Hope Springs Eternal

added 2/19/2005 by Scott Barzilla

For those in the know, last Tuesday was Fat Tuesday. Party animals recognize it as the end of Mardi Gras. Catholics recognize it as the last chance for debauchery for forty days (not counting Sundays). I don’t want to get into a religious throw-down, but most of us either give something up or try to improve some element of our lives. For myself, my goal is to be more positive during this period. I’m sure my devoted readers will find this as a jolt to their system, but hopefully I’ll come out as a better person for it. So, let me look at the positives as the 2005 season begins today.

The first positive coming into this season has to be the Astros’ defense. The Astros are replacing two defenders this season and they should be better off in both spots. Yes, Carlos Beltran was a tremendous defender in centerfield, but he was only the centerfielder for four months. Craig Biggio was blundering around in center the other two months. The Astros have an opportunity to improve on the overall defense if they take the Nestea plunge and play Willy Taveras. The same can be said for second base and Chris Burke. Burke won’t make anyone forget Bill Mazeroski, but he will be considerably better than Jeff Kent was.

Sandy Hemenway (a good buddy from a different site) has studied defense more extensively than I have. He has found that second basemen make more plays on average than any other position on the diamond. Centerfielders are also important because they will prevent more extra base hits than the other two outfield positions and rival all infield positions because of that fact. If the Astros stick with Burke and Taveras they will have one of the strongest middle of the field defense in baseball. When you add two-time Gold Glove winner Brad Ausmus into the frey you see a much more dynamic fielding team than the one that took the field last season.

What is more interesting than the number of plays itself is the effect it has on certain pitchers. Hemenway studied Tom Glavine and discovered his ERAs were intimately tied to his centerfielder. He enjoyed a lot of success with Andruw Jones in Atlanta, but suffered with the montage of centerfielders that played for the Mets in 2003. Not surprisingly, he experienced a renaissance in 2004 despite some awful run support. Astros fly-ball pitchers (Roger Clemens and Andy Pettitte) could experience similar boosts with Taveras in center. Groundball pitchers will experience a boost from Chris Burke and Adam Everett in the middle infield.

The second positive to come from the off-season is the infusion of speed into the offense. Again, going with Taveras is crucial here. Taveras, Burke, and Everett could all steal between 20 and 30 bases for the Astros in 2005. Of course, speed is not nearly as important as what will be taken away in 2005. Even Carlos Beltran had huge strikeout issues in 2004. Jeff Kent certainly has had his problems with that over the years. Burke and Taveras are supposed to be better contact hitters. If they can continue that trend, the Astros will be less susceptible to prolonged slumps. Making contact and using speed helps teams with offensive holes avoid those prolonged slumps that have befallen the Astros in recent years.

The Astros have always been a patient team with the likes of Jeff Bagwell and Lance Berkman. Chris Burke and Willy Taveras will add to those numbers as well if they continue their minor league track record. There are others in the system (Todd Self and Royce Huffman in particular) that have even better track records in patience. If they get added in a reserve role it could really boost our offensive attack.

The third and final positive comes from the improvement in their starting rotation. Both Wade Miller and Andy Pettitte missed half a season a piece last year to make the rotation a sore spot for most of the season. When you go through that experience there are usually some positives that come out of it. For us, it was Brandon Backe. Yes, even in my optimistic mindset I would say we need to have guarded optimism where Backe is concerned. He has only nine career starts to his credit (in the regular season), but I will join those that have hopes that he can turn in 30 starts this season.

The same is definitely true for Andy Pettitte. Pettitte has had elbow trouble for years now, so it was good that he got his surgery done. Like with Roy O. last season, Pettitte might come out being a more healthy pitcher in the long run than if he had tried to tough it out. Last week, he threw 25 pitches off of the mound. It was the first time he had thrown off of the mound since the surgery. Some are predicting he won’t start the season in the rotation. I’m not so sure that will be the case. Most pitchers throw two innings in their first spring starts, so Pettitte is not too far off that schedule if we go with the fifteen pitches per inning benchmark.

Of course, it isn’t that easy. Just because Pettitte threw 25 pitches doesn’t mean he can step on the mound right now and throw two innings, but he won’t have to do that for another two and a half weeks. If he can get to the two innings by then he will be on schedule to begin the season in the rotation. If that happens, the Astros could have four solid starters for much of the season.

That leaves us with the final spot in the rotation. This is where hope truly springs eternal. We could also say there are strength in numbers. The candidates include Tim Redding, Brandon Duckworth, Carlos Hernandez, Ezekial Estacio, and perhaps even guys like Dave Burba and Taylor Buckholz. If just one of those guys can give the club even 25 starts it will be a very good season for the Astros rotation.

I will stop the love train there for this week. We will all watch the first week or so of Spring Training with the excitement that we watch every new season with. Hopefully, next time I will have some more good news to give you all because my lentil mission is to bring some good news. For now, just sit back and enjoy hearing about pitchers and catchers because even the Brandon Duckworths of the world look great before the hitters step into the box.

Scott Barzilla is the author of “Checks and Imbalances” and “The State of Baseball Manangement.”