Baseball Prospectus 2005, my favorite baseball annual, was waiting on my doorstep when I got home yesterday. I flipped to the Astros section, and was not surprised to find that their analysis was not positive. They started by praising the Astros 'going for it' with the Beltran trade, and highlighted our 9th inning comeback against the Expos as a 'turning point' of the season.
"Now, the Astros are at another turning point. As exhilirating as the 2004 run was, the challenges they face now are much the same as they've faced for the past few offseasons...
The Astros project as clearly inferior to the Cubs and Cards going into 2005, with an aging roster and funneling far too much money to players who won't be productive enough...
One of the hardest things in sports is to let go of the success you've had in the past in order to ensure more success in the future...
This isn't a contending team. The question is whether new GM Tim Purpura can get his hands around that fact early enough to salvage positives from the season...
But if they can use the year to get Chris Burke established at 2nd base and add some talent to the system's upper levels through trades, and then have a strong draft that replenishes the lower levels, they can lessen the time it takes for them to be a factor again...
Most importantly the Astros have to change their identity. The Killer B's aren't killing anyone any longer. Craig Biggio and Jeff Bagwell are going to go into the Hall of Fame, quite possibly together. This year, though, has to be the year in which Biggio's role is reduced, creating space for Lane. There's nothing Purpura can do about the money Bagwell is owed, but he can build his team in a way that shifts the focus from him to Berkman and Oswalt...
The hardest thing to do in sports is let go of your success. We'll know very quickly if Purpura is up to the task."
Pretty good stuff. I agree (big surprise) almost completely. The Astros need to realize that they're not likely to contend short of a bunch of miracles, and they need to start looking to rebuild. They've signed Berkman and Oswalt to multi-year deals, which is good; now they need to look to build around their youth: Chris Burke, Adam Everett, and Willy Taveras form an excellent up-the-middle defense (but not-so-great offense), Oswalt and Brandon Backe and Ezequiel Astacio should be a decent front 3, and Brad Lidge and Chad Qualls are solid in the bullpen. We need to build around these players, with some good drafts, smart free agent signings (particularly at catcher, starting pitcher, and bullpen), and occasional trades.
BP2005 then predicts every Astros player (along with a few minor leaguers) and writes a paragraph about them. Some of the highlights:
Brad Ausmus: He's been a .220 EQA hitter since 2000...he allowed the most steals and highest success rate of his career in 2004...with John Buck out of the way and a $3 million salary in '05, he'll be the starter again, but Ausmus may be the worst regular in baseball.
Craig Biggio: He's an enormous liability in center field...add in that he posted the lowest walk rate of his career...the Astros need Willy Taveras to win the CF job to allow Biggio to stay in left, minimizing the damage he does.
Chris Burke: Baseball America named Burke the best defensive 2nd baseman in the PCL in his first season in which he didn't also play SS. The Astros #1 pick in 2001 also had a big power spike, fixing what has been his biggest problem as a pro.
Brooks Conrad: It's worth mentioning that PECOTA sees better things in 2005 for Conrad that it does for Burke, with his power and walks carrying the day.
Jason Lane: Career .280 / .351 / .526 in 263 PA's. He's been a better baseball player than Craig Biggio for three years now. Lane can rake, and would put up All-Star numbers if left alone to play.
Luke Scott: A throw-in in the Willy Taveras trade, Scott gets in here because of a big half-season at Round Rock. He doesn't bring much to the table other than his bat.
Todd Self: Self is just a marginal prospect, but his plate discipline is real and he could be good for 40 doubles and 15 homers through his peak. A Mark Grace / Wally Joyner hitter with average defense will let you spend money elsewhere.
Willy Taveras: One of the fastest players in the game. His '04 was hailed as a breakthrough but it was almost entirely a batting average thing - his power and strike jone judgment is poor. He needs time in Triple-A almost as much as the Astros need him to push Biggio aside.
Ezequiel Astacio: His strikeout rate nearly doubled with a comparable improvement in his stirkeout-to-walk ratio. He'll be in Houston before the year is over, and could have a big role in their bullpen.
Brandon Backe: His future success as a starter will hinge on how effective his change-up is against lefties. A converted outfielder, he's a good hitter to boot.
Taylor Bucholz: His curve is major league ready, and his command was voted best in the PCL. If his change-up comes around, he has a nice future as a starter; if it doesn't, he'll make a nice set-up man.
Mike Gallo: A lefty specialist who can't get out lefties is completely worthless. Purpura should keep an eye on the waiver wire.
Carlos Hernandez: He'll continue to improve at a slow pace, on his way to being a good pitcher again in 2006.
Fernando Nieve: Astacio's live arm gets more play, but Nieve's future could be just as bright.
Roy Oswalt: Through four seasons, his career is a virtual match for Mike Mussina's, except Mussina never took that step forward, staying at his established level for ten more years. Oswalt could; he has everything it takes to make the same leap Greg Maddux did in 1992 that allowed him to become the best pitcher in baseball.
Chad Qualls: His sinker/slider/strikes mix should work well at Minute Maid Park, giving the Astros a cheap, effective reliever.
Dan Wheeler: He's tough on righties, which is particularly useful in a division with lots of righty-heavy lineups.
Whew. So that's about it. Again, I think these guys are spot-on (which again isn't a big surprise, since BP is one of the reasons I first got into baseball statistics, so I tend to be a bit biased). I didn't really learn anything here that I didn't already know, except that they like Conrad a lot. I particularly like the comment on Todd Self - finding young, cheap, league-average players to fill most of your roster spots and spending the big bucks on true superstars like Berkman, Oswalt, and Lidge, is absolutely the way to go.
With that in mind, how's this for a 2007 Astros lineup:
C Humberto Quintero / Hector Gimenez
1B Todd Self
2B Chris Burke / Brooks Conrad
SS Adam Everett / Chris Burke
3B Morgan Ensberg / Mitch Einerston
LF Jason Lane / Luke Scott
CF Willy Taveras
RF Lance Berkman
SP Roy Oswalt
SP Ezequiel Astacio
SP Fernando Nieve
SP Brandon Backe
SP Carlos Hernandez
CL Brad Lidge
RP Chad Qualls
RP Taylor Bucholz
RP Dan Wheeler
You know, that's not bad at all. Our biggest eventual 'holes' (areas in which we could sign an elite free agent who would make the biggest difference) are C, 1B, SS, CF, SP #2-5, and RP. Baseball Prospectus is also fond of saying that you should try and give your biggest contracts to excellent up-the-middle (C, 2B, SS, CF) players since they are also by far the most important defenders and you can often find good-hitting corner outfielders and corner infielders on the waiver wire or throughout the minor leagues. With that in mind, I think C, CF, and an elite SP will be our biggest needs in the coming free agencies.