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.

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