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Know Your Enemy 2005 - Part IV, B - The Astros
by Derek Smart
Yesterday we looked at Houston's offense and saw more questions than answers. Will the pitching and bench be more forthcoming with their true nature?
Where do you start when writing about a man who has his best season in six years at the age of 41? Roger Clemens was good during his five year tenure in Yankee pinstripes, but he was never really the locked-in, killer that he was at his other stops, despite his 2001 Cy Yound Award. One could be forgiven if one expected a good but not great season out of his Rocketness - solidly above league average, but nothing like his peak.
Instead, Houston was treated to one of the finest seasons by a pitcher in franchise history, made all the sweeter by its Hometown-Boy-Made-Good aspect. It easily stands out from his seasons in New York, and it's worth taking a look at how.
The BB- and K-rates are nice, but they aren't terrifically out of line with his work in other years. What really stands out is the HR-rate, and most of all, the H-rate. That's one hit less per nine innings than his best work in that regard over the previous five seasons. It's truly spectacular, and can likely be attributed to several factors - better defense, hitters who were unfamiliar with him, and a wee bit of luck. Since two of those three aren't likely to repeat themselves in 2005, it's worth asking what can be expected from him in the year to come: which is where the excellent Astros blog, Throws Like A Girl, comes in.
Predicting that this will finally be the year that Roger Clemens comes down to earth is as much a fools' game as picking someone other than the Braves to win the NL East. Eventually, it's going to happen, but there's no reason to expect that it's going to happen now.
Roger Clemens had several purely mortal outings in 2004 -- I'm remembering a game in June against the Angels where he lasted just five innings and gave up five runs, which was proceeded by a game I thankfully don't remember -- I was probably too busy brawling with the legions of Sosa-jerseyed fans in the Houston stands -- in which he gave up another five runs to the Cubs in six innings.
But I think Clemens gets such a charge out of being in Houston -- brawling with the umps at his kids' baseball games, hanging out with the Texans football team, staying home while the rest of the team drags their asses to Milwaukee for the 40th time of the season -- that it has honestly rejuvenated him. I expect there to be some drop-off in his numbers next season, now that the NL has seen his stuff in person a few times. I don't think he'll be in the running for the Cy Young;
it helps to have a team that contends. But I still wouldn't trade him for any other pitcher in the league.
I had concerns going into last season about Roy Oswalt and his ability to stay healthy, and really, who could blame me? He had pitched but 127.1 innings in 2003, missing considerable time with a (shudder) groin injury. My worries weren't about his toughness - in fact, Oswalt may actually be too tough for his own long term good - but rather, whether any lingering issues would cause mechanical changes that would then lead to larger problems, and eventually, notching more pine time than an Oregon logger.
Seems he went out of his way to prove me wrong, pitching a career high 237 innings while starting 35 games and winning that magical 20th contest for the first time in his career. It was nearly an exact clone of his 2002 season which saw him go 233 innings, walk 62 men (same as 2004), give up 17 home runs (same as 2004), and strike out 208 (two more than 2004). The only real difference between the two seasons were the 18 extra hits he gave up last year, which likely had something to do with the extra 0.47 runs on his ERA.
What makes Oswalt scary to me, besides that nasty stuff and bulldog demeanor, is the fact that he'll only be 27 this year. That means that, despite being one of the premiere hurlers in either league for several years now, he may not have peaked yet. When you can point to top five finishes in Cy Young balloting in three of your first four seasons, but can still be waiting for your best year - even in theory - that's the mark of something special.
It's not often that a player's value is measured in large part by the other players they attract to the fold, but since his season was cut short by a torn flexor tendon in his elbow, it seems that's the fate of Andy Pettitte when one considers his 2004. After all, it's natural to gravitate toward the larger of two objects - it's physics, or something - so given the choice between the mass generated by the 83 innings of 3.90 ball he threw, or the mass of his attracting the eventual Cy Young winner to join the club, we all wind up endlessly circling the celestial colossus that was the Clemens signing.
That worked last year, but the Astros need considerably more contributions of the on-field variety from Pettitte for their 2005 to be a success, and if past seasons are any indication, they're likely to get it. Despite a perhaps undeserved reputation for fragility, he has a history of bouncing back well after injuries, and as Will Carroll pointed out in his Astros Team Health Report on Baseball Prospectus, his particular injury has a good comp in Jason Schmidt.
Granted, Houston won't suddenly get Schmidt-like performance out of Pettitte (Doctor, will I ever play the violin?), but they should get the solidly above league-average work he's been doing his entire career. They'll need it, and 200 innings worth to boot, lest a shaky middle relief corps get too exposed.
The fourth spot will be taken by Brandon Backe, a decision based almost entirely on the twelve solid starts he had at the end of the regular year and in the playoffs. Previous to that, Backe had worked exclusively out of the pen in the Majors, and the results weren't good, so perhaps he's found his calling.
He was able to up his K-rate when starting without significantly gaining on his BB-rate, but in either case he's still giving up well over three free passes per nine, so that along with his H-rate could use some improving. Still, he's young, relatively new at his craft (he's a converted position player), fearless, and has decent stuff, so if he can learn to keep the ball around the plate while continuing to miss bats, he could have a nice career, and a very useful 2005.
As of now, the front runners for the fifth spot appear to be Really Super Old Guy Who Shouldn't Be Allowed To Start Anymore, Dave Burba, and the Young Guy With Upside Who Hasn't Played Above AA But Probably Deserves A Shot Anyway, Ezequiel Astacio. Tim Redding and Brandon Duckworth are also in the running, but they look like better bets to be in the bullpen. They're out of options, though, so that may play a factor in the decision.
Brad Lidge. Skip the niceties. Go straight to the table.
Ka. Blam. It must be nice to be one of the better relievers in the game one year, then have this entirely different level of spectacularocity available to you. Lidge was actually a smidge better than Eric Gagne last year, and was easily more valuable simply by throwing an extra 12.1 innings. Add in that Lidge isn't even arb-eligible until next year and you're looking at a low-cost, high-value pitcher who should be mowing 'em down in La Caja Grande del Jugo for many years to come.
The rest of this bullpen is, shall we say, unbalanced, and the real trick for Phil Garner this year will be figuring out how to get the ball from his starters to Lidge without dropping leads or overusing his more talented pitchers. The man who has the most potential to make life easier in this respect is Chad Harville, who has really great stuff, and no earthly idea where it's going. He's also a groundball machine with a career HR/9 of 1.24, so not only is he wild, he's enigmatic. However, the Astros don't need an explanation, they just need consistent outmaking, and true to form, Harville likely represents their best and worst shot at getting it.
The first lefty out of the pen will be Mike Gallo, who followed up his solid 2003 debut with a season that smacked a bit of a return to Earth. However, if there's something for Astros fans to hang their hat on in his performance record, it's that he doesn't look to have been nearly as homer-prone in the minor leagues as he was last season when he allowed a taterific 2.19 HR/9. If he can fix that, his solid control and hit rates should make him at least a passable option.
I complain all the time about how the Cubs are unwilling to locate and work with the young, cheap, scrapheap relievers that other teams seem to find under their couch cushions, but my one comfort this year is that at least they didn't sign a 44 year-old coming off his worst season ever to a guaranteed contract. The Astros did, though, inking John Franco to an $800K deal. I hear through the grapevine that Franco had thought of signing with Seattle, but balked when he realized he's spend the season being referred to as The Ancient Mariner (Thank you, Chicago! Be good to your waitresses!).
The other two sure things are Chad Qualls and Dan Wheeler. Qualls was making his debut last year and did rather nicely, showing good control and doing a great job of keeping the ball on the ground. Wheeler is surprisingly young for a bullpen guy with parts of five seasons under his belt, and beyond his 14.1 innings in Houston last year, it's nearly always been a struggle. If there's a pitcher with a "First to Go" stamp on his head, Wheeler's it.
The final spot in the pen will be taken by one of Tim Redding, Brandon Duckworth, lefty NRI Phil Norton, NRI Travis Driskill, or NRI Russ Springer. It should be one of Redding or Duckworth, since both are out of options, but Redding's the guy who came up in the organization so I'd bet on him for this one, despite Duckworth's so far superior spring.
I'm willing to concede that backup catchers aren't necessarily supposed to hit, but apparently the Astros have decided that the reserve backstop should not only be worse offensively than the man he caddys for, but proportionally so. Raul Chavez experienced his first season with more than 47 plate appearances as a 31 year-old in 2004, managing an OPS+ of 34 in 176 opportunities. To give Cub fans a little context, Paul Bako put up an OPS+ of 46 in what was easily his worst offensive season last year. When the sucking sound your offensive vacuum makes drowns out Gabor's Hoover, you've been permanently banished from the Fortress of Competence.
When Lance Berkman returns to the lineup, the primary outfield reserve will be Orlando Palmeiro. That's a reasonable role for him - he gets on base decently enough, and he can fill in at all three spots - but he'll be very exposed in that first month or so when he'll probably start in Berkman's place, his complete lack of power being the most problematic issue.
There's no way to convince me that Jimy William's fascination with Mike Lamb - or really, anyone who wasn't Morgan Ensberg - was justifiable in any way. That doesn't mean he's a poor option from the bench, but expecting a repeat of his .288/.356/.511 line would be like betting on a sitcom starring Marilyn Manson to be the hit of the new fall season. Could it happen? Sure (they love Marilyn in Peoria!), but the likelihood should be small enough to scare you away from giving it that primo time slot on Thursday night. Same with Lamb in a starting role, but he'll still get on base enough and hit with enough pop to be an asset as a reserve, just not as a guy to write into the lineup every day.
Sometimes players stay on baseball teams simply due to inertia - yeah, we could get rid of him, but then we'd have to replace him - and that's the only explanation I can think of for holding on to Jose Vizcaino. After all, he doesn't have particularly good defensive skills, and his highest complete season OPS+ was the 91 he posted in 2002. But then I saw that he hit .352/.401/.472 against the Cubs in 125 at bats over the last three seasons, and it became clear that the only reason he's being kept on the roster is to make me suffer. Am I paranoid, you ask? I can't talk here. Call me on a secured line.
Willy Taveras looks like a good bet to be the fourth outfielder while Berkman's out, and stick around when he comes back, as there isn't anyone else on the roster who's actually a good center fielder. However, he'll likely have Luke Scott in his rearview mirror, and if Scott hits during his stay in The Show anything like he has this spring, the club will likely punt the defense to keep his bat around.
There are question marks throughout the roster: Can the Killer B's produce? Will the young position players be effective? Can the rotation stay healthy? Will the middle of the bullpen implode? The answers to these queries will go a long way to determining the team's fate for the season.
What those questions won't help determine is the status of the club for the next several years. There's a lot of age here, and in some very inconvenient places, so while they have a young offensive leader (Berkman), a young ace (Oswalt), and a young bullpen stopper (Lidge), who surrounds those foundation players is an open enough question to make this season look like a final push for a ring before the requisite rebuild.
The problem, of course, is that this year is still very much in flux. But much like last year's Cardinals, writing the Astros off at this early stage would be inviting fate's sense of humor to come out in full force. Do I think this could be 100 win team? No, but with the offseason this division has had, being that good is a long way from necessary, and if things break right for them, Houston is capable of achieving that half-step above solidity that should be enough to take the crown.