The Four Horses

added 5/3/2009 by Bob Hulsey

Some on the internet believe Cecil Cooper is the worst manager the Astros have ever had. I'd rank Jimy Williams at the top of that list but Cooper at least understands that you can't win when your top players aren't performing.

"If the horses don't pull, the wagon doesn’t move," Cooper said in Atlanta, referring to his top players.

Jose de Jesus Ortiz of the Houston Chronicle, who recorded this gem, goes on to identify the "horses" as Lance Berkman, Carlos Lee, Roy Oswalt and Jose Valverde. Those are four of the top five salaries on the Astros' payroll, so it makes sense that those are the guys expected to pull the Astros' wagon. How Miguel Tejada escaped equine status, I don't know either.

"If the Clydesdales don't pull, we're not rolling," added Cooper. "That’s the nut in the shell right there. We got some Clydesdales and they have to carry the load."

The "nut in the shell" is really that the oldest team in the majors is aging as gracefully as Whitney Houston. Should it be any surprise that two of the best hitters in the early season are 26-year-old Hunter Pence (.310 batting average entering Sunday, .863 OPS) and 26-year-old Michael Bourn (.278/.790)?

Tejada's start has been deceptive. He's hit for average (.289) but with no power (.674 OPS). Geoff Blum (.296/.701) has had a similar beginning to the season. By contrast, Pudge Rodriguez (.250/.717) has outperformed them slightly while hitting lower in the order.

Of the Four Horsemen, Carlos Lee (.276/.833) has been close to his normal production. He's actually hitting better than he was last spring but his struggles were overshadowed by Berkman's terrific start. Lee turned it on in June and July before his pinkie was shattered in Cincinnati last August, ending his season.

I worried that rehabbing his hand might cause his power numbers to suffer but it appears, after five homers in April, those fears were unfounded. There's little to worry about Lee underperforming over the course of the year.

Roy Oswalt hasn't won a game all season but he hasn't pitched that badly (3.82 ERA in 33 innings, ERA+ of 113). Other than one nightmare inning in St. Louis, he's been fine. Oswalt, a notoriously slow starter, has been hurt more by a lack of run support than betrayed by his own arm. He's not been as dominant as we've seen in the past (only 5.5 strikeouts per nine innings) but there's really no reason to worry about him either.

(As an aside, Richard Justice of the Chronicle called out starting pitchers Mike Hampton and Russ Ortiz for "not getting the job done" in a recent blog. Excuse me but, considering they are both rehab pitchers signed on the cheap, their numbers - 1-2, 4.88 ERA for Hampton, 2-0, 5.30 ERA for Ortiz - are about what you'd expect from your fourth and fifth starters these days. They should get a little deeper into ballgames but, otherwise, I don't consider them to be dead weight in our wagon.)

Jose Valverde's problem, right now, is that he can't play. He took a liner off his calf while trying to close against the Dodgers which swelled to the point of producing hematomas that had to be drained. He's expected to be out of action the rest of May and might need to suffer a few rough outings once he comes back before he returns to his form of the past two seasons.

What I wonder about with Valverde is whether his injury might affect his trade value in late July or whether it might affect his asking price as a free agent this off-season. At first blush, my answer to those questions are "yes" and "no" in that order. Even if he has a bad year, I think Valverde will still ask for Brad Lidge money in the off-season, whether it is paid by the Astros or somebody else.

Then there's Lance Berkman. Other than the occasional solo homer (6, which leads the team), Lance is having a terrible season (.167/.718). Is he aware of it? You betcha. Is he upset about it? No doubt. Beneath the happy-go-lucky jokester we've always known lies a fiery competitor who knows much of the team's bad start rests on his large shoulders.

The underlying question is what should be done about it. Aside from an occasional day off, Berkman needs to play every day. His lack of hitting will cure itself and it would surprise nobody if he catches fire at some point the way he did last May. Berkman may not reach the season norms we are used to seeing but he won't stay down all year. It has never been his history to slump for very long.

Last October, I listed five things the Astros should do in the off-season. My last suggestion was to fire Hitting Coach Sean Berry. I based my complaint on the lack of success Berry had had with Bourn, Pence and J.R. Towles. While Towles is still a question mark, Bourn and Pence have certainly stepped up which has removed Berry from this fan's doghouse - temporarily.

There are some who fault Berry for Berkman's failures but I am not one of them. A veteran with Berkman's record of success usually doesn't seek out the hitting coach except as a last resort. If there's nothing wrong, you don't ask others to fix it. While Berkman may have sought Berry's advice, any help is only now being implemented.

If I were the wagonmaster, I might tweak the lineup a little so that Bourn leads off and Pence bats third. Move Berkman to fifth, Pudge to sixth and Tejada to seventh. Jeff Keppinger (.379/1.110) and Jason Michaels (.263/.865) deserve more playing time. I'd leave Felipe Paulino in the rotation and let Brian Moehler return to his swingman role until he shows he's completely ready again. I'd also release Cheito Smith (0-for-21) and bring up Edwin Maysonet (.283 at AAA Round Rock as of Friday).

Other than a key injury to the closer and a poor overall performance by Berkman and the bullpen, there's nothing really wrong with the Astros. They are just four games below .500 in a division where the rest of the teams are .500 or better. If they can get Berkman and the bullpen performing as well as last year, the Astros ought to hit a winning streak sometime soon.

Most pundits still claim the Cubs are the team to beat in the N.L. Central. If you believe that, the Astros are just 2-1/2 games out of contention. While I predicted before the season that the Cardinals - not the Cubs - would win the division, I do believe the Cardinals will eventually come back to the pack.

So maybe the tired old horses are just trotting until they reach the stretch run. If you still don't see the wagon moving by mid-June, it will be time to start the fire sale.