As the smell of imitation cheese and eight dollar beer wafts out of The Juice Box, it is safe to say that our Astros were better than we could have ever hoped for. 86-75 is a nice record, especially considering the caveats. What IF ol' Bud didn't relocate the most important games of the season to Milwaukee? What IF Oscar Villareal had pitched like a major leaguer instead of a pre-spectacled Rick Vaughn? Bourn and Towles were sent out there like a rookie QB in the NFL- to learn on the fly and take the lumps that came with that kind of education. Still, a lot went our way, and for that we should be pleased. Did this team play up to their potential? Or did we get lucky and have a ton of guys play above their heads?
A look around the internet will tell you that those "in the know" had just about no confidence that this team was going to be competitive this year. Take a look at various prognostications about our 2008 chances:
Sports Illustrated's predicted record: 74-88
Baseball Prospectus (PECOTA): 72-90 (last place in the NL Central to boot)
My Preseason Prediction: 82-80, 3rd place NL Central
What can we learn from this, besides the fact that I obviously have a savvier baseball brain than the writers at SI or Baseball Prospectus' computers? Baseball is becoming more and more difficult to predict for one. There may not be a salary cap, but when the team with the second highest payroll (Detroit) can finish in last place, and a Tampa Bay team whose payroll is roughly the equivalent of the left side of the Yankees infield can win their division, teams seemed to have figured out ways to maximize the dollars that they do have.
While this is true for the league as a whole, it is not true for the Astros. Woody Williams is collecting a paycheck after not pitching a single regular season inning. The aforementioned Villareal was demoted at the halfway point, but was getting paid more Wandy Rodriguez to do whatever below average relief pitchers do when they aren't employed. Miguel Tejada played above average defense and was a huge improvement over Adam Everett at the plate, but his OPS+ of 91 was not only below league average, but below expectations of Astros brass and fans alike. Ultimately though, it was the belief that this team could win, and that it should be given the chance to do despite the costs, that turned the year around. I don't think anyone can honestly say Drayton McLane is going to stop spending money on the club, whether the money is spent wisely or not is another story altogether.
The last assessment that I'll make about the Astros' season and their going above and beyond the expert's predictions, is that whether you think the team is one guy away from a post season spot, or if you're sure that the team's 2008 success was a mirage, this is going to be a defining off season for the team. Last off season was important too, don't get me wrong. Ed Wade turned over a good portion of the roster, we said goodbye to Craig, and Lance was not pleased about losing good buddy Chris Burke and others. Wade managed to come out of it all looking pretty good, despite concern that he hasn't done much to improve the farm system. What do we have to look forward to?:
- Does Ben Sheets become an Astro? If not, is there an attractive alternative in the FA starting-pitching market?
- What happens with Randy Wolf? Does he get a legitimate offer to stay? Or is he offered the arbitration minimum that will allow the Astros to collect a compensation pick in the event he doesn't re-sign?
- How much will Michael Bourn and JR Towles improve? Both should be playing winter ball somewhere in a Caribbean nation. Towles showed that he can be a more than legitimate hitter on the AAA level, while Bourn played the kind of defense that makes his deficiencies at the plate even more apparent. One old baseball axiom that is not false is that most good teams are solid up the middle. Half our up the middle will enter only their second full major league season in 2009. If the front office goes for broke and signs a couple substantial free agents this off season, will Bourn and Towles be given the chance to continue learning on the major league level?
- Alberto Arias and Felipe Paulino are the most major league ready arms at the high levels of our farm system. Arias was used sparingly this year with mixed results while Paulino never got into a game. Their development is crucial. A couple young, inexpensive arms would go a long ways to improving the club in 2009. Paulino is rehabbing his arm, with hopes of pitching in Venezuela this winter.
- What will happen with our farmhands? Brian Bogusevic OPS'ed 1.003 in 124 AB's in AA this year. The ex-hurler is making a go of it as a batter, and so far so good. He is Rule V eligible though, so if the Astros think he's going to be of value they had better protect him before another club gets their chance to snatch him up. First round pick from this year, Jason Castro, will be playing in the Hawaiian Winter League for the North Shore Honu. He had limited playing time in low A ball, but managed to get on base at a tidy clip of .383. Not enough AB's to get a good picture of what he's capable of, but for a farm system as barren as ours, any good news needs to be celebrated.
What aspect of our off season most interests ya'll? Any story ideas for the esteemed writers of TCB? Don't be shy, let us know. Wait. Scratch that. After nearly two months of being a writer here, I learned pretty quick that nobody around here is going to hold back their opinions, or mince words. That makes contributing to the discussion even much better. Nobody likes to be agreed with all the time. Besides, I'm pretty damn sure I'll write some thing this winter that will boggle your collective minds.
I want to thank everyone for your comments and your time spent reading all of our articles. I'm excited for the off season- not only do we all get to follow the exploits of a competitive club, but we have a GM that will isn't shy to make headlines. Recipe for a fun few months.