As fantastic as Carlos Lee has been this season, even he hasn’t be able to shake the Astros out of their nine-game losing streak.
You know things are going badly when you have a great chance to end a lengthy losing streak in dramatic fashion, up steps to the plate not only your best hitter, but the most productive hitter in the league, and you still fail.
Welcome to the problem that is currently the Houston Astros, losers of nine straight games after falling 2-1 to the Reds Tuesday when NL RBI leader Carlos Lee hit into a double play with bases loaded and one out in the bottom of the ninth to end the latest frustrating setback in the club’s longest losing streak since September 1996.
Astros fans, I have some good news and bad news for you. Let’s start with the bad news: another loss to the last-place Reds tonight will mean Houston will be just a game out of the NL Central cellar and will give the Astros their first double-digit losing skid in almost a dozen years. The good news is by having RotoRob write about how bad your team is, you’re pretty well guaranteed to immediately launch into a winning streak. Just ask the Rockies, who have rhymed off seven straight wins since I bad mouthed them.
Houston was sitting at .500 (21-21) before the skid, and is still very much alive thanks to the rest of the division tanking things at the same time. Other than Milwaukee for the first five or six weeks of the season, no one really seems to have been able to garner any prolonged momentum in the NL Central. So the ‘Stros are tied for fourth and just a game and a half out of third. Again, a very salvageable situation, especially when you consider that it took just 83 wins to finish at the top of this division last year. The winner, you may recall, went on to take the World Series.
But with just 199 runs for and 241 against, the team’s 21-30 record cannot be considered unlucky. And there will be no cavalry in the form of Roger Clemens to ride in and rescue them this season. That Rocket has already launched.
The problem has essentially been on the offensive side of the equation. Lee, as discussed, has been all that, but the rest of the sticks have been horrible ‘ especially lately. During the losing streak, the club has scored all of 17 runs and is hitting a mere .220. Overall, the team’s pitching hasn’t been bad, but certainly nowhere near good enough to compensate for that kind of weak lumber.
It’s not going to take a major upgrade in offense to turn this thing around; after all, when the Astros score more than three runs, they are 18-8. Unfortunately, they average less than that, ranking third worst in the majors with just 3.9 runs per game.
General Manager Tim Purpura doesn’t believe his job or that of manager Phil Garner is in jeopardy. But during Garner’s tenure (despite leading the club to its first ever post-season series victory in 2004) the team has witnessed a steady decline after that great second half in 2004 when he guided them to a 48-26 finish. Houston won 88 games in 2005 and slipped to 82 last year. At their current pace, the Astros will win less than 70 this season. Might it be time for a managerial shakeup? With a .484 career winning percentage over 15 seasons, Garner isn’t going to be confused as Tony La Russa any time soon.
Alright, so you want details. Fair enough. Let’s start with the positive.
- Since his promotion to the majors, Hunter Pence has been a breath of fresh air in an otherwise uninspiring situation. He’s here to stay, although I doubt his .355 BA is sustainable given his strike zone judgment (5 BB/15 K). Having said that, there’s a reason Pence was a top prospect and he’s shown an ability to make adjustments at every level, so kudos to those of you who snagged him off the waiver wire early. He could be a difference maker for you this season.
- Lee has far and away been the offensive leader on this club. Obviously, he’d be ever more valuable if someone were driving him in from time to time, but when it comes to driving in others, no one can touch this guy. He’s hitting .310, has already launched 10 long balls and has driven in 45 runs ‘ 21 more than anyone else on Houston, which tells you as much about how good he’s been as it does about how bad the rest of the offense has been.
- Morgan Ensberg may have turned the corner after a crappy start that caused him to lose PT to Mike Lamb at third base. He homered in three out of four games earlier this week, inexplicably prompting the Astros to move him and his .326 OBP to the top of the order last night. Batting leadoff for the second time this year, he was 1-for-3, but struck out twice. Ensberg’s BA is about the same as it was during his down season in 2006, but his on-base percentage has dropped 70 points. However, Lamb’s struggles are opening the door for Morgan, and if the 2006 version of Ensberg can reappear, he can be a real table setter for this club and will emerge as a fantasy option again.
- Wandy Rodriguez was shelled Thursday, but he looked very good in his last couple of starts before that. I’m really impressed with the progress he’s made this season. Although a 2-4 record and 4.45 ERA are not going to jump out at anyone, he’s been much less hittable this year, his command is massively improved and his strikeout rate is up to almost one per inning. Rodriguez’s peripherals scream ‘sleeper.’ He’s taking the hill tonight, which should make Ken Griffey Jr. owners rejoice (Griffey is he’s 8-for-10 with two dingers in his career against the young lefty).
- Jason Jennings returned from his elbow injury to hurl five goose egg frames at the Reds last night. A healthy and effective Jennings will be a huge boost. At least he better be, considering how much Houston gave up to get him this winter.
- Brad Lidge also returned to action last night. He had been out for over a week because of a bruise above his knee, and he will definitely help right the ship. Although Lidge flamed out as the closer and finally lost the job early this season, he’s been very effective as the main set-up dude. While he’s not striking people out at the same rate as he once did, Lidge is also not serving up the gopher balls like he did last season. A look at his May numbers (14 1/3 IP, six hits, 18 Ks, 1.26 ERA) suggest he’s back, baby.
- Roy Oswalt has been his usual ace-like self. How he’s managed to win six games with this team’s anemic offense backing him is a mystery, but his fantasy owners aren’t complaining. Oswalt’s strikeout rate has dropped significantly, probably because of a massive workload that’s resulted in him leading the league in innings pitched and putting him on a pace to top 250 for the first time in his career. I’d be a bit worried here considering his last two starts haven’t been up to snuff. Oswalt has been excellent so far, but I’d be more cautious going forward if I owned him and might be open to listening to trade offers.
- Dan Wheeler has grabbed the closer job from Lidge and he won’t be releasing it any time soon. With command that has never been better, all that’s standing in the way between him having elite fantasy value is more save chances.
- Chad Qualls has been very strong in a set-up role and his current ERA (4.01) doesn’t do justice to how good his peripherals have been. He’s an asset in leagues that track holds, and because of his propensity to bag wins (11 since the beginning of 2006), he’s a good weapon to have in your arsenal in deeper mixed leagues.
- Troy Patton, the Astros’ top pitching prospect, is inching closer to the Show based on his superb showing in Double-A so far this season. His strikeout rate has dropped this year, but Patton’s been getting excellent results by keeping the ball on the ground. A Baseball America classification All-Star in 2005, Patton may soon tempt the Astros to take a closer look.
- Craig Biggio is no longer good enough to be an everyday player, but is still being treated like one. Because he’s been the primary lead-off hitter, he leads team in runs, but let’s face it: Biggio hasn’t been a top-of-the-order guy for a few years now as his on-base skills have deteriorated badly. With an OBP under .285 this season, let’s hope the ‘Stros have finally wised up as Biggio has been shifted to the sixth spot in the order the past few games. This may help jump start the offense, assuming they can find someone to get on base at a semi-reasonable clip from the lead-off slot. Lamb could do the job (.351 OBP), but he’s been in a horrible slump (2-for-20 in the past week). Ensberg’s track record (.369 career OBP) may ultimately be his calling card for the gig.
- Lance Berkman, as money in the bank as any fantasy player over the past few years, has scuffled badly to begin the season. He still draws a boatload of walks, but after mashing a career-best 45 homers last year, he’s managed a mere five so far. Berkman is striking out more often and he’s hitting more than 50 points below his career average and carrying an OPS that’s almost 250 points below his norm. I have full confidence that he will turn it around, so Berkman makes a great buy-low candidate. His current owner is probably ripe for the picking.
- Chris Burke couldn’t cut it in centre field so they farmed out almost three weeks ago, yet he still leads the team in steals, which is a sad commentary on a team lacking a bona fide stolen base threat since Willy Taveras was traded away in the Jennings deal. Burke is struggling at Triple-A (.176 BA), a shame because it wouldn’t have taken much for him to get back to the bigs. But he has to show something before Houston can justify bringing him back, especially with Pence tearing it up since his recall.
- Luke Scott has been playing hurt and, totally unable to duplicate his stellar 2006, he’s now losing PT to Berkman, who’s been shifted to the outfield with Mark Loretta or Lamb manning first base.
- The overall team batting, as mentioned above, has been bad. Real bad. Try 14th in the NL in BA and runs bad.
- While the late-inning relievers have been solid (not that Houston has had as much opportunity to use them as it would like, hence the fact the team is dead last in saves), the middle men have not exactly excelled. Rick White’s command has never been worse and lefty set-up man Trever Miller has already matched his 2006 total in walks ‘ in 45 less appearances.
- Woody Williams parlayed a strong 2006 season into two-year, $12.5-million deal from the ‘Stros this past offseason. Uh, yeah. That’s not working out so well. He’s 1-7, 5.65 to date as he struggles through the worst season of his 15-year career. He was horrible in April and has not been any better this month.
- Adam Everett didn’t have a lofty perch to fall from to begin with, yet has somehow managed to regress significantly this season. From an offensive standpoint, he is now one of the worst regulars in the major leagues with a batting average barely over the Mendoza Line, a whopping total of nine RBI in 160 at-bats, and a rising strikeout rate. To make matters worse, Everett’s defensive work ‘ always his calling card ‘ has also slipped. He already has six errors ‘ one less than he made in all of 2006 (in over 100 games more than he’s played so far this year).
- The NL Central, as discussed, has been butt ugly this year. But of course, that’s a blessing in disguise for the Astros, who are a simple seven-game or so winning streak from getting right back in the race for the title of this woeful division. And something tells me ‘ given my penchant for inadvertently making things that are the exact opposite of what I’m writing about happen ‘ that they are about to embark on this very streak. In fact, I may even bet on it.