With slugging first baseman Lance Berkman sidelined until at least Opening Day, the Houston Astros are in serious danger of a second straight anemic season at the plate.
In 2009, the Astros finished 14th in the National League in runs scored, 12th in home runs, and 15th in walks.
Much of the problem stemmed from Berkman's inability to stay healthy. In 136 games (his fewest since 2005), Berkman had only 562 plate appearances (his fewest since 2000).
Now, after arthroscopic surgery on his left knee, Berkman is out for the remainder of spring training and may not be ready when Houston opens its regular-season schedule on April 5.
In Berkman's stead, Houston manager Brad Mills has utility man Geoff Blum slated for first base duty. Aside from shortening the bench, however, inserting Blum into the lineup for even a week is an offensive nightmare. Blum, who will turn 37 on April 26, has a career batting line of .250/.310/.387. Those are tough numbers to swallow from even an all-glove middle infielder, let alone a starting first baseman.
Enter free agent outfielder Jermaine Dye, lately of the Chicago White Sox. With 325 homers and a .274/.338/.488 batting line for his career, Dye's pedigree is not in doubt.
What is somewhat unclear is whether he still has anything in the tank. Dye, 36, suffered through a miserable second half last season that has scared off all potential suitors this winter. After leaping out to first half numbers that included 20 home runs and a .302 average, Dye fell into a slump that lasted the remainder of his season. After the All-Star break, he hit just .179 and slugged less than .300.
With such a well-established performance record, however, it would behoove several teams to at least consider giving the two-time All-Star a chance to prove himself.
Dye has said this offseason that he would be open to a move to first base, so the Astros could use him as a fourth outfielder (current stopgap Jason Michaels is an unsatisfactory choice), a top-tier pinch-hitter, and a good backup option to Berkman, allowing the switch-hitting slugger to stay fresh as the season wears on.
Dye has not yet resigned himself to bench duty or to a substantial salary reduction, both of which he would need to accept to come on board in Houston.
Unemployment has a funny way of making people desperate, however, so don't be surprised if Dye changes his tune in the crucial three-week stretch remaining between now and Opening Day. If he does, Houston could well have itself a good value bat off its bench and a new, well-spoken leader in its 2010 clubhouse.