Earlier this week, Beyond the Boxscore came out with its final Power Rankings of the season and the results are not pretty for Astros' fans. 28th in baseball overall, with periphery statistics that are dreadful.
While there may be other teams that rival the Astros' ineptitude in hitting, pitching and defense, most teams manage to at least be competent in at least one of those areas, whereas our Astros are at the bottom in all three. Remember, AL teams are rewarded in their rankings, and NL clubs are punished for the differences in league strength. Our pitching numbers don't look so bad going up and down the line, until you realize that the AL teams had to deal with a lot more in the way of offensive talent than Astros hurlers did.
Offensively, a collection of players that struggled to both get on base and hit for much power stopped the team before it could even get started. By God the Astros were clutch, though. Don't get too excited, however. That just means our offense managed to produce more than they were expected to, given our run scoring opportunities and propensity to collect certain types of hits. A team like ours that doesn't score a lot of runs via the home run is expected to score a lot. We managed to buck that trend, due in small part because our cumulative baserunning score wasn't as terrible as other teams.
Suffice it to say, the Astros don't have a lot of bright spots as of right now. Of course, that's why teams have off seasons- to get recooperate (no, no, not bring back Cooper- you can all settle down), replenish the reserves, and to give GMs a chance to put their Ivy League educations to use trying to one up each other.
What should the Astros do, in terms of player utilization/talent maximization, to improve themselves most efficiently? I think that like in most fields, baseball teams should do their best to build their own team in the same manner as those franchises which are the most successful.
This is easy to say, and much more difficult to actually accomplish, due to the fact that there is no salary cap in baseball, and with so many players on so many different levels within one organization, it's tougher to mimic the Boston Red Sox and Philadelphia Phillies of the world than it would be for the Oakland Raiders to mimic the New England Patriots. Building a consistent winner in MLB takes time. A fact of life we ought to get used to.
Incremental changes can be made to this team in the 2010 offseason so that our climb up the rankings doesn't have to be so painful or so long in duration. That's not to say that Ed Wade can snap his fingers and make the Astros improve in certain areas. Far from it. There needs to be an organization-wide emphasis on certain statistics that give teams the best shot at competing into October. Simply stated- the Astros don't have many players who fit the bill in the categories that have the highest correlation with success in MLB.
BB/K: 5 out of the top 10 teams in BB/K made the playoffs
ISO (Isolated Slugging): Again 5 out of the top 10 teams in ISO made the playoffs
What can the Astros do to improve themselves in this regard? Well, not much as of now. Up and down the lineup, only Michael Bourn and Lance Berkman have shown the tendency to take walks. Carlos Lee and Miguel Tejada were completely dependent on their batting averages (and therefore BABIP) to keep their OBPs afloat. Hunter Pence showed the ability to be more patient than he was in 2008, but it's all relative.
With Miguel Tejada's future as an Astro in question, and Tommy Manzella most likely making a move to SS, it doesn't appear that our chances improve with one player substitution will improve dramatically. Manzella will most likely struggle at the plate and has never been the most patient of hitters even in the minors. Chris Johnson needs more time in AAA, and would most likely be a disaster if he was forced to be our everyday third baseman in 2010. Russell Braynan, among free agents, has played third base and would be an upgrade in both OBP and SLG%. True, his defense would be a drawback, but as I said earlier, there will be no cure alls available for the Astros. Plug him in for a year, he won't cost the team any draft picks, and see if he can hold down the fort until better alternatives come along.
JR Towles' MLB equivalent line from Baseball Prospectus projects him to be very respectable offensively in 2010. An OPS in the mid .700s would be much preferred than any free agent, or the idea of forcing Jason Castro into the mix right off the bat.
The outfield is pretty much set. Taking out Jason Michaels, Darin Erstad and even Aaron Boone and inserted competent players who will actually make pitchers earn outs will do wonders for a bench that was most certainly worth negative dollars in 2009. Asking anything more from Michael Bourn may seem greedy, but I think it's reasonable to believe that he can become an even better outfielder, base runner and hitter. With patience comes power, and while it's unrealistic to believe Mike will ever hit even 10 home runs in a season, but adding to his doubles total is a definite possibility.
Hunter Pence is still in the infancy of his career, and more will have to be asked of him in the future. Being a more selective base runner, altering his approach at the plate to allow for more productive at bats are keys to his ascendancy in the hierarchy of NL outfielders. Far too often Hunter will be taken out of at bats, left only to protect the outside of the plate against sliders. Remedying this flaw in his game would do wonders to up our run production and on base average.