Creeping Inexorably Toward A Worthwhile Sub-Heading.
Thursday, March 25, 2004
Know Your Enemy - Part V A - The Astros
Prospects were rosy for the 2003 Astros as they rounded the stretch. After
the games of September 20th were played, Houston held a 1.5 game lead on
Chicago, with eight games remaining for the Texans, and seven for their rivals.
Their destiny was in their hands, and that's all a team can ask for as a season
Unfortunately for Houston's fans, that destiny was slippery as a greased pig
in a thunderstorm. Two days later, the standings were even, and five days later,
the Cubs clinched the division. The Astros had been in the driver's seat, but
while they were checking the map to the postseason, they drove right into a
Like every team in the NL Central, the Astros had been flawed, and they set
about in the offseason to mend what they could. They've made significant
changes, and on the cusp of a new year in baseball, there's every reason to
believe that Houston will be right in the middle of things when this September
20th rolls around.
That season in 2000 is still the yardstick Hidalgo is measured by, fairly or
not, and the inconsistency following that monstrous year has contributed to a
perception in the league and in the Astro's organization of inflated worth. But
let's get some stuff straight.
His 2001 season was solid, if unspectacular, and well worth the $3.5M he was
paid, any disappointment being a byproduct of huge expectations after a career
year. 2002 was marred by a hip injury that often kept him out of the lineup, and
rendered him ineffective when he played. The cost was $5.5M, and while that's a
lot of money for sub-replacement level performance, the reasons behind the
decline were transitory.
Although the offensive numbers aren't quite as gaudy, because of some very fine
defensive work in right, Hidalgo's 2003 season was worth the same number of wins
(9.6) as his breakout 2000 season, and at a cost of $8.5M. To compare, Sammy
Sosa made $15M in 2002, while supplying 9.3 wins. Obviously, Sosa brings other
qualities to the table that justify the expenditure, particularly in team
marketing terms, but it's hard to look at that information and not think Hidalgo
has, overall, been something of a bargain.
But besides the hefty dose of flakiness, I'm struck by how young Hidalgo is. I've
been under the mistaken impression that he's in his early thirties, but seeing
that he's in the midst of his peak years changes my thoughts on him somewhat.
True, he could be one of those freaks that burn bright, hot, and early, but it
seems more likely that he established a performance level last season that he
should be able to sustain.
However, his PECOTA projection sees a pretty sizeable dropoff, with a
midpoint of .277/.358/.495 and an EQA of .288 to go with it. His injury history
likely contributes here, and while this is not good news for the Astros, I'm not so down on Hidalgo. He may not put up last year's numbers, but I think he's more likely to land in between 2003's production and the projection above. Houston needs that performance, too, as they already have much of their offensive hopes wrapped up in players who have entered a
decline phase, and to have one of their younger offensive lights start to burn
out would be devastating to the team's chances.
The direction of Craig Biggio's
career is considerably clearer, and unfortunately, it's all downhill from here.
In fact, it's been downhill for a couple of years now, despite Jeff Bagwell's
protestations to the contrary.
Although he's always been one of those players I love to hate, with his
pine-tar-slathered batting helmet and Scrappy-Doo attitude, I'm genuinely
saddened to see him fall so far so fast. One of the great pleasures of having an
adversary like Biggio is the overwhelming joy of beating him. I always felt,
whether at the game or watching on TV, that when he did something to beat the
Cubs he was looking at me, straight at me, and laughing.
He was the personification of the schoolyard bully, and there's no real
fulfillment to be had in running into him when you're strong and grown and
seeing that he's a lonely ghost of a man who's still trying to be that thing he
was so many years ago.
Adding to the sadness is having to watch Biggio play a position for which he
has no aptitude. Perhaps when he was younger he could have made the transition
to center - after all, he went from catcher to keystone and made himself one of
the best - but he's no longer built for it, if he ever was.
Time and the ravages of 937 turned double plays have sapped his legs of their
speed and quickness. Besides, there are better things for 37 year old
ballplayers to do than learn the most difficult and physically demanding of
Offensively, he still has a little pop, but his batting average has suffered,
as has his plate discipline. Biggio hasn't walked in 10% or more of his at bats
since 2001, and the only thing keeping his OBP from being completely
unacceptable is his ability to get hit by pitches. Take away his elbow shield,
and you're looking at a .260/.320/.400 hitter in the leadoff spot. You'd think
he was a Cub.
In left field, Lance Berkman is
turning into something of an enigma himself.
He's lost batting average while losing power, yet he's increasing his walk
rate while also bettering his strikeout to walk ratio. The trends in his
strikeout and walk numbers should indicate making positive strides, but despite the indicators, the production left the building last year. Berkman's always had a sizeable
platoon split, so maybe there's something to be found there.
Not exactly what I was looking for, but interesting nonetheless. His work
against lefties has been fairly comparable, especially when the size of the
sample is taken into account, but the drop in production against right handers
is odd. It's still a very respectable line, but compared to the demolition job
he's done on his opposites in the previous two years, the drop in power is
Houston needs Berkman. Badly. I genuinely believe last season was a blip -
he's only 28 and sometimes there's just no explaining an off year - but the fact
that I can't find a root cause is strange. Or perhaps that should be a source of
comfort. His approach at the plate is still solid, so it would seem more likely
that he can bounce back. I don't have an answer, and that's the best part. We'll
just have to wait for the season to find out.
There's another youngish player the Astros will be counting on at third base,
and it's about time they did. Morgan Ensberg will finally be allowed to take
over the hot corner full time after being forced to share innings last year with
Short of a serious injury - like, say, decapitation - there was no discernable
reason to play Blum over Ensberg, yet it happened 72 times in 2003. That's 72
games where Blum's .262/.295/.379 line was deemed worthy to play over Ensberg's
"Gee, Derek," some might say, "what about their platoon splits? After all,
Ensberg hits from the right side, and Blum's a switch hitter. Maybe it was a
good tradeoff after all!" Hmmmmm. Maybe so.
Or maybe not. Looking at these numbers, there was no justification for
allowing Geoff Blum to do anything other than come off the bench or perform clubhouse
foot massages. To put him in the lineup over Ensberg for nearly half of the
Astro's games crosses the line from malpractice into madness.
Luckily for fans of the Houstons, the evil temptation has been removed to
Tampa Bay, where all bad hitters go to die. A full year and 500+ at bats from
Ensberg will help stave off some of the rest of the lineup's inevitable age
Like the one first baseman, Jeff Bagwell,
finds himself in. While certainly not in freefall, Bagwell is slowly losing
steam each year.
He's not losing production due to decreased playing time, he's just not as
effective as he once was. Granted, he's still a fine player, but Bagwell will be
36 this year, and as this decline continues, the question is not whether he will
become a millstone, but rather how large a millstone he'll be.
It's possible, if not likely, that he could continue to produce at last year's levels through 2006, and while that may be fine work when viewed in a vacuum, there are other
considerations to make. Bagwell's salary for the next three years will be $12M,
$13M, and $16M respectively. As
I've mentioned before, no matter how it appeared at the time it was
signed, this deal looks lousy now, especially when put into context of
contracts like the one signed by Derrek Lee in February.
The Astros have been very loyal to Bagwell, after all, he's
been the face of the franchise, along with Biggio, for years. But the time is coming, if not already
here, when this loyalty will start to hamstring the club's future. Like it or
not, this isn't a big budget team, and signing deals that pay players tens of
millions into their late thirties is not a recipe for success, even in Big
Second baseman and designated truck washer, Jeff Kent, had a
bit of an off year in 2003. Yet, when the player manning the keystone can say
his .297/.351/.509 line wasn't up to previous standards, you learn to live with
That's not to say there aren't reasons for concern. Kent will turn 36
just after opening day, and while that's a source of worry all on its own, take
a gander at this.
During his wonderful MVP season in 2000 he walked once every 7.7 plate
appearances, but since then his walk rate has gone down every year, settling at
near double the amount of PA's between walks in 2003. I don't want to make any
rash predictions, but that doesn't look like a hitter who's likely to get
better. In fact, I'd say it looks like someone who's about to hit a wall. Now,
I'm no expert, and I don't play one on TV, but if I was an Astro fan I'd start
to get worried.
Kent's double play partner is Adam Everett, and while he does well with the
leather, he's got some learning to do with the stick. Last year he was barely
above replacement level (.256/.320/.380, 4.7 VORP), and there's no reason to expect anything different in
2004. He'll be doing his level best to make sure the bottom of the Houston order
is the opposing pitcher's refuge.
Joining him in the quest will be catcher, Brad Ausmus. I've already made
my feelings known on Ausmus, so I won't belabor the point here. Suffice to say,
when Ausmus signed his two year, $4M deal in the chill of November, it warmed my
Cubfan heart all winter.
There's a decent offense here, but don't look for an overall improvement on
last year's version. There are only one or two players in the lineup who are good bets for
increased production, and the rest can be expected to experience some measure of
decline. Much like the Cubs, what will separate Houston from the rest of the
division will be their pitching staff. More on them, and the denizens of the pine,
in part B.