Thursday’s column inspired one response above all others: where were the Astros?

The simple answer is that the Astros were too good to be included. At 54-47 on Thursday morning, they were a few games better than the 11 bubble teams. With two wins over the Mets since then, they’re leading the NL wild-card chase. They’re clearly a buyer in this market.

This is a complete reversal for me, by the way. I go on the radio every Thursday in College Station, Tex., and for most of the year, I’ve been arguing that the Astros aren’t good enough to make a push this year, and that they need to focus on getting value for their veteran talent and retrenching for a time when they wouldn’t be paying Jeff Bagwell eight figures a year. At the start of the year, I pegged them as the team most likely to be a disappointment, predicting them to finish in fifth in the Central at 77-85, due largely to the losses of so much of their 2004 offense. I didn’t think they’d be able to score enough to win.

That’s actually come more or less to fruition. The Astros are 11th in the NL in runs scored and 13th in EqA. Their 447 runs put them on pace for a total of 696, or 45 fewer than even my pessimistic prediction. The losses of Carlos Beltran and Jeff Kent have hurt, as has the injury-shortened campaign by Bagwell. The Astros, even last year, gave away two or three lineup spots in each game, and could little afford to have a middle of the lineup that wasn’t dominant. Morgan Ensberg‘s season has helped considerably, combining with Lance Berkman and Craig Biggio for a viable lineup core. Outside of that core, the Astros are lousy.

The Astros’ pitching, though, has more than made up that deficit. They’ve allowed just 397 runs, making them one of just three teams (along with the Braves and Cardinals) that has yet to allow 400. They’re on pace to allow just 618 tallies, a full 170 fewer than I predicted they would. That’s a massive error, in line with my misread of the White Sox’ run prevention. Whereas with the White Sox, the gap stems from some young pitchers improving and being supported with better defense, with the Astros, it simply comes down to some very good pitchers getting better. Roger Clemens and Roy Oswalt combined for 68 starts, 451 innings and a 3.25 ERA last year. With Clemens at age 42 this year, it didn’t seem realistic to expect that performance to improve.

It has. This year, the two have combined for 43 starts, 300 2/3 innings and a ridiculous 1.92 ERA. That jump is the biggest reason why the Astros are leading the wild-card chase today: they have two of the three best starting pitchers in baseball taking the mound for them.

Andy Pettitte‘s bounceback season has been a big factor as well. Pettitte, who threw just 83 innings in his injury-shortened ’04, has stayed in the rotation almost the entire season, making 20 starts with 2.73 ERA. The Astros have far and away the best front three in MLB, and are making a case for having one of the best in recent history. More than 60% of their games have been started by pitchers with ERAs of 2.73 or better. You can drop a lot of runs scored and still contend if you get that kind of pitching.

That’s really the entire story. The Astros have a massively front-loaded roster, with Dan Wheeler and Brad Lidge the only pitchers other than the big three making any kind of contribution–at least 10 runs worth of VORP–this year. Aside from the three hitters mentioned above, just three other Astros’ position players–Willy Taveras, Orlando Palmeiro and Jason Lane have reached 10 runs’ worth of VORP. This is a 25-man roster being absolutely carried by six players.

Can they keep it up? The offense isn’t going to get a whole lot better, not as long as Adam Everett, Brad Ausmus and the first-base combination of Mike Lamb and Jose Vizcaino are playing. The Astros can upgrade the last of those in a deal, but like so many other teams, they’re having trouble finding trade partners in a market short on sellers. They could use pitching help in the bullpen and the back of the rotation as well. None of these things are readily available, and with the Astros still possessing an aging roster and riding the performances of older players, they’re most likely, even in their present state, better off not overpaying for a patch. There are no Carlos Beltrans on this market.

With the Astros, what you see is what you get, so their season is going to rest on continuing to get otherworldly performances from the front of their rotation. It’s not completely unheard of for a team to succeed with one of the league’s worst offenses; think back to as recently as the 2001 Braves, who finished 13th in the NL in runs, first in ERA and first in the National League East. That’s the model for this team: three days out of five, put a shutdown starter on the mound and score just enough runs to win.

Some notes on the trade market:

  • As I write this, Shawn Chacon is going all Aaron Small on the Angels. He’s not much of a pitcher, even outside of Coors Field, although his size and raw stuff get him lots of chances. He’s always reminded me a bit of Bobby Munoz, for those of you who remember that bit of Yankee history.

    The Yankees didn’t give up much of note for him, but let’s face it; they’re spending a lot of time and energy now acquiring guys they should have been locking up over the winter. Chacon, Darrell May, Tim Redding…this is the free-talent market, and the Yankees haven’t paid enough attention to that in the last ten years. When it all goes wrong at the major-league level, good teams have better plans than this.

  • Chris Kahrl likes the Orioles’ Eric Byrnes pickup a lot more than I do. I think Byrnes-for-Larry Bigbie is a pretty good platoon passing each other on the transaction wire. Byrnes can’t hit right-handers well enough to start against them, and batting him in the #2 hole every day is going to push the O’s further from, not closer to, a playoff spot.
  • You know you aren’t wanted when a team takes Chan Ho Park just so they can get rid of you. Phil Nevin overplayed his hand, and now finds himself further from the postseason than he would have been in Baltimore. In his favor is the new home park, which could allow him to have the kind of superficially impressive stretch drive that gets him regular work in 2005.

    Park garners that same benefit, moving to a place that should have a salient effect on his ERA even if he doesn’t pitch much differently. He’s been able to take the ball every fifth day for the Rangers this year, and if he can end the Padres’ dalliance with Pedro Astacio, he’ll have been worth the effort.

  • Congrats, Peter. Go make history by being the first inductee to break news of a big deal from the podium.