Wednesday, March 14, 2007

The Best 4 Days of the Year

I'll just tell you now: I won't be able to sleep tonight. This is Chirstmas Eve for basketball fiends like yours truly. We're entering the greatest 4-day sequence on the sports calendar. Who are the other candidates? Allow me to sift through them and piss on their contrasting lameness.

Super Bowl Sunday be damned - the game is usually a disappointment, and the scene is such a clusterfuck of commercialism and hangers on that the game is an afterthought to most people. What else comes close? MLB's opening day? The games are too insignificant, and it's still cold in half the cities. BCS week? There's your probable runner-up, but the hoops action is so much more concentrated. BCS week is delicious, but it's too much coke, not enough whiskey.

I'll take my double tall of bracket and ball busting basketball ludicrosity now, thanks. At this time, I'd like to spew some random thoughts about the tournament, because I write this for the jolly of it, and don't have editors to cramp my style with "structure" and "facts."
You know how I know you're gay? You don't have a man-crush on Kevin Durant. This man is the balls, and has plans including but not limited to 32-foot, off-balance threes in the face of double teams. I, for one, have welcomed our new basketball overlord, and wish him a pleasant trampling of the Fighting Reggie Theuses in round one and USC in round 2. After Kevin is done urinating on the facemask of Tyler Hansbrough in the sweet 16, you too will be ready to kneel at the throne of this KG-TMac hybrid sent to us from another galaxy.

The Buckeyes of Ohio State are of course led by 37-year old college freshman Greg Oden. Oden has recently had his jock re-hopped on by many because his injured right hand has healed at long last. Alas, he is now ready to live up to the billing he recieved as an offensive dynamo coming into the season. He also will be fully prepared to travel through time, rationalize the Iraq war, and fulfill several biblical prophecies.

Hopefully you've been fortunate enough to see Joakim Noah's spastic, seizure-like hyphy dance of a celebration from last weekend. If not, go ahead and YouTube it now. Some say he's a douche for this work of artistic expression, but I disagree - I wish Peyton Manning would have got his Mark Madsen on next to Jim Nantz after the Super Bowl.

My nausea is kicking in now, but I have to say it: Kansas is fucking awesome. They completely dismantled Mizzou a while back, and I was in person to view the dismemberment of my Tigers. They turned the second half into a dunk contest, thoroughly waxing our assembly of JuCo transfers and confused passers-by in jerseys. They're sick, and are my selection to win the whole thing. I make this pick, because, what the hell - the Gods of Sport have tortured me for most of college with the whole Cardinals thing, so why not pile it on for my final March here in Columbia.
My final four is kU, Florida, Georgetown and Ohio State. I know, I made a big stretch there. Really out on a limb with those three one seeds and a number two. Maybe I'm soft. Maybe I'm not. Maybe fuck off. All I know is that I'm thoroughly prepared to immerse myself in my favorite four-day sequence of the year, as you should.

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

State of the Star 2007: The Bats

Much has been stated, written, re-hashed and rambled regarding the shittiness of the Houston Astros' offensive punch the past two seasons. In fact, just about the only thing said about the Astros' offense in the national media realm the past two years has been how they can't score any runs for poor Roger Clemens. How an offense so mediocre managed to win the pennant in 2005 is a testament to two things: 1) MLB has reached, and could surpass, the NFL in parity, and 2) the Astros pitching staff in 2005 will be seen as legendary in 25 years. Think about it - they went three HOF'ers deep to start the rotation, had (at the time) arguably the hottest shut-down closer in the game, and featured two workhorse set-up guys with electric stuff. Alas, this is not about the pitching of yesteryear, but the bats of today - so I digress.

The pinnacle of such offensive ineptness shone brightly on one of the few games I got to attend at the Juice Box last season: at a businessman's special weekday game closing out a series with the Cubs, Andy Pettitte opposed someone named Ryan O'Malley in his major league debut. The lightning rod that was the Stros' offense managed 5 hits, 6 walks, and 0 runs against the kid, who was back in Iowa 2 weeks later. Nice.

So the Astros responded by splashing loudly in the offseason pool. Gone is the beloved Slick Willy T, and going with him will be his low on-base percentage. Replacing him in CF (unless Hunter Pence hurdles AAA altogether, which is a distinct possibility) is Chris Burke, which will be a boost offensively, but is initially hard to decipher in terms of outfield coverage. Carlos Lee isn't the most speedy of outfielders, and Taveras would have been able to at least cloak that weak spot by shading into left a bit.

Speaking of Lee, we gave a guy $100M who was on the wrong side of 30 with bad knees and a visible belly. This does not reek of long-term financial wisdom. This signing will help this and next year, but may be an albatross reminiscent of the shoulder-impaired Bagwell years we are now exiting.

Those however, are the cons. The first of the pros are that Lance will have a proven All-Star bat to protect him in the order. Lee, like Lance, makes the players around him better by giving them more pitches to hit. Of course, if you're actually reading this, you probably don't need an asshole like me telling you this redundant, well-known fact of baseball.

Luke Scott apparently spent the offseason eating dry chicken and egg whites, hitting for hours in the cage, and doing a great deal of grunting and heavy lifts. Add that to the fact that he was a man on fire late in the year, and I need to believe in the dude. He's been given the starting job in RF to start spring training, and it will take a baaaad March in Florida + poor managerial judgement to keep him from such.

Morgan Ensberg has been a favorite of mine since he first entered the Astro realm. He had that awkward phase where he changed his batting stance every 15 minutes, showed emotion on teams that reeked of "professionalism" (i.e. - stale white guys, see: Jeff Kent), and suddenly exploded in 2005 while Lance slowly recovered from knee surgery. Because of this, watching him last season was rough on me. If Morgan bounces back, it's like doubling the Lee signing. People forget that this guy finished 4th in the NL MVP voting just two years ago - last year people in Houston wanted him maimed for his injury-induced struggles. Come back, Mo-Berg. Please.

Let me offer this preface next - Craig Biggio is an all-time, doubt-free, Texas icon and one of my favorite athletes of all time. But last season, he looked DONE. He hit .246, his worst mark since his rookie 50-game stint of 1988 (I was 3 that season). His second half was atrocious, and correspondingly, the Star picked up Mark Loretta to take some of his reps this season (as well as at SS when we inevitably get sick of Adam Everett hitting .230). Bidge needs 70 hits for 3,000, and he has more than earned the right to walk away on his own terms. His 3,000th hit will be a great moment for the city of Houston, and I'll savor watching it - hopefully in person. For the Astros to succeed this year, Craig needs to find Mr. Peabody's Way-Back machine and be the dude he was in 2004, at least. Otherwise, we may have an air of awkwardness swirling beneath our train filled with oranges.

The black hole of death returns to the bottom of our order this year. By this, of course, I mean 'defense-first' pop-out wizards Adam Everett and Brad Ausmus. Unlike most Astro fans though, I'll stop railing on their obvious offensive limitations and harp on their fine qualities - Everett saves you 1/2 a run a game on defense, and is a pleasure to watch in the field. Ausmus makes everyone he catches better. Plus, if the other guys do their jobs, they'll slide off the hook for another season when they combine to hit in the .235-.245 range.

Overall, the Star should be vastly improved offensively. So much so, that we could be a daunting lineup if Lee comes through, Mo bounces back and Luke Scott becomes a better Jason Lane. Burke will hit for more pop than Willy, and Mark Loretta is 2 years removed from hitting .335 with the Padres.

Still, so many ifs. That's why we watch, though.

Friday, March 02, 2007

State of the Star 2007: Pitching Staff

This is floundering, non-abrasive analysis, but last season truly was a mixed bag for the Astros' pitching staff. The positives were strong enough to carry what success the team did have despite their sickly offensive efforts. Roy-O (15-8, 2.98 ERA, 1.17 WHIP) would have been a worthy winner of his first Cy Young award, Rocketman (7-6, 2.30, 1.04) was a big contributor in the 2nd half when he didn't seem winded, and Dan Wheeler accepted a promotion to closer in stride when Brad Lidge looked like he was about to pitch his way out of professional baseball.

The back half of the starting rotation struggled, though. Wandy Rodriguez was afraid to throw his JV fastball anywhere near the strike zone. A revolving cast of formerly promising young arms flamed out - Taylor Buchholz (the gem of the Wagner trade) started hot but ulitmately fizzled, Jason Hirsh got a cup of coffee in the bigs and wasn't that impressive, and Fernando Nieve was more effective in the pen than as a starter. Brandon Backe, in all his adrenaline-fueled glory, needed Tommy John surgery after making a whopping 8 starts. Andy Pettitte showed signs of being himself, but ultimately had a down year and wound up remarkably mediocre. The Yankees can take him for $16 mil.

The back half of the bullpen was the most striking change than in la serie mundial season of 2005. National media and lesser informed fans will say Brad Lidge never psychologically recovered from Pujolsgate, but Astros brass and pitching minds think differently. Nolan Ryan and others cited Lidge's mechanics for most of his control problems, which caused his formerly devastating slider to sit on the outer half of the plate instead of diving into oblivion. I tend to side with this logic - Lidge was a stand-up guy throughout the whole media circus, and his ascension through baseball, overcoming several bad arm injuries, were bigger life hurdles than Al's game 5 bomb. That, and I have to believe this in order to not want to punch things.

Chad Qualls had another pretty good year, but when he was bad, it was triumphant and memorable (see: Konerko Grand Slam in June series that mirrored gut-wrenching WS blast). Trever Miller proved to be a big lefty upgrade over Mike Gallo, and will accordingly be back for 2007.

Through all this, we ended up not being all that bad. Having Roy, Roger and even a down Andy will do this, though. The Star wound up 2nd in the NL in team ERA (4.08), 4th in batting average against (.256) and 3rd in strikeouts (1160). But you don't care about that, because your Astro nerdery pales in comparison to mine. I digress.

We've got a frightening new look to the rotation in 2007. Bible-pounding lefty Andy Pettitte spurned the Astros big offer to come back, then went back to the Yanks apparently because they would include the player option for '08 that Uncle Drayton wouldn't agree to. Andy then proceeded to say that New York was where "God wanted him to be." Funny that God wanted him in Houston in 2003. I side with the Star in this matter: we got 1.5 seasons from Andy for his last deal, .75 of which were Pettitte-like. He's on the wrong side of the age wall, has arm problems, and had an ERA over 4 pitching in the NL Central last year. Enjoy those Boston and Toronto lineups, big guy. Andy's stats will likely replicate what Big Unit did for the Yanks the past 3 years, if his elbow stays pain-free.

Jason Jennings (in a contract year) was added in a swap with Colorado. We traded the beloved Willy T, Buchholz and Hirsh to get him, which basically means that if we don't get an extension worked out, the trade won't be worth it. He's tabbed as the no. 2, but he really is more of a no. 3 starter if he's on a playoff team. However, we live in an era where Jeff Suppan and Gil Meche are $50-million-plus starting arms, and the Astros still play in AAAA, I mean, the National League.

Woody Williams is 40 and won't be giving you 7 innings a start this year. Still, he was a smart signing and cost wayyyyy less than Pettitte. If he stays healthy, he's an ideal no. 4 starter; unfortunately for us, he's our #3. We'll see how this works out.

The back of the rotation is an open competition this Spring. My early money is that Wandy will win one of the jobs based on familiarity and experience alone, and that Chris Sampson nabs the last slot. I still think Nieve is more valuable as a power short-work arm in the pen, and that he could be very valuable this year considering only Roy and Jennings are innings-eaters. Matt Albers is still a kid, and may benefit from some more work in Round Rock. We saw how the Buchholz thing went last year.

Speaking of Buchholz, he was my biggest disappointment of 2006 - even moreso than Lidge or Backe. He was much-ballyhooed for the longest time, finally got to the bigs, and couldn't find the strike zone. His performace, coupled with the work of Lidge, Hirsh, and the like, led to the door being shown to pitching coach and male model Jim Hickey. Taylor's career has now found the humidifier-enhanced version of Coors Field, a.k.a. where careers go to die. The 2003 deal (Wagner for Brandon Duckworth-Buchholz-Ezequiel Astacio) that brought us that boy wonder may have been a good salary move, and it set the stage for the ascension of Lidge / acquisition of Beltran, but personnel-wise, it was one of Gerry Hunsicker's worst.

The wild card in all this, of course - the pink elephant in the room - is Roger returning. If he comes back in June or July, he makes everybody better. Jennings and Williams move to no. 3 and 4, the pen remains fresher down the stretch, and we may look like the favorites in the Central. I have no idea if he'll come back to the Astros, but getting out to a hot start wouldn't hurt. Much of that hinges on the successes of Mo-Berg, official badass Luke Scott, and festively plump cattle rancher and left fielder Carlos Lee.

A preview of the offense this weekend.

Thursday, March 01, 2007

State of the Star 2007: Astros Preview, Prologue

I've endured a large handful of hardship from Cardinal fans since I've arrived in Missouri. Permit me to provide some context here: I moved to Missouri weeks after the Carlos Beltran trade in 2004 - the weekend I moved into my apartment in Columbia, I watched the Cubs series on WGN in which Michael Barrett and Roy Oswalt got into it, thus instigating the Stros insane run to win the wild card, coupled with the Billy Goat's collapse. I had gone to the Juice Box for 20 games that summer, yet they decided to catch flames after I moved 850 miles away.

I then was forced to endure a pennant chase surrounded by inane Cardinal fans and their biased banter. Objectivity is not the forte of the casual sports fan, and these people have been no exception. Usually the breadth of most Cards' fans' knowledge is limited to rehashing how 'amazing' Albert Pujols is and explaining the value of Jeff Suppan. That year's NLCS might have been the best 7-game series that nobody ever talks about. The Game 5 showdown between Brandon Backe and now-Astro Woody Williams (i.e., The Jeff Kent Game) was one of the top 5 Astro games of all time. But, no one outside of Texas or Missouri remembers this, because it happened while the Red Sox became a Disney movie in games 4-7 against the Yankees.

Fast-forward to the 2005 NLCS, which, may I remind Cardinal fans, the Astros actually won - in six games, no less! Cardinal fans conveniently forget this fact, as I was told about the Lidge-Pujols moment roughly 78.347,172 times. Like I could ever forget the feeling of my apartment complex shaking in celebration while I watched the most painful sports moment in my entire life. Thanks, guys. By the way, Roy Oswalt closed your generic-ass, musty, bad-parking-poor-sight-lines cookie cutter Astrodome replica 2 nights later. And no, I haven't grown bitter here. Not at all.

Anyway, 2006 seemed like a wash for the Astros from the get-go. Save from Lance, the offense was anemic, with Morgan Ensberg cerca 2005 turning into Morgan Ensberg cerca 2004. Willy T, God bless him, is fun to watch but didn't get on base nearly enough. Add those two to the perennial black holes in the order named Ausmus and Everett, and even our fantasy-league-esque big three of Roy, Roger and Andy couldn't pull us out of the .500 void. That, and Brad Lidge went crazy, or something. More on him later.

Then, for a stretch of about 10 days last September, I was inebriated with feelings of disbelief and on-the-brink euphoria. After a year of lackluster offensive performances and spectacularly blown leads, the Star was surging at just the right time. That, and the Cardinals were in an epic freefall. Their once insurmountable lead crumbled from a dozen, to five, to a single game. I was checking out tie-breaker scenarios and imagining life should this collapse actually happen. I was giddy with dreams of gloating, braggodacio, and visions of rubbing in what would have been the biggest collapse in the history of baseball.

Then we went to Atlanta. Yeah, that Atlanta. The Atlanta that we had buried the past two seasons, but before that, had tortured us through the 90's during Bagwell's premo years. We may have got 6 hits all weekend, and this ended the wet dream in progress. To add further insult to this, the Cardinals beat an overrated Padres team, the pitching-free Mets, and then managed to beat the Tigers to win the World Series. Sen-fucking-sational.

The winter has been a long one, my friends. Everywhere I turn, I'm reminded of the Cardinals' most recent World Championship. The gloating of my peers has been abundant, but I've grown numb to it by now. So alas, my Astrodom has been tested in every way since I've been here, yet my allegiance is unwavering. There will be no fluctuation in my support for the mighty Astronauts, as they go about the annual rituals that take place in Kissimmee, Florida.

An overview of the offseason moves, as well as a look to '07 to come.