A few thoughts for the stretch

added 8/20/2001 by Todd Brody

After his win over the Cubs, which temporarily put the Astros in first place, Shane Reynolds was asked by ESPN what the key was for the Astros to win the division. Without hesitation, Shane responded that the key was staying healthy. It is ironic, therefore, that Reynolds was placed on the DL within the week, unable (in his own words) to bend down and put on his own pants because of the severe back pains that have returned after plaguing him over the past few seasons.

Shane's move to the DL has highlighted the moves that Gerry Hunsicker made this year, bringing Pedro Astacio and the surprising Dave Mlicki to the team. Yes, Wade Miller, Roy Oswalt, Tim Redding and now Carlos Hernandez have pitched well. But the team needs its "veteran pitchers" to lead (by example, if not otherwise) down the stretch, particularly in light of the fact that the younger pitchers will soon reach inning counts the like of which they have never seen. Astacio and Mlicki are not the best pitchers on the staff right now. You can't ask these pitchers to win every game. But you can certainly ask for veteran leadership, for consistency, and for innings.

Truth of the matter is that if there ever was a "good" time for Shane and Lance Berkman to be injured, now would be that time. Excluding the upcoming series with the Phillies, the Astros are entering into what should be their easiest stretch of the season. With three more games against Pittsburgh, six against Cincinnati and seven against Milwaukee, the Astros have a real opportunity to extend their lead against the Cubs (who host St. Louis before two series against the Braves and two series against the Marlins - without Kerry Wood) and the Cardinals (who are going to Chicago before two series each against the Padres and Dodgers). The teams that the Astros are playing are and will be bringing up a lot of minor league players to evaluate for next season and the veteran players are tired and ready for the season to be over. The Astros, of course, have a history of losing games against second division teams and, particularly, against young pitchers whom they have never faced. Still, I would rather lose Shane for these games and have him available for the series with the Cardinals, Cubs and Giants than the reverse. And despite the fact that Lance has been one of the most consistent hitters on the team this year, with Richard Hidalgo starting to hit again, the Astros can rest Berkman.

Not to get ahead of myself, but watching Miller, Oswalt, Redding, and Hernandez succeed at the major league level (and particularly at Enron Field) leads me to wonder what the Astros might be planning for next year. The "four horsemen of the Astroscalypse" could all be reserving a spot in the rotation next year. So what about Reynolds, Astacio, and Mlicki? Reynolds and Mlicki are under contract next year (and are going to be paid a substantial sum of money) and the Astros have an option on Astacio for next year. Questions of loyalty aside, it seems to me that the Astros might be best off trading Mlicki and Reynolds during the off-season so that they can fill the other holes in their roster. Mlicki, who I once thought was untradable, might actually have some value based upon his play since joining the team. And while Reynolds has been the anchor in the rotation for the past several seasons, if I had a choice between keeping Astacio or Reynolds I would probably choose Astacio, both because he is younger and because he is less susceptible to injury. Of course, this assumes that the Astros CAN trade Reynolds. If Reynolds is unable to pitch the rest of the year, there may be no takers.

Finally, I would just like to make a few comments about what Peter Gammons "reported" in his last column posted on August 18. According to Gammons: "Astros owner Drayton McLane is a man of the heart, and he wears that heart right to his clubhouse locker, which is plunked between those of Jeff Bagwell and Craig Biggio. McLane has told his people he's going to lose money this season despite drawing 2.9 million, but opened his wallet for Pedro Astacio. But he and all the Astros know this is an important year for them, because next year the NFL expansion team will be competing for the media attention and entertainment dollars -- in a football area -- and Astacio, Moises Alou, Mike Williams and Vinny Castilla are among their potential free agents. Their priority this offseason will be finding a legit center fielder, but they are few and far between."

Does anyone else question why McLane has a locker in the clubhouse? Does he workout with the team? Do the Astros really need their owner in the clubhouse every day? And should that locker be between the two team leaders? Second, I do not believe that the Astros are losing any money this year (except through creative accounting) and if McLane is going to continue to tell everyone that he is losing money, he should open up his books and let everyone see for themselves. Yes, attendance is down this year (by around 200,000) but the Astros have 16 home games left and attendance should surge as the Astros gain momentum towards the playoffs. In addition, if the Astros do make the playoffs (and actually win a playoff series), McLane should clean up. Third, McLane did not "open his wallet" to bring Astacio to the team. With the financial considerations coming the Astros way from the Rockies, the Astros committed around $2 million for Astacio (hardly excessive spending in today's baseball market). The other moves made by the team during this season were largely cash neutral. And if you remember, the Astros told us at the beginning of the season that one reason why they did not bring in any big free agents was so that they could add additional players at the deadline. The Astros' budget assumed such payroll additions and it is duplicitous for McLane to say that the Astros are losing money and to imply that the reason for this is the additional players that they brought to the team over the course of the season. Finally, I have doubts that the Texans are going to compete with the Astros anytime soon. The Texans are years away from being competitive, and while the Texans may sell out every game, they play in different times of the year. And if Drayton really feels that he is in competition for the Houston fans' dollars, the best way to bring the fans to Enron is to consistently put a winning team on the field, to spend money where needed, and to keep fan favorites like Moises Alou in mud and blood.

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