Where do the Astros go from here?
Around the seventh inning last night, I posed that very question to our Twitter nation. The instructions are simple: given the current state of the Astros — 13-26 record, a 3-5 road trip that ended with five consecutive losses — if you were running the Astros, what would you do?
I’m not looking at a long-term solution. We have gone over those elements time and time again and by now, we all know the mantra: draft well. Sign the picks. Develop their own talent. Build from within. We get it. They’re doing that.
No, in this particular exercise, I’m talking about the here and now. We’re about a quarter of the way through the season and very few tweaks have been made to the roster thus far. Should there be changes made? And if so, what?
A few ground rules before we get started:
1. Please refrain from the “Fire this guy, fire that guy, fire everyone” blanket statements.
2. Carlos Lee is untradeable. No team is interested in a .190 hitter making $18.5 million a year. And even if there was an interested team, which there is not, Carlos can say, “No thanks,” which he will. So let’s not waste our time trying to hypothetically find him a new home, because there isn’t one.
3. On that note, I’m not looking for suggestions as to what they should do closer to the trade deadline. I’m not looking for the big picture stuff. I realize Roy Oswalt has the highest trade value and Puma would be willing to listen if the Astros approached him. I’m talking in the simplest of terms — what would you do, today? Picture yourself in a meeting with the Astros brass and you’re exchanging ideas. What would you suggest? Tweak the roster? Or stay the course? And if you tweak, where? Whom?
Most scenarios would involve the Round Rock club, so a few notes there: Edwin Maysonet is on the shelf with a hammy problem. Osvaldo Navarro, a non-roster invitee during Spring Training, is a utility infielder type who’s having a nice season, hitting around .300, after starting a couple of weeks late with an injury. Wesley Wright has been pretty good this year, but he had a bad outing Tuesday — six earned runs over three innings with five walks.
I’ve gone over different scenarios in my head and I don’t know if there is a definitive answer as to what could or should happen to get this team moving in the right direction. But when I look at the makeup of the current team, here are the glaring issues:
In the category of “So Obvious I Can’t Believe I’m Actually Repeating It”:The middle of the order is the reason this team is losing. That’s it, plain and simple. Sure, some of the pitchers have had some stinkers from time to time, and the defense hasn’t been as good as we expected when Spring Training began. But this team is built on a few constants: Roy and Wandy being Roy and Wandy (check), a strong back of the bullpen in Lyon and Lindstrom (check) and a strong middle of the order. And so far, the middle of the order has been absent. Without some combination of Berkman, Lee and Pence resembling something close to what the back of their bubblegum cards say, this team isn’t going to win. And, obviously, six weeks in, it’s not.
What happens when the run producers aren’t producing? Shortcomings of the other position players are magnified. It’s unfair, sure, but it’s also inevitable. It happened eight years ago when Ensberg and Everett were shipped out because Bagwell and Biggio weren’t hitting, and it’s happening now, just with a different cast of characters.
It’s all well and good that Jeff Keppinger and Geoff Blum are getting more playing time, because they’re producing pretty consistently on an offensive level. But here’s the problem, friends — THEY’RE BENCH PLAYERS. And when you put your strong bench players into the lineup, that means your bench is made up of starters who have played their way out of being starters. And they’re not much more effective on the bench. And now, you have a problem.
So on any given night, the Astros bench might consist of Kaz Matsui, who’s hitting around .150, Tommy Manzella, who’s a young player who needs to be playing every day and is not experienced enough to be a part-time hitter, and one of the two catchers who’s not starting that day. The only two bench players who are actually, well, bench players, are Jason Michaels and Cory Sullivan, and they’re doing fine in their roles.
The bench is where I think the team needs to re-evaluate. Some of you might want Paulino or Norris to go to Triple-A to “work on things” as they say in the biz, but my reaction to that is a non-committal, “meh.” It’s not the worst thing that can happen but quite frankly, nothing in Round Rock is giving me reason to think bringing up someone new is a better option than to continue to run two very promising arms out there, have them work with a very, very good pitching coach, and hope they figure it out as they go through the season.
My suggestion is to try to construct a bench with players who can truly perform in that capacity. The requirements are: can pinch-hit, can enter games as defensive replacements and can make the occasional spot start.
Is the team better off with Chris Johnson (who’s hitting well for Round Rock since returning from injury) in the big leagues? Would a player such as Navarro, who fits the general bill as a utility man, be a better option than, say, Matsui, as a part-time player?
One more thing — I do not favor the idea of bringing up Jason Castro at this time. First of all, he’s had his own offensive issues in Triple-A, where he’s starting to work out of what has been a very slow start to the season. But more than anything, I do not think it’s a good idea — in fact, I feel that it’s a terrible idea — to bring him into this mess. He’ll have enough pressure on him when he finally does make it to the big leagues. If you bring him up now, there will be this expectation for him to save the day, save the team, save the season. That’s way too much for the kid. If he doesn’t hit immediately, then what?
I’ve posed enough questions. So I ask you — minus the “fire this guy and that guy” and “trade Carlos” demands, what, if anything, should the Astros do?
So I’m sitting on the plane right now and it’s 2:28 a.m. CT. We’re pretty much on schedule, which would normally be a good thing, if not for the fact that “on schedule” means “landing at 5:15 a.m.” Normally, host teams will usually schedule a day game when the visiting club has a long flight and a game the next day, but the Dodgers had other plans. So instead, we’re taking the proverbial red-eye, flying 3 1/2 hours through the night, skipping two time zones and landing right around when the sun’s coming up in Houston.
These red-eyes are rare, and being the superstitious and sometimes cynical baseball vet that I am, I naturally assumed the game in L.A. was going to go 14 innings, forcing us to begin our travels home two hours later than scheduled. That happened about 10 years ago when the Astros played a night game in Arizona and had to fly to Kansas City, where they had a night game the next day. The game against the D-backs went 11 or 12 innings and we ended up getting to the hotel in K.C. around 7 a.m. The reason I remember this is because after that first game, we got back to the hotel and not only did I not remember what room I was in, I didn’t even know which floor I was on. The next morning, I woke up and couldn’t remember what city I was in.
It happens. It’s baseball.