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March 14, 2007

Prospectus Today

Hard Choices for Houston

by Joe Sheehan

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One of the more interesting situations this sping is going down in Kissimmee, Florida, where Phil Garner has too many Astros for too many lineup spots. While having depth isn't generally a bad idea, Garner is a manager whose preference--even affection--for veterans has hamstrung his teams in the past, and threatens to do so again in 2007.

Start with what we know. Brad Ausmus will catch, Adam Everett will play shortstop, Carlos Lee is set in left field. It appears that Lance Berkman will be the everyday first baseman, and that Morgan Ensberg is in line for the playing time at third base. Of course, Berkman could play some outfield, although he hasn't this spring. Ensberg always seems to be consecutive hitless games from a job-share situation.

Here's where it gets interesting. Nominally, the Astros' lineup is completed by Craig Biggio at second base, Chris Burke in center field, and Luke Scott as at least the lefty half of a platoon in right field. Jason Lane and Richard Hidalgo are both trying to win the other half of that job, while Mike Lamb and Mark Loretta are around to be the backup infielders. Oh, and Hunter Pence, one of the best hitting prospects in the game has a small-sample-size .652/.704/1.174 line in almost two weeks of limited playing time.

Right now, the gap between the players who have job security and the best players in the room is as wide as it can be. I take no pleasure in saying this, but Craig Biggio has no business being a major-league regular. He certainly shouldn't be anyone's leadoff hitter. His walk rate, strikeout-to-walk ratio and range have all deteriorated past the point of saving, and I suspect his 20-home-run power is at least in part an illusion created by the Little League left field at Minute Maid Park. He might be a viable bench player, but then again, he's an infield backup who can't play shortstop, a failed outfielder, he's lost much of his speed and batting average…he's just not bringing much to the table.

Burke isn't a great player, although it's hard to say how much his development has been hampered by the Astros' refusal to play him more the last couple of seasons, turning him into a utility player so that Biggio's playing time wouldn't be threatened. At 27, it's time to find out what he is; what is certain is that he's a better player than Biggio now, and the Astros' best option at second base. Playing him in center field-alongside Carlos Lee, and in one of the most difficult center fields in baseball-isn't fair to him or to the Astros' pitching staff.

Even Loretta would be a better choice at second base than Biggio is, although his loss of power and range over the last couple of seasons makes it a closer call than you'd think. As long as Biggio's career hit total starts with a "2," though, second base most likely belongs to the veteran.

Is Burke the best choice for center field? It's not likely. Other than utilityman Eric Bruntlett-whose spot may not be secure due to the signing of Mark Loretta-he's probably the team's best defensive option, a rank that has more to do with the lack of any true center fielder after the Willy Taveras trade than with Burke's skills. His offense would be enough to carry that in center-PECOTA projects .278/.348/.452, which I admit surprised me. He's 27 this year, which may explain some of the optimism.

Burke in center field would sound better if it wasn't a move designed to create space for an inferior player, and if the team doing it didn't play in Minute Maid. To contrast this with the Cubs, there's a very big difference between what Alfonso Soriano is being asked to do 81 times, and what's being asked of Burke. The team would be better off with him at second base, where he's a plus defensively and where his bat gives them a greater edge.

If Burke plays center field, that leaves just one spot open in the outfield. Luke Scott is going to play; he raked last year, is hitting well this spring, and keeps the Astros from having seven right-handed batters and Lance Berkman in the regular lineup. Platooning him sounds like a good idea at first, but then you notice that he had a .240/.397/.380 line against lefties in very limited time with the Astros, and pounded them at Round Rock to the tune of .337/.418/.683. (Thanks, minorleaguesplits.com.) He may be an everyday player in the big leagues, and at the least he may deserve a chance to try to become one.

If Scott plays every day, then Jason Lane is out of a job, and Richard Hidalgo, trying to make a comeback, is even further out of one. Garner might platoon Scott just to create space for one of these two, most likely Lane. The right-handed hitter has been a big disappointment the past two seasons, unable to get his OBP over .320. Now 30, it's not quite clear what he is, and while I suspect he might have a Geronimo Berroa push in him, it's not likely to happen in Houston.

And then there's Hunter Pence. All Hunter Pence does is hit, and he hits so much that no one complains about his unusual approach at the plate any longer. Pence was slated to start the year at Triple-A Round Rock, but that was before he went all Kelly Leak on the Grapefruit League. He's so clearly better than Chris Burke that he may force the Astros to return Burke to a utility role and start Pence, putting either Pence or Scott in center field. Neither player is going to be a plus there, but if that ship has alread sailed-Burke is at best an average center fielder-then why not play the guys who will put the most runs on the board?

That last issue is a critical one. The Astros start one of the worst regulars in baseball in Brad Ausmus. They also start a glove-a very good one-at shortstop in Adam Everett. The pitchers bat in the National League. So, the Astros start the game with three zeroes in the lineup, and while this worked when they were allowing the fewest runs in the league, those days are long gone. It's hard enough to win with three non-hitters; playing a fourth in Biggio means that all of the runs have to come from the #2 through #6 lineup spots. That makes it imperative that the five best available hitters get that playing time. That's not going to be the case here, and the Astros don't prevent runs well enough-especially with Biggio at second and no center fielder-to get away with it.

Here's the projected Astros' lineup and bench, as best as I can figure it, and conceding that they're well aware of Pence's skills and performance:

Biggio 2B
Burke CF
Berkman 1B
Lee LF
Scott RF
Ensberg 3B
Everett SS
Ausmus C
Pitcher

Bench: Munson or Quintero, Lane, Bruntlett, Lamb, Loretta; maybe Pence

If you're scoring at home, that's…well, you'll be able to fix a sandwich every other inning or so if you want. The run of .300 OBPs from the #7 hole to the #1 is going to cripple this offense.

Here's what the lineup would look like if all that mattered was merit, noting that the Astros don't really have a good catcher around:

Burke 2B
Pence CF
Berkman 1B
Lee LF
Scott RF
Ensberg 3B
Everett SS
Munson/Ausmus C
Pitcher

Bench: the non-starting C, Lamb, Bruntlett, Lane, Loretta, Palmeiro or Jimerson

The difference between Pence and Biggio over a full season is at least 20 runs, and arguably more than 30. It should mean more "real runs" when you consider the effects of the higher OBP in front of the power guys. That's at least two wins on offense, probably more, plus whatever defensive bounce you get at second base as Burke replaces the statue. Is there any team in baseball that can turn down a three-win improvement?

This all comes back to Biggio. The Astros have decided that he's going to be their regular second baseman until he gets 3000 hits or as long as he wants, it's not clear. His presence at the top of the lineup and at second base is the first domino that causes all of these other dominos to fall in a way that costs his team team runs. The sinister part is that Biggio's surface statistics look good enough to justify the decision: he had 21 home runs last year! The telling number, though, is runs. Batting leadoff six days out of seven for a team with a productive middle of the lineup, Biggio scored just 79 runs all year. Take out his home runs, and he scored just 58 times. That's awful.

The Astros made a lot of moves this winter with an eye towards winning the NL Central in 2007. Winning isn't just about writing checks, though; it's about making the hard decisions that improve the team on the field. Without the fortitude to put the best eight guys out there every day, all the money invested in Carlos Lee is wasted. I can't see the Astros chasing down the Cubs or Cardinals until they get serious about addressing their lineup issues.

Joe Sheehan is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
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