Three Out With None To Play

added 9/29/2008 by Matt Stilley

"Bull Durham" taught us that baseball is a simple game; you throw the ball, you catch the ball, you hit the ball. Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose, sometimes, it rains. In 2008, the Astros did the former eleven times more than the opposition, finishing with an 86-75 record, 3-1/2 games out of the Wild Card race behind the Milwaukee Brewers, eleven behind the division-winning Chicago Cubs, in third place, a half-game ahead of the St. Louis Cardinals.

Most prognostications had the Astros finishing at the bottom of the league and, after the team’s June swoon (posting a 14-28 mark from May 27th to the All-Star Break), it seemed the Astros' season was a wash and it was time to begin planning for next season.

Yet, first year Astros General Manager Ed Wade brought in veteran pitchers Randy Wolf and LaTroy Hawkins in widely criticized trades that helped breathe life back into a team that appeared dead. The Astros ran off an impressive streak and ended up with the best second-half record in Major League Baseball.

Unfortunately, not all of Wade's moves were as good as these two. Acquiring Michael Bourn was one of the biggest moves of the off-season, in a deal that sent closer Brad Lidge to Philadelphia where he converted every save opportunity he had all year (41/41). Bourn hit .229 with an on-base average of .288, certainly not what Wade wanted to get out of his leadoff man. Catcher J.R. Towles was very unimpressive after a great September in 2007 and was sent to Round Rock in the middle of the season. Signing free agent pitcher Shawn Chacon was working out fine until he was involved in a physical altercation with Wade after several poor outings moved him to the bullpen. Chacon's actions were possibly the most outrageous thing ever to happen in the Houston clubhouse and Chacon was quickly dismissed.

Wade's inking of Darrin Erstad (.276, 4, 31) proved to be extremely helpful as well as the addition of Miguel Tejada who brought energy and an offensive help at shortstop. These and utility man Geoff Blum will be coming back next season. New closer Jose Valverde led the league in saves with 44 after getting off to a rocky start.

Manager Cecil Cooper had trying times early in his first full season as the Houston skipper. Cooper, at times, seemed to put too much emphasis on every game, sometimes blowing up on the media and, in my opinion, adding undue pressure to his ballclub. Yet it should be noted that Cooper's abilities greatly improved throughout the season and it seemed he understood better that it is a marathon, not a sprint, during the 162-game march.

Still, the Astros seemed to be unfocused in crucial situations. Baserunning blunders plagued the team all season; making outs at third, being doubled off on line drives, not taking the extra bag when given the opportunity. Baserunning in baseball is like special teams in football - you won’t specifically win games because of it, but you can lose because of it.

The off-season will prove to be interesting for Wade and the franchise. Houston will need starting pitching help, possibly re-signing Randy Wolf to go with Roy Oswalt at the top of the rotation. It is unlikely the Astros will outbid the rest of the league for C.C. Sabathia but Ben Sheets is certainly a possibility, though he has been injury prone throughout his career. Another notable free-agent-to-be is ex-Astro Mike Hampton, who is finally healthy again and could be a cheap signing with an incentive-based contract.

Fernando Nieve and Felipe Paulino are also viable options if they are healthy. Wade will also need to address the hole left behind the plate if Towles is not able to step up and handle the everyday duties.

The Astros showed promise late in the season. With a little help and a lot of luck, they could have made the playoffs after being a last-place club at the All-Star Break. As the playoffs loom for others, the Astros and their fans are left wondering what is to come for 2009. If the holes in the roster are filled, the Astros could be finishing next season in October, rather than September.