Houston Astros Could Win Ugly N.L. Central Battle

Richard ZowieCorrespondent IJune 30, 2009

PHOENIX - JUNE 14:  Hunter Pence #9 of the Houston Astros scores a run during the major league baseball game against the Arizona Diamondbacks  at Chase Field on June 14, 2009 in Phoenix, Arizona.   The Astros defeated the Diamondbacks 8-3.  (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

At 36-38 and only two games out of last place in the N.L. Central, the Houston Astros don't exactly seem like a team destined for that long-elusive World Series championship. But when you consider Houston's only four games behind the Central-leading Milwaukee Brewers, who are 41-35, maybe there's hope.

Or maybe we're just becoming joining Cecil Cooper in our misplaced optimism.

They say offense wins games and defense wins championships. In baseball, a good defense becomes great when it knows it can rely on an offense that isn’t so bad it gets no-hit during batting practice.

That being said, I'm still not sold on the Astros winning the Central. At least this isn’t the early 80s, when my Dad liked to refer to Houston as the DisAstros.

Yeah, yeah, I know that Astros manager Cecil Cooper predicted before the season Houston would win 90 games. This means he thought they would go 90-72, 18 games over .500.

Cooper, no doubt the president of the Houston chapter of the Optimist Club, probably also thinks Houston’s not really that humid, or that Paris Hilton would make a great Secretary of State.

About a week ago, I jokingly suggested on this blog that an intervention for Dallas Cowboys owner/general manager/president/aspiring head coach Jerry Jones was in order.

Perhaps an intervention does need to be done for both Cooper and Astros owner Drayton McLane (And, of course, for whoever was foolish enough to advise McLane the Astros’ current ugly uniforms looked “cool”, but that’s a story I’ve dealt with before).

Here’s why I don’t see this as Houston’s year. For one, their starting pitching is shaky. They have two great starters in Roy Oswalt and Wandy Rodriguez. Roy O’s been having a rocky year, something I like to attribute in part to a shaky offense.

After all, how would you do if you knew your chances of winning a game would diminish if you gave up more than two runs?

Rodriguez got off to a great start, giving Houston, potentially, its first great left-handed starter (providing he can break his habit of tipping off pitches) since Mike Hampton’s first tour. Some forget Hampton was very successful his first time around in Houston.

Yes, Andy Pettitte is a lefty who once pitched for Houston, but he struggled with injuries while here.

Sometimes, I think Houston’s problem with starters is that they tend to acquire guys who are, frankly, past their prime. A few years ago, Houston acquired area native Jason Jennings, who promptly flopped while pitching for his hometown.

As for Hampton, as one letter writer told me many blogs ago, it looks as though Hampton was acquired more as a temporary fix while Houston tries to develop its pitchers in the minors.

Brandon Backe has had some good starts, but he’s also struggled mightily—hence his 10.38 ERA. He's been been off and on as an Astros starter, has rejected an assignment to the minors, and may be done in Houston.

In the bullpen, it’s been inconsistent. Some nights they do better than the starters did, and other nights they seem to think they’re pitching batting practice.

I used to loathe Greg Maddux when he’d paint corners and consistently shut Houston down (and, yes, I also suspected umpires would give him a strike zone the size of Arizona). Maybe he’d make a great pitching coach.

As far as the offense goes, it’s definitely been off and on. Some nights it’s great, many other nights it struggles the way comedian Carrot Top struggles to get AT&T to let him do more of those annoying “It’s free for you and cheap for them” commercials.

Currently, three regular players, Miguel Tejada, Carlos Lee, and Hunter Pence, are hitting over .300. Lance Berkman, who will doubtlessly go down as one of the game’s all-time great switch hitters, has struggled this year and is currently hitting .256—an improvement over his slow start.

He once famously joked that while attending Rice University on a baseball scholarship, he majored in Eligibility. Now, he probably majors in Batting Practice.

The Texas-born Hunter Pence, whom I like to think will be the next great Astro, isn’t launching a lot of home runs but is doing well with his batting average. I am relieved to see that Michael Bourn is now the team’s regular lead-off hitter, replacing Kaz Matsui.

Nothing against Matsui, but having a low batting average and on-base percentage is one of the last things you want in a lead-off man. I doubt lead-off legend Rickey Henderson would be entering the Hall of Fame if he were known as an easy out.

When Henderson wasn’t blasting home runs or getting hits, he was working the count and drawing walks. Granted, he griped a lot about called strikes, but I very seldom saw him swing at bad pitches. Perhaps Matsui could improve his chances by employing Hughie Grant’s adage, “Hit or be hit.”

Not trying to be a sadist, but Craig Biggio used that very well. The point is to get on base. And once you’re on base, make the pitcher concentrate on you and let his thoughts drift away from Miguel Tejada, Carlos Lee, Berkman, etc.

After all, how often have we seen a pitcher give up an extra-base hit because he spent too much time focusing on a base runner?

As far as getting Houston’s hitters to overcome their hitting struggles against guys like Carlos Zambrano, St. Louis Cardinals pitchers and longtime nemeses like Kevin Millwood, what’s the solution?

Yes, I know hitting a fastball is arguably the toughest thing to do in professional sports (something ESPN’s Rick Reilly, who thinks baseball’s boring while getting excited over golf, should keep in mind), but I think it boils down to making good, solid contact and fouling off close pitches that you don’t want to hit but can’t afford to take.

Or maybe Houston should employ something former manager Hal Lanier once did in the late 1980s: make the team take batting practice after a game if they don’t accumulate at least five hits.

Humiliation can be a good motivational tool, but I suspect the Players’ Union would gripe. Maybe it’s the hitting instructor. I hope Sean Berry can turn it around, something former hitting instructor Gary Gaetti (whom I like a lot) and others weren’t able to do.

Or perhaps Berry should enlist in Hampton as an assistant hitting instructor. Why not? For a pitcher, he’s an excellent hitter.

And, of course, as we saw a few weeks ago, playing well defensively includes not just great pitching, but heads-up defense. We recall that catcher Pudge Rodriguez accounted for two opponents’ runs through throwing errors. When I looked at the box score, I like to joke he drove in two runs—for the other team.

Finally, Houston needs to build up its depleted Minor League system. People think it’s a trite expression, but it really is true: in this era of high salaries, injuries, egos, free agency, and dealing with sports agent hemorrhoids like Scott Boras*, you need depth in the Minors.

Remember when the Atlanta Braves owned the National League? One of the secrets to their success was unbelievable depth in their farm system.

So hopefully Houston can do just that with the Triple-A Round Rock Express (a town located on I-35 north of Austin for you non-Texans), the Double-A Corpus Christi Hooks on Texas’ Gulf Coast and other farm teams.

At the risk of eating crow (thank goodness I’m not a vegetarian), I don’t see this as the Astros’ year. Maybe they can turn things around, but I don’t think they have the tools yet.

With my luck, come October, I’ll be proven completely wrong.

And to be honest, I certainly hope so.

* After the Carlos Beltran debacle, I doubt McLane will ever even attempt to do business with Boras again. I know from the book Moneyball that Oakland A’s general manager Billy Beane even told his people not to bother drafting anyone represented by Boras.


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