Thursday, November 10, 2005

Well, Willy T didn't win Rookie of the Year. His offensive stats sure didn't merit his winning the award, but his superior defense in center and his speed on the baspaths may have helped his cause. Unforunately, it wasn't enough, as Ryan Howard claimed the award, and probably rightfully so. I know voters aren't supposed to factor the postseason into their thinking, but didn't Willy's team go to the playoffs, while Howard's team watched from home? I know many Cy Young voters are swayed a little by how a pitcher's team did with regard to making the playoffs. (Example: Chris Carpenter won the NL Cy Young today, though Dontrelle Willis won more games and had a better ERA. The reason: The Cards went to the playoffs, while Florida stayed home). I'm just saying.

Anyway, Willy T exceeded my expectations in 2005. Going into the year, I didn't know if he'd stay at the major league level all year. But he bunted and hacked and chopped his way on base, and played admirably all year. Sure, his .666 OPS was second worst on the team (above only Everett's .654 OPS), but i really think Taveras has nowhere to go but up.

The problem heading into this offseason is the same problem we had all year in 2005. Our lineup is very productive from our corner positions and second base. Bagwell, Berkman, Ensberg, Biggio and Lane will form a solid core of hitters. It's our middle positions -- catcher, shortstop and centerfield -- where our weaknesses lie. And unless we upgrade offensively at these spots, we'll once again have three starters posting sub-.700 OPS for the year.

I'm not worried about Willy T. If he works hard to improve for next year, I don't think it's a stretch for him to post a .300 / .350 / .350 line as our leadoff man. That's acceptable. It's Everett and Ausmus I'm concerned with. Everett will be 29 by the time spring training rolls around, and it's an uphill battle to get back to a .260 / .320 / .380 line. If he can do that, I'd be ecstatic. One note: Everett had never played a full season at the major league level: He'd never played more than 130 games or taken more than 390 ABs in a year. He definitely dropped off in the second half: His .520 OPS in Septemeber proved that. He might be ready for a full season in 2006. But I hope he won't be starting.

Ausmus had his best year at the plate since 2000. And it will be near impossible for him to repeat it. Honestly, he looked very comfortable at the plate. His strike zone judgment was great: He actually had more walks than strikeouts! By September, Ausmus was having better at-bats than Ensberg, Biggio and Lane. He took his pitches, fouled a few off -- made the pitcher work to get him out. But he still couldn't pull the ball and more often than not ended up grounding out. His .682 OPS was much better than anyone could have hoped for, which is scary going into the offseason: We might be more inclined to re-sign him and hope that he puts up another .350 OBP in '06. He won't.

Conclusion: We cannot afford to go into the 2006 season with Taveras and Everett and Ausmus as three of our eight starters. Even if Bagwell's out and we manage to sign Brian Giles, it won't be enough to compensate for the futility of these three batters. While I expect modest improvements from Taveras and Everett (the latter only because he can't get any worse), I cannot reasonably expect Ausmus to put up another .350 OBP. Purpura needs to understand this and upgrade at least one of these positions, preferably shortstop or catcher.

At catcher, trading for Johnny Estrada or signing Ramon Hernandez would be a significant improvement. At shortstop, I don't think we should rule out Nomar. The question isn't whether or not he can still hit (he posted an .878 OPS after coming back from his injury). The question is his health, and if he can still defend adequately at shortstop. If we could give him an incetive-laced contract with a low base salary, I'd do it in a heartbeat.

Other random thoughts : Why is everyone forgetting about Jason Lane? The man put up an .815 OPS for the year despite an abysmal month of May. He's only 28, and this was his first full season. He absolutely tore it up in the second half, which bodes well for his immediate future. Yes, he has a weird-looking stance, and he swings at everything, but I won't be surprised if he leads the Astros in homers next year.

Chris Burke put up a .781 OPS in the second half. I don't expect much power from him, but I do think he'll be an above-average second baseman for several years after Biggio reitres. Finding him a full-time position (Purpura has mentioned that he will give Burke some playing time at short in ST) isn't our first priority, but giving him 350 or 400 ABs sure would be nice as we groom him for an everyday role in 2007 and beyond.

The more I see of Kevin Millar, the more I like him. Yes, he's old (34) and he had a down year in '05 (.753 OPS), but his career numbers are solid and he hit a lot better in the second half. He'd be a cheap signing -- under $3 million -- and he'd be a much better backup for Bagwell than Lamb. I have a feeling he and Berkman would become best friends.


Jason said...

Purpura needs to understand this and upgrade at least one of these positions, preferably shortstop or catcher.

Don't you think that's pretty presumptuous? I think Purpura understands the needs of the Astros much more than you or me. He knows that we need more offense, and he knows that Willy, AE, and Ausmus are our three weakest power players. He might, however, be taking a different strategy. I'm not sure what your problem with Willy's offense is. He has almost no power, but traditionally, that's unnecessary for a leadoff hitter, and I think lineups work better that way. If Willy learns how to take a walk, he should be fine.

That leaves us with Everett and Ausmus. I know you will probably disagree with me here, but I am fine with their collective offense given their defensive strengths. They both are tremendous fielders (probably the best on the team), and I want them on the field. If you want more offense, fine; you can find more offense somewhere, but I don't think you should intentionally sacrifice the two best fielders for better offense. I think the offense could be improved at other positions that do not have such defensive studs. Left field is the first position that comes to mind, assuming Berkman is at first.

I am highly skeptical that Bagwell will return and be productive. Although the Astros should give him every chance to do so, I think the best team would likely have Berkman at first and a true LF with power offensively. I like the team at every other position.

With the strength of the Astros' pitching staff, that should be more than enough offense. Purpura understand what he needs to do better than any of us. We just have to remember that there are multiple, valid philosophies about how to build a championship team, and Purpura's may differ from yours.

Nate said...

Changing gears slightly to pitching, what's the deal with not choosing a Cy winner simply based on ERA? Shouldn't that be the only consideration? Everything else (W-L ratio, success of team, playoffs, etc.) seems to be far to subjective and out of the control of the pitcher. It's an individual pitcher's award, right? This article you've likely read makes a good argument.
Very frankly, Roger Clemens (and not Willis) was robbed.
But I suppose an award is a privilege and not a right.

Scott Barzilla said...

First of all Jason, Andres is exactly right. I couldn't have said what he said better. We can continue to dress up the other positions, but if we go into the season with five productive hitters we will still be very inconsistent......

Nate, I think you're on the right track there, but make no mistake, ERA is also subjective because a lot of it depends on home ballparks and defensive support. Everyone seems to focus on errors, but range is far more important.