A Mountain out of Molehills

added 4/9/2005 by Scott Barzilla

Many of us believe opening day should be a national holiday and I’ve even skipped work to have my own personal holiday. ESPN has three different games on two different channels and excitement is always in the air. Yet, you get the inevitable excitement or dejection that comes with the outcomes. Opening day can be a cruel mistress to a player’s psyche. If you want to inspire violence just ask John Smoltz what his ERA is.

Yet, few of us care about the Braves, so he can sulk all he wants. Our immediate concern is the Astros and what we can say about the opening series. For many players, they haven’t seen averages this high since they were in high school (or even Little League). Others have averages that would make Jim Deshaies wince. In both cases, they will only be harmful if you pay too much attention to them. The team overall has begun innocently enough. A 1-1 mark against the Cardinals is acceptable any time of year. Opening week is no different.

There are often times when I think they should install a laugh tracks on ESPN’s Baseball Tonight. Steve Phillips (handed his walking papers by the inept Mets) is predicting doom for the Astros. Opening Day was a great moment for him as the Astros threw out a clunker to the paying faithful. If Phillips really can forecast doom accurately he should have used his psychic powers to predict the fact that Mo Vaughn would be a bust. Having Steve Phillips say that the Astros are going into the toilet because Gerry Hunsicker left would be like Cam Bonifay saying Branch Rickey was stupid for trading Ralph Kiner. It may very well be true, but he wouldn’t be the best source for such things.

The fact remains that the Astros will be relying on a lot of inexperienced people this year. Tim Purpura always trusted young players more than Hunsicker and we’re seeing a host of them now. Two games is definitely not enough time to judge any of them, and none of them have a big track record to go on. This can be a good thing or a bad thing.

Experienced prognosticators use all kinds of tools to predict the standings with some success. In particular, many of you may have seen me use win shares before in other forums. Of course, young players don’t have that kind of data to use, so teams that utilize the young players are literally wild cards. Pundits like Phillips would feel more comfortable with experienced players that bring a resume to the table. Yet, we see how far the Mets got with Roberto Alomar and Mo Vaughn.

I can go back in history and provide just a couple of reasons for Astros fans to be hopeful. The 1975 Red Sox might be the best example. The Reds came in with several Hall of Famers already entrenched (Rose, Bench, Perez, and Morgan), but they narrowly beat the Red Sox that had several players that had one full season or less under their belt. The Red Sox also had experienced players (Luis Tiant and Carl Yastrzemski) to meld with the Carlton Fisks, Jim Rices, and Fred Lynns.

If that example seems to dated for you we can go back as far as 2003 to see the impact of young players on a championship team. Youngsters like Miguel Cabrera and Dontrelle Willis were very important in the grand scheme of things. In the World Series, a very young Josh Beckett shut out the Yankees. Similarly, the Astros have an interesting mix of youth and experience. The club could throw together a mix of geriatric position players and pitchers, but it wouldn’t get them very far. The likes of Willy Taveras, Luke Scott, Jason Lane, Chris Burke, and Ezekial Astacio will have to get it done.

Experience may very well tell us that young players usually won’t live up to that billing, but these youngsters are in a unique position. Craig Biggio, Steve Finley, Luis Gonzalez, Ken Camniti, and Jeff Bagwell didn’t have veterans like this at their disposal. By the second and third year those young players were already very competitive. 2006 might end up being the target year for this team, but based on the first series this team will be both frustrating and fun to watch.

As for the pundits in Bristol, Connecticut and San Antonio, Texas, they can whine and wail all they want about the Astros “giving up 200 RBIs and “losing a great GM”, but I’m happy with what we got. Jeff Kent and Carlos Beltran came up just short with this club. Who knows, maybe Willy Taveras and Chris Burke are the answer. Maybe they’re not, but it will be fun to watch just the same.

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