Great Move. Yes, you are all wrong.

added 5/15/2001 by Todd Brody

The Astros made a good move today and based on the comments here and in the Talk Zone, I think that I am the only one who gets it.

Say what you want about Mitch Meluskey's defensive skills or his abrasive personality, but the Astros were missing his bat this season. The Astros may have the best lineup 1-6 in the majors, but there has been absolutely no production from the bottom of the order. After hitting three home runs in his first three games (and showing an uncharacteristic amount of patience at the plate) Chris Truby bottomed out. He has walked three times the past twenty games. His batting average in May is .167. And most disappointing is his inability to drive in runners from third. Truby has struck out 33 times this season. To give you some perspective, Preston Wilson also has 33 strikeouts this season with 33 more at bats!!! And as bad as Truby has been, Brad Ausmus has been even worse (.198 Avg.; 1 HR; 8 RBIs). Now, perhaps Ausmus's numbers are less disastrous because he plays a defensive position and the Astros didn't obtain Ausmus for his offensive skill. But as Rob Neyer correctly stated is his column today, the Astros pitching this season doesn't justify Brad's offensive woes. And the only starting catchers in the National League who have worse batting averages than Ausmus are Chad Kreuter, Michael Barrett, Henry Blanco and Ben Petrick -- all of whom have higher on-base percentages.

Opposing teams were taking advantage of the holes in the lineup, pitching around Moises Alou and Richard Hidalgo because they knew that there was no one behind them to drive them home -- even from third . . . with no outs.

So what were the Astros' options? The Astros could trade for a catcher. Ivan Rodriguez supposedly is available from the Rangers. But I doubt that the Astros are willing to pay the costs (both in terms of prospects and salary) necessary to obtain Pudge. While the Astros have some tremendous prospects at catcher, neither are ready for the majors. Maybe you can start Tony Eusebio at catcher, but everyone in the organization seems to want Ausmus and his defense behind the plate. That's why we gave up Mitch Meluskey, and Roger Cedeno. That's why the Astros are playing Ausmus the big bucks and signed him to a contract extension. No, the Astros aren't willing to admit that the Ausmus trade was a mistake.

The only other option for the Astros was to make a change at third. But what options did the Astros have? Bill Spiers, the supersub, is hurt and maybe his career is over. The Astros could start Charlie Hayes or Jose Vizcaino at third. But let's face it. Neither of them are likely to do much better than Truby at third. And Truby is useless coming off the bench for the Astros.

The other, much ballyhooed, option was to bring up Morgan Ensberg from New Orleans. Now Morgan might be the future for the team at third. His season last year at Round Rock, and particularly his improvement in batting average, was near amazing, considering his prior season at Kissimmee. Morgan is now hitting very well at New Orleans (.278, 11 HRs, 27 RBI in 133 at-bats). And Morgan's batting average is deceptively low, since he has been on a tear as of late. (In his first 60 ABs, he was batting .217 with 4 HRS, 6 RBI). If there is one criticism of Ensberg, it's that he strikes out a lot (32 Ks). But otherwise, Morgan looks very good. To quote Michael Nash, "[w]ere it not for the explosive production of Keith Ginter and Roy Oswalt, Morgan Ensberg would have been the heart of baseball talk in Central Texas last year. The engaging and bright hot corner man from USC broke out with a very fine offensive season with the Express (.300/.416/.545 in 483 ABs) that far surpassed anything he had done with the bat in previous seasons."

Had there been no developments, I don't doubt that Morgan would have been called up within the next few weeks. But, of course, there were developments. Last week, the Devil Rays waived Vinny Castilla and assuming that Castilla cleared waivers, he would become available to any team at 1:00 p.m. today for a pro-rated amount of the league minimum, meaning that Castilla would cost the Astros as little as Morgan. And based upon this consideration, as well as Castilla's power numbers while on the Rockies, the Astros decided to sign Castilla. I'm not going to give you Vinny's numbers from 1995-1999 or talk about his achievements while on the Rockies. You can read the team press release for that information.

Much of the criticism of this signing has focused on the fact that Castilla put up his numbers in Coors Field, where even my mother could hit a home run. But Castilla doesn't need to put up Coors field type numbers for this to be a good decision. In 1999 (his last season with the Rockies), Castilla batted .269 on the road, hit 13 home runs and drove in 46 runs. In 1998, Castilla batted a similar .270, hit 20 home runs, and drove in 53 runs on the road. Based on these numbers, I believe it reasonable that Castilla will bat .270 for the Astros and hit 20 HRS and drive in 65 runs for the remainder of the year. For the Astros to get this type of production out of the seventh spot in the lineup would be tremendous -- no more pitching around Hidalgo, a dramatic decrease in the number of runners stranded at third. And maybe he does put up Coors type numbers while hitting at Enron. I know that everyone surmises that Enron does not have the same home run effect as Coors. Well, this will be a test of that theory.

As important, if the Astros didn't sign Castilla today, he was gone. Had the Astros brought up Ensberg and he failed, Castilla wasn't going to be around for the taking. The Cubs reportedly were interested in Castilla to replace Bill Meuller who was kneecapped last week. For $170,000, what team wouldn't take a chance on Castilla? At worst, this was a smart defensive move to prevent a team in the division from picking up a player it needs. This is a move the Yankees would have made. It's nice to see the Astros do the same.

Picking up Castilla might also be a great public relations opportunity for the Astros. Houston has a tremendous Mexican population and the Astros repeatedly have been accused of ignoring this segment of the community. Signing Castilla, from Oaxaca, Mexico, may be a real opportunity for the Astros to improve relations with the Mexican community. I'm not suggesting that we are going to see "Castilla Mania" at Enron, like we used to see at the Dome when Fernando Valenzuela and the Dodgers came to town, but attendance is down this season.

Most important, the signing of Castilla in no way retards Morgan's progression as a third-base prospect. Castilla, like Hayes and Viz, is only signed through this year. Next year, Ensberg will fight it out with Truby and/or a free agent for the opportunity to start at third for the Astros. In the mean time, Truby will likely get the majority of his at-bats in New Orleans while playing first base. And if the Astros' brass and I are wrong, and Castilla is "done," there is nothing preventing the Astros from releasing Castilla and bringing up Ensberg later this season.

The Astros are a game out of first. They are playing better as a team (certainly better than the last time that I wrote) and might be in a position to make the playoffs this season. There are a lot of good reasons for the Astros to want to have a veteran playing third rather than a rookie who has less than 150 AAA at-bats. There is no doubt in my mind that signing Castilla was the right move.

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