Plugging a big hole

added 3/17/2009 by Scott Barzilla

I shouldn't make any bones about the fact that I have been for this move for quite some time. In fact, some time could probably be charitably be measured in years instead of months. Everyone that reads this column regularly knows I was never much of a Brad Ausmus fan. In fact, that alone is enough to be the biggest pitfall of a move like this. If you have had a beat on a guy for a number of years it can be a big let down when you see what he has become when you get him.

The timing of this deal could not be more purposeful. The Astros are mired in a 1-14-2 Spring that sees them not only in last, but so deep in the cellar that they have to pipe light down to them. Drayton McLane and the Astros were desperate for a change in the news cycle. If 1.5 million is all it takes to change consumer confidence then it will be worth it on that alone. The fact that Pudge makes a position better is just icing on the cake.

Yet, this is the time where a responsible journalist reminds readers about what they are really getting. When I was a kid, I remember a product called "Dream Away" that promised to help users lost 3-5 pounds per night. By the time they realized they could do that on their own, the company had already made off with their $19.95. Similarly, the Astros are hoping you have visions of 1999 Pudge running through your head as you dial it up for season tickets. All it takes is one phone call and they got you.

This isn't to say that there is no value in paying the price of admission to watch Pudge play. He can still play a little and he will be standing at a podium in Cooperstown someday. Some might claim him to be the best catcher of all-time with some degree of sincerity. He is at least in the top five and that alone is worth something no matter when you catch him. Babe Ruth as Boston Brave and Willie Mays as a New York Met was worth watching on some level. We have to assume that Pudge has more in the tank than that, but reason campaigns indicate it might not be much more than that.

          OBP          SLG          OPS              RC
2005     .290         .444         .734              57
2006     .332         .437         .769              74
2007     .294         .420         .714              55
2008     .319         .394         .713              48

These numbers indicate that Pudge might not quite be the catcher that we remember dominating in Arlington. He has never been a high OBP guy, but he was able to hide his lack of patience by hitting .300 or better every year. Now, he's hitting anywhere between .270 and .290. That's still pretty good, but when you take out power and add few walks it becomes marginal in its value. Yet, when you take the Astros production over the last several seasons at the position you get the value of bringing in someone like Pudge.

            OBP       SLG        OPS         NL     
2005       .316      .315       .631         15
2006       .303      .312       .615         15
2007       .323      .349       .672         15
2008       .281      .289       .570         15

If you took the numbers from Pudge and changed his name to Joe Schmoe you would come away thinking, "hey we just got a decent catcher for a change." If Astros fans go into 2009 thinking that they will be okay. The problem is that we aren't talking about Joe Schmoe. We're talking about the best or second best catcher from the last quarter century (some might argue Mike Piazza). The painful fact is driven home when we look at Baseball Prospectus projections for the coming year. There are only four or five catchers projected to be worse than Pudge offensively and he projects to be at the bottom of the middle tier defensively.

This is when we leave the stat world and enter into the world of the Astros. Suffice to say, the Astros have never been much into stats. They go with the gut. Well, the gut says that Pudge is in the best shape he has been in in several years and has a chip on his shoulder. If you give him his 2007 season he suddenly becomes a middle of the road offensive catcher and good defensive catcher. Surely, that is what the Astros hope they are getting. If they get that then they will have the best catcher the club has ever seen.

Still, to consider the Astros contenders in this case defies logic. Rodriguez was about two games better than the replacement level player that year. The combined efforts of Ausmus, Towles, and Quintero define replacement level performance. So, Rodriguez might be a couple of games better than they are. Two games might make the difference between second and fourth place in the Central this year. Second place gets the Astros nothing. They would need 1999 Pudge to get past the Cubs. Even then, that wouldn't be a guarantee.

So, if you want to enjoy a Hall of Famer wind down his career then make sure you see Pudge play sometime this year. If you want to see the Astros win the pennant this year then you'd better swallow pretty hard. It just isn't going to happen. As Whitey Herzog once said about his Texas Rangers, "we are two players away from the pennant: Babe Ruth and Cy Young." That would probably do it for the Astros too. Pedro Martinez would certainly help, but Pudge is the last of the good position players available.