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NL Central Preview/Roundtable Part Five: Astros

Struggled with this for two weeks, but gotta pick the Astros second.  Last year, I picked 'em third, and they won the National League.  Considering this added degree of confidence from someone as influential as myself, I'm sure the World Series victory is well-nigh in the bag.

Thanks again to Bleed Cubbie Blue, Brew Crew Ball, Bucs Dugout, and Viva El Birdos.  If you were silly enough not to be an Astros fan, you'd be reading one of these guys daily.  

Houston Astros

1. The Astros made some good moves this offseason, and others that can be labeled as questionable. Give me your take on the best and worst of the offseason from Houston.

The Crawfish Boxes:  Questionable moves?  You're talking about the Brad Ausmus signing, aren't you?  

Ausmus has been average or below in throwing runners out for a few years now. He is still, however, spoken of as one of the best in handling pitchers, and although the utility of catcher's ERA is rather limited, especially given the future Hall of Famers Ausmus got to catch in 2005, those numbers still indicate that he brings an advantage behind the plate.

He is now, and has always been, below average offensively, though the seeming trend year after year wherein Brad is heating up late in the year, while the other catchers across the league are slowing down, is a real one, and is one of the few offensive advantages he can in fact bring.

I think that Ausmus' durability is the factor that makes Brad desirable to the Astros, that and the fact that Clemens might insist on him.   And he represents value:  Ramon Hernandez, for example, played 99 games in '05, and signed a four year 27.5 million dollar contract with Baltimore.  Hernandez had like 60 RBI's and hit about .260.  

Brad, despite his 47 RBI, hit .258, has played at least 128 games every year he's been with the club, and signed for 2 years at what will end up being 4 million per.

Don't put Ausmus on your fantasy team, but pitchers love him, he's durable, he represents value and he's picking up steam when others are breaking down.   Pretty easy choice when  you're not looking to add payroll in the last year of Bagwell's contract.

Letting Viz walk was a genius move.  They overpaid Orlando Palmeiro and I'm not wild about the raise Mike Lamb got.  But that's chump stuff, hardly worth complaining about.  

And of course, I can get on the PW train, if he hits the 25 - 30 homers we're promised,  but I would have rather seen them bring in somebody who can cure the club's biggest deficiency--and that was its anemic OBP.  Preston doesn't help, or under the worst circumstances, will actually hurt.  

Giles was my dream acquisition, he would have been absolutely PERFECT, but like they say, baseball is designed to break your heart.

Brew Crew Ball: What surprises me is the move(s) they didn't make.  They must be expected Roger back, because no sane team would go into April with Wandy Rodriguez and Taylor Buchholz as their last two starters and expect to contend.  Move everybody down a slot and, okay, I see it.  But with the uncertainty concerning Roger, this team simply had to get a starter.  If they want to make a run at the Wild Card, maybe they could've put together a two-year deal for Jeff Weaver, or at least signed a Brett Tomko-type guy.  Don't get me wrong, I don't advocate giving Brett Tomko money, but imagine if Andy Pettitte gets hurt and Clemens signs with the Rangers.  The Astros could be simply atrocious for a while.

Bucs Dugout: They could indeed be pretty bad for a while, but this offseason doesn't have that much to do with it. Yes, there would have been better uses for what funds they had than signing the execrable Ausmus to a multiyear contract (and sorry, Joshua, but anytime someone begins a defense of a catcher by saying he's good at "handling pitchers," I know the catcher stinks), but they were hamstrung by a number of other circumstances. They owe Bagwell, Biggio, Berkman, Pettitte and Oswalt about $65 million in 2006, and they ended up having to pay Morgan Ensberg, Brad Lidge and Adam Everett about $10 million on top of that. That's almost their whole payroll right there. On top of that, they couldn't really trade prospects for major league help because they don't have any. Prospects, that is. (Okay, Hunter Pence makes one.) Even if acquiring Brett Tomko were a great idea, I'm not sure the Astros had the cash or resources to do it.

On top of all that, who knows if they're going to get Clemens back, and Pettitte and Oswalt just can't be as good in 2006 as they were in 2005. It looks to me like the Astros shot their, uh, comet in 2005. But at least it was a pretty beautiful comet.

2. Will the Astros need to re-sign Roger Clemens at some point during the season in order to have success in 2006? When does this become a moot point in your eyes? Do you think he would re-sign with the 'Stros at all, or is it time Roger hangs up his cleats?

Bleed Cubbie Blue: You should see all the posters at BCB who are salivating, thinking the Cubs have a shot at Clemens, saying, "Well, they should at least talk to his agent, maybe they could throw enough money at him, etc."

It's not about money for Clemens. He's made over $120 million in his career. Right now it's about his family. The Astros bent over backwards to accomodate Roger last year, and he responded with a stellar season. He could absolutely do the same this year; he's pitched already, and he could take a month off, start working out, then sign with the Astros on May 1. I absolutely expect this to happen, and yes, if the Astros don't have him, their playoff chances take a dive.

Brew Crew Ball: As I said above, the Astros appear to have prepared for this season with the expectation that Roger would come back.  Does that mean he will?  I don't know how smart the Astros front office is, so I don't know if the two things are related at all.  With Roger, everything might come together again and the Astros could win the WC.   Without Roger, the Astros will be very lucky to win 85 games this year, and could easily fall into the 78-win zone.  If Clemens waits until the All-Star Break, there's no way he'll sign with Houston--without him, I don't think they're even in the race by then.  Maybe he'll pitch for a discount and sign with the Brewers.

The Crawfish Boxes:  Absolutely the Astros expect to get Clemens back.  How they could decline arbitration, though, and still feel that way is anybody's guess.  Was it pre-arranged with Roger?  Or is it that Houston's braintrust was simply cocky, knowing that no other team can provide the intangible benefits to Clemens like Houston can?  I don't think it was the former, but hope that it wasn't the latter, either.  History shows that you attempt to outmaneuver someone of Clemens' wiliness  with very little chance at success.  

Still, it looks like it's going to work out for Houston.  Others have suggested that Clemens will throw his lot in with the team that looks to have the best chance of postseason success come May  15, or June 1st, but I'm not buying it.  The same reasons that held last year, and kept the Rocket pitching for Houston last year, hold this year.

What, all of a sudden he doesn't want to be with his family at all, instead preferring to spend his summer in a hotel in New York?  Koby will most likely be in Lexington, Kentucky, this summer, but after Kory graduates in May, I'm sure he'll be playing some kind of baseball in the Houston-Sugar Land-Baytown metropolitan area.   And Roger's probably gonna want to check his son out as he competes.  

So I doubt he'll end up with the Yankees or the, um, Brewers.  He may of course elect to really, truly stay retired this time.  But no-one on the Astros believes that, not Pettitte, not Ausmus, not Biggio, just thinking of three who I know have weighed in on the subject.  

It had to have sucked to be Roger Clemens and leave World Series Game One the way he did last year.  And that's not incentive to pitch in 2006, that's disincentive.  He'd want to make sure that never ever happens again.  But seeing the curve his 2005 season took, starting out June first means his hamstrings and his back would start cutting out, oh, the middle of November, about three weeks after the last World Series game is played.

As far as the contingency plan, Phil Garner would have you believe that the Astros can be successful without Clemens as long as Brandon Backe begins to pitch the regular season like he pitches the postseason.

 And I think Scrap Iron's right.

If Backe does well, winning 15 or 16, the only issue would be that Wandy Rodriguez and Taylor Buchholz would demand some extra innings from the bullpen, innings that the relievers  would be capable of giving, as the unit was comparatively little-used last year, and appears to have actually  improved.

So a lot depends on Backe.  He began his spring lights out, but has been been absolutely decimated in his last wo starts.

3. Jeff Bagwell recently was forced to the disabled list due to his injury troubles, possibly never to return. Explain what you think of his Hall of Fame chances, and explain whether you think he is worthy of enshrinement in Cooperstown.

Bleed Cubbie Blue: It's amazing that Bagwell and Frank Thomas have had career paths that are almost identical; they were born on the same day (May 27, 1968) and have had similar injury problems, derailing what could have been for both of them, 500+ HR careers.

That's a tough call. Thomas had about the best first ten seasons in baseball history, but he's been hurt. Bagwell has had some monster seasons too, but his career totals (2314 H, 449 HR) do not make him an "automatic" choice. Perhaps the voters will see him as they saw Kirby Puckett: a player who has epitomized his franchise for many years, who is a genuinely nice guy, and whose numbers are "close enough" to get him in. He's not a first-balloter, but I suspect he may eventually squeeze in.

In MY opinion? Borderline.

Brew Crew Ball:  Yeah, I think he goes in.  Not on the first ballot, though retiring after this season might be a blessing in disguise as he won't go on the ballot with Barry Bonds or (probably) Roger Clemens.  He doesn't quite have the counting stats to make him a lock, but that .408 OBP sets him apart.  When I first checked his counting stats, I first thought: "Andre Dawson without the glove."  But then again, my man Andre's OBP was, let's just say, not his strong suit.  And Bagwell's MVP, unlike Dawson's, will stand up in court.  Without knowing who he's competing against in any given year, I'll boldly predict the writers elect him in his 5th year of eligibility.  I think that's a pretty good representation of his worthiness, as well.

The Crawfish Boxes:  Well, getting to 500 homers or 3000 hits I think is just one way that you can snag election to the Hall of Fame, although I don't think being a nice guy is going to help Jeff all that much.

The fact that Jeff was a five-tool player is I think more likely to persuade voters.  The man HAD a strong throwing arm, he played great defense, he stole bases and took the extra base as well as anyone in the game, and of course he hit for average and power.  Hard to quantify defense, but he should have won more than the single Gold Glove, that's for sure.  His career range factor surpasses that of JT Snow, who receivd the award four times during Jeff's career, and his fielding percentage is tied for 12th among those who played 1500 games at first.  

He did the power/speed combination better than most anyone who's ever played the game.  To wit:  11 players have more than 400 homers and more than 200 stolen bases, and Bagwell is one of them.

And yeah, the fact that he got on at a .410 clip won't hurt things, either.  He played during an era of offensive inflation, but Bagwell is also in the top 40 lifetime in points above league average OPS

Beyond all the arguments that, well, statisticaly, he IS good enough to get in, I think that he will also be given some slack of the deserved sort in the way that Dizzy Dean and Sandy Koufax and yes Puckett were given slack against the raw numbers.  Voters have been known to fill in the blanks so to speak when a player's career ends other than naturally.  

Lastly, and I almost hesitate to bring this up, but Bagwell has maintained a reputation for um, cleanliness, let us say.  After ballots where McGwire's and Palmeiro's and Sosa's names come up, voters may just show their gratitude for Jeff making their decisions comparatively simple.

He gets in, and my guess is in less than five elections.  How about he goes in with Biggio, after all?