The Astros keep running the same core out there every year, and it just keeps getting older and further from its glory days. This team is starting to remind me of the mid-1990s Orioles or recent-vintage Mets, where the defense was going to hell in a handbasket, the offense was declining, and no one was coming through the system to help. I thought this Astros team was done two years ago, but they keep adding past-prime players in an effort to hang on, and to the extent that “hanging on” is a goal, they’re accomplishing it.

It’s a funny game, though. Larry Dierker managed the Astros to four division titles in five years and was forced out. Jimy Williams inherited basically the same roster, managed it to consecutive second-place, playoff-free seasons, and keeps his job.

Baseball, like life, is not a meritocracy.

Enough setup; here’s what PECOTA has for the 2004 Astros.

                         2004 PECOTA
                   AB   AVG  OBP  SLG  VORP
Craig Biggio      495  .264 .344 .404   7.2
Morgan Ensberg    346  .276 .368 .480  29.2
Jeff Bagwell      492  .273 .377 .505  31.1
Lance Berkman     497  .300 .412 .566  51.5
Jeff Kent         451  .292 .355 .523  38.9
Richard Hidalgo   460  .278 .358 .498  22.1
Brad Ausmus       259  .238 .305 .330  -4.1
Adam Everett      364  .255 .321 .370   7.9

Orlando Palmeiro  165  .263 .336 .341  -2.7
Jose Vizcaino     139  .254 .299 .344   0.0
Jason Lane        209  .272 .342 .474  10.7
Eric Bruntlett    171  .242 .313 .326   0.1
John Buck         219  .238 .295 .390   2.0

Let’s just get this out of the way now: if Craig Biggio walks into Kissimmee as you’re reading this and announces his retirement, forcing the Astros to use Jason Lane in center field every day, the team improves by about four games. Not only is Biggio barely above replacement level at the plate, but he’s a lousy center fielder, nine runs below average in ’03 and projected generously by PECOTA to be eight runs below average in ’04. He should be a bench player at this point in his career, and might actually be an asset in a Tony Phillips role. As an everyday center fielder and leadoff hitter, he’s a millstone.

A teary press conference isn’t likely to happen, so Lane and Orlando Palmeiro will be the only useful players on Williams’ bench. The Astros’ lineup, like the Cardinals’ lineup, suffers from too many players who take lunch at the Replacement Level CafĂ©, but doesn’t have as dominant a core. Neither team accepts that their catcher is a problem, but whereas the Cardinals only need to find a right side of the infield, the Astros lack a shortstop and a center fielder. Edge, Redbirds.

The Astros didn’t do much to change their lineup this winter, but they certainly revamped their pitching staff. I don’t think Gerry Hunsicker and Drayton McLane have gotten quite enough credit for what they did in trading Billy Wagner and using the $9 million Wagner would have made in ’04 to make the pitching staff better. Conceding that they caught some breaks–bringing in the nominally retired Roger Clemens after getting Andy Pettitte to sign a heavily backloaded contract–I’m not sure you could have crafted a better scenario. Here’s a rough before-and-after, according to PECOTA:

               IP     ERA    VORP   '04 salary
Wagner       76.0    2.48    24.6     $9.0MM
Robertson   116.3    5.05     6.7     ~$400K
Saarloos     88.0    4.29    13.1     ~$400K

Pettitte    179.0    3.79    34.6     $5.5MM
Clemens     167.0    3.69    32.8     $1.5MM
Duckworth    89.0    4.74     8.7     ~$600K

(By the way, is anyone else out there using Dugout Dollars? Excellent site.)

I’m not going to say that the above is a perfect comparison, but the fact is the Astros have traded 70 innings of excellent relief pitching for, conservatively, 340 innings of good starting pitching at a lower price, and may yet make out all right in the bullpen. Octavio Dotel, who has been as good or better than Wagner for the past three seasons, slides into the nominal closer role, leaving the Astros to fill the high-leverage innings Dotel had been pitching. That’s no small hole to fill. Still, if you have to choose between finding two starting pitchers or finding a power arm to throw 20 pitches a night, you’ll choose the latter every time. Brandon Duckworth himself could be that guy, and if he’s not, the Astros have other candidates in Kirk Saarloos and Brad Lidge. It’s a minor problem, and one worth having if it means adding two guys like Pettitte and Clemens.

Overall, the Astros could be right there with the Cubs for run prevention. While their staff doesn’t have the workload concerns that the Cubs’ staff does, it does include pitchers who have had some trouble making all their starts over the past two seasons. Clemens and Roy Oswalt have both had groin problems, while Pettitte and Wade Miller have missed time or had lowered effectiveness due to with elbow pain.

So we’ve looked at all three real contenders, and while I think the Reds could be a .500 team, I’ll save that argument for March. Nate Silver uses the PECOTA projections, along with playing-time analysis provided by the entire BP staff, to predict team records. Here’s what he has for the NL Central.

            W-L      RS     RA
Cubs       92-70    737    635
Astros     91-71    816    715
Cardinals  88-74    779    710
Reds       75-87    785    854
Brewers    68-94    719    860
Pirates    67-95    655    797

I don’t agree with all of this. The Cubs scoring 737 runs? I don’t think so. I’m about as skeptical that the Cardinals will allow just 710, unless absolutely everything breaks right with their pitching and defense. I think the Reds can and will be better than this, because they have a strong offensive core and the potential for a league-average pitching staff.

If I can debate specifics, what I can’t argue with is the idea that the top three teams in the division are inseparable. Four wins over the course of 162…that’s nothing. That’s a half-season injury to a key guy, some good work at the trade deadline, the right breaks in the right one-run games, the Comeback Player of the Year. For all intents and purposes, these three teams can be considered equals.

So who do I think will win? I think of the three, the Cardinals have the easiest route to improvement. They need a first baseman (or left fielder), maybe a second baseman and some arms. That’s a lot easier to find than the shortstop and center fielder the Astros need, or the leadoff-hitting middle infielder and catching help the Cubs could use. I think the Cubs, with their young rotation and slugging-heavy lineup, are the most volatile team, with the potential to win anywhere from 75 through 100 games.

It’s February 25, so any prediction I make now could easily change in a month’s time. (I hesitate to bring this up to Cub fans, but Kerry Wood arrived in camp in the spring of 1999 loaded for bear. He never did make Opening Day.) Right now, I’d probably go with the Cubs, because they have the fewest holes, even though I think some will develop. They have the prospects to deal to improve the club, and have shown an increased willingness to add payroll in the effort

It’s going to be a great race, though, and just another reason to be very excited about the 2004 season.