Monday, November 27, 2006

Oh 'Stro Good

-Fact: The Astros overpaid for Carlos Lee at 6 years, $100 million.
-Fact: The Astros may have overpaid for Woody Williams at 2 years, $12.5 million.
-Fact: The Astros have (arguably) had the best offseason of any MLB team thus far this offseason …

… Why? …

1) Filling Needs
Coming into this offseason, the Astros had just as many questions to answer as the Cardinals, if not more. Like St. Louis, Houston was scheduled to return only 2/5 starting pitchers, one a perennial Cy Young candidate (Oswalt) and the other a promising 2nd-year player (Hirsh), who dominated AAA (13-2, 2.10 ERA) but struggled to find consistency in the majors (3-4, 6.04 ERA). Again, like the Cards, 3 of the Astros' 5 rotation spots were in question (due to Clemens'/Pettite's FA and Backe's Tommy John surgery) with only one #4/5-type lefty as an in-organization option (W. Rodriguez as opposed to C. Narveson). As such, like the Cards' w/Suppan (presuming Clemens' departure/retirement), the Astros likely needed to fill 3 rotation holes via FA/trade, one by hopefully resigning Pettite (like Weaver) and the other 2 by signing/trading for tier 2 (Wolf, Jennings, etc.) or tier 3 (Williams, Wells, etc.) FA's. Currently, from a starting pitching standpoint, the 'Stros are right on track.

Again, the Astros may have overpaid for Woody, but on the flip side, he could turn out to be a minor steal. Personally, I thought that Woody would receive a 1-2 year contract in the range of $4-5 M/year, even though in today’s inflated FA market, his past history would warrant a 3+ year contract at $7-9 M/year. My projection was influenced mainly by 1) age, 2) lack of overpowering stuff, and 3) a public desire to pitch in either Houston, SD, or STL (effectively shrinking his potential market). Even now (signed), there are concerns with Woody, especially as it pertains to Houston. First, the statistics show that Woody is a fly-ball pitcher. This, coupled with his underwhelming velocity, makes the short porch in the joke that is Minute Maid Park a legitimate concern for Williams, who can be pull-susceptible. Second, Woody will be 41 next August and, although historically durable (with a few exceptions), age eventually catches up with everyone. Thus, compared to my projections, the Astros overpaid.

However, all that being said, if Woody can continue pitching to his historical norms, he will instead be relatively underpaid. Prior to his signing, I was lobbying hard for the Cardinals to sign Williams for a second tour of duty. Despite his increasing age, Woody is the type of pitcher who ages well, as his game is more dependent on location than velocity. He is the textbook example of a “crafty veteran,” a good hitting/fielding pitcher, a positive clubhouse presence, and perhaps most importantly, a known quantity (as opposed to a “potential” player). I still believe that he would have fared better in St. Louis than in Houston (#3 vs. #4), because of the Crawford Boxes, but as a Houston native coming home full of pride and hoping to impress his friends/family, I think that, barring injury, a reasonable expectation for the Astros could be a low to mid-high 4 ERA with double-digit wins and close to 200 innings pitched (essentially a Suppan-lite). In today’s market, that Woody is certainly worth at least 2 years/$12.5 M and could become even more affordable in subsequent/options years depending on how future free agency years develop (who would have thought that AJ Burnett’s contract would look relatively affordable one year removed).

The Astros are now in a good position from a starting pitching perspective (at least compared to the Cardinals). If they can resign Pettite (which all indications say they can), the Astros are a Kip Wells-type away from a solid rotation and a Wolf/Jennings (via trade … Rockies are reportedly interested in Burke, Taveras, and/or Lidge) type away from a borderline formidable rotation (Oswalt, Pettite, Wolf/Jennings/etc., Williams, Hirsh) for 2007. There are still more ifs than answers, but the Astros are certainly on the right track for 2007 pitching-wise.

However, unlike the Cardinals, the Astros also needed to massively overhaul a lineup that in 2006 finished dead-last in the NL with a .255 batting average and 12/16 teams in runs scored. For the most part, it was expected that the offensive overhaul would occur via outfield turnover. With the potential exception of Morgan Ensberg at third base, it is widely expected that the Houston infield will remain the same in 2007, with Adam Everett and Brad Ausmus entrenched at shortstop and catcher respectively for defensive purposes, and 3,000 hit-seeking Craig Biggio and (in my opinion) the most underrated player in baseball, Lance Berkman, manning the right side of the infield. However, chalk me up as a believer that Ensberg will once again be patrolling the hot corner in Houston come Opening Day 2007. Although Ensberg spent the majority of 2006 either on the bench or in Phil Garner’s doghouse, he merely had a down year. Sometimes, he may be too reticent to take the bat off his shoulder, but given the dearth of third base FA options (Aubrey Huff may be the best still available) and the lack of in-organization alternatives, I find it difficult to see Purpura trading an above-average defensive 3rd basemen with moderate to moderate-high pop and a good eye who historically posts an OPS in the high .800’s to .900’s for around $6 M a year … that is unless he gets a no-brainer offer.

Thus (and rightfully so), the overhaul had to begin (and end) with the outfield. In 2006, the Astros did not have a single, full-year regular at any of the three outfield positions. Furthermore, the tandem of Jason Lane, Luke Scott, Chris Burke, Willy Taveras, Aubrey Huff, et al combined to hit only .258 with 48 HR's. With the Duncan-like emergence of Luke Scott in the second half, at least one of the corner outfield spots (likely right) was filled for 2007. However, who would play both left (presumably) and center field was a subject of great debate until only recently. At the beginning of the offseason, the Astros had very publicly expressed their interest in obtaining at least one (if not two) of the few “marquee” outfields available on the market, which included Alfonso Soriano, Carlos Lee, and Gary Matthews, Jr. (sorry I’m having trouble not laughing while typing his name in the same sentence as the word “marquee”).

Say what you will about Carlos Lee and his contract, but the Astros got their man and the right man to boot. Absolutely, the Astros overpaid for Carlos Lee, a below-average defensive outfielder that has never posted an above-.900 OPS in his career, but sometimes you have to overpay for a player who fills a huge hole for your team. The Astros needed a big-time hitter to hit cleanup and allow good, but-not-great hitters like Ensberg, Scott, and Burke to hit in their appropriate positions in the order, and boy, can Carlos Lee hit. The deceiving thing about Carlos Lee is his OPS. In fact, as disparaged as Morgan Ensberg was this year, his OPS numbers were relatively comparable to Lee’s. Thus, is Ensberg as good of a hitter as Lee? Certainly not. The difference is that Lee is a hitter’s hitter, whereas Ensberg is more of a new-age hitter (one who values walks as highly as hits), whom the OPS statistic benefits most. Lee’s OPS is “low,” because his OBP is relatively low compared to his batting average. Over the past 3 seasons, Lee walked only 54, 57, and 58 times, while batting .305, .265, and .300 respectively. The result: modest OBP numbers of .365, .324, and .355. However, his strikeout numbers were also comparably low at 86, 87, and 65 respectively. What does this mean? It means that Lee puts the ball in play more often than most and does so with a considerable amount of power. If you believe in the value of a productive out and avoiding strikeouts as do I, then this is an intrinsic positive not measured in Carlos Lee’s OPS.

The bottom line is that Carlos Lee makes the Astros lineup much more competitive, both directly and indirectly, by putting the other hitters in a better position to succeed. The Astros may very well still obtain another bona fide hitter like Willy Mo Pena by trading the enigma known as Brad Lidge, Willy Taveras, etc. (probably not Burke, despite the rumors, due to his high value as a 2008 Biggio replacement), but for the moment, assuming that Lee is the only starting position player change for the Astros in 2007, just notice the difference in the look of their lineup.

1) Biggio
2) Burke/Taveras
3) Berkman
4) Scott
5) Huff
6) Ensberg
7) Everett
8) Ausmus
9) Pitcher

1) Biggio
2) Scott
3) Berkman
4) Lee
5) Ensberg
6) Burke
7) Everett
8) Ausmus
9) Pitcher

You may disagree, but I find the 2007 lineup, albeit not intimidating, much more competitive than the 2006 version. Save for Lance Berkman and Luke Scott (at times), competitive is not a word often used to describe the 2006 lineup. Just for the detractors of Carlos Lee, chalk me up as one of the first to predict Lee’s first above-.900 OPS in “The Juice Box” in 2007. I wouldn’t be shocked to see a .280, 40 HR, 100 RBI line next season.

2) The Versatility of Lance Berkman
In criticizing Carlos Lee’s defensive prowess (or lack thereof), many “experts” have quipped that Carlos Lee is eating himself into a DH role. As such, an NL team signing Lee to a long-term contract was viewed as a considerable risk. Although I have previously stated that the “experts are idiots,” in this case I happen to concur that he was better suited for an AL team, with one notable exception … the Astros. Aside from being a phenomenal hitter, Lance Berkman has shared one more thing in common with Albert Pujols over the course of his career … he has been somewhat of a defensive nomad. Berkman is now also a first baseman like Pujols and is quickly developing into an above-average fielder at his position. However, Berkman was arguably a much better defensive outfielder and not quite the Gold Glove at first like Pujols. Thus, if Carlos Lee does in fact eat himself into a DH role, the Astros can merely swap the positions of Berkman and Lee without much ill effect. Lee will turn 37 in the final year of his contract. While I certainly believe his defensive capabilities will have significantly diminished, I see no reason to believe that his offensive prowess will follow suit. Sure, 16.7 million/year is a lot to spend on the NL version of a DH, but if he makes the rest of your team better, there are definitely much worse investments.

3) Constructing a Core
The Cardinals have sustained success during the Tony La Russa era using a rather simple formula … building around a core. For the past few years, that core has been Jim Edmonds, Scott Rolen, Albert Pujols, and more recently, Chris Carpenter. With the growing insanity of the free agent market and the increased emphasis on retaining young, cheap, home-grown talent, roster turnover will continue to increase from year to year. One of the few ways to maintain year-to-year continuity and consistent success is by assembling a core group of talented players, much like the Walt Jocketty blueprint. In many ways, the Astros have now begun to assemble a similar core in Oswalt, Berkman, and Lee. Transitively, Lee is now the Astros’ Rolen. While the Astros’ current threesome may not measure up in stature to the Cardinals MV3 + Carpenter, it’s certainly a start. Without Lee, the Astros had only Berkman and Oswalt. In every sport, the true superstar needs a sidekick. Jordan had Pippen. Pujols has Edmonds and Rolen. In may be unfair to Carlos Lee, but he has been signed to be Berkman’s Pippen. In this market, they could have done far worse.

The bottom line … there’s still a lot left to play out in the current offseason for the Cards, the Astros, and everyone else. I’ve been pleased with the Cardinals moves (and lack of moves) thus far. If I was an Astros fan, though, I’d be even more pleased with the aggressive actions of Tim Purpura. Spending money is risky, but I think the Astros have spent it wisely thus far. I once told my good friend from Houston that the Cardinals rivals were the Cubs, not the Astros. A few more years and offseasons like this, and I may have to eat my words.


At 5:54 PM, Anonymous danup said...

Hey, sorry about the delay, but I've added you to the blogroll. You guys are doing some great work, keep it up.


At 6:02 PM, Blogger KardiacKiehl said...

I've gone ahead and added you to ours as well. I can't find us on your blogroll, though ... am I blind?

At 7:35 PM, Anonymous laredo said...

Hey, I am enjoying your postings. I'm generally a "reader" rather than a writer but as a long time Cardinal fan wanted to let you know your efforts were being appreciated. Forge on......

At 9:46 PM, Blogger CAH-TOWN said...

Hey, I am finally making a response, and hopefully this response will start a domino effect in terms of the # of times I post. I typically agree with what you said, but I will put my own spin on a few things:

First, pitching. I think losing Backe last year was a big blow. You have gone from 4/5 good starters to 2 good/decent starters. For the first few weeks of April/May and the last weeks of September, 4 starters is fine, but it's the in between that counts and that's what killed us last year with 4 and then 3 (with Backe hurt). We need consistency with the fifth position. Wandy was very lucky at the beginning of the year, but got lit up and then benched.

I believe we have actually found a fifth starter and can work back from there. I would like to see Chris Sampson start the year here. He was 2-1 with a 2.12 ERA. He has great sinking stuff and gets lots of ground balls not unlike a Jon Garland. I believe he will not be overpowering, but consistent and that's all you can ask for for a 5th starter. I ultimately think that Woody Williams should be our fourth starter. He is 40+ and I feel that he will have a 4.2ish ERA. This is where it gets interesting. I have put together a few combinations below of how I think things will pan out:

#1: Oswalt Obviously
#2: Pettitte or Pitcher in a trade (Garland/Jennings) or Miguel Batista
#3: Williams (would like to give Trachsel a try)
#4: Hirsh or Sampson or Williams
#5: Hirsh or Sampson or bad rookie experiment

I will finally address relief pitching. I hope that we trade Brad Lidge and Ensberg for a quality bat or starting pitcher, thus shaking up or pen. If that happens, I see the following:

CL: Wheeler
SU: Qualls
ASU: Rincon
LR: Nieve
LHS: T. Miller
LR: Borkowski

People like Matt Albers, Bucholz and Nieve should get a chance to start, but only that, a chance.

I will continue probably tomorrow with the offensive side. Please comment.

At 11:28 PM, Blogger KardiacKiehl said...

I wanted to clarify that cah-town is my invited Houston Astros fan/representative ... thought it would be interesting to get his thoughts on both Astros and Cards moves now and in the future. Looking forward to your offensive analysis.


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