Neither Hot Nor Cold

added 7/30/2009 by Bob Hulsey

Which Astros team should we believe? The one that launched from the All-Star Break winning two of four in Los Angeles, swept the Cardinals and beat Johan Santana for an impressive 6-2 start or the one that looked on the verge of collapse in losing four of five to the Mets and Cubs since that time?

While Wandy Rodriguez has been consistent and Roy Oswalt has looked good before injuring his lower back on Tuesday (if he misses significant time, the Astros are toast), the veteran threesome at the back of the rotation - Mike Hampton, Russ Ortiz and Brian Moehler - have been, at best, inconsistent and, at worst, disastrous.

The hitting, too, has been inconsistent. Part of that is the loss of Lance Berkman to an injured calf. He is to the offense what Oswalt is to the pitching rotation. But Berkman's injury isn't the whole story. Hunter Pence has regressed into his swing-at-anything mode. His average for July has dipped to .242 entering Thursday and his OPS has fallen to .629 after three straight months of .800 or better. Miguel Tejada and Carlos Lee have done much of the heavy lifting since the break.

Besides Oswalt and Berkman, the Astros have been beset by numerous other ailments from pulled hamstrings to stiff shoulders to dehydration to shingles. One expects somebody soon will land on the DL with the heartbreak of psoriasis.

Add it all together and you have a post-break blast-off that has now fallen back to earth, just a game over .500 as the Cubs and Cardinals put some distance between themselves and the Astros and Brewers. Houston proved last year and earlier this season that they are a resilient bunch who often look better in the final standings than the sum of their parts. Not to mention, this is the time of year that they usually have hit their stride and moved up in the standings. But maybe not this year.

There's no question that the Astros are an old club which may see some major changes before next year. Several top players will be entering free agency after the season, including Tejada, Ivan Rodriguez, Jose Valverde and LaTroy Hawkins if the Astros don't re-sign them. Had Houston played poorly the past month, some of the vets would have likely been dealt this week to reinvigorate a weak farm system. The Astros, however, were too close in the standings to be broken up.

The recent injury bug may have provided the first infusion of new talent for Houston. Pitcher Bud Norris is the first Astro all year to be making his major league debut. The Astros, in fact, are the last team in 2009 to have a player get their big league baptism.

Norris is somewhat like the Astros himself. He led the Pacific Coast League in earned run average, yet sported a losing record. Scouts disagreed on whether he was ready for the parent club. Some say he needs one more pitch. Others say he needs more maturity. Either way, he is here and quickly got three innings of one-run work in against the Cubs for his premiere. He might be called upon to start Sunday if Oswalt can't go.

When the trade deadline passes and the Astros, as expected, haven't made a change, it will be interesting to see what happens if the club falls out of the race. Will they try to get some players to clear waivers and liquidate for prospects or will they stand pat? Will they give Norris and a few other young players a shot at the big time or hold them off until 2010?

Players like Hampton and Ortiz won't be of much value to the franchise if they continue to pitch the way they have recently. Why have them eat up starts if Norris, Felipe Paulino and Yorman Bazardo continue to impress in AAA?

The Astros have this knack of defying reason. Count them out and they fight back into the race. Hop on their bandwagon and they quickly disappoint. One chunk of their fan base wants to see a big move to make them legitimate contenders. Others want the Astros to be blown up and rebuilt so they can come back stronger the next decade.

In the Book of Revelations, chapter three, the prophet tells the church of Laodicea, "I know your deeds that you are neither cold nor hot. I would that you were cold or hot." (NASV)

It seems many Astros fans can relate to that. They simply don't know what to do with this team. We wish that they were cold or hot because, then, we'd know whether to support their season or support a rebuilding year. Unlike football, baseball fans have to live with 60 or so losses on even the best of teams. The last-place teams often post 60 or more wins. Baseball is a streaky game.

However, a team that sits around .500 tends to induce more wailing and gnashing of teeth than the ones who were just awful from the get-go. It's human nature for most to see the glass (or the standings) half-empty rather than half-full.

We're waiting for a sign.

It's too early to fold the tent on this season but it will soon be too late to get much in return for some of their more moveable assets.