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Astros '09 Season Preview

The second installment of our NL Central season previews moves down to my hometown (well, I’m in a suburb) to look at the Houston Astros.

"We should win 90 games, without question," Cooper said this morning. "We have a terrific bullpen. We have one of the best closers in the game. We've got the ace in the National League. We've got three of the best offensive players at their position. We've got, if not the best, then one of the top catchers in baseball.
That was Astros’ manager Cecil Cooper just barely more than a week ago discussing the state of his ballclub. At the time, the Astros had won somewhere in the neighborhood of 4 or 5 spring games. Now they’re up to a whopping 11-18 record. They’re a World Series contender!

  • ’08 record – 86-75
  • ‘08 Pythagorean record – 77-84
  • Runs per game – 4.42 (11th in NL)
  • Runs yielded per game – 4.61 (9th in NL)
  • DER -- .699 – T-3rd in the NL (Defense Efficiency Ratio)
  • BP projected record – 70-92
  • Chone projected record – 72-90
  • Welcome: Pudge Rodriguez, Mark Loretta, Jason Michaels, Mike Hampton, Russ Ortiz
  • Don’t let the door hit you…: Ty Wigginton, Brad Ausmus, Randy Wolf
I guess I’m wondering initially how they’re going to win 4 more games (or 13 if you consider the Pythagorean record) given that they’re weaker at 3B, in their infield depth, and they’ve added Jason Michaels, Mike Hampton, and Russ Ortiz. What, Jeff Conine already signed w/ somebody else?

Rotation: There’s little doubt that Roy Oswalt is one of the league’s best pitchers but if Cecil Cooper thinks he’s "the ace of the National League" he’s been breathing too much Houston smog! Oswalt, though a 3.7 WAR pitcher in ’08, has seen his production decline each of the last 5 years. He’d still be the best starter on many staffs in the NL, but he’s hardly the league’s best pitcher. Wandy Rodriguez is a nice guy to have around – clearly one of the NL’s underrated starters. Last year, in just 137.1 innings, he was worth 2.7 wins. But that’s a double-edged sword. He was an above average starter but the Astros got just 137 innings out of him. (a poor man’s Rich Harden?) Only once in his 4 years in the big leagues has he thrown more than 180 innings in a season.

At least the Astros have proven vets Mike Hampton, Russ Ortiz, and Brian Moehler to turn to when filling out their rotation. It’s hard to believe that the best of that bunch is probably Moehler. Last year, in 150 innings, Moehler was worth 1.3 WAR. In the last 4 seasons, Hampton and Ortiz have combined for 374.1 IP – an average of 46.2 IP per pitcher per year. Ortiz hasn’t been worth more than Moehler’s 1.3 wins since 2004. Hampton – same thing! GM Ed Wade has spent a lot of time w/ the way-back machine searching for some rotation help.

Bullpen: According to Cecil Cooper, the Astros have "one of the best closers in the game." Jose Valverde’s a nice closer and all – more than a K per inning, and an FIP last year of 3.68 – but 16 current closers in baseball were worth more wins last year than Valverde. Valverde’s flanked by some decent middle relievers – Doug Brocail, Chris Sampson, LaTroy Hawkins, Geoff Geary – but considering the number of innings their likely to pitch, they’re going to be worn out by the All-Star break.

Catcher: For the second year in a row it was supposed to be J.R. Towles. Unfortunately, last year Towles hit .137 w/ a whopping .235 wOBA before being sent to AAA and then put up 4 hits and 1 walk in 22 PAs this spring. The ‘stros responded by turning to … "one of the top catchers in baseball!" Welcome to 2004, ladies and gentlemen! In fairness, Pudge is nearly a league-average catcher (1.9 WAR in 2008) but since when does "league average" equal "one of the top catchers in baseball?" Is Braden Looper one of the best pitchers in baseball? Humberto Quintero will reprise his role as the Astros’ backup backstop.

Infield: There’s no doubt that Lance Berkman is one of the best hitters in the game. He’s also become a very good defensive 1B. In total, he was worth 6.9 WAR in ’08. Only some guy named Pujols was worth more wins at 1B in 2008. That said, Berkman’s also 33 and had a career high WAR last season. He’s not getting any better. The Astros’ 2nd best infielder in 2008 was Ty Wigginton (3 WAR) and they dumped him rather than pay him a slight arbitration bump over the $4.35 M they paid him last year. In fairness, he did play over his head so they decided to replace him w/ Geoff Blum (0.9 WAR in 2008). They would have platooned him w/ Aaron Boone had Boone not had to undergo open-heart surgery but no one would have confused Boone w/ Evan Longoria or David Wright this year (maybe if it was 2001, when Longoria was 15!). Miguel Tejada was worth 3 wins last season as well but this is a guy who won the AL MVP in 2002. Last year, he got basically all of his value in the field (minus 7.5 RAA, .313 wOBA offensively) and earned $13 M. It’s reasonable to think that Khalil Greene will be worth as many wins to the Cards as Tejada will to the Astros at half the price. The 2B is Kaz Matsui – 1.9 WAR in 2008. Their backup is the newly acquired Jeff Keppinger.

Outfield: It’ll be Carlos Lee – who can still hit -- in LF, Michael Bourn again in CF, and Hunter Pence in RF. Lee produced 3.4 wins in 2008 despite being a poor defender and Pence produced 2.6 wins largely b/c he’s a very good defender. While Pence should be entering his prime, Lee turns 33 before the All-Star break. At least they’re only on the hook for 4 more years and $74 M for Lee! (Whew!) Pence is a nice player who, if he hits as he did in ’07 and fields as he did in ’08, could be a 4.5 to 5 win player. Bourn was worth minus 0.1 wins in 2008. He was the definition of replacement-level in 2008 and, despite an OBP of .279 in the leadoff spot, was allowed to take 330 PAs last year in the 1 hole! It’s Corey Patterson-esque! The backup OFs include Darin Erstad and Jason Michaels. They were worth a combined 0.4 wins in 2008. So, those 5 guys were worth a combined 6.3 wins – 1.3 per person – in ’08 despite the fact that 2 of them together were worth 6 wins. It certainly looks like the makings of a 90 win club!

The Astros, for various reasons, are one of baseball’s worst-run organizations. There’s no minor league depth thanks to poor drafts, free agent signings, trading 6 players for Miguel Tejada, and an inability (or unwillingness) to sign draftees. So when their starters break down, or they need too many PAs from stalwarts like Erstad and Michaels, the cupboard is bare. This may not be the year the ‘stros completely fall apart, but they’ve got a lot more bad years than good in their immediate future.

For more info – and a more optimistic perspective – see Lisa Gray’s response to the five questions over at THT.