Five Questions: Houston Astros

1. How did the Astros manage to make the playoffs after sitting at 44-44 at the All-Star break?

You would think that a team going 48-26 to finish the year after a .500 first half would have seen improvements in all facets, but that’s actually not the case with the Astros last year. Believe it or not, Houston’s pitching was almost exactly the same before and after the All-Star break. The majority of the second-half success can be traced back to the offense improving significantly.

                              1stH     2ndH
Runs Scored Per Game          4.50     5.50
Runs Allowed Per Game         4.31     4.31

In fact, on a per-game basis, Houston’s pitching staff was exactly the same before and after the break, allowing an identical 4.31 runs per game in both halves The offense, buoyed up by the midseason trade for Carlos Beltran, scored an extra run per game in the second half, an improvement of over 22%. So while Houston’s turnaround was somewhat out of the blue, the way they did it makes sense — if you maintain your solid pitching and suddenly start scoring another run per game, you can really do some damage.

2. So now that Beltran is gone, the Astros will revert back to their first-half ways?

The Beltran trade got the lion’s share of the credit for the dramatic second-half turnaround, and rightfully so, but Beltran wasn’t the only Houston hitter who finished the year strong. Jeff Bagwell boosted his slugging percentage from .432 to .504 in the second half. Jeff Kent went from having an All-Star first half (.285/.341/.491) to an MVP-level second half (.293/.356/.575). After a strange first half that saw him go homerless for three months, Morgan Ensberg hit more like he had in 2003 during the second half, batting .299/.349/.477. Even Brad Ausmus bumped his second-half OPS up by 64 points, making himself close to a major-league-caliber hitter after the break. And Lance Berkman was dominant throughout the season, hitting .299/.452/.556 before the break and .335/.447/.577 after it.

Basically, Beltran is good, but he’s not that good. The Astros went from scoring 4.5 runs per game in the first half to scoring 5.5 runs per game in the second half, and unless you’re talking about Barry Bonds there isn’t a player who can do that all on his own.

3. Great, so even without Beltran the Astros can continue on their second-half roll in 2005?

Well, not so fast. Beltran is gone, and so is Kent. Together, those two guys gave the Astros some pretty incredible offensive production at two key defensive positions in the second half. In addition to that, Houston’s most valuable position player last season, Berkman, is expected to be out for at least the first month of the season recovering from offseason knee surgery. Bagwell and Craig Biggio are still around, but they are both a year older and Biggio was the only regular who declined in the second half last year anyway.

Losing Beltran is just one missing piece of the second-half puzzle, but the Astros are missing a few other pieces as well. Continuing their second-half scoring spree is going to be almost impossible, and I think even repeating their 803 runs scored overall last season will be difficult. The Astros will essentially be replacing a half-season of Beltran and a full season of Kent with some combination of Chris Burke, Jason Lane, Luke Scott, and Willy Taveras. While I think Burke is a very good prospect and the other three guys are all intriguing players, those are some awfully big shoes to fill. Add in likely declines from Bagwell and Biggio, plus Berkman’s absence, and this lineup could very easily struggle to approach last year’s numbers.

4. Are you just going to pretend Houston doesn’t have a pitching staff or what?

While Houston’s pitching staff wasn’t behind the team’s rise to the top of the National League Wild Card race last year, I think pitching will be the biggest key to the Astros’ 2005 season. Last year, Roger Clemens and Roy Oswalt made 42% of Houston’s starts and combined to go 38-14 with a 3.25 ERA in 451.1 innings, making them one of the best 1-2 combos in all of baseball. What makes me optimistic about the pitching staff’s chances for improvement this season is the fact that the Astros had to basically piece together the 3-5 spots in their rotation last year because of an assortment of injuries and poor performances.

Tim Redding, who tossed 176 innings with a 3.68 ERA in a very fine rookie season in 2003, completely fell apart last season, going 5-7 with a 5.72 ERA. The amazing thing is that as bad as Redding was, he actually finished third on the team with 100.2 innings pitched, which tells you what a mess Houston’s rotation was. Andy Pettitte was signed away from the Yankees during the offseason to fill the third slot behind Clemens and Oswalt, but he ended up starting just 15 games all year. Wade Miller, who combined to go 45-25 with a 3.61 ERA from 2001-2003, also managed just 15 starts because of arm problems.

In addition to what Clemens, Oswalt, Pettitte, and Miller gave them last season, the Astros needed to find 64 starts. They called on a combination of Redding, Peter Munro, Brandon Backe, Carlos Hernandez, Brandon Duckworth, Darren Oliver, Jeremy Griffiths, and Jared Fernandez to make those starts and the result was a complete disaster. Those eight pitchers went a combined 14-21 with a 5.45 ERA in the 64 starts, making matters even worse by putting a strain on the bullpen with an average of just 4.65 innings per start. The bad news is that Miller is with Boston now and the Astros will once again be counting on a few of those same fill-in guys. The good news is that they almost can’t help but be improved.

5. Do the Astros have enough pieces to patch together a 90-win season?

Houston is simply not as strong a team as they were last season. Of course, they weren’t as strong a team as they were last season until the second half of last season anyway, so I’m not going to write them off just yet. With that said, this team has lost some major chunks of production from last year, they are counting on old guys like Clemens, Bagwell, and Biggio in key spots, and their best player will probably miss at least 20 games. In addition to that, the back end of the rotation, while likely to be improved, is still very shaky, and the bullpen in front of Brad Lidge is extremely iffy.

The Astros have enough star power to hang around in contention all year, but they’ll need quite a few breaks to get back to the playoffs. Pettitte staying healthy would be a nice start, and a reliable setup man or two emerging from an uninspiring relief corps wouldn’t hurt either. Clemens having the best season ever for a 42-year-old pitcher is also a must, which is another reason to think this team is on some pretty thin ice.

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