New year's joy

added 1/2/2009 by Scott Barzilla

I feel safe saying it now. 2008 sucked. I don't think there is any other way around it. Whether it was Hurricane Ike, the collasping economy, or any other more localized tragedy, 2008 was not kind to most of us. So, it only stands to reason that 2009 should be better right? Well, that may not be the case with the Houston Astros. First, we have the hangover of the 2008 economy. Many think it will be worse in 2009 as the Astros have already lost a couple of corporate sponsors. I guess it's time to call Chico's Bail Bonds to see if they are available.

I usually find myself being the downer on the Astros pennant caravan, so I will begin with the positives. There are a number of players that should produce more than they did in 2008. On the offensive side of the ball, Miguel Tejada, J.R. Towles, and Michael Bourn should all produce better seasons. In particular, Towles could be the key to this whole season. Luckily for us, readership of this column doesn't exactly equal the Chronicle. Towles doesn't want to hear that and really shouldn't. Still, he might be the key to keep the lineup from being the same Everett, Ausmus, pitcher black hole it was in the early part of the century.

2006         .317/.382/.525
2007         .324/.425/.551
2008         .304/.370/.500

As you can see from Towles' minor league numbers, he certainly should be able to produce reasonably good numbers at the big league level. Most rookies fail their first go around. From these numbers, it is easy to see that Towles probably had never struggled much coming into last April. The same could be said for a number of Hall of Famers when they began their career. Towles doesn't have the look of a Hall of Famer, but he could be a borderline all-star eventually. It may not happen in 2009, but if he can split the different between those .300+ averages and the sub .200 average it could be good enough to be passable for now.

As for Michael Bourn, no one is going to confuse him with Willie Mays, but he might eventually be confused for Willy Taveras. Taveras just signed a two year deal with the Reds and most casual observers see that as a nice signing for the Reds. Astros fans should hope Bourn is better than that. He might already be better defensively and the two hope to continue their rivalry. They are the two best base stealers in the league. Taveras won round one, but is he a considerably better player?

(Career Numbers)
Taveras            .283/.331/.337
Bourn               .237/.299/.313

Bourn is not as good as Taveras, but the gap is not as big as you might think. Bourn already has more patience than Taveras. This is a positive sign early in his career. If he can elevate his average to even .260 he should make up the gap and likely even slug more than Taveras. There are still some fans that decry the day the Astros let Taveras go because of his batting average and stolen bases. We should always remember that it is far more important to steal first base then it is second and third. Hopefully, Bourn will start doing that more often.

Then, we have Miguel Tejada. I don't want to belabor his career statistically, but 2008 saw him fall of the proverbial table. Considering that this is a contract year and the fact that this will likely be the last contract he signs, we can expect a better effort from Miggy. It won't be the 130-140 RBI seasons he had earlier in his career, but somewhere between 80 and 100 RBIs isn't out of the question. Combine that with improvement from Towles and Bourn and the club could vault beyond the middle of the pack offensively.

On the boards, there has been some confusion about Pythagorean records. Essentially, you take runs scored and runs allowed and come up with an expected record. The Astros outperformed their record by more games (nine) than any other team in baseball by a wide margin. This means that the Astros officially overachieved. Naturally, it isn't exactly nine games because runs allowed and runs scored doesn't precisely calculate how much individual players may underproduce or out-produce their expectations. Still, history clearly shows that teams that greatly overachieve according to Pythagorus fall back the following season.

So, the Astros can expect some players to play better, but they also can't expect the same kind of luck they had last year. Furthermore, while we can easily identify players that should play better, we also have players that should play worse. They aren't as easy to identify simply because we often fool ourselves into thinking they've turned some kind of corner. Sometimes that's true, but most of the time it isn't. Either way, it points to a worse 2009 than a 2008.