Swan Song should be sweet

added 4/5/2007 by Scott Barzilla

This is usually a good time to come clean. I've been Brad Ausmus' biggest critic over the years. He has been an offensive albatross in his years in Houston, but I remember the words Bill Shakespeare wrote for "Julius Ceasar." I come to praise Ausmus, not to bury him. After all, this will be his last year in Houston and there is no soon in getting down on the guy now.

The official numbers show that Ausmus has won three Gold Gloves as an Astro. He's deserved all of those awards and maybe at least one more along the way. Critics like myself would point out that last year's Gold Glove award was not deserved, but he was likely robbed along the way too.

At this point, many of you are thinking, "with friends like these.....," but I'm doing the best I can. Ausmus' best praise comes from those who have he has caught over the years. Their praise is nothing to ignore. Ausmus will surpass 1800 games caught if he has a healthy 2007. With a little luck, he will vault into the top ten in games caught before the year is over. The chase for 3000 overshadows everything, but that mark is important in its own right.

Many in the blogosphere are looking forward to a day when Brad Ausmus isn't behind the plate. I have to admit that I have been one of those. The problem is that when we look into the future we don't appreciate what we have now. Young pitchers like Chris Sampson, Fernando Nieve, Matt Albers, and Wandy Rodriguez will be lucky to have Ausmus tutor them this year. They may not be as lucky when someone else takes over.

Biggio Bugaboo

Everyone in Houston loves Craig Biggio, but his situation is even more precarious. Ausmus doesn't have a promising replacement. Many might say that was by design, but Biggio has Chris Burke waiting in the wings. Under normal circumstances, Burke would be in the middle of his third or fourth regular season at second base. This obviously isn't a normal circumstance.

Again, I have to own up to be a part of a group looking forward to the day when Burke is covering second in place of Biggio. Burke is a better defensive player and offensive player at this point in his career. Unlike Ausmus, Biggio still is a productive baseball player at this point in his career. In fact, his staying power has been pretty remarkable.

        Biggio(WS)    Ausmus(WS)
2001       25            10
2002       15            10
2003       20            12
2004       18             7
2005       19            15
2006       11             8

With the exception of last season, Biggio has been at least above average in every season since he tore his ACL. So, if you take these numbers in a vacuum you see it is completely reasonable to bring him back for another run even if 3000 wasn't a consideration. I won't even touch on Ausmus except to say that before 2001 he had seasons with 13, 14, 17, and 16 win shares respectively. He didn't have the same staying power.

The Astros could do a lot of things to smooth the transition to Burke. For one, they could lower Biggio in the order. Part of Biggio's remarkable transformation has been his transition from a OBP/speed player to a power producer. He hasn't had the same kind of transformation Brady Anderson had, but he has always lived within the rules. His transformation was more subtle and that much more remarkable.

        OBP    ISO     HR    2B    TB
2001   .382   .164     20    35   281
2002   .330   .151     15    36   233
2003   .350   .148     15    44   259
2004   .337   .188     24    47   297
2005   .325   .203     26    40   276
2006   .306   .175     21    33   231

As you can see, the transformation began after the 2003 when Biggio saw his batting averages and walk totals begin to shrink. His pure power numbers increased, so he was able to sustain his overall value as a player. 2006 was clearly a sign that a permeanent slide is here, but if you take those numbers at face value, they are still very appealing for a sixth place hitter. They don't look good at all for a leadoff man.

The Astros 29th in leadoff OBP in 2006 with Biggio and Taveras leading off. They finished in the middle of the pack in second hitter OBP in 2006. The two combined put Houston in the bottom third in "table setter OBP." This is not Biggio's fault. They have the personnel to make this work, but management chooses not to.

Enjoy the show

If I were reading this I would be demanding some closure. The overall point is that Ausmus and Biggio have had their warts, but they have been very good at what they do over the years. We can certainly focus on the warts if we want, but we would waste a great opportunity to see two good players finish their careers they way they want.

Management has a say in this as well. Fans want to see winning baseball first and foremost. Playing a living legend when he isn't quite on top of his game is one thing. Insisting on putting him at the top of the lineup to get him extra at bats is not conducive to the goal of winning. The alternatives at the top of the order would put the Astros near the top ten in the crucial OBP category. Biggio would provide the club with much needed punch at the bottom of the order as well. It's a win-win situation.

For me, my days of dogging Brad Ausmus are officially done. My days of grousing over management's decision to delay the Burke era are also done. After all, those decisions cannot be done. There will be time to dream about what is possible behind the plate and in centerfield. That time isn't now. It's time to relax and watch two good guys ride off into the sunset. Have a great year Brad and Craig. You deserve it.