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Legal Commentary: Houston's Clear Thinkers
Stros 2008 Season Review, Part Two
By Tom Kirkendall
Through 40% of the season, the Stros' record is precisely what you would expect from a club that struggles to maintain National League average performance -- 32-32, including 15-16 in the second fifth of the season. That's about the same as the first fifth of the season and a bit better than my pre-season forecast. The Stros are in 4th place in the National League Central, 7.5 games behind the Cubs (39-24) and only 2 games out of last place in the division. Any early-season hope that this club could contend for a playoff spot is now a pipe dream.
Frankly, there is little reason to be optimistic about the Stros' prospects for the remainder of the season. While the pitching staff has performed better than expected and is a dramatic improvement over last season's staff at a comparable stage of the season, the club's overall hitting -- outside of Lance Berkman's Bonds-like performance (47 RCAA/.458 OBA/.723 SLG/1.181 OPS) -- has been abysmal. The Stros' hitters rank 12th out of the 16 National League clubs in runs created against average (-23 RCAA) and only one hitter other than Berkman is creating more runs than an average National League-hitter would produce using the same number of outs. Moreover, two regular Stros players -- CF Michael Bourn (-16 RCAA/.281 OBA/.309 SLG/.590 OPS) and recently-demoted C JR Towles (-13 RCAA/.270 OBA/.282 SLG/.552 OPS) -- are among the least productive hitters in the National League. LF Carlos Lee (-5 RCAA/.301 OBA/.469 SLG/.770 OPS) is showing why he is one of the most overpaid players in Major League Baseball, while the declining SS Miguel Tejada (-1 RCAA/.335 OBA/.466 SLG/.801 OPS) has cooled considerably after a hot start. As noted in the first season review, Bourn, Towles and Hunter Pence (-2 RCAA/.339 OBA/.478 SLG/.817 OPS) have all showed signs of their lack of Triple-A seasoning, while neither 3B Ty Wigginton (2 RCAA/.368 OBA/.448 SLG/.817 OPS) nor 2B Kaz Matsui (-3 RCAA/.353 OBA/.352 SLG/.705 OPS) are difference makers. Where would this bunch be without Berkman?
It's too bad that the hitters other than Berkman have tanked because the pitching has actually been pretty good. The staff's RSAA is +13, which is 5th among the 16 National League clubs, and Brian Moehler (4 RSAA/3.76), Wandy Rodriguez (12 RSAA/1.99 ERA), Doug Brocail (8 RSAA/2.53 ERA), Geoff Geary (6 RSAA/1.77 ERA), and Tim Byrdak (8 RSAA/0.52 ERA) have all been pleasant surprises. Furthermore, there is decent chance that the staff's overall RSAA will not decline dramatically as some of the staff members regress to career-average performance because staff ace Roy Oswalt (-7 RSAA/5.38 ERA) is likely to increase his performance-level as he gets back on track after a shaky season to date. Had the Stros' hitters performed on merely a National League-average level so far this season, the pitching has been good enough that the Stros would be challenging the Cardinals (38-27) for second-place in the division. However, neither the Cards nor the Stros have enough horsepower to compete with the Cubs (+30 RCAA/+56 RSAA) for the division lead.
Interestingly, the Stros' reshuffling of their bullpen over the past off-season is not the reason for the pitching staff's improved performance. In fact, if you back out new arrivals Geary and Jose Valverde (4 RSAA/3.88 ERA) and add back in Chad Qualls (6 RSAA/2.79 ERA at Arizona) and Brad Lidge (10 RSAA/0.96 ERA at Philly), the pitching staff's performance would be even stronger than it has been been. Add in other pitchers who the Stros have traded over the past couple of seasons -- Dan Wheeler (5 RSAA/2.22 ERA at Tampa Bay), Taylor Buchholz (9 RSAA/1.67 ERA at Colorado) and Matt Albers (8 RSAA/2.74 ERA at Baltimore) -- and the Stros would have one of the most formidable bullpens in Major League Baseball. This just goes to show that a club rarely receives in return equal or better pitching performance than the proven performance of veterans or the reasonably-expected performance of top prospects that the club trades. The reality is that even above-average pitchers have a bad season from time to time.
In contrast, former Stros' hitters who have been traded away recently have generally continued their Stros' legacy of poor hitting. OF Luke Scott has been solid (7 RCAA/.354 OBA/.492 SLG/.846 OPS) at Baltimore, but CF Willy Taveras continues to struggle against MLB pitching at Colorado (-10 RCAA/.292 OBA/.275 SLG/.566 OPS), 3B Mike Lamb is having one of his periodic bad seasons at Minnesota (-9 RCAA/.267 OBA/.310 SLG/.577 OPS), 2B Chris Burke is flailing away in Arizona (-9 RCAA/.298 OBA/.218 SLG/.516 OPS) and 3B Morgan Ensberg was DFA'ed after posting an awful line (-8 RCAA/.263 OBA/.243 SLG/.506 OPS) with the Yankees. Meanwhile, SS Adam Everett has been mostly injured since leaving the Stros and LF Jason Lane is fulfilling his AAAA legacy in the Yankees farm system.
Thus, the Stros didn't lose much by giving up any of those players, and the addition of league-average hitters Tejada, Matsui and Wigginton has at least made the Stros a less-bad hitting team than they otherwise would have been. However, it's far from clear that the Stros' personnel moves over the past year have done much of anything in terms of improving the overall performance of the club from what it would have been had the club stood pat. That's why it's usually far more productive to invest in scouting and development of players over the long term than to attempt to cobble together a contender from year-to-year by overhauling the roster through trades and free-agent acquisitions.
So, what should the Stros do for the rest of the season? First, the club should dispense with any pretension that it is a playoff contender. That ruse distracts the club from making the type of personnel decisions that are more likely to propel the club back into playoff contention. Development of young players such as Bourn and Towles, as well as several relatively untested pitchers, should be the highest priority. Bourn and Towles have both shown flashes of MLB-level ability, but both are going to need sustained playing time at the MLB-level before it can be determined whether they are have the skills necessary to be regular MLB players. Similarly, pitchers such as Fernando Nieve, Wesley Wright and AA-pitchers Brad James, Chance Douglass and Polin Trinidad should be allowed to pitch some MLB-innings during the remainder of the season to give Stros management a feel for their ceiling. As most recently noted here and in numerous other posts over the past several years, the Stros' steady decline since their improbable 2005 World Series run is the result of a decade of poor drafting and development of young players in the Stros' minor league system. Given that the Stros' decline is unlikely to change unless the organization does a better job of developing young players, it makes absolutely no sense in a lost season from a playoff-contention standpoint to take developmental at-bats away from players such as Bourn and Towles and give them to older and clearly below National League-average players such as Darrin Erstad (-2 RCAA/.322 OBA/.452 SLG/.774 OPS), Reggie Abercrombie and Brad Ausmus (-11 RCAA/.327 OBA/.300 SLG/.537 OPS).
The remainder of June is going to be tough sledding for the Stros as they face the Brewers (33-30) and the Yankees (30-32) at home before going on the road against the Orioles (31-31) and the Rays (37-26), and then return home to face the Rangers (32-33), the Red Sox (40-26) and the Dodgers (30-32) to close out the month. It's doubtful that the Stros will be able to maintain their .500 pace against that competition, so I'm expecting the Stros' record to be several games under .500 by the time of the next season review installment after completion of 60% of the season in mid-July. At this point, my pre-season over/under prediction of 75 wins still looks to be a pretty solid estimate of this club's probable number of wins for the season.
The 2008 season statistics for the Stros are below (through 64 games), courtesy of Lee Sinins' sabermetric Complete Baseball Encyclopedia. The abbreviations for the hitting stats are defined here and the same for the pitching stats are here. The Stros' 40 man roster is here with links to each individual player's statistics:
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