First Half Studs And Duds

added 7/6/2009 by Bob Hulsey

With 81 games played, the Astros are officially at the halfway point of the season although they only have 80 wins and losses as I type this. That's because the suspended game with Washington which will be completed Thursday already counts in the books; it just needs to be finished.

So, with that milestone achieved, now is the perfect time to assess who was hot and who was not for the first three months of the season and maybe get a hint as to what lies ahead.

The Astros are the epitome of a .500 team, equal parts good and bad. Fortunately for them, the rest of the Central Division has been in the same boat so Houston isn't having to play catch up from far back in the pack this year. But there's a lot of teams bunched together and the fear is that any one of them could bolt from the group. Eventually, the Astros will need to start their own winning streak if they hope to make the playoffs.

Who's been pulling the wagon so far?

Start with Michael Bourn. Before the season, I said he was the player that most needed to show improvement and he has. From .229/.288/.588 (batting average, on base pct. and OPS) last year, he has blossomed to .286/.359/.754 so far in 2009. Those still aren't great numbers for a leadoff hitter but they are good and it appears he is still improving. Bourn also leads the league in triples (6) and steals (26), plus he's a highlight reel in center field who takes away runs with some of his great plays.

Miguel Tejada was another preseason question mark. Would he be affected by his legal troubles and issues about his age? Not in the first half. The shortstop has hardly taken a break while hitting .326 (OPS .828). He's not the power hitter he once was but he's been effective in the #2 spot in the lineup despite grounding into 13 double plays.

Hunter Pence had to show he could bounce back from a sophomore slump and lay off the sliders that ate him alive last year. He's shown improvement (.302/11 HR/34 RBI/.867 OPS) but he hasn't yet put it all together. Like Bourn, his best play is still on the horizon.

Carlos Lee and Lance Berkman have had years like most expected. As a hitter, Lee is one of the steadiest producers in baseball. You can pencil in somewhere around a .290 average, 30 homers and 100 RBIs yet again this year. Let's hope he has a hot streak waiting in the second half. Berkman struggled mightily to begin the season and while his batting average is still low (.269), he's the club leader in home runs (17), RBIs (48) and OPS (.933). I expect the average will be back around .290 by year's end.

Among the starting pitchers, Russ Ortiz (3-4, 4.11 ERA) has been the overachiever of the group, given what was expected of him. Don't let his bad outing in San Francisco fool you. He's going to be a key contributor down the stretch. Wandy Rodrgiuez (7-6, 3.21) leads the starters in wins and ERA but I'm still waiting for him to break out of his .500-pitcher mode and be more dominant.

In the bullpen, Chris Sampson (4-1, 2.58) and LaTroy Hawkins (1-2, 2.55, 10 saves) have been the workhorses. They've each had their meltdowns but they've generally answered the bell this first half and kept an overworked and injury-plagued bullpen from becoming a disaster. Jeff Fulchino (2-3, 3.13) and Alberto Arias (1-0, 1.99) came up from Round Rock and have been pleasant surprises.

So, who hasn't been pulling their weight?

Start with Kazuo Matsui, who has hit just .232 in the first half with an OPS of .594. The second baseman has improved since his last stint on the disabled list but the oft-injured infielder needs a big second half to reach what he did last season.

Geoff Blum has just two homers all year. Despite a .266 average, his .667 OPS doesn't cut it among National League third basemen. His platoon mate, Jeff Keppinger is a little better and may see more starts if Blum doesn't get hot.

It's difficult to lump Ivan Rodriguez in either camp. His numbers (.241 average, 7 homers, 30 RBI, .669 OPS) are better than most Houston catchers over our history but below what might have been expected of him. Will he tire as the year goes on? His handling of the pitchers has been less than I hoped for also.

The pinch-hitters, as a group, have been terrible. Darin Erstad (.157 average) and Jason Michaels (.178) have been disappointing and may not be with the club after July if some deals are swung.

As for the starting pitchers, Roy Oswalt (5-4, 3.81) and Mike Hampton (4-5, 4.44) have been average. Oswalt has been heating up and could be poised for a great second half.

From the pen, Jose Valverde (0-2, 4.08, 6 saves) has fought through injuries. Lefties Tim Byrdak and Wesley Wright have struggled with inconsistency.

It is tough to forecast where this team will land in October. If Oswalt, Berkman and Lee perform at their accustomed excellence and the rest of the team can keep up their pace, they might match last year's 86-win season. If trades can be swung to reinforce the infield, the Astros have an outside chance to reach the playoffs for the first time in four years.