Can the season be salvaged?

added 5/30/2002 by Todd Brody

Is the season over? And if it isn't, what can the Astros do to salvage the season? These are questions I have been asking myself over the past two weeks. Which just proves, once again, how strange the baseball season can be. It wasn't so long ago that the Astros were on a seven game winning streak - a run that had taken them past .500 and towards the division lead. But here we are, ten games later and eight losses later and, based on their lackadaisical play, I am wondering whether it is even worth watching the games on TV.

Some of what has happened this season was predictable. Craig Biggio's decline has been happening for years, despite his unprecedented power numbers last season. And everyone knew that Adam Everett wasn't going to be able to hit a lick against major league pitching. And while there is little the Astros can do to replace Biggio, Everett proved to be very replaceable and the Astros have not suffered at shortstop.

Nor has the performance of the bullpen been a surprise. You get what you pay for. C.J. Nitkowski, Chuck McElroy, and Hipolito Pichardo were all scrubs. And while these signings were minor, I do believe that someone needs to explain what the Astros were doing signing Pichardo after he "retired" last season. Clearly, he thought he was done. And what about the signing of Doug Brocail? Did anyone send Brocail to a doctor before deciding to throw money at him? Brocail should be embarrassed at the fact that he is receiving a paycheck from the team. This is one of the worst, ill-conceived, signings that the Astros have ever done. And it doesn't make a difference that he doesn't make a lot of money. The fact is that the Astros were counting on him to perform.

The biggest surprise has been the poor hitting. And is isn't just Biggio, Richard Hidalgo, and Morgan Ensberg who aren't hitting. It's the entire team. Jeff Bagwell is batting .279 and has only 27 RBIs. Lance Berkman, while showing tremendous power, is batting a mere .267. And while Daryle Ward is leading the team in batting, he has lost his power stroke, with only 2 home runs and 21 RBIs - a pathetic performance for the number five hitter in the lineup . The Astros were supposed to be the second coming of murderers' row. But with their inability to hit with runners in scoring position, they are only killing themselves.

Last night the Astros sent Ensberg back down to New Orleans. This is a dramatic move, which demonstrates just how badly Ensberg is playing. Ensberg was the anointed third baseman of the future. The Astros traded Chris Truby to make room for him. The Astros let Vinny Castilla go through free agency to make room for him. And the problem is that the Astros don't really have anyone in the minors who can be that player at third if Ensberg isn't up to the task. Keith Ginter, who was called up to replace Ensberg, is not really a third baseman. The Astros have Jose Vizcaino and Geoff Blum who both can play third and Vizcaino certainly deserves to start based on the way he has performed this season. But neither is a long-term solution.

The Astros have two options right now. They can sit still, play Vizcaino or Blum at third, give Blum an occassional start in right, and hope to finish .500. Or they can be aggressive, make a few moves, and try to rebuild the team for a run at the playoffs. And let me tell you something, while the second option is going to cost the team money through the addition of payroll, the first option is also going to result in additional losses. If the Astros aren't competitive, people aren't going to show up (especially once football season starts and the city becomes focused on the Texans). Houston fans are notorious for showing up when the team is winning and for staying home when the team is losing. An empty ballpark is not going to make a lot of money either.

It is clear that the Astros need another hitter. Brian Giles and Scott Rolen are both available and either would fit the job. Obviously, Rolen fills the Astros' need at third base. The problem, of course, is that he is a free agent and is seeking a lot of money this offseason. Obviously any deal for Rolen would have to be contingent on the Astros being able to sign him to a long-term deal. But Giles is the player that I really want and at $9 mil./ year, he seems underpaid. An outfield of Giles, Berkman, and Hidalgo (because the Astros ain't never gonna to be able to trade Hidalgo) would be more than acceptable. Having a hitter like Giles batting fifth, would also take a lot of pressure off of Ensberg, allowing the Astros to carry him at third and let him develop at his pace.

What is less clear is that the Astros also need another starting pitcher. Shane Reynolds is inconsistent, Dave Mlicki is also inconsistent and out for who knows how long. (Neither should be brought back next year.) And I have no idea what is happening with Wade Miller's back and neck. It seems to me that the Astros should try and make a deal for Bartolo Colon. He is a great pitcher and he's cheap. The Astros can pay for his salary (both this season's and next's) simply by not exercising Reynolds' option for next season. If this means Tim Redding has to move to the bullpen for a while, so be it. This deal makes the Astros better this season, and it makes the Astros much better next season.

So what are these deals going to cost the Astros? The answer is a lot. You have to assume that Ward and Jason Lane are gone. You also have to assume that the Astros are going to lose their top three or four pitching prospects (those in the minors, not those presently on the roster). Personally, I think that the only two untouchables in the system are Chris Burke and John Buck. Will these deals decimate the minor league system? Probably. But it seems to me that the Astros are stoked with young, talented, pitchers at the major league level and can afford to trade away any combination of minor league pitchers right now. We already have Miller, Redding, Oswalt, and Carlos Hernandez in Houston. And let's face it, the goal isn't to field a great team at Round Rock or at New Orleans. The goal is to field a great team in Houston.

As a final note, if the Astros decide to make some deals, and I believe they should, they have to move now. If this means overpaying, so be it. The trading deadline is simply too far away. Is the Astros' season over? Not yet. But it will be soon.

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