April 14, 2010
Prospectus Hit and Run
Houston, we have a problem. On Monday, the Astros lost 5-0 to the Cardinals, running their 2010 record to 0-7 and marking the third time in this young season that they've been shut out. To date, the Astros have been outscored 42-13—by an average of 4.1 runs per game—which comes out to a Pythagenpat winning percentage of .114.
RS and RA stand for runs scored and runs allowed, Diff for run differential, W-L for full-season record, and SOS for season-opening streak, the number of losses a team accumulated before winning their first game. Interestingly, it's the 1988 Orioles with the worst run differential after seven games; they're the ones who went on to lose a mind-boggling 21 consecutive games to start the year, far outdistancing the 1997 Cubs (0-14), the 1904 Senators, and the 1920 Tigers (both 0-13, though the Senators actually tied their second game).
So the Astros have their work cut out for themselves if they really want to make history. Nonetheless, this is not a good list to be on. None of the previous 24 teams which started 0-7 made the postseason, and only two, the 1980 Braves and the 1983 Astros, even cracked .500 for the year. As a group, these teams compiled a combined .380 winning percentage for their seasons, the equivalent of a 62-100 season.
The 2010 Astros aren't supposed to be that bad. Coming off a 74-88 season and a .480 winning percentage over the past three years, their PECOTA pre-season projection for a 79-83 record bespeaks bland mediocrity, not true disaster. Yet slow starts have a way of mushrooming out of control. Looking back at Rany Jazayerli's Hot Starts series (itself a time-honored spring rite), the 15 teams from 1930-99 who went 0-7 had a combined winning percentage of .391, 59 points lower than the teams that started 1-6, nearly triple the margin between the 1-6 and 2-5 teams, or the 2-5 and 3-4 teams. That might just be a sample-size glitch, but given the uniformly awful fates of those teams, it's likely that 0-7 starts portend the kind of mid-season wait-till-next-year shakeups that lead to ugly results as teams play out the string.
Still, there's plenty to be concerned with when it comes to the Astros, starting with the fact that the prognosis for first baseman Lance Berkman, the team's best hitter, is growing grimmer by the day. One month removed from knee surgery, he's experienced such bouts of swelling that Will Carroll's latest report invokes ominous comparisons to Jeff Bagwell and Carlos Beltran, and suggests that even if he beats his May 1 estimated return date, pain tolerance will continue to be an issue.
That's an especially big deal for a team that was already forecast for a .254 True Average, tied for 14th in the 16-team National League Berkman's .316 weighted mean forecast makes him one of just three Astro regulars who project to post True Averages significantly above the league average .260 (Carlos Lee and Hunter Pence are the others). In his place, new manager Brad Mills has used glum Geoff Blum (.247 TAv forecast) to start five of the seven games, and he's moved Pedro Feliz over from the hot corner to start Chris Johnson (.227) for the other two, a maneuver which only compounds the futility because Feliz is an above-average defender (11 FRAA last year) at a key position, while Johnson is a below-average one (-7 FRAA at Triple-A Round Rock last year).
It's not as though Mills has better options lying around, a fault which can be laid at the feet of general manager Ed Wade. The 37-year-old switch-hitting Blum hasn't posted a True Average above .252 since 2002, and while he doesn't have an appreciable platoon split—-contrary to Mills' usage pattern thus far—the best hitter not already spoken for on the roster, Jeff Keppinger (.272 TAv forecast) most certainly does. He's a lefty-masher (.345/.399/.504 career) who's quite feeble against righties (.250/.306/.340), and Mills has already found him more playing time than either of the nominal middle-infield starters, Kaz Matsui and Tommy Manzella. Meanwhile, the team's Triple-A first baseman is Chris Shelton, who has murdelized minor-league pitching (.315/.409/.508 career). His .252 TAv forecast isn't much to write home about, but his reverse platoon split at the major-league level suggests an opportunity to cobble something together while the team waits for the Big Puma.
While the lineup has issues, particularly without Berkman, PECOTA at least retains some optimism regarding the team's pitching staff, forecasting it to allow the sixth-fewest runs in the league. The Astros were just 11th in runs allowed last year, but they've broken camp with Brett Myers (4.04 ERA forecast) and Bud Norris (4.22) having been added to the rotation in favor of Brian Moehler (5.47 ERA last year), Mike Hampton (5.30), or Russ Ortiz (5.57), awhile Wandy Rodriguez (3.66) simply keeps getting better. Of course, they'll need Roy Oswalt to rebound from a career-worst 4.12 ERA while staying healthy, and the same can be said for Myers (4.84 last year, in a season marred by hip surgery). They'll also need their bullpen to improve from a lousy 12th in the league in WXRL, though the additions of Matt Lindstrom and Brandon Lyon don't exactly offset the departure of closer Jose Valverde.
One can't mention Lyon—whom the Astros signed to a three-year, $15.1-million deal over the winter—without noting Wade's infamous penchant for overpaying for aged middle relievers, whether via trade or free agency. And while the ancient history of Jose Mesa and Rheal Cormier may not be terribly germane to this Astros squad, the commitment to Lyons demonstrates that Wade is behind the curve. As the industry has grown increasingly hip to the ideas of reliever volatility and fungibility, the past two winters have seen only three free-agent relievers receive contracts of more than two years: Lyon, Francisco Rodriguez, and Damaso Marte, the latter two of whom signed with the two New York teams. Lyon isn't a terrible reliever, averaging 2.0 WARP per year over the past four, but it's quite likely the Astros could have gotten greater value out of any one of several useful position players who signed for fewer total dollars this past winter.
Even that complaint only hints at the real problem, the Astros' top-heavy payroll. The salaries of Berkman ($14.5 million this year), Oswalt ($15 million), and Lee ($19 million) consume 52 percent of a payroll which ranks 13th in the majors as of Opening Day. That's actually an improvement over last year, when that trio and the since-departed Miguel Tejada occupied 60 percent of a payroll that ranked eighth. That pricey trio doesn't offer much in the way of flexibility, either. Lee has a full no-trade clause through this season and is owed $38 million for 2011 and 2012. Oswalt has a full no-trade clause through the end of his contract, which will cost a minimum of $18 million, assuming the Astros exercise their club option after 2011. Berkman, who's a pending free agent, is officially damaged goods, and in light of the worsening condition of his knee, it's difficult to see how the team can justify picking up his $15-million option for 2011.
Wade didn't hand out those big deals, however; it was predecessor Tim Purpura, who did so amid much sunnier economic circumstances. Nonetheless, Wade is the man who replaced Purpura in September 2007, reputedly by leading owner Drayton McLane down the primrose path with regards to the club's ability to remain competitive without rebuilding even as other candidates maintained the necessity of doing so. Wade's the one who swung mid-season deals for LaTroy Hawkins and Randy Wolf, and who traded five players (Luke Scott being the most notable) for Tejada, then failed to flip Miggy a year and a half later when he was enjoying his best season since 2004.
Those deals didn't plunge the Astros to the very bottom spot in last year's Organizational Rankings; the team had ranked 28th and 29th in the previous two seasons. With the Astros just 28th in the latest rankings, things haven't changed all that rapidly, though new scouting director Bobby Heck's two drafts have added the team's top two prospects, Jio Mier and Jason Castro, both of whom barely made Kevin Goldstein's Top 101 Prospects list.
Faced with such an unenviable set of circumstances, Wade has little choice but to ride out what Christina Kahrl termed a "kamikaze run" a couple years back. A stronger-willed GM might have risked his job by calling bull when it came to Emperor McLane's new clothes. Instead, Wade milked a two-year extension earlier this year, which at least means he's stuck with Lyon for the duration of his tenure.
Ultimately, Berkman's situation may be a blessing in disguise. As noted above, it will be difficult to justify exercising his option if his knee doesn't improve, and it's worth wondering whether a partially recovered Puma who knows his days are numbered in Houston might be willing to waive his no-trade clause for a chance to DH for a contender. In turn, the departure of the last of the Killer B's might incline Oswalt to waive his own no-trade, with the two aging stars providing at least some return for a team sorely in need of it. That will take bolder action than either McLane or Wade has shown the desire to stomach, which could make this season at best another repeat of the Astros' rocky recent past, and at worst, a true disastropiece.