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.

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