Astros Limp To Finish Line

added 9/18/2009 by Bob Hulsey

Watching the Astros finish off the season is painful to watch, not just because they are losing but because they seem so injured and inept in doing so. Roy Oswalt is hurt and is being shut down. Lance Berkman might as well do the same. The offense won't support Wandy Rodriguez or Felipe Paulino and the rest of the rotation squanders the times the offense does pitch in.

What's worse is that the Astros rarely play smart baseball. It seems they run themselves out of too many innings, make mistakes in the field and get outmanaged in late game situations. They are terrible at situational hitting. The lineup is comprised of free swingers who don't work the count, don't draw walks and don't advance runners. All they know is how to swing for the Crawford Boxes which might make SportsCenter but also increases the number of strikeouts and double plays that kill innings.

Back in the 1980s, the Astros were often outgunned but they won a lot of games with fundamentals, hustle and brains. While Jeff Bagwell and Craig Biggio were around, there was a sense of professionalism that carried forward that tradition. Today, sadly, I just don't see that. We were seduced by the cheap home run and now it has left us lost in the wake of smarter, sounder clubs who execute like a team and have learned how to win the close ones.

It's beyond time to turn the remainder of the season over to the prospects and let's see who might be ready for the big stage in 2010. It's already happened to the pitching staff but only because the pitchers who started the year now resemble the extras in an episode of M*A*S*H (RIP Larry Gelbart, while I'm on the topic).

If Cecil Cooper would like a way to keep Miguel Tejada in the lineup while giving Tommy Manzella a shot at the shortstop job, why not give him a first baseman's mitt and let him try his hand at first? Berkman hasn't done much lately, Darin Erstad is nicked again and Geoff Blum is merely a stopgap. What could it hurt?

It's fine to tell your veterans you are fighting for every win but it becomes counterproductive when the guys you are playing will likely be wearing someone else's threads next year. Give Manzella, Chris Johnson, Edwin Maysonet and J.R. Towles as much playing time as they can take. There's still the outfield trio of Carlos Lee, Michael Bourn and Hunter Pence to provide the facade of a major league lineup, enough that nobody will complain about the batting order that's being sent out there. Besides, Colorado and San Francisco are the only two teams left with anything truly to fight for and neither are on Houston's remaining schedule.

The more the 2009 season has deteriorated, the more I find myself agreeing with those who say the Astros should be blown up and rebuilt. Of the free agents we will turn loose after the season, the only one I really want back next year is LaTroy Hawkins who is reasonably affordable and seems to have made quite a steady home in Houston.

Make clear to our three top returning salaries - Berkman, Oswalt and Lee - that 2010 will be a rebuilding year and we'll be willing to move them to a contender if they are willing to drop their no-trade clauses. If we can find a buyer for Kaz Matsui, even better.

Let's bite the bullet and rebuild. I know owner Drayton McLane hates the idea and the farm isn't really ready to send up any top prospects but another year of "Cash For Clunkers" isn't any more appealing. And - who knows? - perhaps the fan base will rally around kids like Paulino or Bud Norris or Manzella if they are just given the chance to shine on a regular basis.

Realistically, Lee and Berkman are probably going to stay regardless. With Bourn and Pence in the lineup, that's four bats any opposing team should be wary of. The Astros won't be pushovers. But the young guys should take over the other spots in the lineup and let them sink or swim. Jason Castro will likely be in Houston by 2011 to hold down the catching job and we'll have Jeff Keppinger around should one of the rookies falter. It's not as risky as it first seems.

The Astros would have Rodriguez to anchor the rotation and Hawkins in the bullpen to close with the rest of the staff consisting of Brian Moehler, Chris Sampson and a lot of young arms. It won't be fun to witness but there could be some pleasant surprises and fans will be more tolerant of a loser when they know it is necessary to start over on the way to remaking a contender.

Bobby Heck and Ed Wade have a track record of acquiring good talent. It will just take some time to get there. Once most of the puzzle pieces are in place, there should be enough payroll left over to find those couple of free agents to put the Astros over the top.

Until then, Astros fans should gird themselves to take a few lumps and hope that it won't land them on the Disabled List the way many of this year's "over the hill gang" have predictably experienced.