At the Quarter Pole
added 5/20/2001 by John Lauck
Forty games does not a season make in any professional sport, but within the long grind of the baseball year, that stretch of time does afford us an opportunity to make a fair assessment of the direction in which a ball club appears to be heading. Since the Astros are now at the quarter pole of the 2001 campaign, this is as good a time as any to take stock of what we've seen so far.
In the infield, it's a little surprising that the Astros are as close to first place as they are without yet having a major batting outburst from Jeff Bagwell (.279/10/27). That surprise I take as a good sign; as it has been noted by several observers on the various Astros' message boards this season, the lineup around Bagwell has developed to such an extent that National League teams can no longer beat the Astros simply by holding Bagwell and Biggio in check. Further, if you look at two other key statistical categories, OBA and SLG, Bagwell's .415 and .544 marks are still very impressive. We've come to expect such excellence from Bagwell over the years that the merely outstanding seems not to be good enough. Given this lineup, this year, "outstanding" may be all the Astros could wish. Considering the severity of his knee injury last year, Craig Biggio's comeback to this point (.292/4/14) has been terrific. His OBA is not what I would wish, primarily because he hasn't drawn all that many walks. Batting second in the order, you wouldn't expect him to, but at his best offensively, Biggio functions as a second leadoff hitter, and I have hopes his on-base frequency will increase as we get nearer the All-Star break. At shortstop, I have to ask, "Lugo, Lugo, Lugo, what're we gonna do with you?" A short answer to that somewhat rhetorical question is, "Leave him alone." Julio Lugo's defensive inconsistencies are enough to drive even the most patient fans crazy, not to mention what they do to his poor manager, but patience is exactly what we're going to have to continue to show to him. His offensive numbers in the leadoff spot (.288/8/15) are too good to sit him down and, truth to tell, his defensive stats to this point do show improvement over last season. We'll probably continue to see Jose Vizcaino get an occasional start, but nothing short of an injury will remove Lugo from the everyday lineup. The jury's still out on Vinny Castilla at third base. Unlike Rob Neyer over at ESPN.com, I still think the pick up of Castilla will prove to be of considerable value to the Astros, especially at Enron. We will know better by the All-Star break just how perceptive Hunsicker was or wasn't.
It used to be that fans like me would say of the Astros' outfield, "Man, if we just had (this guy) or (that guy) what an outfield we would have!" We said such things mostly with Luis Gonzales or Steve Finley in mind, men whose offensive production seemed to increase geometrically the moment they left the Astros for the Diamondbacks and the Padres. Well, you know what? I don't say those kinds of things any more. I wouldn't trade any of our outfielders for anybody right now, and if writers like Peter Gammons are to be believed on the point, Gerry Hunsicker has successfully resisted the temptation thus far. Speaking strictly for myself, I do not believe we will see either Moises Alou or Daryle Ward moved before the trading deadline unless the Astros have developed a critical need at some other position that must be addressed. Lance Berkman's continued development as a hitter has been a delight to watch. His basic numbers (.323/9/28) are impressive enough, but his tremendous patience at the plate--a quality he simply hadn't developed to this degree last season--has been what has set him apart among National League outfielders as an offensive threat. And defensively, if you had told me back in March that Berkman could play centerfield, I'd have said you were crazy, but he can and you're not. Richard Hidalgo has given the Astros pretty much what everybody expected him to to this point (.308/9/31), and he showed me something in May 18th's game with the Reds, something I wish I could see more of from him: the ability and willingness to draw a walk. If Castilla can relax just a bit and start to hit behind him, Hidalgo's OBA, low relative to the other men ahead of him, should come up by the time we get to the half-way mark of the season, and that should translate to even more baserunners, and more runs for Houston.
The broadcasters at ESPN used to be fond of labelling a guy as a "professional hitter." They used the term so much that even Matt Stairs was stuck with the tag for far too long a time. Brother. I prefer to reserve the term for those rare few in baseball who actually deserve it: Tony Gwynn, Wade Boggs and (among pinch-hitters) Manny Mota and Greg Gross. On the Astros, Jeff Bagwell forced me to revise my personal definition of the term back in 1994 to include hitters who hit for both average and power. Bagwell's numbers that year (.368/39/116; .451 OBA, .750 SLG) still astonish me; they are, literally, Ruthian in their magnitude. But look at Moises Alou's numbers--his two year average, since he's put on a Houston uniform (.332/36/125; .408 OBA, .604 SLG) and his stats at the quarter pole this year (.394/5/23; .448 OBA, .644 SLG). Ladies and gentlemen, that is a professional hitter. Yet, the desire of many in Houston is to see Daryle Ward in the Houston lineup. Ward's stats after 40 games (.306/4/15; .375 OBA, .556 SLG) certainly suggest that he would be a most adequate replacement for Alou, but I am here to say as passionately as I can that he will never be as good as Alou, whose contributions to this team from 1998 onwards have been grossly undervalued by both fans and management. It may be that fans are trumpeting Ward's future simply because they figure (perhaps rightly) that Houston will let Alou walk into free agency after this season. Well, let's be clear about that, too: if Drayton McLane doesn't re-sign Alou, it will not be because he can't afford his price; it will be because he doesn't wish to afford his price. Further, I'll go on record right now and say that if Alou is not re-signed for next year, the Astros will be demonstrably worse off both offensively and defensively no matter where Ward plays. That prediction is not meant as a slap at Ward; I am as aware as anybody that he has made significant improvement in the outfield (his good play in right field has been particularly surprising); it is meant to draw your attention to Alou, who, hitting for both average and power, is simply in a class by himself.
That the Astros are 23-17 to this juncture of the season is a tribute not only to their stellar hitting (.267 team BA, .355 OBA, .468 SLG) but also to their pitching. . .just not from the part of the pitching staff you might expect. As I judge the matter, there's been little to no improvement among the starting pitchers. Wade Miller's work (5-1, 3.02 ERA) has been excellent, but even he is starting to return to earth after a splendid beginning to the year. Scott Elarton's season to date (4-3, 5.88 ERA) has not been what most of us expected, but he struggled to this point last year, too. His high total of home runs allowed (9) is distressing, but I have faith that Elarton will pull things together more tightly; he's too smart a pitcher and his stuff is too good not to. Jose Lima has been such a strange, sad story over the last season and a quarter that I almost don't want to say anything about him. His stats through May 18 (1-1, 6.65 ERA) are almost irrelevant to the bigger problems he's working his way through: he is, literally, learning to pitch again, trying to find different mechanics and different pitches to help him survive not only at Enron Field but everywhere else. He has shown such tantalizing hints both at home and on the road of being able to regain his 1998-99 form that the most optimistic fans among us probably still have hope that with three-fourths of the season still before us, Lima can somehow have a decent year. My most honest answer to the question of whether Lima will be able to last the whole year in the Astros' rotation is "I don't know," but my thoughts in that regard do not incline toward optimism. Kent Bottenfield's season so far (2-3, 4.71) is, I am unhappy to report, about what I had projected for him in February. When he keeps it down and on the corners--the secret of what career success he's had--he's fine, but when he gets too much of the plate, batters will hit it out on him. Jason LaRue's grand slam on May 18th was almost a freakish thing because Bottenfield, in my view, was so distressed at what had happened behind him defensively, but a home run is still a home run and Bottenfield is vulnerable to them. If there is one cause for optimism within the Astros' starting rotation, I have found it where I did not expect to find it: Shane Reynolds has given the Astros three high-quality seven-inning starts among his (4-2, 5.45) stats. His last start, in particular, when he wasn't feeling especially well, suggested that he may now be back closer to his old form than we had thought. I hope so. Reynolds will never be a twenty-game winner or a dominator but, at his best, he reminds me of what I have seen of the Yankees' pitchers of the 1950s, the guys who used to go out and give Casey Stengel 12 to 15 wins a year every year. The Astros urgently need that kind of reliability on a starting staff that is, frankly, still quite unsettled, despite Dierker's and Hunsicker's recent moves.
Where the Astros have really come through over the first forty games has been in the bullpen. Alyson Footer over at astros.com did a delightful job of breaking down the numbers for us in her notes for May 18th's game: the bullpen's ERA to this point is 3.74; last year, it was 5.16; there have been far fewer blown saves thus far, mostly due to having a healthy Billy Wagner as the last line of defense. But there has been sharp improvement beyond Wagner as well: the batting average against the entire bullpen has dropped to .230 from .268 a year ago, and I believe some of that drop can be attributed to the moves Hunsicker and Dierker made a couple of weeks ago in bringing up Roy Oswalt and moving Octavio Dotel to a set-up role. If I am uneasy over what I believe the Astros may be about to do wrong in regard to Alou, let me at least balance the scales by admitting that they knew more than I did when they moved up Oswalt rather than my choice, Tony McKnight. I've always thought Dotel would make a better reliever than a starter, so the Astros' braintrust did no more or less than I would have hoped in that regard, but I hope, also, that Bottenfield gets his act together quickly so that the club is not tempted to use Oswalt as a starter just yet. The bullpen as a whole is profiting from the additional depth Oswalt and Dotel provide, and I don't want to see them mess around with that. Besides, as Dierker himself has conceded, Dotel and Powell can both be shaky on occasion as set-up men, and the more options Dierker has in that regard, the better. I would also hope that as the season wears on, Dierker would give Mike Jackson an opportunity to close a few more games than he has to this point. Doing so would give Wagner some much-needed rest and, if Dierker picks Jackson's save spots carefully, going to him rather than Wagner is not that great a risk. Understand, I'm not trying to screw up a good thing here; I'm just trying to save Wagner for those games in August and September when the Astros will really need him.
My opinion in February was that the Astros could have one of the best benches they've ever had, and one of the best in the National League. Nothing the bench has done over the first quarter of the season has forced me to change that view. For the first time in a long time, I do not worry when the game is close and late and I contemplate Daryle Ward or Orlando Merced striding to the plate. The Astros could still use a little right-handed pop, but perhaps that is to come from the bat of Charlie Hayes. I believe in this guy, even if few others do.
Will the Astros be active in the trade market at or before the July 31 deadline? It's hard to say, but if the Astros' bullpen remains solid enough to support the starters--however rocky they may be--I would not think Houston would be too aggressive. Ivan Rodriguez's name is the hot one out there now, as I write, and yes, it would be good to see him in an Astros' uniform, but I suspect Texas's asking price in young pitching prospects--precisely what Houston needs to keep to replace the aging veterans on its staff--would be much too high. What we could see if Vinny Castilla pans out at third is a deal involving Chris Truby and/or one of the Astros' talented but less valuable prospects, such as--to pick a name out of a hat--Mike Nannini.
Largely because of their current 14-7 road record, the Astros are on a pace to finish 92-68 over 160 games, a record which may, by itself, be good enough to win the NL Central. But if the Cardinals' pitching staff remains as formidable as I think, and if the Brewers continue to slug their way through the season, as I think they will, those leftover two games, whereby the Astros could finish 92-70, 93-69, or 94-68, could be crucial, indeed. The best way I know to relieve possible late-season pressure, and to make those two other games loom less large in the scheme of things, is for the Astros to find a way to win consistently at home. Of all the things that can be projected to happen after the first quarter of 2001, the Astros' home record of 36-40, with five games still to be accounted for either way, is the diciest projection of all. However the home schedule turns out, a 36-40 record--or some similar mark--is not likely to get the job done. Larry Dierker knows that. So does everyone else who watches the club, but bless me if I know, after forty games, how the Astros are ever going to make Enron Field their own.