The Houston Astros are one organization the National League that is arguably in as bad a position as the Nationals.
Their minor league system is consistently rated the worst in baseball, and many consider it a big drop off from whomever you rank #29. Last year they managed an illusory run at the playoffs, finishing at 86-75, a whopping 9 games better than their Pythagorean W-L of 77-84. Like the 2005 Nationals or the 2007 Mariners, the Astros read too many of their own positive press clippings and convinced themselves that they were one or two players from contention rather than desperately in need of rebuilding. They upped the payroll to $102 million to go for the gold, and it's not hard to see this story doesn't end well.
This year, their luck has run out and are every bit the 11-14 team their record says they are. They are off to a terrible start at the plate, averaging an NL-worst 3.54 runs per game. And while their team-wide ERA is a respectable 4.10 (NL average is 4.34), their team fielding independent ERA is nearly half a run worse at 4.51, which is just a tick worse than average. Some of that is sustainable, however, as the Astros have fielded the league's best defense, saving 8.6 runs better than average according to UZR.
Here's my preview of the Astros series, including the line-up, bullpen, and game one starter Brian Moehler.
When the Astros Are Up
--Long known as a streaky hitter, Lance Berkman ended 2008 with a dreadful .171 / .343 / .289 line in his final 100 plate appearances and is off to a .167 / .314 / .405 start in his first 102 PA this year. That's 200 consecutive PAs of sub-replacement offense. Is it possible that at 33 years old Fat Elvis has suddenly gotten old? It's probably premature to say that, but the 'Stros desperately need the former perennial MVP candidate to bounce back.
--Meanwhile Miguel Tejada really has suddenly gotten old. This spring he admitted that back in the day he pulled a Smiley and said he was 2 years younger than he was to get signed. It didn't hurt the A's at all, but the Astros suddenly owe $13 million to a 35-year-old shortstop well into his decline. He's off to a .289 / .324 / .351 start, has shown no power at all (ISO .062) and since he can't field his position anymore, the Astros find themselves spending a fortune on sub-replacement dreck. Not that they have any replacement-level options in their system. Did I mention Miggy's also off the juice?
--Carlos Lee is a wonderful hitter and a pretty bad outfielder, a package that has made him a consistently 3 wins above replacement player. That's a valuable package, but 3-win players aren't usually all-stars. Still, he's pretty beastly at the bat with a rare combination of raw power (.255 ISO in '08) and contact skills (11.2% K-rate). This year, he was ice cold for two weeks, then had a torrid week, and has since cooled off again. It's somewhat worrisome that his latest cold streak coincides with an Achilles' injury that he suffered when he caught a spike on the 24th.
--Why didn't Jim Bowden trade Nook Logan for Brad Lidge? Because that's what Ed Wade did when he brought Michael Bourn over for Lights Out. Last season he was neck-and-neck with Jeff Francoeur for the worst offensive regular in baseball. In fairness, Bourn is off to a decent start this year, putting up a .360 OBP. He's raised his walks to a legitimately pretty good 11.2% rate. It helps that Cecil Cooper isn't letting him face lefties this year, which is a no-brainer after his .190 / .258 / .250 line against them last year. But he's still whiffing in 21.5% of his plate appearances, and regardless of how fast he is, he's going to give back at least 30 points on his .344 BABIP. His platoon partner, Pirates and Indians cast-off Jason Michaels, would have been a nice fit for the role in 2004.
--The second-baseman and lead-off man is Kaz Matsui. He's a 34-year-old slap-and-run hitter with chronic back and leg problems. So far this year he's been the worst offensive player on the worst offense in baseball (and yes he's still hitting lead-off while Hunter Pence toils in the #6 hole to boot; Manny's not the only one who doesn't get this). They're stuck with him through next year after handing him a 3-year $16.5 million deal a year ago.
--Hunter Pence, with Jason Castro one of exactly two under-30 players in the Astros organization with any upside at all, is showing real signs of development. After earning a reputation as one of the league's most unreconstructed hackers, his walk rate has leaped to 10.6% while his strikeouts are down 5 points to 15.5%, qualifying him a pretty solid contact hitter. He ended 2008 with a hot September and is off to a .310 / .375 / .488 start this year. He also plays a nice right field. Maybe Wade will trade him for Ronnie Belliard?
--At third base, we have Geoff Blum. Really? Geoff Blum? The punchless, hacking 36-year-old is the worst offensive 3B in MLB. He can field the position though. Jeff Keppinger, another hacker who isn't totally punchless but can't field his position, gets starts against lefties.
--Catching, we have Ivan Rodriguez. Really? Ivan Rodriguez? After waiting so long to finally move past Brad Ausmus, the Astros inflict this on their fan base. All due respect to the future HOF-er, Pudge at this age is an out-machine (his current .296 OBP is a big step up from the .257 he did to the Yankees). Even his once-magnificent arm is now just ok, as he's coming off two seasons in a row with a caught-stealing percentage of 31-32%. At least Cooper isn't batting him second.
On the Mound
Brian Moehler: Now people can laugh at the Nationals for lots of things, but at least we don't have Brian Moehler in the rotation. He's just coming off the DL following a "mild" MCL strain. This will be his third start of the season, and if he sees the end of the third inning, it'll be the first time. He's sporting a 27.00 ERA.
To the extent he can be effective, it's by throwing a collection of off-speed and breaking pitches with very good command. He walked just 2.16 per 9 last year, and even throwing an 88 mph you can survive with that. This year thought he's down to 86 on the fastball, and he walked 2 in those 4 innings of work. If he falls behind or gets to 3 balls, people in the Red Porch should stay alert.
He's also compiled a robust 100-point OPS platoon split over the years, so Dunn, Johnson, and Guzman in particular will look to feast.
Don't be fooled by their solid 3.83 ERA. The Astros bullpen as a group has a 5.10 fielding independent ERA, 13th in the NL. Their save percentage is a terrible 44%, and they've allowed 40% of inherited runners to score. Their net win probability added is -.62, which is 10th in the league and pretty bad (though not close to the Nationals' bullpen's shocking -2.91 WPA, which is a full run worse than anyone in the NL).
Now, closer Jose Valverde (who they should have traded in the off-season anyway) is out for 3-4 weeks with a strained calf. Cooper is using LaTroy Hawkins as his primary closer, but he can't get lefties out, and Cooper used him accordingly last year. The other closing options are 42-year-old Doug Brocail (who has walked 8 of 29 batters faced so far, while 2 more hit homers) (UPDATE: Brocail is headed to the DL with a leg injury) and Chris Sampson, who's serviceable as a relief arm and may be the best choice of the three.
Fire-balling rookie Felipe Paulino spelled Moehler in the rotation and did well enough that he's now being used in the bullpen. He's the only one here who can miss bats with any frequency. The lefties are journeyman strict LOOGY Tim Byrdak and former Rule-5-er Wesley Wright.
Season record: 14-9
If Moehler isn't the worst starting pitcher in baseball, he's right there. I like the match-up for Lannan too. We should see Keppinger and Michaels in there for Blum and Bourn, but if that's not the case for either of them, they're pretty much automatic outs for a lefty. Pence often can be pitched around given that Cooper's hitting him 6th. Berkman and Lee would be a pretty brutal middle of the order for a lefty, but now not so much. Boy I hate raising hopes, but there hasn't been a game this winnable for the Scats all year. I'm looking for a blow-out, 12-2.