The Virtual 1972 Houston Astros (Part 2)

Last time we identified six trades executed by Houston Astros GM Spec Richardson between October 1968 and December 1971 that turned out particularly badly. Now we’ll present just what the Astros roster might have looked like if those deals hadn’t been made.

The developing ball club

The first transaction we looked at was the acquisition of catcher Johnny Edwards, who filled the primary backstop role for Houston through 1973. Without Edwards on board, whom could the Astros have deployed behind the plate?

Whatever they might have done at the position in the short term, in 1969 the Houston organization included a trio of viable catching prospects: Bob Watson, Larry Howard and Cliff Johnson. All three were defensively challenged behind the plate; indeed in the minors all three played extensively in the outfield and first base as well as catching. But all three could hit.

The best hitter among them, and the quickest to develop, was Watson. In our scenario it would be Watson emerging with the bulk of the Houston catching assignment in the early 1970s, even though his defense would be problematic. In this period the Astros also cheaply picked up two utility catchers, Jack Hiatt and Bob Stinson, who could be useful in support of Watson.

At first base, in real life the Astros didn’t exercise the patience to allow their tremendous prospect John Mayberry to develop. Our version gives him that space, and the breakout season he enjoyed for Kansas City in 1972 would take place in Houston instead.

The Astros’ impatience with Mayberry provoked them to shift incumbent shortstop Denis Menke to first base for most of 1971. In Menke’s place at shortstop the Astros deployed good-field, no-hit Roger Metzger as their regular. In our version, Menke remains as the primary Houston shortstop through 1972, with Metzger serving as his backup, frequently providing late-inning defensive replacement work.

The actual Astros in this period sent away two pitchers, Dave Giusti and Mike Marshall, each of whom would subsequently emerge as a tremendous relief ace. With both remaining on board, the Houston bullpen in the early 1970s would develop into a key strength.

The 1972 season

A pair of rare jewels would sparkle for the Houston ball club: second baseman Joe Morgan presenting his best season yet at the age of 28, and sensational young Gold Glove-winning center fielder Cesar Cedeño, bursting into superstardom at the age of 21. They would be joined by three additional terrific bats, wielded by the young first baseman Mayberry and the veterans in the outfield corners: left fielder Jim Wynn and right fielder Rusty Staub.

Third baseman Doug Rader’s bat was good, and he provided Gold Glove defense. Neither Menke at shortstop nor Watson behind the plate would be strong defensively, but each would be far better hitters than most at their respective positions.

The team would suffer one major injury, as Staub would miss nearly all of the second half after being hit by a pitch on his right hand. In his place, defensive whiz Cesar Geronimo would gain a lot of playing time, and also Watson would spend time in the outfield.

The starting pitching would be anchored by veteran ace southpaw Mike Cuellar, with younger right handers Don Wilson and Larry Dierker contributing strong seasons as well.

Marshall and Giusti would present a devastating one-two bullpen punch. Even though he was a right hander, Marshall’s wicked screwball would stifle left-handed-batting opponents, who batted just .165 against him in 1972.

The top-end strength of the staff in both starting and relief would allow Houston to deploy three fine younger pitchers, lefties Jerry Reuss and Dave Roberts and right-hander Ken Forsch, in low-stress spot-starting and long-relief swingman roles. Two solid relievers, Jim Ray and George Culver, would round out the bullpen.

The most common starting lineup would be:

1. Wynn, lf
2. Morgan, 2b
3. Cedeño, cf
4. Staub, rf
5. Mayberry, 1b
6. Watson, c
7. Rader, 3b
8. Menke, ss
9. pitcher

The results

Pos Player     B  Age     G   AB    R    H   2B   3B   HR  RBI   BB   SO   BA  OBP  SLG  OPS OPS+
 1B Mayberry   L   23   149  503   69  151   25    4   24  101   77   76 .300 .394 .509 .902  158
 2B Morgan     L   28   149  552  117  167   24    4   16   64  115   42 .303 .424 .447 .871  151
 SS Menke      R   31   140  447   45  108   20    2    9   50   58   73 .242 .326 .356 .682   96
 3B Rader      R   27   152  553   61  131   24    7   22   80   57  120 .237 .308 .425 .733  109
 RF Staub      L   28    66  239   39   71   11    0    9   41   31   13 .297 .374 .456 .830  137
 CF Cedeño     R   21   139  559  103  179   39    8   22   95   56   62 .320 .384 .537 .921  162
 LF Wynn       R   30   145  542  112  148   29    3   24   66  103   99 .273 .388 .470 .859  146
 CO Watson     R   26   124  439   54  129   22    2   12   68   40   69 .294 .358 .435 .793  127

 OF Geronimo   L   24   120  255   32   73    9    7    4   28   24   62 .286 .351 .424 .774  122
 C  Hiatt      R   29    80  184   17   47    8    2    3   20   32   45 .255 .366 .370 .735  112
 C1 Howard     R   27    54  126   11   27    6    0    2   10   14   25 .214 .291 .310 .600   73
 S2 Metzger    B   24    77  128   15   25    2    1    0    6   10   17 .195 .237 .227 .463   34
 C  Stinson    B   26    59  117   10   26    4    0    2   10   11   19 .222 .292 .308 .600   73
 OF Miller     L   26    67  107   15   26    4    0    4   15   13   23 .243 .331 .393 .724  107
 OF Chiles     L   22    31   51    4   12    3    0    1    5    3    8 .235 .278 .353 .631   80
 S3 Fenwick    R   25    36   50    7    9    3    0    0    3    3   13 .180 .226 .240 .466   34
 OC Johnson    R   24    23   35    4    8    1    0    1    4    5    7 .229 .325 .343 .668   92

    BATTERS                 4887  715 1337  234   40  155  666  652  773 .274 .359 .433 .792  127

    PITCHERS                 388   22   55    4    1    3   22   12  162 .142 .156 .180 .336   -4

    TOTAL                   5275  737 1392  238   41  158  688  664  935 .264 .344 .414 .759  127

Pitcher    T  Age      G   GS   CG   IP    W    L   SV    H   HR   BB   SO   ERA ERA+
Cuellar    L   35     35   35   16  245   18    8    0  214   22   74  131  2.98  113
Wilson     R   27     33   33   12  226   15    8    0  194   16   65  172  2.67  126
Dierker    R   25     31   31   11  210   15    7    0  203   14   50  112  3.34  100
Reuss      L   23     33   19    3  128    6    8    0  106   10   55  130  3.73   90
Roberts    L   27     35   17    4  128    9    3    1  136   12   38   83  4.08   82
Forsch     R   25     30   15    1  117    5    4    0  109   13   47   90  3.46   97

Marshall   R   29     62    0    0  104   13    5   12   73    3   42   86  1.73  194
Giusti     R   32     54    0    0   75    7    3   20   60    3   19   54  1.93  174
Ray        R   27     40    0    0   60    7    4    2   46    7   29   37  3.90   86
Culver     R   28     34    0    0   65    4    1    1   44    5   29   61  2.77  121

Griffin    R   24      6    1    0   14    1    0    0   14    1    6   12  3.21  104
Cosgrove   L   21      4    1    0    7    0    1    0    8    1    2    4  5.14   65
Richard    R   22      4    1    0    6    1    0    0   10    0    8    8 13.50   25

TOTAL                153  153   47 1385  101   52   36 1217  107  464  980  3.13  107

The exceptionally deep and well-rounded offense, second in the league in batting average while leading the league by enormous margins in home runs and walks, on-base percentage and slugging average, would rout opponents. Indeed the team OPS+ of 127 would establish a National League record, surpassed in history only by the overwhelming performances of the Ruth-Gehrig New York Yankee teams of the 1920s and 1930s. (And not that this ball club would need to, but if it wanted to run wild on the basepaths, the Astros were loaded with speed as well: Morgan and Cedeño were two-three in the major leagues in steals in 1972, with 58 and 55.)

The pitching wouldn’t be great, but it would be very good, finishing fourth in the 12-team league in ERA+.

Together the offense and defense would yield a won-lost record of 101-52 in the strike-shortened season, by far the best record in the majors. The winning percentage of .660 would be the highest by any National League team since the 1953 Dodgers.

These ’72 Astros wouldn’t be a perfect team. Watson’s catching defense would be poor, and though they would have lots of depth behind him in Hiatt, Howard and Stinson, none of them was better than average defensively either. Menke’s limited shortstop range would be an issue, especially on the many artificial-turf stadiums in the National League (including, of course, the Astrodome), although Metzger’s terrific defense behind him in the late innings would help.

Still, this would be one heck of a juggernaut, capable of soundly beating you in a variety of ways.

The legacy

I’ve chosen to focus on the 1972 season in this exercise because so many of these players presented strong years; it would be the peak year for this roster. But the sheer depth of talent assembled here means that a Houston ball club along these lines would almost certainly have captured several championships.

With Giusti here instead of in Pittsburgh, the Pirate teams that won multiple division flags in this period, and the pennant and World Series in 1971, wouldn’t have been quite as competitive. With Wynn and Marshall here instead of in Los Angeles, the pennant-winning 1974 Dodgers would have neither their best hitter nor their Cy Young Award-winning ace reliever. And most definitely, with Morgan here instead of in Cincinnati, the Big Red Machine of 1972-76 would be missing an essential cog.

In short, in this plausible scenario it would almost certainly be the Houston Astros dominating the National League in the early- and mid-1970s, remembered today as one of history’s great dynasties.

References & Resources

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