added 4/25/2001 by Todd Brody
This past off-season, Gerry Hunsicker made one very smart decision. He said that if you can't afford to buy the top free-agent starting pitchers, it's not worth spending $8-10 million per year on mediocre starting pitchers. So the Astros were not involved in any discussions about Kevin Appier, or Steve Traschel, or Darren Dreifort, or a host of other pitchers. Gerry believed that the Astros starting pitchers were good and that with some luck, and with the Enron shell shock period hopefully over, the pitchers might actually be very good. The only starting pitcher that the Astros signed was Kent Bottenfield, who Gerry believed was undervalued because of his poor season. I disagreed with Gerry's evaluation of the rotation and thought that the Astros should have tried to obtain David Wells from the Blue Jays, but I agreed with Gerry's philosophy that there is no point spending a lot of money on bad pitching.
Like most of us do on occasion, Gerry is now forgetting (or ignoring) his own advice. The Houston Chronicle reports today that the Astros are scouting Sterling Hitchcock and might be considering a trade with the Padres to obtain the 29 yr. old pitcher who is rehabbing from off-season Tommy John surgery. I can't even contemplate what the Astros might have to trade to get Hitchcock, but I think that it would be wise to assume that the Padres are not interested in either Jose Lima or Bottenfield. In all likelihood, the Astros would have to trade minor league pitching prospects for Hitchcock.
I question why the Astros would want to make such a trade. Notwithstanding his lights out performance in the playoffs against the Astros (and who doesn't pitch well against the Astros in the playoffs), Hitchcock has never been a great pitcher. Hitchcock has only had two winning seasons and he has only had one year with an ERA under 4.00. He is recovering from off-season Tommy John surgery, which generally takes a full season to recover from. He is only signed through this season, so the Astros won't even receive the benefits of his full recovery. And he doesn't come cheaply -- he's making $6 million this season.
So why are the Astros interested? The only answer is left-handed madness. Gerry believes that the Astros must have left-handed pitching to compete. Now it is true that it would be nice to have a left-handed starting pitcher to complement Scott Elarton, Wade Miller, Shane Reynolds, and Octavio Dotel and to keep the other team off-balance. But come on, Sterling Hitchcock?
And while we are talking about left-handed pitching, let's talk about the worst pitcher on the Astros' staff, Wayne Franklin. He gives up nearly 8 runs / nine innings. His OPS against is 1.007 (which means that pitching him is like pitching to Lance Berkman every time). The opposition hits .371 against him. And why is Franklin still on the team? Because he is left-handed. And who did the Astros send down in order to keep this left-handed flame thrower in the pen? Scott Linebrink who only had a .000 ERA with a .188 avg. against and an OPS against of .494 (like pitching to Tim Bogar). Now these stats are based on a small sampling, but Linebrink had a 3.68 ERA in Spring Training while Franklin's ERA was 9.75.
I have nothing against left-handed people. I'm left-handed. But being left-handed does not make you a better pitcher. It just makes you a different pitcher. And I would rather have a good starter or reliever on the team rather than a mediocre or bad pitcher who is simply left-handed. Sterling Hitchcock is a decent pitcher. But, at best, he is a fourth or fifth pitcher who is making $6 million this year. And, given the state of the market, he's probably going to get a lot of money next year from some idiotic team. Consequently, he is a rental (and a rental coming off serious surgery). And there is no need to give up prospects for him. Keep the money, and spend it at the trading deadline when you can get something good in return. The Astros will get some left-handed pitching either this season or the next. Carlos Hernandez and Wilfredo Rodriguez, and Greg Miller should all eventually find their way to the majors.
In the meantime, the Astros should make the best use of the pitching they do have. If Jose Lima can't hack it in the rotation, the Astros should replace him with Bottenfield or Tony McKnight. Franklin should be demoted (and if he is out of options, just place him on waivers) and Linebrink brought back up. Losing Doug Brocail was tough, but if the Astros really want to make a serious move to improve their bullpen, the word on the street is that the Expos are still looking to deal Ugueth Urbina. Oh, but he's right-handed. I guess Gerry wouldn't be interested.