One month down, five to go

added 5/1/2001 by Ray Kerby

With Monday's 8-2 loss to the Mets, another month of Astros baseball has been completed and added to the historical ledger of the franchise. How did we do? This is my admittedly biased impression on the first month of Astros baseball in 2001.

The starters - C

What started off with an exciting 8-3 start finished with a tailspin that landed the Astros back where they started: at .500 with a 14-14 record. The obvious culprit, of course, would seem to be the pitching. Or was it?

Let's compare the ERAs of the starters at and after the 8-3 start:
            First     Last 
           11 games 13 games
Miller        1.62     2.57
Lima          2.92    15.19
Elarton       6.75     4.82
Dotel         4.91     9.00
Bottenfield   4.50     ----
Reynolds      ----    10.54
As you can see, Jose Lima and Octavio Dotel have really slid downhill, and replacing Kent Bottenfield with Shane Reynolds has also backfired in a big way. With so many starters struggling now, you have to wonder why Bottenfield isn't being given a second shot at the starting rotation. If you are looking for potential minor-league callups to bolster the rotation, Tony McKnight (3-1, 3.45 ERA) and Roy Oswalt (2-3, 4.35 ERA) are pitching well enough to warrant consideration. Lima seems on the verge of an outright release and Reynolds is pitching like he may have been rushed from the DL a little too soon. Based on how these starters all pitched last year, it would be overly optimistic to expect a big improvement in the coming months. This means that if the Astros want real help for the rotation, they are going to have to find it outside of their 25-man roster.

The bullpen - D

After a shaky start, Nelson Cruz (2.63 ERA) settled down and has started to put up good numbers in the bullpen. Billy Wagner, on the other hand, is going in the opposite direction. His strikeout totals (13K in 11 IP) are still high, but he has started putting a lot of runners on base in his recent outings. Mike Jackson (5.40 ERA) has also lost his early effectiveness, and Jay Powell (5.65 ERA) never seemed to have it in the first place. Finally, Wayne Franklin (26 runners in 11.2 IP) continues to earn a paycheck only because of the team's continued infatuation with his left hand. Of course, Doug Brocail was expected to be a big part of the bullpen but is out for the season.

The hitting - A

Where to start? Craig Biggio (2-6-.289) and Chris Truby (7-18-.238) started out hot, but have cooled considerably. Biggio opened the season with the first five-hit game of his career, but his average has now dropped to .289. In fairness, Biggio's on-base pct is still over .400, alhtough his slugging pct is a very weak .411. The good news is that Biggio is hitting much better than during last year before he was injured. Truby also came out of the gate red-hot and still leads the team with seven homers. But his on-base pct is at .312 and rapidly dropping to the sub-.300 level that he suffered with last season.

Brad Ausmus, on the other hand, has been horrible offensively all month. There's just no positive spin you can put on a .182 batting average. What makes Ausmus' performance more perplexing is that he was one of the hottest hitters in Spring Training (.325 avg, 4 homers, .825 slugging). Of course, Brad was brought here more for his glove than his bat, and that will be covered later.

All of the other regulars, however, have done very well at the plate. Moises Alou continues to get better every year. His average is at an incredible .500 after 40 at-bats. There's no way he can keep up a pace anywhere near that, so we need to enjoy it while it lasts. Lance Berkman (.322, 6 HR, 15 RBI) has become, in my opinion, the best hitter on the team. Better than Bagwell, Hidalgo, Ward, or Alou -- who admittedly is playing on a different level right now. Jeff Bagwell (.307, 6 HR, 14 RBI), by the way, has had a good April, but not quite as good as his April performance last season (.349, 8 HR, 20 RBI). If he can avoid the offensive doldrums he experienced last May and June, he could be well on his way to a 150-run, 150-rbi, 50-hr season. Yeah, I'm optimistic.

Richard Hidalgo scared a few fans with a slower-than-expected start, but has come on strong recently to finish the month with an impressive .319 average, 6 homers and 22 RBI. He's just slightly ahead of the pace for his incredible 2000 season, which is good news for everyone worried about a letdown after Hidalgo signed a multi-year contract in the offseason. Daryle Ward has become the fourth outfielder that everyone wants to keep or trade for starting pitching. With a .341 average, Ward is probably the best-hitting reserve player in the majors.

Bill Spiers has had recurring back problems and may not play again. Tony Eusebio has hit well as a reserve catcher, as has Jose Vizcaino as a backup shortstop. Orlando Merced, Glen Barker, and Charlie Hayes are marginal contributors, although Barker's saving grace is his glove.

The baserunning - F

Yes, a big, fat "F". For starters, the team has a grand total of nine steals, which puts them on a pace for about 60 in the season. Embarrassingly, the team leaders (Ausmus and Barker) are knotted at two steals apiece. Yes, you read that correctly: the team's catcher and fifth outfielder are leading the team in steals. In 1963, Johnny Temple led the Colt .45s with 7 steals, the lowest mark in franchise history for a team leader. Is that record in jeopardy? Probably not, but the team could come umcomfortably close.

Is this a big deal? I think so. Although the running game is a lot less important nowadays because of the league's offensive explosion, a team still needs to have speed on the basepaths. Plus, it's important that the team can take advantage of those opportunities when steals are easy. Picking up three or four steals in a game when Mike Piazza or Todd Hundley is catching can make the difference between a win and a loss.

The fielding - D

In the infield, the team is shaky at three positions. The sportswriters are never going to award the Gold Glove to Truby, Lugo, or Biggio -- who has certainly lost some range over the past few seasons. Truby has committed five errors at third base; the single-season record is 29 by Enos Cabell in 1980. Keep an eye on that, we may see Truby challenge that record. Lugo has improved defensively, but he is still below-average at his position.

In the outfield, the Astros are not in any better shape. Berkman, a converted first baseman, plays left field competently but will never be a great outfielder. Hidalgo plays center field well, but is probably better suited in right. Alou and his reconstructed knees are holding down the fort in right field, but he is in the lineup for his bat, not his glove.

Only behind the plate do the Astros have an excellent defensiveman. Brad Ausmus has always been above-average defensively and needs to be, considering how poorly he has hit this season. For those who those that Ausmus's presence would help the staff, one can only point out that the pitchers' ERA is about five runs higher with Tony Eusebio catching. This is, I believe, one of those wildly fluctuating April stats that will normalize as the season progresses -- kind of like when Derek Bell would bat .350 in April.

The managing - D

Let me state right up front that I am a big, big fan of Larry Dierker. Always have been, always will be. But there have been some very questionable decisions made regarding the starting rotation, most notably with moving Kent Bottenfield to the bullpen, and all of those decisions have backfired. And just recently, Jose Lima was moved to the bullpen and his two potential replacements in the rotation, Octavio Dotel and Bottenfield, promptly made relief appearances as well. Whomever starts on May 1st will be doing so on very short rest.

Arguments can be made on whether these were Dierker's moves or whether they are being handed down to him by GM Gerry Hunsicker, but either way the bad moves are happening. And when they backfire, they have a ripple effect on the team's confidence in their leader. And a manager that does not have the support of his players simply cannot manage effectively, no matter who he is.

Summary - D

The Astros have become the kind of team that most NL fans would revile - the Texas Rangers. All hitting, no pitching, and station-to-station running on the basepaths have become the identifying characteristics of your 2001 Houston Astros. This may be the kind of team that the ownership wants, and the configuration of Enron Field would support that conjecture. So while the team may have a .500 record after April, it's difficult to believe that they are going to get much better than that without some wholesale changes.

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