For those who have lived in Houston for a few years, it is easy to see that Astros fans stick with their team through even the worst of seasons. In 2000, the Astros posted a losing record in their new Enron field after winning the NL Central three straight times from 1997-1999. In 2004, the Astros were 10.5 games out of first at the All-Star break and falling quickly at 44-44 only to reach the playoffs on the last day of the season (they eventually lost in seven games to the Cardinals in the NLCS).
So when the Astros fan base quits coming to the games and has written off the team, Houstonites know something has gone horribly wrong. With attendance at its lowest levels since 1997, the decrease can no longer be blamed solely on the economy.
This season, the Astros again find themselves in fifth place in the division, better only than the Pittsburgh Pirates, who have given up on the façade of “rebuilding” and instead labeled themselves the “Oakland Raiders” of baseball.
Just how bad have they been? Wandy Rodriguez, who has yet to prove dependable in five years in Houston, won Sunday for the first time since May 20. Roy Oswalt, the ace of the rotation, is 3-4 with a 4.30 ERA. The team is four games under .500 even while Miguel Tejada ranks among the league leaders in doubles and batting average. As usual for the Astros, the over-the-hill acquisition of the year, Mike Hampton, ended up on the disabled list. It's probably a good thing considering Hampton’s performances at the start of the year.
Undoubtedly there are positives on this Astros team. Lance Berkman has an on-base percentage 45 points higher than the National League average and a slugging percentage 103 points higher than the NL average. He reached his 1,000 RBI career milestone against the Royals in a multi-homer game that had his manager saying he looked “like the Lance Berkman of old.”
Hunter Pence is solidly adding to his resume and making a serious case for major arbitration in 2010. He has a .395 OBP, .912 OPS, is third on the team in batting average and home runs, and is one of only four players on the team to have played in every game this season.
The Astros pitching staff has been atrocious through 70 games. While LaTroy Hawkins has performed well in Valverde’s absence, the Astros will need their closer to remain healthy in the second half of the season. Hawkins can play the setup role, allowing Chris Sampson, the team leader in ERA (2.11) to take the middle innings in the event of a bad start.
More pressing is the starting pitching situation. Brian Moehler has an ERA of 6.05 through 12 starts. None of the Astros starters have a winning record through 70 games.
Heading towards the All-Star break, the Astros have more questions than answers. Knowing Drayton McLane’s propensity for thriftiness, they could end up trading away a few of their top moneymakers (read: Roy Oswalt) as the season approaches the trade deadline.