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added 10/1/2003 by Todd Brody

Over the next few weeks, I am going to grade the Astros players. This week, we get the grades for the starting position players. It's funny how one can lead the team in homeruns and RBIs and still be ranked behind the slick-fielding shortstop.

RICHARD HIDALGO: A

Richard is the comeback player in major league baseball as far as I am concerned and he (or Billy Wagner) should probably be the team’s MVP. Who would have thought that after batting .275 in 2001 and .235 in 2002 (with 19 and 15 home runs respectively), and after being shot in the arm during the offseason in an attempted carjacking, Richard would bat .309 with 28 HRs this season? Not me.

There have been a lot of articles written about how Richard was uncomfortable with the large contract that he received after his breakout 2000 season, that he over-dedicated himself to lifting weights, gaining weight and losing flexibility, and that he lost focus. A lot of articles have also hypothesized that Richard regained this focus after being shot. Whatever the reason, Richard had a great season. It is unlikely that we will ever see Richard have another 2000-type season again, but if he continues to bat like this, we would all be pretty happy.

If gold gloves were awarded to right-fielders instead of to “outfielders” in general, Richard would be a shoe-in for the gold glove. Richard continues to cover a lot of ground in the outfield and he led the league with 22 outfield assists. The fact is that you don’t run on Richard Hidalgo. You just don’t run on Richard Hidalgo.

The only thing that I will say bad about Richard this season is that he disappeared against the Cardinals, Giants, and Brewers down the stretch, batting .200 in the critical 9 games. But Richard certainly wasn’t the only member of the team who tanked in the final two weeks.

Despite his excellent season, Richard’s continued career in Houston is anything but certain. The Astros, constrained by an artificially tight budget, probably can’t afford to keep Richard and his $12 million contract for 2004. Because Richard has moved from being untradeable to a highly valuable commodity, it would come as no surprise if the Astros moved him during the offseason. At this point, and with only one more year guaranteed, I think that this would be a great mistake, particularly if the Astros think that Jason Lane can step in and fill Richard’s shoes (he can’t). The Astros should simply view Hidalgo’s contract as a sunk cost and they should learn to stop giving huge contracts to players after one great season.

MORGAN ENSBERG: A

GEOFF BLUM: B-

JIMY WILLIAMS: D-

A little history lesson. At the beginning of the 2002 season, Morgan Ensberg was handed the starting third-baseman job and he stunk up the joint, batting .242 with 3 home runs in 132 ABs. Fortunately, the Astros were able to move Geoff Blum (whom they got from Montreal in exchange for Chris Truby – suckers) into the slot, and Blum responded with a very respectable season (.283, 10 HR, 52 RBI, 368 ABs). It came as no surprise, therefore, that Blum was given the starting job this season based on his 2002 numbers. And I think that we all hoped that Blum would . . . well, bloom, with even more playing time. This did not turn out to be the case. Blum was awful in April and not much better in May. In late May, Blum developed viral meningitis and Ensberg was suddenly thrust back into the starter’s role. And all of the sudden, Ensberg became the best hitting third-baseman in team history. In 382 ABs, Ensberg batted .291, hit 25 home runs, and drove in 60 runs. Ensberg also showed a patient eye, and ended the season with a .376 OBP. Who was the best hitting third-baseman in the league this season? Arguably, Morgan Ensberg.

So what happened? In the logical world, Ensberg would have gotten the vast majority of the starts at third and Blum would have been given a Billy Spiers-type role on the team, getting spot starts at every position. In the bizarro world of Jimy Williams, however, Blum and Ensberg split the job, with Blum (the switch-hitter) getting the starts against righties and Ensberg (the right-handed batter) getting the starts against lefties. Obviously, this meant that Ensberg got the short end of the stick. While this plan might have initially been justified, the platoon became silly as Ensberg continued to smack home runs against everyone and Blum continued at a very average pace. Ultimately, Ensberg got more starts against right-handed pitchers, but was inexplicably sat for games at a time.

Here are the final tallies for Blum and Ensberg. Against left-handed hitters, Ensberg “rocked” (.313 BA, .427 OBP, 1.021 OPS). Against right-handed hitters, Ensberg was not nearly as good (.283 BA, .357 OBP, .867 OPS), but he was still heads above Blum even against right-handed hitters (.275 BA, .305 OBP, .706 OPS). What happened to Blum was not so much a loss of production (he actually hit the exact same number of homeruns and drove in the same number of runs as last season), but an inexplicable drop in walks this season from the last. In 50 more at bats, Blum walked 29 times less.

There is no reason why Blum should have started any games at third over the last few months of the season. Ensberg was simply having the better year. While Jimy can be excused for not making the move right away, his use of the two as the season progressed was totally illogical. And it’s not like Blum was a much better defensive third-baseman. While he might have some edge defensively over Ensberg, it’s not by much and, in fact, Ensberg had a better zone rating and range factor than Blum (although I do not put much stock in those numbers or any defensive statistics).

In sum, Ensberg had a great year. He deserves an A. Blum had a satisfactory year for a bench player (which is his natural role) but should never had been starting. So he gets a B-. And Jimy Williams gets a D- for his strategic use of the two. Look, it is hard to say that the Astros actually lost games because Blum was playing and not Ensberg. But the Astros finished one game out. One game. And I am stuck with the feeling that the Astros might have lost a couple of games somewhere because one of their better hitters was sitting on the bench. Ensberg will be the starter next season.

ADAM EVERETT: B+

For years, I was upset that Adam Everett was on the Astros’ roster. And that’s the problem when you trade one of your best hitters (Carl Everett) for a defensive-minded shortstop in an obvious cost-cutting move. Thanks Gerry. And the fact that Everett, as opening day starting shortstop in 2002, batted .189 (7x38) with one double and three RBI over 14 games before being optioned back to New Orleans didn’t help. That being said, Everett was patient and waited for his turn, which finally came when Julio Lugo was arrested for allegedly beating his wife and released by the team.

Everett shined this year. If he continues with the team, he will probably be regarded as the best defensive shortstop in team history. His range is unbelievable. His arm is strong enough to throw out runners from left-field even with his momentum carrying him towards third. With mad defensive skillz like that, the Astros could probably carry Everett even if he was batting .220. It turns out, however, that Everett is a much better hitter than that, finishing the season with a .256 BA, 8 HRs and 55 RBIs in only 387 ABs. And Everett saved his best for when it should have counted the most, batting .317 with a .391 OBP in the month of September. Over a full season (anticipating 600 ABs) it is certainly possible that we might see Adam hit 12-15 HRs. But power is not his forte, and I would hate to see Everett start swinging for the fences.

What I would like to see from Adam is a more patient eye. We were always told that one of his strengths was his ability to take walks. Adam didn’t walk as much as I would have anticipated. Also I would like to see him bunt for hits more often. And finally, I would like to see him try to steal more bases. He has blazing speed. It’s time to turn him loose. With Biggio’s speed continuing to diminish, Adam will probably have the opportunity next season to lead off some games.

One final note, when clean-shaven, Adam looks a whole lot like the actor DJ Qualls, (“Road Trip”, “the Core”, “the New Guy”). He looks a lot less goofy with some razor scrubble. Unless he wants people to think he’s 14, it would be wise for Adam to shave only once a week or so.

JEFF KENT: B

According to Drayton McLane, the free agent signing of Jeff Kent was the biggest and most important since the Astros signed Nolan Ryan. He might have been right. But at the time that the deal was announced, I was stuck with the feeling that this wasn’t going to work. I didn’t think that Biggio was going to be an adequate centerfielder and I would have preferred that the Astros spend the money on a real centerfielder who could lead off or on another starting pitcher. And the real problem with this deal was that for public relations reasons it caused the Astros to extend Biggio’s contract, something the Astros might not have done had it not been for the Kent signing. Still, it was hard to criticize this deal. Kent is a superb hitter and a former MVP. And the terms of the contract were not too oppressive. At the very least, I thought that some of the hitting problems that the Astros experienced last season would go away.

It turns out that Biggio was an adequate centerfielder. The problem with this deal was that after hitting a home run in his first at bat of the season, Kent didn’t really live up to our expectations. He missed a substantial number of games due to injury. And after hitting 37 home runs and driving in 108 RBIs last season, I think that we all thought that Kent would exceed those numbers given the fact that he was moving from an extreme pitcher’s park to an extreme hitter’s park. It didn’t happen. Kent hit just 22 home runs in 2003 and “only” drove in 93 runs. While Kent batted .298 and had an OBP of .353, we expected more – and I think that our expectations were not unreasonable. Notably, Kent’s OPS was .864, a nice number, but not great. The most surprising thing to me about Kent was his defense. I was expecting nothing from Kent but he turned out to have more range than I expected and he turns the double play well. In sum, I hope that this was just an off-year for Kent and not the start of a rapid decline due to age.

LANCE BERKMAN: B-

In 2002, Lance Berkman batted .297 with 21 HRs and 67 RBIs in only 353 ABs. In 2001, his first year as a full-time starter, Berkman batted .331 with 34 HRs and 126 RBIs. And in 2002, Berkman batted .292 with 42 HRs. His 128 RBIs led the National League. In sum, Lance Berkman set very high standards for himself.

Like Kent, Lance had a nice year in 2003. A .288 BA with 25 HRs and 93 RBIs is nothing to sneeze at. But it wasn’t a “Lance Berkman-type” year. Part of the problem was that he had an awful first month of the season, batting .208 with 2 HRs and FOUR measly RBIs. Take out April and Lance would have batted .300 for the season. But you can’t simply take a month out of the equation. And Lance only hit 8 HRs after the all-star break. This number is really unacceptable. Finally, Lance again showed a lot of vulnerability to left-handed pitchers. Virtually all of his power was against right-handed batters. And teams took advantage of this weakness, turning Lance around in late-inning situations. It got to the point where many people were suggesting that Lance give up switch hitting. This will not happen. Jimy Williams correctly moved Lance down in the order against left-handed starters and even pinch hit for Lance on occasion against tough left-handed relievers. But superstar hitters should never be taken out of games for pinch hitters.

With Biggio moving to centerfield, Lance played almost exclusively in left field this season and was great. He plays the ball of the scoreboard very well. He has surprising speed and he has a penchant for making the exceptional play. Any fears about Lance’s ability to play the outfield should be gone by this point.

In sum, Lance had a nice year, but he is going to be judged based upon his previous seasons. I still think that Lance is the best hitter on the Astros. A return to the form that he showed from 2000-2002 will help the Astros immensely next season.

JEFF BAGWELL: B-

If one looks at Jeff Bagwell’s statistics in the abstract, it would appear that he had a very good season, hitting 39 home runs (which tied him for seventh in the league with Gary Sheffield and Jim Edmonds) and 100 RBIs. This was Jeff’s eighth 100 RBI season. In reality, however, Jeff’s season was a mixed bag. He had tremendous months in April (1.038 OPS) and July (1.078) and an above average August (.947). May (.638 OPS), however, may have been the worst month in his career and June (.801) and September (.849) were below average. Jeff had the longest home run drought in his career this season and his OPS of .897 was his lowest since 1995.

What we are really seeing is the slow decline of a hall of fame player’s career. Bagwell’s OPS has declined each year since 1999. His batting average of .278 was his lowest since 1992. His ability to get on base through walks – a trademark of his career – was surprisingly down this season. (I say that this is surprising because Baseball Prospectus has pointed out that players tend to get on base more through walks as they get older.) From a defensive standpoint, Bagwell still gets to the ball better than any first baseman in the league. But his shoulder is shot and he can hardly throw the ball. This meant that the Astros had problems turning a double play that starts with Bagwell, their ability to pick off runners was diminished, and runners were able to score off of him when he had to make a throw to the plate.

At the same time that his skills are diminishing, Jeff’s salary continues to go up ($13, $15, and $17 million over the next three years – not including his signing bonus – although a significant portion of his base salary is deferred). Unfortunately, Jeff’s performance needs to be measured against his salary. And this account’s, in part, for his B- ranking this season.

What is in store for Bagwell? Despite a mediocre season (which was awful at times), Jimy Williams pencilled him into the third spot every game. I don’t believe that this was justified and it would not surprise me to see Bagwell moving down in the lineup over the next few seasons. While it is very clear that Jeff’s abilities no longer justify his contract, he has no plans on retiring prior to the end of this contract. And we can safely assume that he will be in Houston for the rest of his career. He doesn’t want to be traded. His contract makes him untradeable. And he is an icon in Houston with a statute and everything. Jeff Bagwell is the greatest hitter in the history of the Astros. He will be in the Hall of Fame one day. And we are just going to have to live with his diminishing abilities over the next three seasons.

CRAIG BIGGIO: C+

How do you judge a lead-off hitter? The best measures are probably on-base percentage and runs scored since those are what you want most from a lead-off hitter. Using those two measures alone, it is hard to say that Biggio didn’t have a good year. He scored 102 runs and with a .350 OBP, Biggio was tied with Kenny Lofton for 10th in all of baseball among lead-off batters. (The people ahead of him were Podsednik .379; Grudzielanik .366; Byrd .366; Durham .364; Stewart .364; Pierre .361; Furcal .354; R. Johnson .352; Belliard .351.) For perspective. Biggio had 716 total plate appearances this past season. If his OBP had equaled Podsednik’s (which led all lead-off batters), Biggio would have gotten on base 271 times. Biggio, with his .350 OBP, got on base 250 times. Frankly, there is not a whole lot of difference here. And let me give you a couple of more statistics. Biggio was hit by pitches 27 times this season, his fourth highest career total. And Biggio only grounded into 4 double plays this season, down from 15 from the previous season. Do you know how many players had more than 500 total plate appearances and hit into less double plays than Biggio? Two. Rafael Furcal and Ichiro Suzuki.

And at the end of the day, I think that Biggio did an admirable job in centerfield this season. Yes, he doesn’t get a great jump on the ball. And yes, there were a few times when I was sure that any regular centerfielder would have been able to catch a ball that was hit over Biggio’s head. And Biggio has a noodle arm. But overall, he is not a poor defensive centerfielder. And I can’t say that any of the Astros other choices would have done any better (save Hidalgo, but the Astros can’t replace him in right).

So why is it that Biggio gets a C+ ranking? Well, for someone in the leadoff spot, Biggio bats pretty poorly when he actually bats leadoff. His OBP in the leadoff spot was .312. Biggio struck out 50 times to lead off an inning. In fact, Biggio strikes out far too much. 116 strikeouts for a contact hitter is unacceptable. Biggio is extremely vulnerable to the slider moving away from him. Biggio also doesn’t steal any bases and you would like to see some stolen bases from your leadoff hitter. Biggio disappeared for months at a time. He had a miserable first month of the season (.306 OBP) and a lousy August (.314 OBP). And he makes a ton of money. Biggio’s salary was nearly $10 million this season. For that much money, Biggio needed to have better numbers.

Like Bagwell, the Astros aren’t trading Biggio. You don’t trade players when you have a statute of them in front of the stadium (which goes to prove that you shouldn’t build statutes for players until they are retired). Jason Lane has clearly shown that he deserves significant playing time next season. In all likelihood, we will see Lane and Biggio split time in centerfield next season. The fact that much of Biggio’s contract for 2004 is driven by the number of at bats he receives, will also contribute to less playing time for him (yes Virginia, the Astros are that cheap). 2004 is the last guaranteed year for Biggio and the Astros can buy out their option for 2005 for $1 million. I don’t think that the Astros should exercise the option for 2005 and if they had any class, they would discuss this with Biggio as early as possible so Biggio can announce that he will be retiring at the end of next season and the year-long Biggio “love festival” can commence.

BRAD AUSMUS: C+

How does one assess the value of a catcher? It’s hard to tell. But for purposes of this analysis, let’s say that 60% of a catcher’s value is defensive and 40% of a catcher’s value is as offensive. If that’s the case, how do you rate Brad Ausmus?

There is no doubt that Brad is a good defensive catcher. But compared to what? The most tangible defensive statistic for catchers is what percentage of players who attempt stolen bases are thrown out. Despite an improvement from last season, Brad was only 11th in the majors in stolen base percentage (.352%). And this number is a far cry from 2001 and 2000 when his percentage was .477% and .475%. Other easily understood defensive statistics are number of errors and passed balls (although these are clearly less important than stolen base percentage). Brad had 3 errors and 3 passed balls. There were no catchers with more than 100 games caught who had fewer passed balls and only Mike Matheny and Brandon Inge had less errors.

There are other less tangible measures of a catcher’s defensive abilities. How well does he call a game. How well does he tag out runners at the plate. Clearly, the Astros feel that Brad calls a very good game and that this has helped out their younger pitchers immensely. Still, Wade Miller did not have a very good season and Tim Redding was prone to the big inning. So how well did Brad do here? And I do not think that Brad blocks the plate well, preferring to use a sweep tag instead of giving up his body to block the plate. How many runs resulted from this? I can’t say. But based on all of the above, I am willing to give Brad a B+ with respect to his defensive abilities.

Now let’s talk about the black hole that is Brad’s spot in the lineup. From an offensive standpoint, this might have been Brad’s worst career year. Brad batted .229 this season, needing a herculean .269 average after the all-star break to make up for his .201 average before the break. Brad did manage to hit 4 HRs but, as you will remember, two of those homeruns came four games into the season against the Cardinals. The second homerun in that game was particularly memorable since it was in the 12th inning. In the remaining 158 games, Brad hit TWO homeruns. Considering that MMP is a hitters’ park, Brad’s inability to hit homeruns is fairly mindboggling. (He only had 1 HR all season in MMP.) Batting in the seventh spot the entire season (an RBI position), Brad also managed to drive in a paltry 47 runs. With Bagwell, Kent, Berkman, and Hidalgo up before him (and on base fairly often), Brad’s failure to drive in more runs was monumental. And it’s not just that he didn’t manage to get hits. It’s more than that. Brad doesn’t drive the ball at all. How many pop ups did he hit this season? How many weak grounders to second? Brad was a rally killer in and of himself. Shameful. Brad gets a D for his offensive abilities and the only reason why his grade is not worse is because he managed to have one really good month (Aug. .296 BA, .400 OBP). Mazal tov.

Taking into consideration the 60/40 ratio described above, Brad gets a C+ for the season. And when looking at that ranking, it feels a little high. Where does Brad go from here? Hopefully to San Diego. I would like to see the Astros give John Buck a chance, even though his numbers at New Orleans were not great this season. The only way that I would resign Ausmus is if we could get him for less than $2 million and with the understanding that Buck would get as many starts as Ausmus. I was not very impressed with Raul Chavez at catcher and I don’t think that Mitch Meluskey has the arm to play catcher (although I am sure that he would hit given the chance). If we don’t resign Ausmus, I would probably go out and find a cheap veteran catcher. No matter which way the Astros go, the catcher next season should be batting eighth.

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