Astros 05 Preview, Fro-style

added 4/1/2005 by Froback

The 2005 Season is upon us.... and not a moment too soon... Why do they need that much time off anyways... Don't they realize how the offseason causes us pain... What can I say, I am an addict... and I have needed my fix for too long...

Well from the looks of things, the Astros are doomed before the season starts. All the great baseball "gurus" have annoited us as an offical member of the also-ran's and the only way that will change is if Pujols, Rolen and Edmonds get killed in some lover's quarrel over LaRussa, with all 4 ending up dead and Mulder being to blame. So with that rosey picture, let's take a look at the team:

One thing I like to do is take a look at where we are Opening day versus where we were Opening day the previous year. You remember the previous year... We just signed Pettitte and convinced Roger to not retire... All the "gurus" crowned us as 1 or 1A with the Cubs. We were going to duke it out all year and the one left standing would win the NL. Well we finished better than the Cubs, although it was highly in doubt until late if that would be true, and we did come within 1 out of the World Series.... But are we really that much worse than last season?

Let's see at 1B we remain unchanged. So should we expect less of Bagwell this year than we did at the begining of last year? I guess a little drop off shouldn't be unexpected. After all he is on the wrong side of 35 and another year typically means a little less production. He does still walk alot, his prolonged slump last year has me a bit worried it might be worse, but I am hoping for numbers close to what he did last year, maybe just a touch lower.

At 2B.... Hmm, this is a bit dicey. We did lose Kent, but we have NO idea who is going to play 2B for us this year... Well ok, we have an idea, it is down to two options: Biggio and Burke. Lots of debating has occured over this choice. Do you go with the Franchise Icon who is 39 or the "future" who is 25. Personally I can't say who would be better at the plate or for the team... but if a choice has to be made... I would go with Burke for a couple of reasons. First, he is better in the field. Biggio has lost alot of range from his gold glove days, and Burke while sometimes inconsitant has a ton more range. Second, Burke has the potential to be close to what Biggio used to be: .360+ OBP with 30+ SB. If Biggio were getting walked like he used to it would be too close to call, but Biggio for his career averages 71 walks per season, and he has not come close to matching that since 01 when he walked 66 times. Last year he only walked 40 times. Also if you look at Biggio's stats from last year, it was like falling off a cliff after the All-Star break: (before) .301/.360/.483, (after) .256/.308/.451). He has similar drop offs in 03, although not as extreem, but that was more because his first half was not as good as 04. So I think Burke's potential at the plate being better, combined with better fielding, means the Astros SHOULD play 05 with Burke instead if they want a better chance to win. If you want to appease the fans (and Craig)... Look for Biggio to play here.

I still have not resolved the difference between last year and this though. Well last year we had Jeff Kent. Who is incredibly steady at the plate. He gave us .289/.348/.531, almost exactly in line with career averages. But if we play Burke here, we get a different type player. One who relys on getting on and stealing over power. We definately improve in the field with Burke as well, as Kent was a solid glove, good arm, but poor range 2B. It depends on your opinion of what is better (a guy who sets the table, or one who cleans it) will sway who you think is the better hitter. Personally, given the one-dimensional nature the Astros have been recently, I prefer Burke at the plate, but to each their own. I think this will actually be a push from last year. IF Biggio is the 2B, expect a decline, because his defense is probably about the same as Kent, but his bat is about the same without the power.

At 3B... Well we have the same player, but expectations are significantly lower. Last year, most people saw Morgan Ensberg as being on the cusp of 30+ HRs and about a .550 slugging 3B with above average fielding. Now we look at him as a 20 HR and .475 slugging 3B with above average fielding. This is based on my assumption that what he did in the 2nd half of last season being what to expect (.299/.349/.477). So from an expectation stand point, a slight decline. Also Lamb did surprise us alot considering his history and the fact we got him for a bag of beans right before Opening Day last year. I personally believe Lamb is streaky and had a career year (for him) last season. Although I think he is still productive.

At SS... We have Adam Everett still, and I think his expectations are a bit higher this year than last, as he showed definate improvement at the plate in 04. We all know he is a slick, gold-glove caliber type defender who is a slap and dash type hitter with occassional power to the gaps, and the once-in-awhile HR power. To me, we expect more than last year, so I view this as a bit better.

At C... Well we keep him around for one reason only. He knows how to call a game and still controls the running game better than most give him credit for. Brad Ausmus has shown some life at the plate in Spring Training and is definately a self-admitted streak hitter. The problem was in 04, his streaks were never long enough, and didn't occur often enough. There were times when he gave us hope though. So I expect a bit more than he produced last year (he has focused on improving this offseason), but I don't know if I expect more than I did last year. So call this a push. Also I like the kid we got in the Redding deal, so I will not have to hold my breath if Ausmus gets hurt this year, as I think Quintero will be a young version of Ausmus (the question is can he call a game as well). So call this a push from opening day last year.

In LF... Here again we have an interesting discussion involving Biggio. Since I have moved him out of the 2B starting job, his fall back is LF, where he played last year. The problem is, with Berkman out, we need a Lefty bat, and Luke Scott has batted even better than Burke in the Spring. So do we choose Biggio over a power hitting Lefty bat who has never hit above AA (although he crushed the ball there last year)? This again is a tough choice, but I have to go with Scott for the simple reason that with Berkman out, we need a lefty power bat in the line-up, for both the balance it brings to the line-up as well as the need for "table cleaners". I think Scott will produce a better OPS, but only because his slugging will be so much better, I actually only expect about .265/.325/.525 from him. Believe me these are not great numbers, but they are better than what Biggio gave us last year. Plus Scott is a better LF defender than Biggio who at times hurt to watch. BTW, Berkman was the starting LF on Opening Day, so this is a serious drop off, to be made up where we put Berkman later.

In CF... I see Willy Taveras winning this job almost solely because Garner and the Astros saw how important range in CF at MMP was. Taveras can go get it as good as Beltran, although he doesn't have a great arm. If we put Lane, Scott or Biggio here, expect to see some balls that should be caught going to doubles and triples. I hope the Astros realize that the loss at the plate will be made up more by the improvement in the field, especially for a team that will rely so much on its pitching. Also Taveras provides something this team has not have in almost a decade (since Biggio's MVP season, the one he should have won).... a legitimate SB threat. Taveras is so good he stole 10 bases this spring alone and has over 50 each of the last 3 minor league seasons. I think the idea is to let him bat low in the order to get comfortable at the ML level and then at some point (maybe when Berkman returns) move him to lead-off, where they want him to stay for 10 years! I am hopeful that he can produce .275/.330/.350 type numbers. I think that is reasonable considering what he did in AA last year and the fact that he would be in his first season, I would hope that someday he moves the OBP up to around .370-.380 range, but he still needs to develop a better bat for that, both swinging and walking. Compare this to Biggio (who was the Opening Day CFer in 04), and again you have a much different player. But the defense is SO much better and SO important to this home ballpark, that I MUST view this as better.

In RF... Last year we had Richard Hidalgo who had a resurgent year in 03, so he gave us alot of hope for 04, combined with the fact that he was everything you want in a RF defensively, good range and a cannon arm with great accuracy. People learned quickly each season, don't run on Richard. Well he is gone now, and Jason Lane takes over, at least until Berkman returns, then I see Lane moving to LF, and pushing Scott to the bench. This all assumes Scott is not out producing Lane. You have to figure there was a reason the club kept passing Lane over for other people in the OF, but in his defense there were established players who were productive out there ahead of him. So Lane finally gets his chance, as he is the only definate memeber of the OF, as I write this. Lane will struggle to meet Hidalgo's expected numbers everyone was thinking about before the 04 season. But with Berkman moving over here, his pro-rated numbers will probably be about what we hoped Hidalgo would produce over the whole of 04 so from the plate, we should see a slight improvement, pro-rated Berkman + Lane until Berkman returns. Defensivley we see a noticable drop-off, mostly due to the loss of that cannon. So I view this as a push from last season, althought the offense will be better, the defense takes a hit.

So in summary:

1B: Slight down grade
2B: Push
3B: Slight down grade
SS: Slight up grade
 C: Push
LF: Serious drop off
CF: Serious upgrade
RF: Push

I think the Bench is somewhat a push from last season, because it is mostly the same, if not exactly the same. The improvment comes when Berkman comes back, Scott should take Palmiero's slot, but I doubt that will happen, Scott will likely be sent to AAA, rather than having to release a veteran. The other improvement (based on my choices) is Biggio is now on the bench, so we have a quality Right-handed bat, who do what you need (get on base or drive in runs) and also he can fill in at 2B better than Viz and in the OF when needed.

So that makes a slight down grade from last season. I think that is about right, but the down grade is mostly in offense, with an upgrade in defense overall. So expect less runs to be scored by the Astros. I read somone's preview who said our offense would go from 803 runs in 04 to 740-750 in 05. That sounds about right based on Biggio being on the bench and Scott/Lane heading there when Berkman returns. There is hope the drop off in runs will not be as significant, but if Biggio is playing full-time I think that hope becomes a pipe-dream. And NO, I am not a Biggio-hater. He is my favorite all-time Astro, but now is the time for him to step into a reserve role for the betterment of the team.

So let's look at the pitching staff, I am going to guess at the 5th starter since we don't know which of the two it will be.

1) Oswalt   - Oswalt
2) Pettitte - Pettitte
3) Clemens  - Clemens
4) Miller   - Backe
5) Redding  - Duckworth

Ok, so 1-3 are the same. BUT let's talk about them anyway.

Oswalt is the staff ACE, and he should be. He is in his prime, and wins 18-20 games when healthy the whole season. He is not intimidated by anyone or any situation. He is realiable and has the best chance at complete games on any given start of anyone on the staff. If anything, that might be his weak point though... While he was in the top 5 in innnings pitched, he does it with economy of pitches. Once he reaches 100 pitches he is not as affective. But I expect as much from him as I did last year. This year I feel better about it, because he was able to stay healthy all year in 04.

Pettitte is comming off surgery, which ironically enough makes me feel better about him... There was a cloud hanging over him that he has an elbow injury and that was why the Yankees were not as quick to offer him a deal last year. Now we know that he was battling with an injury, but now it is fixed. I think we will see Pettitte build his way back to what we all thought he would be, but for the first month expect no more than a 5-6 inning pitcher who will dominate most of the time. Also something most people forget, he was one of the most extreem ground-ball pitchers in his last couple of years with the Yankees. IF our middle infield of Everett and Burke is as good as I think it could be, he will be in the running for come-back player of the year (but I think Pat Burrell will win that hands down). We can call this a push though because it is the same pitcher who is still in prime years.

Clemens won his 7th Cy young in 04. Not bad for an old man who was going to retire... So he got $18 Mil for it this year. Personally I think this was a handshake/under the table type agreement for him pitching so cheaply last year. I think there was one of those (Astros-"We want you for 2 years", Clemens-"I would prefer one, let's see if we can win it all in 04" Astros-"That would be great, but let's through out an incentive to you, we would have offered a 2 year $23 Mil deal, let's sign 1 year for $5 and give you $18 next year to encourage you to consider two year" Clemens-"What ever, but if we win it in 04, I am 99.9% sure I will retire"). Most places are figuring a drop off in Clemens that look pretty significant to me, about 1 run a game more in ERA. I think they don't know Clemens and a stuck on the "typical drop off" stuff. Will he win the Cy in 05, I doubt it, but heck, I didn't think he would win it in 04. I am learning Roger... Never expect anything but the best from you! Roger will produce as well or better than what we "THOUGHT" he would in 04. So this is a push. Although I would like to point out I would not trade out top 3 for ANYONEs top 3.

Backe dazzled us at the end of 04 so now expectations of him are high. I think most people expect too much of him when you look at their comments, but not enough when you look at their stat projections. I think Miller was injured going into 04, and the club new it, but couldn't get Wade to a) admit it and b) do the right thing to fix it. Miller though, going into 04 was looking like one of the best (2nd only to Zambrano in Cubland) #4 starter in baseball. Backe does not have that expectation. So from Opening day in 04 to Opening day in 05, this is a slight down grade. I expect we will see flashes of greatness from Backe in 05, but he will also meltdown too. He is young and I LOVE that a) Roger is taking an interest in helping him and b) Backe is listening to him. I expect Backe to be a productive member of the rotation for years to come (although I see him as no better than a #3 starter in the future)

I put Duckwoth here instead of Astacio for a few reasons, the primary one is the Astros want him to develop just a bit more at AAA, where he can develop without getting pounded. Another reason that most don't consider is the 1 month rule. You see those players who are on a ML roster at the begining of May get credit for the year on the ML level, thus begining the arbitration count down. By leaving Zeke down until after May 1st, then they can bring him up and still have 3 more years before arbitration becomes a factor. (This is why Tampa sent BJ Upton down as an example of other clubs practicing this)

This position with Zeke or Ducky here is a serious downgrade considering last year Redding was the 5th start and had just come off a season where he started most of the year and had a sub 4 ERA. Nobody should expect Zeke or Ducky to have anything better than a sub 4.5 ERA. I am hopeful Duckworth has regained his confidence and stuff to post around a K/Inng, that is the sign he has put it back together. If he does that Zeke will spend all of 05 in AAA until Sept, or someone on the starting staff gets hurt (it is going to happen, St. Louis's luck from 04 is rare).

So that starting staff is looking like less than 04, comparing pre-Opening Day to same in 05. But the down grades are with the back of the rotation, where most teams expect to struggle anyway. If we can get 50 wins from the top 3, and 20-25 from the bottom two slots in the rotation, I think we challenge for the NL Central crown. I think it will take 90-95 wins to win it, as I don't see the Cards being (or Cubs for that matter) being as good at they were in 04.

In the Bullpen, I am going to guess we see this:

 CL: Lidge
 SU: Qualls
LHP: Franco
RHP: Springer
RHP: Wheeler
RHP: Harville
LHP: Gallo

Well the only thing better is the fact we KNOW our closer is good. Last year there was doubt (well founded as it turned out) about Dotel, but we KNEW out middle men were better if for no other reason than Lidge was there. Middle relievers tend to be the most difficult position to predict year over year. I think the general feeling is our bullpen is less certain than last year, so call this a slight down grade.

So on the whole every area of the team, Position players, Starters and Bullpen are slight down grades from last year. But you know what... We were considered the best team in the NL last year on Opening Day. Today we have a more realistic view, that was created by the sober reality of last year. Our team has holes, there is no doubt. Other than the fact that we dragged out feet in trying to get bullpen help during the offseason, there is not much we could have done other than what we did.

For those of you who moan about we allowed all the other "Big Names" to sign while waiting for Beltran. Let me point out, most of the "Big Names" that we would have gone after were all clients of Boras too. How do you think THAT was going to work, when we were the BIG stick he was forcing everyone else to measure up to. Also from all that has now come out about the Beltran situation, one thing is clear. Carlos wanted to be a Yankee. Boras did all he could to get his value up and then tried to spin it as a deal to the Yankees to offer him for less than other clubs were offering. In the end the Yankees passed, and Carlos desided the Mets were close enough since they were also in New York. Personally I will miss his presence on the club, but I am THANKFUL that we didn't sign him to the deal we offered him. HE WAS NOT WORTH IT! I said it when we started "negotiating" with him. "IF you offer more than what Vlad signed for, you are offering too much!"

So last year we won 94 games. I think the team is capable of getting to that totaly, but a more realistic view is 90. So that is what I am going with 90-72. I think that will not be enough to win the Central or the Wild Card, but I think we will be in contention. Who knows what type of deal might be swung at the deadline to make us better. As a fan of the team, who is not stuck on having to win THIS year, I hope they do no trading, let the young players develop (or try to) and hope for the best.... You never know when a love triangle mass homicide/suicide might happen! In the end, the Astros have alot of potential to be contending every year, this year I think has a slipperly slope to it, and if you reach to high, you will crash down, and find it hard to get up again.