Rethinking The 2009 Astros

added 6/24/2009 by Bob Hulsey

From the first terrible weeks of spring training, most Astros fans have been told that 2009 would not be their year. The team was too old (oldest in the majors, in fact). The pitching was too thin. The division they play in was too talented.

With 95 games to go, however, what fans think about the Astros may say more about whether one is an optimist or a pessimist than what the Astros themselves have accomplished.

Here's some cold hard truths for you optimists out there. The Astros have never been above .500 all season. They've spent the past month in the division basement. They allow more runs than they score. Only four teams in the league have worse records. They're also 10-21 against their own division, 4-18 if you don't count games against Pittsburgh.

But here are some nagging truths for the pessimists to chew on. The Astros enter Tuesday's action five games behind the first-place Cardinals. They are down just three in the loss column. They are only four games back in the wild card chase. They have the third-best batting average in the league. They have the eighth-lowest ERA. And the Astros practically own the patent on second-half surges.

There's nobody in the Central Division that seems able to run away with it. The Cubs have been terrible on offense so far. Likewise, the Cardinals are one injury or slump by Albert Pujols away from imploding. The Brewers can hit a ton but pitching is a problem. Can you name five good players on the Reds? And the Pirates, well, sadly they'll be setting a record this year for most consecutive losing seasons.

Despite the insistence of the baseball intelligentsia that the Astros need to throw in the towel on 2009, and the sooner the better, they're still around and still have a shot at being in the playoffs this year despite missing their closer for a month and enduring very slow starts from their biggest stars - Roy Oswalt and Lance Berkman.

So let's grab the pompoms and wear our rose-colored glasses for a moment, catch a wave of optimism and seriously consider what the Astros need to do in order to make the playoffs this year. More than two months into season, it is clear what the Astros need to do to turn themselves into champions.

First, let's look at the offense position-by-position. The outfield has fueled the offense this season. As a group, they are second-best in the league in batting average (.303) and third in OPS (.844). The trio of Carlos Lee, Michael Bourn and Hunter Pence aren't the problem and the good news is that two of them are still in their mid-20s and have upside.

The infield, as a group, is hitting seventh in the league in batting average (.269) but 12th in OPS (.738). Miguel Tejada is the second-best offensive shortstop in the league but the folks at first, second and third base haven't been keeping up.

Lance Berkman is Lance Berkman and nobody's replacing him. Whether it's the sore shoulder he suffered in spring training, poorer plate discipline or some other malady, the first baseman has not been the same player this year that Astros fans have come to expect. The home run power is still there but the batting slumps have been terrible - bad enough to move him from his customary third spot in the batting order. If the Astros are to be a success, Berkman simply needs to return to his old self.

Kaz Matsui has had a bad year and the oft-injured second baseman may only now be rounding into the form that hit .288 and .293 the past two seasons. Edwin Maysonet put up great numbers while Matsui was on the DL but nobody knows if he can sustain that success. His lack of playing time the past week has been puzzling.

The third base platoon of Geoff Blum and Jeff Keppinger has been subpar (.695 OPS) yet, oddly enough, the entire division is plagued with bad numbers at third. When Aramis Ramirez returns, the Cubs will have solved their problem and the Brewers are hoping a talented but raw Mat Gamel will be their solution. The Cardinals and Reds are struggling at this position much like Houston is. Neither Blum nor Keppinger has been as bad as Matsui this year but their total lack of power (four combined homers) has hurt the club.

Catching is also a letdown (.687 OPS despite a .261 batting average) but one we were expecting. Humberto Quintero has been slightly better than Ivan Rodriguez at the plate this year and deserves more playing time.

To say our bench has been atrocious this season is to sugarcoat it. Pinch-hitters have batted .133 with a .408 OPS, both league worsts. That largely falls on the shoulders of reserve outfielders Darin Erstad and Jason Michaels.

Starting pitching has been a mixed bag of question marks who have been inconsistent. Nobody has won more than six games this season and the Astros rank 10th in ERA among starters and last in innings pitched from their starters.

The relief corps also ranks 10th in ERA but should improve now that closer Jose Valverde is back from the DL and the other bullpen roles have been established, assuming the bullpen stays healthier than they have been up to this point.

So, now pretend you are Ed Wade for a moment. You have a boss that wants to win now but doesn't want to spend more money to cause that to happen. He's already stretched the budget this spring to get Pudge Rodriguez and Jeff Keppinger. Is there anything else in the coffers to get an upgrade or two at the trade deadline? Probably not.

It would also be foolish to expect another Randy Wolf to show up in July. I think Wade got lucky last year. You usually have to spend for dependable starting pitching and, as I've already mentioned, the Astros won't be spenders this summer.

No, the answer this year is to stay within the organization and put your best 25 men on the parent club. That means waiving or DFA'ing non-producers like Jason Michaels and Brandon Backe. Darin Erstad might go as well but he would be more difficult to replace as a left-handed pinch-hitter. Plus, he has some defensive versatility to add.

Call up either Reggie Abercrombie or Yordany Ramirez to take Michaels' place. Neither have been world-beaters in AAA but, even projecting worse numbers at the next level, either would give you better results than Michaels has this season. Plus, both have better speed and cover more ground defensively.

Neither Tim Byrdak nor Wesley Wright have had much success stopping lefties in the bullpen this year. I think when Mike Hampton returns from the DL, it should be his turn to try the role. He's not been entirely successful against lefties either but he strikes out a ton of them which makes him better suited for situational work. Getting him mentally adjusted to the role might be the toughest challenge but he might be advised to look at what it did for Greg Swindell's career before panning the idea.

Brian Moehler is another pitcher I think ought to be moved to the bullpen. He's had a Jeckyl-and-Hyde year as a starter but he's a savvy veteran who has done well in the past in long relief.

The three best starting pitchers Houston has right now are Roy Oswalt, Wandy Rodriguez and Russ Ortiz. To those three, I want to add to the rotation AAA pitchers Yorman Bazardo and Bud Norris. Both 24, Norris leads the PCL in ERA while Bazardo has been near the top in victories and has prior big league experience with the Marlins and Tigers. I think both are ready to see time in the majors. Felipe Paulino will soon come off the DL and can be insurance if one or the other falters. Plus, there's always the option of bringing Moehler or Hampton back into the rotation at a later date.

I don't foresee a lot of movement at the trade deadline this year and what players do move will be mostly role players not superstars. If the Astros do decide to fold before July 31st, they may have some of the best trade bait around in Tejada, Pudge, LaTroy Hawkins and Jose Valverde. But there's no reason to send any of them away right now while the Astros are close in both the division and wild card chases. Instead, they should get their best players healthy and on the big club, cut out some of the deadwood in the bullpen and on the bench, and make that push to get into the race.

Yet, should the Astros' fortunes plummet, getting young players like Norris and Bazardo up here will help Wade assess their readiness for next season. Chris Johnson (3B) and Brian Bogusevic (OF) may both get looks later on this season but I don't think their time is now. In this way, the Astros are not just getting younger but they are not conceding the season either.

Say what you want about Cecil Cooper but he's an overachiever. The Astros did it last year and, judging by the Pythagorean totals, they're doing it again this year. If the kids can keep performing and veterans like Oswalt and Berkman rebound, the Astros may yet get the last laugh on what started out the year like a bad joke.

This column was originally posted before Tuesday night's game.