A Look Back

added 9/30/2008 by Scott Barzilla

Before we start looking at the 2009 season it is time to look at the 2008 season to see if we've learned anything. However, I think the Astros in general deserve a big thanks from the baseball watching community. All of us left the Stros for dead in July only to see them vault their way back into the pennant race again. Following 2004, 2005, and 2006 we keep reminding ourselves that we are never out of a race. Of course, most of us ignored that advice again. We called for Drayton to allow the team to rebuild and again he rebuffed that by actually acquiring two pitchers. Thank you again.

Randy Wolf went 6-2 and Latroy Hawkins surrendered one earned run in 21 innings. The two combined to go 8-2 and were responsible for more victories than that. Both were brought in partially because they could become Type B free agents, but both could also have a future on the club. Either way, they were a big part of a group that elevated the Astros from 21st to 13th in runs allowed in the big leagues. Naturally, an improved defense was a large part of that as well. In particular, replacing Biggio with Kaz Matsui and replacing Pence in centerfield with Michael Bourn facilitated that improvement (not to mention Pence's Gold Glove defense in right field).

I give Ed Wade the most credit for retooling a bench that needed a lot of retooling. Gone were one dimensional players like Orlando Palmeiro and in their spots were guys that could play solid defense at more than one position. Let's not forget that these players could also start several games in a row without hurting your team. Picking a bench player of the year will be hard in these circumstances. You have Darin Erstad's two pinch home runs and .280 average, but you also have Geoff Blum with career highs in home runs and RBIs. We shouldn't forget the contributions of Mark Loretta or David Newhan. It's a narrow pick, but mine goes to Erstad. Erstad embraced his role from day one and performed as well as anyone could.

This brings us to the club MVP award. Count me in for Lance Berkman. Berkman took a lot of heat down the stretch for his struggles at the plate, but all he did was reach career highs in steals and play the best defense of his career. Meanwhile, he reach the .300 average plateau, .400 OBP plateau, 100 runs, 100 RBIs, and 100 walks like he has in most seasons. Maybe Carlos Lee would have taken the honor had he been healthy, but we will never know on that one.

The team Cy Young award goes to Roy Oswalt. That seems anti-climatic, but if you had asked us in June there would have been a different answer. 17-10 is hardly incredible, but given the depths that Roy O came from it is quite an accomplishment. His 3.50ish ERA is another accomplishment along those lines. Brian Moehler gets an honorable mention for his consistent performance, but he will have his own award as we move down the list.

The most surprising offensive player goes to Kaz Matsui. The rest of the bunch put up numbers we expected, but most people assumed Matsui would turn back into a pumpkin. All he did was produce better numbers than what he had in Denver. Yes, he had the torn bum, back issues, and whatever else, but when he was in there he was the best leadoff hitter this team has had since before Craig Biggio tore his ACL in 2000. Ty Wigginton is a close second here, but loses because you have to do it for more than one month.

The most surprising pitcher goes to Moehler. At the beginning of the season, Moehler seemed destined to serve in long relief, but when Chris Sampson proved he could not start and Shawn Chacon proved he should have Don King as a manager, someone needed to step in and Moehler did so in a big way. In a lot of ways, Moehler will represent the 2008 season. He was a player little was expected of and success in 2009 will depend on whether the team sees him for what he will be and not for what he was in 2008. Yet, I'm getting ahead of myself.

The most disappointing award is a tie between Michael Bourn and J.R. Towles. In one respect, Towles flop was more impressive. After all, hitting .140 at any level takes some effort, but Bourn was lackluster in a greater number of games. He seemed to come up with big games about once a week just to keep himself in the lineup. A resurgence from the two is a big part of 2009. The Astros offense was 21st in the big leagues and those two positions (centerfield and catcher) were two huge reasons why. One of the two might find themselves out of a job before spring training actually arrives.

Preparing for 2009 requires us to get a handle on 2008. Baseball Prospectus updates the adjusted standings everyday. According to our runs scored and runs allowed, the Astros should have been 77-84. On the plus side, that would have still been an improvement over 2007. However, the nine game difference is something to be mindful of as we move into the hot stove league. It is tempting to think we are one player away from being a contender for a wild card. The Mets had a Pythagorean of 89-73 while the Brewers sported an 87-75 record. At best, we trail that group by ten real games.

It is tempting to think we can repeat that kind of performance again. The D-backs gambled on that notion. They acquired Dan Haren and then banked on that addition. They finished where they have should in 2008. If you recall, the D-backs won the division in 2007 despite scoring fewer runs than they allowed. So, they did improve in 2008, but it still wasn't enough. The Astros have to avoid the same mistake and have to act as if ten games is their deficit, not two or three.

Most observers feel the Astros will go after Ben Sheets this off-season. Kyle Lohse of the Cardinals got 40.5 million over four years after having one 15 win season. How much is Sheets going to get on the open market? The Astros are already paying more than ten million dollars to Lance Berkman, Miguel Tejada, Carlos Lee, and Roy Oswalt. Sheets will certainly earn in Roy Oswalt territory and Jose Valverde might vault close to that in arbitration. As much as fans would love him to do it, Drayton is not going to open the checkbook to the tune of 120 million. Here are the major arms available and what they have done over the last three years.

                       W-L        GS          INN         ERA
C.C. Sabathia         48-28       97         686.2       3.03
Ben Sheets            41-21       72         445.2       3.49
Kyle Lohse            29-28       84         519.1       4.59
Jon Garland           42-28       96         616.1       4.54
A.J. Burnett          38-26       80         522.2       3.94
Derek Lowe            42-33      100         628.1       3.58

Which starter had the fewest starts and innings? Yes, he has the best winning percentage of the group, but he also has averaged 24 starts a year. Do you want to pay 15 million for a guy to average 24 starts a year? If you want to go with the innings eaters you should be careful there as well. Sabathia is going to get six or seven years at close to 20 million a season. Lowe is 36 years old, so you have to be wary about giving him a long-term deal. Garland has essentially been an average pitcher with exceptional durability. Do you want to pay 12-15 million for that?

Even if one of those pitchers pans out you still have to count on Moehler to keep from turning back into a pumpkin. You also need to either retain Randy Wolf or hope Brandon Backe doesn't explode like he did this year. Folks, we haven't even left the mound yet and you can already tell what possible pitfalls this team could have. I hate to be a negative ninny, but this team is considerably further away from playoff contention than what people think.

Of course, on the positive end, the club can hope for better health from Carlos Lee, Kaz Matsui, and Ty Wigginton. They can also hope for a bounce back year from Miguel Tejada. That being said, they probably need to supplant this lineup with at least one more good hitter in either centerfield or behind the dish. There are possible trade partners for both, but neither will be possible with a big-time hurler added to the rotation. It says here that the Astros could add someone like Victor Martinez to the mix. The Indians might be interested in dumping salary. Martinez and Travis Hafner will be prime suspects there. Martinez will earn 5.7 million in 2009. 2009 is his last season, but there is an option for 2010 at seven million. They might use this off-season to cut their losses.

Martinez sported only a .702 OPS in 2008, but had four consecutive .800+ seasons prior to that. Even if he produced Tejada like numbers, that would still be considerably better than anyone the Astros have behind the dish. The problem is that the Astros can't afford that salary if they are giving Sheets 15+ million over several seasons. The Astros can afford two pitchers with contracts similar to Martinez. That might include Randy Wolf and someone like Mike Hampton. Is there risk involved? Sure, as we saw with all of the Astros 2008 acquisitions, there is always risk involved. However, that risk is far more palatable than the risk of signing someone to a four year 60 million dollar contract.