Click here for the Astros’ 2006 depth chart.
C Brad Ausmus: Ausmus is red mostly on the basis of his age and his position. The system looks at his numbers, and figures he’s hurt. It’s easy to take shots at Ausmus, but he’s one of few durable catchers out there. The survivor effect for catchers after 30 is pretty interesting.
1B Lance Berkman: Berkman is back from surgery on his knee, and will likely be at first base most of the time, reducing the stress on it. The more games at first, the better. Berkman’s similar to pitcher David Wells: in better shape than you’d think from just looking at him.
2B Craig Biggio: This is proof that the system occasionally gets freaked out by the outliers. There are so few players of this age doing what Biggio does that it has nothing to compare him to, skewing things. Call him green for lack of a better explanation.
3B Morgan Ensberg: The third baseman finished up his breakout season playing through a painful hand injury; not even playing in the World Series could cure him. Ensberg is the type that always seems to have one thing wrong at any given time, but “just” that one, while never being completely healthy.
SS Adam Everett: His off-field struggles make the season he had last year pretty amazing. We often forget that outside the stadiums and apart from the money, these guys are just guys.
LF Jason Lane: He’s a late bloomer with a small window of opportunity. He’s the type of guy that will have to play through injuries and dive through walls.
RF Preston Wilson: Maybe Wilson just hasn’t yet recovered from his time in Colorado, and while there’s always been question about the effects of altitude on baseball, one theory I recently heard is that players wear down after two to three years playing there. The numbers don’t bear it out, but at least the latest Colorado performance conspiracy theories give us something to think about late at night.
Key Sub Jeff Bagwell: It’s safe to say that even if the insurance claim is denied that Bagwell will miss time to injury. That he’s still trying is a testament to sports medicine and Bagwell’s amazing desire to play the game.
SP Roy Oswalt: Yes, I was surprised too, enough to double-check the numbers, but Oswalt’s injury-prone days seem to be behind him and he absorbs innings well.
SP Andy Pettitte: No real problems after a lost year to elbow surgery. He’s in a walk year and may be on a team sliding out of contention. You might consider that either motivation or a recipe for a sore elbow.
SP Brandon Backe: Converted position players turned pitchers seldom stay reliably healthy. Backe has never been healthy long enough to suffer a serious breakdown. Yet.
CL Brad Lidge: Lidge’s velocity was off as much as his confidence. His elbow has never been able to hold up, and his reliance on the slider late in the season doesn’t bode well. That he’s working on a splitter again this spring may or may not be a cause for optimism.
The Astros won for a lot of reasons. One that doesn’t get the credit it deserves is the relative health of their regulars. The medical staff, led by Dave Labossiere, was a serious contender for the Dick Martin Award and, in a more advanced analysis, may have added more wins than any other team. The trainers kept Jeff Bagwell on the field longer than anyone could have expected, and they got him back after experimental surgery. Beyond Bagwell, Morgan Ensberg played through a hand injury, Roger Clemens pitched through a bad back and worse hamstring, and Lance Berkman had his knee carefully (and sensibly) monitored after his return.
There’s a double-edged effect to keeping players on the field, though. Eighty percent of Clemens is likely better than the available replacement, but at times, keeping 80 percent on the field is likely to make him 50 percent or less come World Series time. A team as deep in second-tier talent as the Astros may occasionally overplay their hand, but it requires a lot of touch and math to figure this out. Berkman is likely to replace Bagwell at first, but it’s not a one-for-one switch. It’s actually Wilson that replaces Bagwell, Mike Lamb, and Chris Burke, with a few defensive adjustments, depending on who’s in the lineup. With Bagwell on the payroll, insurance or not, that’s an additional cost for a very marginal, very risky, and very dubious potential gain.
There’s also a danger brought by rapid change. The pitching staff appears to be heading from one of the oldest to one of the youngest in the space of a year. Oswalt aside, there’s going to be a big test for many of these young arms and the medical staff. There’s some data that shows that breaking in a significant number of players, young or old, has a negative impact on injury statistics. I’d kill for a copy of the 1998 Redbook.
This is a similar yet very different situation to the ones the Marlins face. They have five or six similar players for their outfield/corner infield slots that have differences in skills and tools, but any combination of which amounts to roughly the same value on the field. The choices that the team makes, and their ability to effectively manage their roster and health will go a long way in telling whether they’ll be back playing ball in October or rebuilding.