the astros not only traded for aubrey huff yesterday, they also fired their hitting coach, ex-card 3b gary gaetti. the astros rank 13th in the nl in runs scored, 15th in batting avg, and 14th in extra-base hits.
we've seen them shake things up at midseason and rise from the depths before, and the depths aren't even deep in 2006 -- but i don't think this is the astros' year. they don't excel at anything -- the offense is bottom 4, their rotation is only marginally better than the cardinals', and their bullpen is awful. (say what you want about stl's relievers, by the way -- they still rank 2d in the league in batting avg allowed (.242) and 3d in on-base allowed (.323) and slugging allowed (.387)). i'm not dismissing the astros -- you have to respect their track record, and i do think they'll be close enough to capitalize on any breaks they happen to get. but somebody pointed out during the all-star break that houston plays 42 of its 73 remaining games on the road. the 'stros are 51-79 on the road -- a .392 winning percentage -- going back to the beginning of last season; not the best place for them to try and put together a run.
i still think the brewers represent the cardinals' greatest threat. i'm well aware that they rank dead last in the nl in pitching, with a 5.03 era; also that their run differential is a staggeringly bad -74. their pythagorean record projects to 38-52, so we might say that the brewers' real-life record of 44-46 considerably overstates the quality of the team.
i'm not so sure it does. milwaukee played most of the 1st half of the year sans two starting pitchers -- their nominal ace, ben sheets, and innings-eater tomo okha. basically, they lost their carpenter and their suppan for two months apiece. both are currently on rehab assignments and should be activated within a couple of weeks -- at which point the brewer rotation will be significantly better than st louis'. as things now stand, the two teams are even: the patchwork brewer rotation pitched the cardinal starters to a draw in the first half, posting a 4.96 era to the cards' 4.93. you might even argue that the brewer pitchers were better, in that they allowed fewer homers than stl's (60 to 77) and struck out a lot more batters (435 to 305). the crew is adding sheets and okha; the birds will add weaver now and, if all goes well, mulder about a month from now. . . . . . i'd take the brewers' best five guys over ours.
then there is the milwaukee offense. lot of firepower, but they're only tied for 9th in the league in runs scored, 29 back of the cardinals. they've outhomered the cards, 111 to 87; they've outwalked them, 286-281; they've got more doubles, more stolen bases . . . what gives? the biggest difference between the two offenses in the first half was the cards' superior batting average -- they outhit the brewers by 18 points, .279 to .261, erasing all the brewers' other advantages. but i have serious doubts about whether the cards can duplicate that performance in the 2d half. eckstein's .311 1st-half avg is 30 points above his career norm; rolen's .331 betters his career mark by 45 points; part-timers like luna and zpiezio and duncan are all hovering around .300, a level of hitting ability that none of them has firmly established. even the cardinal pitchers are putting up inordinately high batting avgs; as a group they are hitting .173, best in the nl. the odds are that some, if not all, of these hitters are going to regress to the mean in the 2d half; the only guy who can be expected to raise his average for the same reason is yadi molina. maybe they're capable of hitting .280 as a team over an entire year, but i wouldn't want to have to stake my postseason hopes on it. . . . .
maybe we won't have to. the cards' anemic power figures have a good chance to improve in the 2d half. edmonds' homerun stroke wandered back in from the woods and, hopefully, will accompany him to all 75 of the team's remaining games. and it seems as if the cards have finally resolved to find a better hitter to play left field -- even if, after all this time, it's only craig wilson or some such. so if a dip in batting average is likely in the 2d half, so too is a modest surge in "danger," as extra-base power is now being referred to by the management. that, combined with one resurgent starting pitcher -- mulder, weaver, or marquis -- ought to be enough to get the cardinals back to the postseason. that outcome still looks more likely than not.
but the brewers will have something to say about it. st louis and milwaukee still have 9 games left against each other, including the final series of the year. circle the dates.
quick minor-league notes: mark hamilton homered again; he leads the new york-penn league with 7 bombs, 3 more than his closest competitor . . . . rasmus homered for palm beach, his 1st in high-a ball. here's bryan smith on rasmus: