A late Christmas gift under the tree

added 1/7/2007 by Scott Barzilla

Sure, signing Mark Loretta might not be the sexy move Astros fans were hoping for, but the move was a surprise. All the other signings and trades could be seen a mile away, but this one was a surprise to most fans. Supposedly, Roy Oswalt and Brad Ausmus lobbied the club to pick up the all-star second baseman. Both played with him briefly when the club acquired Loretta down the stretch in 2002. Hunsicker wanted to bring him back, but Loretta wanted more money and an opportunity to start.

All Loretta has done since then is make the all-star team twice in four seasons. Loretta's best season came in 2003 when he hit well over .300 and clubbed a career high 16 home runs. So, Loretta is quite a second baseman. This begs the question: where is Loretta going to play with Biggio hunting for 3000 hits?

The Astros likely acquired Loretta to be a caddie for Biggio, but he started his career as a utility infielder in Milwaukee. Like Bill Spiers, he could play anywhere and usually ended up doing so. He has 171 games at first base, 328 games at shortstop, and 171 games at third base. Obviously, he has played many more games at second base, but he could back up Ensberg at first and Adam Everett at short. Either way, Loretta brings the kind of punch the Astros only could have expected from Mike Lamb off the bench.

                PA   AVG   OBP   SLG   OPS   ISO   OBIP
Mark Loretta   5546 .299  .363  .402  .765  .103   .466  
Craig Biggio  11948 .283  .367  .436  .803  .153   .520

These are the career numbers for both second basemen. Obviously, Biggio has more experience and more power, but their on base percentages are nearly identical. Loretta is also seven years younger than Biggio. Biggio has been hitting the number one or two slot since he has been an Astro (for the most part). This was great when he was putting up OBPs around .400, but hasn't been so good since his walks have plummeted. This reached epic proportions when Biggio's average plummeted to a paltry .246 last year (with an alarmingly low .306 OBP to boot).

When you couple this with Adam Everett's paltry .290 OBP from the last two seasons you can begin to see the logic of such a move. Loretta last played short in 2003, so most experts think that's a long shot, but if he can play short competently he gives the Astros a good hitter to replace Everett with. Yet, it is the comparison with Biggio that is most telling. In particular, over the last four years (since Loretta has been a regular second baseman).

               PA   AVG   OBP   SLG   OPS   ISO   OBIP
Mark Loretta  2526 .306  .368  .416  .784  .110   .478
Craig Biggio  2675 .265  .330  .443  .773  .178   .508

These numbers demonstrate why Biggio will be a first ballot Hall of Famer, but they also demonstrate why Loretta would be a better bet in the first or second spot in the order. Chris Burke's .347 OBP from last season coupled with Loretta's .368 OBP from the past four seasons gives this team two good hitters at the top of the order. That is all the team needs with Lance Berkman, Carlos Lee, Luke Scott, and Morgan Ensberg hitting behind them.

Since Biggio needs only 70 hits to reach 3000, so he could comfortably play in only 80 to 90 games to reach that mark. When he doesn't play, the club would rather have Loretta and Burke in the lineup at the same time. This moves shows Purpura has a lot more baseball savvy than most people give him credit for. The ESPN guys have been drooling over OPS like suburban kids drool over the latest catch phrase. Both never realize they are years behind the times. OPS is a good crude tool, but savvy baseball men know it all depends on what you are looking for. If you want power you look for slugging percentage. If you want a top of the order hitter you look for OBP. Loretta has that in spades.

So while Astros fans might not have gotten the big gift they wanted in Loretta, they got a useful gift. Ultimately, the Astros probably still need a boost in the pitching staff, but the addition of Lee and Loretta has improved the offense immensely. Those additions coupled with the Cards coming back to the pack might be enough to keep the Astros in a tight race.