Baseball Toaster Cub Town
Know Your Enemy 2005 - Part IV, A - The Astros
2005-03-23 06:30
by Derek Smart

36-10. No, that wasn't the score of Super Bowl XX - that was 46-10 - it was the record posted by the Houston Astros from August 15th, when they salvaged the last game of a three-game set with the Montreal/San Juan/Fallujah Expos, utill the end of the regular season. However, ask the Astros when their dominant streak really began, and they'll likely point to a game twelve days later.

The Chicago Cubs had been a team of spoiled children most of the season, but one of the players who had avoided petulance and peevishness was catcher, Michael Barrett. That changed during the August 27th contest between the Cubs and Astros when Barrett took it upon himself to confront Astros' pitcher Roy Oswalt over a beaning incident in Oswalt's previous start.

A hockey game nearly broke out, and when it was all through, the Astros had gotten the wakeup call they so desperately needed, catapulting them to a 28-7 record the rest of the way. Of course, one can dispute whether this incident really had the proclaimed effect, but the mere idea that a moment of ludicrous tetchiness from the Cubs could have launched the Astro juggernaut fits in so well with the story of 2004 that I refuse to refute.

Heady as those days in Houston were, this persistent success did not extend through the winter. Carlos Beltran? Gone. Jeff Kent? Gone. Lance Berkman? Out for at least the season's first month. It's like Drayton McLane made a deal with the devil that suddenly came due. And you were upset by the Cubs' offseason.

Can the Astros find the parts in 2005 to fill in for the ones they lost or broke along the way?

Starting Lineup

For the fifteenth consecutive season, first base will be manned by the venerable Jeff Bagwell. There's a sense of comfort in seeing the same man in the same spot year after year, and in Bagwell's case, the comfort has come with copious production. Glancing at some of his leaderboard numbers on his BBREF page gives a wonderful feel for what kind of player Astros fans have been treated to watching since 1991.

Adjusted OPS+150532
Home Runs446628
Extra Base Hits962329
Total Bases4,175555
Times on Base3,799650

That's a fine player, there, folks, both in relation to his peers in today's game, and in the context of baseball history. Houston has been lucky to have him, and despite the damage he's done to my favorite team over the years, it's been a privilege to watch him play.

If there's a problem for the Astros going forward, it's that the days when Bagwell speedily added to his counting stats and made positive progress on his career rate stats have long since passed. He was 36 last year, and his .266/.377/.465 line from 2004 looks suspiciously like his .273/.368/.444 line from 1992 when he was only 24.

It brings to mind part of the famous Seven Ages of Man speech from As You Like It: "Last scene of all, That ends this strange eventful history, Is second childishness..." It's life's parabola, and in terms of his baseball career, Bagwell is firmly on the wrong side of the hump.

The extra issue is that if the Y-axis is his production, the X-axis is his expense, and while the majority of players' careers graph an arc rather than a lovely, sharp, left-to-right incline, the base of Bagwell's curve - the salary part - is substantially wider than most. As great as he's been, his growing salary and declining contributions have reached the point where they're hurting his team, and will continue to do so until his contract is up in 2006, and his massive deferred payments ($15M in 2007, $10M in 2008) are completed.

Much of Bagwell's salary may be on a delayed fuse, but the time is now for second baseman Chris Burke. With Jeff Kent becoming too expensive, especially with the club's desire to re-sign Carlos Beltran and Roger Clemens, it's become time for the now 25 year-old Burke to step up and take the ball.

Now, I've never seen Burke play, so this is a good time to crack open my John Sickels' Baseball Prospect Book 2005 and pass along a little of the wisdom:

After his 2003 rebound season, all Chris Burke needed to do was add some power to his game. He did this in '04, banging 16 homers, increasing his doubles output, and boosting his slugging percentage over 100 points....Assuming the power burst is real, Burke is now a Seven Skill infielder, featuring power, speed, on-base ability, good range, a decent throwing arm, and reasonable reliability.

To be more specific, he hit .315/.396/.507 in 483 at bats in AAA New Orleans last year. He also stole 37 bags, which is a big deal for an Astros club that has few real speed threats in the everyday lineup. Truly, the timing couldn't have been better for Burke or Houston, as the opportunity to decline Kent's expensive option coincided perfectly with Burke having little else to prove in the minors. He may struggle at first, but he'll be fine in the long run, and the Astros will be younger and better for it.

The only other legitimate wheels playing daily belong to Adam Everett at shortstop. It's a good thing for the Astros that he has that particular attribute, since besides his excellent defense, there's precious little else he brings to the table.

His defense is really good, though, and while 27 year-olds who hit .273/.317/.385 aren't exactly a precious commodity, it's not like the Rocketmen have better options at this point - Jose Vizcaino can't hit either, and his defense is several orders of magnitude worse.

Even taking his defense into account, his lack of offensive ability likely makes his production a net loss. But if the choice was between staying with Everett's good glove/bad stick/cheap brand of work, and the decent glove/decent stick/expensive brand available on the market this winter, the Astros still made the right pick for their particular situation.

Think the Astro's year as a whole was streaky? How about the wild and wacky season posted by Morgan Ensberg. After a 2003 which saw him put up a nice .291/.377/.530 line with 25 home runs in a mere 385 at bats, Ensberg opened his 2004 with an outage on his power grid. In the previous season, Ensberg hit a dinger every 15.4 at bats, but in 2004, it took 209 at bats for him to hit his first long ball. And if that's not strange enough, the homer that ended that streak of futility was the first of three that he hit in his next six at bats.

The second half of the year was kinder to Ensberg, where he hit a much more respectable .299/.349/.477 as opposed to the anemic .257/.317/.363 he posted before the break. If there's something that makes this extra sad, it's the way he was yanked around when he was actually playing consistently well in 2003, falling victim to Jimy Williams' inexplicable Geoff Blum fetish. Will Ensberg return to form? I'm just not sure, so I thought I'd ask an expert, namely, the fine Astros blog, Throws Like A Girl.

It wasn't until this spring that anyone in the Astros organization offered a plausible explanation for the decline in Morgan Ensberg's production last year. There was a flurry of stories around the opening of Spring Training that reported Ensberg's elbow had been bothering him during the first several months of 2004.

My first response was skepticism; it wasn't like we hadn't noticed that Ensberg wasn't hitting home runs, and it would have been comforting to know there was some physical, and correctable, reason for it. But then I remembered former manager Jimy Williams' unnatural fondness for the bat of Mike Lamb. And you have to figure: Would Ensberg have wanted to give Jimy another reason to leave him on the bench?

Even though he wasn't hitting home runs at the same rate, Ensberg still looked good. His strikeout rate declined in 2004. Early in the season, he hit a lot of line drives that lacked the altitude to make it out of the park but still showed a lot of pop. (Sounds like an injury, right?) Ensberg's numbers in the second half were much improved, if not up to his 2003 levels, and would have been even better if not for another injury, this time his back, in late August/early September. I'm nervous about future injuries, but if Ensberg stays healthy, I think he'll look more like Lance Berkman than Richard Hidalgo.

Word is that Brad Ausmus has added a leg kick to his swing which will allow him to hit for more power. The results so far this spring have been impressive, but didn't someone say something once about horses who are old and the futility of trick-teaching?

Something tells me that still applies here, particularly with a 36 year-old catcher carrying a career SLG of .354 who has also burdened his legs with 1,424 games of squatting. An offensive contribution isn't really what Houston's after from Ausmus anyway - if it was, he wouldn't have been brought back to the team in 2001 after Mitch Meluskey committed the sin of actually hitting while being mediocre behind the dish and acting unpleasantly to boot.

The Astros like that Ausmus is liked, and they appreciate the fact that the pitching staff is comfortable working with him. However, he's ceased being truly excellent defensively and become simply good, which is not the sort of tradeoff you want from a man who struggles to get on base 30% of the time. He's in no danger of losing his job, though, and when his attempt to boost his offense yields the same old stuff, the club will simply swallow the outs and look for nourishment elsewhere.

Speaking of out-swallowing, that's something that isn't likely to happen nearly as often as the Astros would like whenever the opposition hits the ball to left field. That's because it looks like, at least initially, port-pasture is going to be the area roamed by Craig Biggio.

It's overstating the issue to call him helpless out there, but he never seemed to get comfortable once Carlos Beltran forced his move to a corner, and while I'm sure he'll be better this year simply by knowing what to expect, it would be foolish to expect more than mere competence, and even that might be optimistic.

The good news is, Biggio experienced a minor revival at the plate last year - quite a neat trick for a 38 year-old. True, he'll never again be the guy that was right around .300/.400/.500 during his peak, but since when do humans peak near 40? The big improvement was in his power, where he had his highest ISO since 1997, and a career high of 24 home runs.

Well, here comes the "but". His .281/.337/.469 line was his best overall work since 2001...but...there was still a significant dropoff in the second half, particularly in August and September. Here's a quick peek at the month by month breakdown:


Those numbers in the final two months are right in line with his three-year splits over the same period, which begs the question: is Biggio a full-time player anymore? I think the answer's a qualified yes (he was never an everyday left fielder), but there's no doubt that of late he consistently loses production in the season's final months, so the Astros might do well to consider giving him more regular rest during the early part of the year. Whether they will or not is another question altogether, and if I were a betting man, I'd stay away from that wager.

Taking over for Biggio in center is Jason Lane, and while I'm happy he's finally getting the chance to play that he's deserved for a couple years now, it seems kind of mean to give him his shot out of position like this.

Lane just isn't a center fielder, but then again if you want him in the lineup when Lance Berkman comes off the DL, then the choice is between him or Biggio in center, and the concern about the toll that a full season in the big field takes on his late-thirties legs puts the kibosh on any other ideas, especially considering the information we've already discussed. So, center it is for Jason, and them's just the breaks.

His bat should be an asset. There's decent but not great power, a willingness if not enthusiasm for the base on balls, and it will be fun to see what he can do with a full-time job, particularly now that he's at or near his peak. PECOTA puts him at .265/.334/.451, but that feels low to me. Add .010 - .015 to all of those and I get more comfortable.

Which is not a word I'd use to describe Lance Berkman at the moment, as he rehabs from the offseason flag football incident that required him to have knee surgery. I keep hearing May as a general return date, and until it actually comes around the Astros are likely to struggle mightily to score runs consistently.

Berkman's injury is particularly galling when one considers how one could have made a case for his being the offensive linchpin of the team even when Beltran was in the fold - his .333 EQA easily disposes of the .308 mark posted by Beltran during his time as a Rocketman. Now that the allure of the Big Apple and all their monies have made Berkman the hands-down go-to guy, missing him for at least a month could make for a very rough start.

If any good has come out of this from a Houston fan's point of view, it's that losing players temporarily and permanently to injuries and free agency has likely made the team realize just how important Berkman is to the organization's future. As a result, he was recently signed to a six-year, $85M contract that ends up looking pretty good when stacked next to the deals given out this winter, particularly the one to Magglio Ordonez.

Men whose lowest EQA in their four full Major League seasons is .310, and still find themselves squarely in their peak are exactly the kind of players you lock up if you're inclined to give out extra long contracts. Sure, it could wind up being a problem down the line, but Berkman will only be 34 in its final year, and as contracts longer than four years go, this one's a pretty decent bet, and one the Astros had to make.

This offense is a question mark, relying heavily on one legitimate superstar who will miss significant time, two aging and fading stars, three young players who are unproven yet have good upside, and two gentlemen whose best offensive asset is their defense. The Astros are unlikely to terrorize the division, but to dismiss them completely would be folly. The offseason has wounded this team, but it's best to resist complacency and remember how dangerous a wounded animal can be.

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