Pinch Me! We're Not Losers

added 7/13/2009 by Bob Hulsey

Very few thought the Astros would be where they are today - at the All-Star Break with a 44-44 record and tied for third. The math wizards at Baseball Prospectus had us down for a 66-win season. Ken Rosenthal of Fox Sports said just weeks ago on the MLB Network that the Astros were "an embarrassment". The team has allowed 30 more runs than they've scored.

Yet the Astros are actually on pace for a better season than most of their more recent years. Observe:

Year   ASB Record   Place     GB   Finish
2009     44-44       T3       3.5    ??
2008     44-51        6      13     86-75
2007     39-50        5      10.5   73-89
2006     43-46        4       6     82-80
2005     44-43        2      11.5   89-73
2004     44-44        5      10.5   92-70
2003     50-44        1      +1     87-75
2002     41-45        3       6.5   84-78
Bad first halves for Houston are turning from trend to tradition. One could argue that this season has been their best position at the break since 2003. All those years but one saw the Astros finish with a winning record so there is reason for optimism.

At the beginning of June, Houston was eight games under .500. Since then, they have had the best record in their division. In all honesty, they've benefited from a weakling-heavy schedule and will be paying for that in the second half.

At times, it seems like the Astros are similar to that old, rickety roller coaster that, when you watch the cars race across it, you marvel that the whole thing doesn't collapse on itself. The boards bend and creak but they somehow hold up.

The oldest team in the majors has no pitcher with more than eight wins or a reliever with more than 10 saves. Their two best-known players, Lance Berkman and Roy Oswalt, got off to terrible starts. The clubhouse is at odds with their manager.

And yet they are a .500 team, playing above most projections.

General Manager Ed Wade says not to expect any major changes for the second half. They've already stretched their budget to bring aboard Ivan Rodriguez and Jeff Keppinger in the spring. Last season, though, the Astros made below-the-radar additions of LaTroy Hawkins and Randy Wolf that worked splendidly. Don't be surprised to see a similar move or two near the trade deadline.

Here are five reasons why the Astros will improve in the second half and five reasons why they won't:

For the optimist...
1) Lance Berkman, Roy Oswalt and Jose Valverde all expect to be better in the second half than they've done so far.
2) Doug Brocail will take some of the bullpen workload from Hawkins and Chris Sampson who have been the two that have held the relief corps together in the first half.
3) Carlos Lee has yet to go on the power streak that he typically has somewhere in the season. He just recently came out of a three-week homerless streak.
4) Pinch-hitting performances (.170 average, .525 OPS) couldn't possibly get worse. Newly-acquired Chris Coste has a low bar to shoot for.
5) The rotation is experienced and used to pennant pressure. If the Astros are still around in the final weeks, they have guys who have been there before.

For the pessimist...
1) The second half schedule has more road games than home games with the Brewers and Cardinals dominating the division slate instead of the Pirates and Reds of the first half.
2) Mike Hampton is 1-6 with a 6.20 ERA when he is not pitching against the Pirates. Houston will see Pittsburgh just once in the second half.
3) Hunter Pence has had a solid first half and has shown more plate discipline but he has regressed some recently.
4) Pudge Rodriguez has caught 69 of 88 games and, at age 37, he's apt to fade as the season wears on.
5) Sampson and Hawkins have been overworked and can't be expected to pitch as well in the second half.

Both on a local level and on a national level, the Astros have been awash in pessimism all year. It's easy enough to feel that way when they've been in fifth or sixth place most of the season, particularly when you see the way they have blown some close games and failed to score in others.

But the Astros have been a notorious second-half club most of the decade and there looks to be nobody in the division ready to run away with it. I expect the Astros to hang around and perhaps make a surge to put themselves in contention. And they won't look pretty doing it.