basis. Pretty scary. Fortunately, none of these so-called major league pitchers will be back.
The bullpen was the main reason why the Astros were not competitive last year. And it wasn't just the blown saves that killed the Astros. It was the fact that the bullpen would come into a close game and would give up a ton of runs so as to make the game out of reach. The bullpen was a sieve. Let me give you an example. On April 26, we lost to the Cubs 13-8. Dotel started the game and pitched pretty well. In six innings he gave up three runs and at the end of six, the game was tied 3-3. Mike Maddux started the seventh inning. Sosa, the first batter, homered to left center. Maddux then hit Henry Rodriguez with a pitch and gave up a single to Willie Greene. One out later, Girardi singled. Jay Powell then came into the game. He walked the first batter, Eric Young. Then Guti doubled and, all of the sudden, the Astros were down five runs. Powell gave up another run in the eighth, Yorkis Perez gave up four more runs in the ninth. How were the Astros supposed to win this game? And let me tell you, the Astros didn't give up. They scored two runs in the seventh, two runs in the eighth and one run in the ninth. The bullpen just let up too many runs. And this game is not an isolated instance. It was emblematic of the entire season.
I do not believe that the Astros will have the same bullpen problems that they did last year. Indeed, I believe that the Astros have the best bullpen in the division. When healthy, Wagner is the best closer in the division (if not all of baseball). Wagner reportedly is throwing at a high velocity and it looks like he will be ready to start the season. I also believe that Powell, one full season after injury, will also return to the effectiveness that he demonstrated in 1997 and 1998. But the most important factor is that the Astros got rid of the players who should never have been in a major league uniform and they brought in several "quality" veteran relief pitchers to set-up Wagner. Doug Brocail, even when he was injured last season, pitched better than any Astros' reliever. And the two seasons before last, he was one of the best set-up men in the American League. Mike Jackson, also one full season after surgery, can be a very effective part of the bullpen. He is a former closer who can step into that role again if needed. The last two spots in the bullpen are open. I think that they should go to Dotel and either Cabrera or Cruz. Dotel is a dominating, overpowering pitcher who should receive the benefit of the higher strike zone this year. I don't like Dotel as a starter because he doesn't have enough stamina and he could use another pitch. But, I like really him pitching the seventh inning and to come in earlier as a rally killer. The Astros and Reds will compete for the best bullpen in the division this year. But I believe that the Reds, who have even worse starters than the Astros, will ultimately wear down their bullpen, making them useless by the end of the season.
STARTING PITCHING: Let's face it. The Astros starting pitching wasn't great last month and it didn't get any better when Shane Reynolds injured himself while jogging (although this may have been a blessing in disguise if his knee was an injury waiting to happen during the season). I have consistently said that Jose Lima is not going to pitch any better than he did last year -- he just is not a pitcher built for Enron Field. I'm not going to change my mind. But the Astros are going to win the division even without the best starting pitching in the division. First, the Astros do have some good pitchers. Scott Elarton will be a top-tier pitcher in the league for years to come. I also think that Wade Miller and Tony McKnight will pitch well this year and they have the advantage of not having pitched in the Astrodome. Consequently, they weren't freaked out like the other Astros pitchers were last year. To Miller and McKnight, pitching in Enron is like pitching in the bandboxes that litter the Texas League. And here is my other bold prediction -- Kent Bottenfield will pitch better than Chris Holt and will win 10-12 games this season. Second, Brad Ausmus will complement the young pitchers in the rotation -- be they Elarton, Miller, Dotel or McKnight. Ausmus will not give up a lot of passed balls and he will prevent a lot of wild pitches. Ausmus is going to throw out a lot of runners at second instead of playing catch with the center fielder. Ausmus is going to be able to give his young pitchers good, calming advice on the mound instead of being all wound up ("what the f___ are you f___ing throwing f__ face"). Third, the bullpen is not going to lose the games that the Astros should have won last year. And equally important, Larry Dierker is not going to keep his starters in the game longer than he should because he feels that he has no one in the bullpen who is any better. He is going to be able to take out his starter, knowing that he can bring in Brocail or Powell or Jackson or Dotel without worrying that the bullpen is going to give up the game. Finally, if the Astros are close, they are going to pick up another starting pitcher at the trading deadline. This is not a good starting rotation. But the rotations of the other teams in the division are not so dominant as to overwhelm the Astros.
In sum, the Astros are not the best team in baseball, but they are the best team in the Central Division. They will win the division and will go to the playoffs. The Rangers will not make the playoffs and we will all laugh at those idiots who live in Dallas.
Don't shoot the messenger!
by Ray Kerby
Will the Astros make the playoffs? Despite the points that Todd makes, I don't think that they will reach the playoffs next season with their current roster without a lot of luck. Objectively, this can be proven if three points can be made: 1) the Astros were not a good team last year, 2) the Astros did not improve over the winter, and 3) it takes a good team to make the playoffs.
We can start with the fact that the team lost 90 games last year and finished 18 games under .500. There are no statistical arguments and projections that can cover up what happened between the lines last season. It has been argued that the team was not as bad as their record indicated. After all, they scored almost as many runs (938) as they allowed (944). The so-called 'Pythagorean Theorem' would have given the team a projected record of 80-82, or a full eight wins between than their actual record. Large discrepancies like this are usually attributed to 'bad luck', or the poor timing of bad performances, such as a bullpen that holds large leads while giving up the close games. I believe that there is some truth to this, and I am willing to concede the point that the team was better than their final record indicated. But let's not forget that an 80-82 record is still under .500 and we can assert that, by definition, a good team is one that, at a minimum, wins more games than it loses.
In addition, the team's defenders will be quick to point out that the team was beset with many injuries that affected their performance. After all, key players such as Shane Reynolds, Craig Biggio, Billy Wagner, and Ken Caminiti all spent considerable time on the disabled list. While these injuries certainly cost the team some games, I do remember the 1999 squad winning 97 games despite significant injuries to Caminiti, Mitch Meluskey, Moises Alou (for the entire season), and Carl Everett. The reality is that injuries are to be expected, and the 2000 team was no unluckier in this regard than their predecessors in 1999. The real reason for the team's decline can be traced to the off-season losses of Everett and Mike Hampton in addition to the full-season collapses of Jose Lima and Chris Holt. Losing Biggio to injury did hurt, but Julio Lugo stepped in an played 90% of Biggio's game. Wagner was competently replaced as closer by Octavio Dotel, and an adequate substitute for Reynolds was eventually found in Tony McKnight. So while injuries did affect the team, their overall impact is dwarfed by the damaging personnel moves made after the 1999 season.
Instead of analyzing each trade and signing, a position-by-position analysis would make more sense.
The big change is at catcher, where Brad Ausmus is replacing Mitch Meluskey. Ignoring the talk about Meluskey's attitude, the effect between the lines amounts to swapping Meluskey's hitting for Ausmus' glovework. While many decried this as a bad trade for the Astros (see Todd's column "Just how bad does this deal suck?"), I offered a dissenting opinion ("The Catcher Swap: Who Won?") which suggests that Ausmus' defensive work would even the scales for the two catchers. In this case, I feel that I am the optimist in calling this player switch a draw for the 2001 season.
At shortstop, the team lost Tim Bogar and gained Jose Vizcaino. While it's true that Vizcaino might be an upgrade over Bogar, that is more like a back-handed compliment than a reassurance. Bogar was horrible at the plate last season, with an .207 average ending any chances he had of returning. While Vizcaino's .251 batting average last season looks better, his .310 on-base pct was poor (Bogar: .292) and his .303 slugging pct was actually LOWER than Bogar's (.327). Combine that with his below-average range at shortstop, where he only played 21 games last season, and it starts to sink in that we may have replaced Tim Bogar with an equivalent hitter who is inferior defensively. Yikes.
At third, the team lost Ken Caminiti and gained Charlie Hayes. Now you can argue all you want about Caminiti's injuries, personal problems and anything else that might keep you from wanting him on the roster next season. But you cannot deny that, even at this stage in his career, Caminiti has more baseball talent in his little pinkie than in all of Charlie Hayes. In his two injury-filled seasons since his return to Houston, Caminiti has played 137 games, hit 28 home runs, collected 101 RBI, and batted .293. The last time Hayes hit more than 12 home runs in a season was in 1993 in Colorado, which was the only respectable year he's had in his career. Even if you use Caminiti as a backup to Chris Truby, the team would still be much better with Caminiti on the bench than Hayes.
In the outfield, the team lost Roger Cedeno without acquiring a replacement. While Cedeno's role had been diminishing on the team, his loss certainly weakens the team's bench.
In the rotation, the team has lost Chris Holt and gained Kent Bottenfield. Holt is a 29-year-old right-hander with a 4.51 career ERA who made $2 million last season. Bottenfield is a 32-year-old right-handed with a 4.43 career ERA who will make $2 million in 2001, not counting incentives. While I understand that Holt had understandably worn out his welcome in Houston, let's not fool ourselves into thinking that we have improved the rotation. After his unexpected 18-win season in 1999, Bottenfield returned to his prior ways an went 8-10 in a split season for Anaheim and Philadelphia. Expect his ERA to jump up another run when he starts pitching half of his games in Enron Field
In bolstering the bullpen, the team left almost no stone unturned. After the end of the season, relievers Jason Green, Marc Valdes and Joe Slusarski were all sent packing. It's safe to say that none of them will be missed. In their place, the team has signed or traded for Mike Jackson, Doug Brocail and Nelson Cruz. Jackson was a great setup man who become the closer for the Cleveland Indians in 1997. After an exceptional season in 1998, he struggled to a 4.06 ERA in 1999 despite still managing to collect 39 saves. But that's ancient history now. Jackson failed a physical with the Cardinals, signed with Phillies, had surgery and missed the entire 1999 season without throwing a single pitch. If we get ANYTHING from Jackson in 2001, we should consider ourselves lucky. Cruz is another potential scrub. He pitched well in 41 innings for Detroit last year, but he has a 5.04 career ERA, which is worse than two of the three guys we let go. And Cruz has yet to step into Enron Field yet. Finally, the real find here is Brocail, who became an excellent setup man after we traded him to Detroit. Unfortunately, his ERA slipped to 4.09 last season despite moving into a pitcher-friendly park. His main role will be as a setup man, especially since he has converted only 5 of his 21 career save opportunities. I'm not sure how much value a team can gain from a setup man, but I'm sure it's not more than 1-2 wins over the course of a season.
In summary, you can see that the team did not really improve itself over the winter, with the gain of Brocail in the bullpen being offset by the exchange of Ken Caminiti for Charlie Hayes.
Did you know it's been harder to win the Wild Card playoff spot than the NL Central division? Since 1996, the NL Wild Card team has never won fewer than 90 games. The NL Central division was able to squeak by, however, with 88 and 84 wins in 1996 and 1997, respectively. In my recent column entitled "Mirror, Mirror...", I projected the Astros to win 83 games next season. Since 1996, no team has won a division title with fewer than 84 wins, and that was the Astros in the "Comedy Central" division in 1997. St. Louis won the division with 95 wins last year, and it's pretty clear from the way they are spending money that they intend to maintain their edge over the rest of the division. So next year, the Astros' best chances for reaching the playoffs are 90 wins and a Wild Card berth.
For the Astros to win 90 games, their stars need to continue shining in 2001 and all of the key players need to stay healthy. That is, in itself, asking for a lot. But they are also going to need a lot of breaks to go their way. In my opinion, that is an awful lot of good luck to have to hope for. And although I am hoping all of the necessary luck lands on their side, I think that it is also important to be realistic about the team's strengths and weaknesses. The Astros need to be a good team to make the playoffs, and I don't think they are a good team yet.