NL Central Comparisons: Astros

There's been discussions around here previously about how Ed Wade has gone about restructuring his club this offseason. The farm system, even prior to the Tejada and Valverde trades, was ranked as one of the worst in baseball and the Astros recent drafts have been nothing short of pitiful. It seems apparent that Wade was instructed to go into win-now mode and make one last push with the veteran core of the team (Oswalt, Berkman, Lee).

To that end, Wade has turned what few prospects he had into several major league acquisitions. Setting aside whether or not the Astros have a reasonable chance to win now, Wade has improved the club to a degree. He's also made at least one significant misstep as well see later. I'm not a fan of Wade's player evaluation skills but he seems to have placed the Astros in a position where things could break right and they could steal the division.

Remember, offensive and defensive estimates appear after each set of players relative to replacement level. They're ballpark figures, not meant to exact, based on VORP from Baseball Prospectus and UZR from Mitchell Lichtman. The pitchers are in terms of runs saved.

C - JR Towles/Brad Ausmus (15/5) vs. Yadier Molina/Jason Larue (10/10)

It's a real change for the Astros this year as long-time catcher Brad Ausmus is finally moved to the role he belonged in: backup catcher. Despite being well regarded for his game calling skills, Ausmus was an invariable cipher in the lineup. Youngster JR Towles will step in as an offensively minded catching prospect who played his way from high-A to the majors in 2007. He's probably worth more than 15 runs offensively at his peak but I'm expecting him to take time to adjust to the league and dealing with everyday wear and tear of the position at the level can sap a bat. Molina represents a significant boost defensively and I'd take our tandem this season but possibly Tolwes after 2008 and beyond. Catcher: Cardinals

1B - Lance Berkman (50/0) vs. Albert Pujols (80/15)

Coming off of a spectacular 2006 in which he batted .315/.420/.621 and contributed 70+ runs offensively, Lance Berkman came back down to earth and saw his power stats regress. As a slugging 31-year-old 1B, Berkman probably hasn't reached his decline phase quite yet and should be expected to maintain a reasonable level of production for at least 3-4 more years. Not that it matters much since the Cardinals have the best 1B in the league making this a non-contest. 1B: Cardinals

2B - Kaz Matsui/Mark Loretta (15/5) vs. Adam Kennedy/Aaron Miles (0/5)

Despite the fact that 2B has been a relatively deep free agent position, Wade made his first misstep this offseason betting on Matsui's resurgence in Colorado. The 15 run estimation is really the optimistic projection for those two players. Loretta was offered arbitration in the hopes that he would garner a draft pick by declining arbitration. Instead, he and the team are headed for an arbiter in what can't be a pleasant turn of events when the separation on salary figures is something like 1.5M. Matsui's probably a slight upgrade defensively at 2nd but Wade would have been better off targeting Tadahito Iguchi or simply promoting Brooks Conrad from the minors. Tragically, it's hard to be worse than our second basemen. 2B: Astros

SS - Miguel Tejada (40/0) vs. Cesar Izturis (5/0)

This is where Wade really misstepped this offseason although two caveats could show this to be a smart move in the future. The Tejada acquisition was an upgrade to the team and I don't think there's anyone who would seriously disagree with that. Despite declining power numbers last season, Tejada is only two years removed from posting 3 consecutive 60-run seasons. Tejada appears to be about average with the glove maybe a tick below but should be able to delay the transition to 3B for a little while longer -- which segue's nicely to my two caveats. If Tejada would have refused a move to 3B or if Adam Everett's leg (video link on the right hand side of this article) was going to impair his mobility, then this was the best move Wade has made all offseason. Personally, I'd rather have Izturis though . . . I'm kidding. SS: Astros

3B - Ty Wigginton (20/-10) vs. Troy Glaus (30/0)

Wigginton hasn't been a good defensive infielder ever so he winds up giving back a considerable number of runs in that area. Ideally, Tejada would have played third and Everett would have been something like a (-5/35) player at SS. Had the Astros held on to him, he likely would have been a 2-3 win upgrade over their current configuration. Instead, they seem content with Wigginton playing third. 3B: Cardinals

RF - Hunter Pence (30/10) vs. Ryan Ludwick (20/5)

Pence made a play for ROY before being eclipsed by Ryan Braun offensively. He's capable of being a middle of the order hitter although his 2007 numbers are inflated from a high BABIP. The key to 2008 for him lies in returning his plate discipline and walk rates to the levels they were in the minors. While capable of playing centerfield, he'll be an asset in right field and shouldn't have a problem eclipsing our cadre of right fielders. RF: Astros

CF - Michael Bourn (15/10) vs. Rick Ankiel (20/0)

The Bourne Ultimatum was one of the better action movies in 2008. Not only does Michael Bourn spell his name different from Jason but he looks over-extended as an everyday player due to his lack of power. (I think the Lidge trade was a mistake given the returns.) He features great speed on the basepath, which should allow him to cover the spacious outfield of Minute Maid effectively. Hopefully, he'll ask to have that mound of dirt and flagpole removed from the middle of centerfield . . . although I doubt if the Astros will oblige him, unfortunately. I'm going to pick against the numbers this time and take Ankiel. I like his offensive skillset better than Bourn's and I think the extremes of each projection (i.e. best and worst case scenarios) favor Ankiel. CF: Cardinals

LF - Carlos Lee (40/-15) vs Chris Duncan (30/-15)

There aren't many players that can match Chris Duncan dropped ball for dropped ball or bad route for bad route but the Astros have one of them. After a split year between the Brewers and Rangers in 2006, Lee was given a hefty contract to go to Houston and add some punch to the middle of the lineup. With no where to go if he ages fast (1B being manned by Berkman), Lee should be able to maintain a 40 run pace for next year. That 100M contract is still terrible, anyway you look at it. LF: Astros

Pitching-
Roy Oswalt (60) vs. Adam Wainwright (40)

I like Adam. I think he's a solid front of the rotation pitcher with a good arsenal of pitches. He's not Roy Oswalt. SP: Astros

Wandy Rodriguez (30) vs. Joel Pineiro (20)

We often cite Wainwright's second half from 2007 as an indicator that he had figured things out. While his overall stats are underwhelming, Rodriguez seemed to have made that leap in the first half of the season last year. In his second season in the MLB, he doubled his K/BB rate from 1.5 to 3.0 and posted a 2.94 ERA at home. From May to July he was striking out 20% of the batters he faced. I think he's prepped to emerge as a solid middle of the rotation starter. As a left-hander, he'll likely be death on the Cardinals to boot. SP: Astros

Brandon Backe (15) vs. Braden Looper (15)

Backe is coming back from 2006 surgery (of the Tommy John variety) and while his 5 starts at the end of last year were unimpressive, the recovery rate from that surgery is quite good. He remains something of a question mark, however, and the Astros are going to expect him to shoulder a significant number of innings next season. Looper is average at best and there's still good reason to wonder if he can pitch an entire season and maintain his effectiveness. SP: Cardinals

Woody Williams (5) vs. Matt Clement (0)

Old man versus a player who hasn't pitched since 2006. I hope Clement's shoulder stays attached but I already put my chips on the other pony in that race when we made community projections. Williams is headed into his age 41 season and he's not particularly effective any more. Pick your poison. SP: Astros

Chris Sampson (10) vs. Anthony Reyes (0)

I fully expect Jack Cassell to claim this spot from Chris Sampson by end of season. Sampson's a 29 year old journeyman player who benefited from some considerable luck. His ERA was 4.59 while his FIP was 5.39. If Reyes does anything productive for the Cardinals, I'll be more than a little surprised at this point. Replacement level seems like a reasonable place to start. SP: Astros

While the Astros don't have a formidable rotation, the Cardinals appear to have a severely broken one right now. Houston has a distinct offensive advantage outside of the corner infield and defensively represent a team that could be slightly above average. It's not a team that a cursory examination would indicate is a contender but if things break the right way for them and the wrong way for a few other teams, it could be interesting. Wade has made some modest upgrades to the team but after 2010, they'll be hard pressed to contend in that decade.

Next up: Brewers

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