Nothing a baseball team does, from lead-gloved defense to late-inning bullpen disasters, makes a team look more incompetent in the eyes of its fans than a consistent inability to score runs. The emotional toll of watching the home nine put up zeros inning after inning dulls dedication as even post-season heartbreak cannot. This year, fans of the Mariners and the Astros have suffered silently while their teams limped out of the box to an early turn at the bottom of the standings. How desperate is the futility, and what can be done about it?

Houston, Seattle, and the Batting Free-Fall

The Astros are the worst offense in baseball by such a wide margin that even the whiplash of a dead-cat bounce is bound to come to their aid sooner or later. But so far, poor Whiskers seems to have found nothing but bottomless abyss. The Astros are not only dead last in runs per game (2.74 [sic]), they also rank last in home runs (13), doubles (43), and walks (55, trailing the next team by 40). The Astros have scored zero or one run 12 times already this season. As a team, they were hitting .225/.269/.314 after Sunday’s games. For comparison’s sake, that’s worse than the aggregate batting line of all pitchers for the Padres (.246/.338/.333). The highest OPS among Astros' starters is Michael Bourn’s .733; no other regular cracks .700, and only two—Lance Berkman and Jeff Keppinger—are above .600. Put very simply, the Astros have not been any good at all on offense.

The Mariners, too, have struggled to hit the ball. Their 3.29 runs per game are certainly better than the Astros’ tally, and they have already reached 100 runs scored this year. Astros fans might say the extra advantage is attributable to the fact that Seattle gets to play with a designated hitter. A nice thought, I suppose, but Mariners DHs have hit just .185/.248/.210, which is actually worse than Astros pitchers, who have at least managed a .216/.245/.235 line. The DH platoon of Mike Sweeney (.469) and Ken Griffey, Jr. (.499) doesn’t have a .500 OPS between them. As a team, the Mariners are last in the AL in homers (12), last in hits (234), and tied for third-to-last in doubles (49).  Their eight-run outburst on Sunday against the Angels was the second-most runs they’ve scored all season, and just the seventh time they’ve scored more than four runs.

Surely Somebody Here Stayed at a Holiday Inn Express Last Night

What can be done for these struggling teams? It’s a trickier question to answer than you might think, and not only because acquiring upgrades is easier said than done. First, you have to understand which poor performances are part of reasonable expectations and which are mostly the result of initial bad luck. After all, overreaction to an early small sample might actually make the problem worse, even as the team appears to be scoring more runs.

To demonstrate why, let’s look at Astros left fielder Carlos Lee. He has struggled mightily this season, and is so far hitting just .207/.246/.302, a line which is not in fact any bigger by virtue of it being in Texas. This is his age-34 season. Many, noting the lack of Lee home run balls in the Crawford Boxes, are arguing that Lee has fallen off a cliff, never to regain his form. In the last five seasons, his TAv numbers have been .298, .296, .300, .316, and .292. Looking just at those last two years, it is possible to see a cliff. But taking into account his established production level (approximately .300 TAv), what data exactly suggests it’s all over for El Caballo?

On the one hand, we’ve got 30 absolutely miserable games in 2010 and the actuarial data about beefy corner outfielders in their mid-30s. On the other, we’ve got a combined .878 OPS from 2007-09 with the Astros. Richard Justice of the Houston Chronicle has already openly complained about Lee’s statement that he may retire at the end of 2012, when his contract expires, and has called for him to retire now. But assuming Lee doesn’t retire (leaving over $50 million on the table in the process), what is there for the Astros to do but wait for Lee to rebound? The signs of life have begun to manifest, with a .265/.306/.471 line and two home runs in May.

The other alternative, I suppose, is to remove Lee’s .548 OPS from the lineup temporarily and replace him with another left fielder (Jason Michaels?). But the benefits of such a move would be specious: if Michaels came in and hit better (as almost anyone would), it would look like a brilliant little way to shake up the lineup, and manager Brad Mills could take credit. But the absence of action—leaving Lee in the lineup—would probably have a more salutary effect on the Astros' run scoring, but wouldn’t be seen as a discrete decision by the Houston brain trust.

Other aspects of the Astros struggles are related alternatively to their approach (hitting more ground balls, for example) or to poor luck so far. Hunter Pence (.231/.252/.343) has to be expected to improve, for example. Pedro Feliz has a career isolated power much higher than his current .088 mark, and a righty hitting in Houston ought not to take too long to find his power stroke again.

None of this is to say the Astros lineup doesn’t have deep, profound problems. They have something called “Tommy Manzella” playing shortstop, which looks progressive and youth-movementy until you realize that Manzella is 27 and had a career .694 OPS in the minors. I’m as big a Keppinger apologist as you’re going to find, but even I think he’s miscast as an everyday player. His flexibility more than his reliability makes him valuable, and it’s not like injuries to Kazuo Matsui were unforeseeable. 

More Like Designated…

As with the Astros, no one expected the Mariners to score many runs this season. They scored just 640 in 2009 (last in the AL) and had a team OBP of .314 (also last). That means each spot on the roster has to be viewed in the light of day, according the most weight to pre-season expectations. Not that much has changed since then. What we know now that we didn’t then is basically limited to the fact that Milton Bradley likely won’t be available to help the team much this year. Now, that’s no small problem, particularly if you (like PECOTA did) expected Bradley to post a TAv of .290 and provide 30 marginal runs of offense above replacement.

In addition to the “actual news” category, there is a lot of what is probably noise. No, Chone Figgins will not end the season with a .242 TAv and a .229 batting average. No, Casey Kotchman won’t hit .194 all summer long. But still more of the Mariners offensive problems were clear as day. Sweeney and Griffey do not constitute a good DH platoon, even if they are bound to improve from here. Other than right fielder Ichiro Suzuki, there isn’t an impact hitter at any of the positions that teams traditionally rely on to produce runs: first base (Kotchman), third base (Jose Lopez), and left field (Michael Saunders or Ryan Langerhans) can charitably be called question marks. What it boils down to is this relatively simple question: where did you expect the runs would come from?

When looking at the roster that has so far struggled to score runs, you have to separate the performances that are real and the performances that you expect to improve. The danger from making the wrong choices can be deadly. If you take out the guy who was unlucky, you run the risk of keeping him out too long when the replacement gets even average luck. And if you don’t replace the guy who could not have been relied on to produce runs in the first place, there really isn’t any way to improve.

Question of the Day

What choices would you make to improve these two teams’ offenses? Would you sign free agents? Would you trade stars like Berkman for prospects, as some have suggested? Would you fire the hitting coach, as the Mariners have already done?

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I always bemoan the fact that the Astros are mentioned seldom around here. Now today they've been mentioned twice. And I am very sad. Be careful what you wish for! (Trade Oswalt)
The Orioles are furious that you didn't include them in this analysis.
I think the Mariners have already done the best thing they can do: bring up their #2 prospect, Michael Saunders. Signing Sheffield just undermines one of the team's strengths--hit prevention--for a marginal gain and a PR nightmare (releasing character guys like Griffey or Sweeney). Saunders is an improvement this year AND you're developing him for down the road. No lose scenario, really.
I think this is the correct answer but I don't think it is so because Saunders going to tear the cover off the ball. If no one else is, though, might as well let the kid play.
What are Jermaine Dye and Elijah Dukes up to these days? Surely they can't be any worse than Milton Bradley. A 1-year contract?
Both Dye and Dukes and looking for work, and to the best of my knowledge neither are playing anywhere. I think Dye could get a job if he lowered his demands, but he was explicitly quoted a few days back as saying he wouldn't play for a losing team and he wouldn't play for 1.5 million either. I think he could get a job if he really wanted it, but good teams have decided against giving him 2 million plus.

In relation to Bradley, the one that still surprises me is Jack Cust. He would probably be a lot more productive than Bradley, and would definitely be a hell of a lot more productive than a lot of guys in the majors. Yet, somehow, he's still tearing things up for the Sacramento River Cats. Go figure.
What's the general thinking behind Figgins' struggles, small sample size or are there some substantive issues in play?

I know PECOTA was / is fairly high on him, but obviously it has been a bad start. I have a chance to pick him up as a free agent in my fantasy league, and I was wondering what the deal was. I haven't seen the Mariners play this season, so I haven't the slightest clue. Anyone with any insight?
I know this won't sound good, but the Astros need to blow it up and they need to go for quantity and lottery tickets rather than 1 or 2 top prospects. With their minor league system so barren, they'd be better off taking their chances on lots of guys at the High-A, A level and starting over. If they can deal Oswalt and Berkman for a couple of 3-4 star prospects and 5-6 two-three star prospects with possible upside between them, it would be a start. Ed Wade would probably have to get fired for that to happen, unfortunately.
You are way overestimating Berkman's value. He's a badly-built 1B on the very obvious downslope of his career, and most teams just don't need a 1B, or DH. 1B seems to be the deepest position this season by far, and Berkman is extremely expensive for his level of production. The Astros would be fortunate to get anybody with more than a chance to be an average major league regular for him.
Pittsburgh took the approach of getting lots of mid-level prospects and look where its gotten them (nowhere). Their only two exciting prospects: Alvarez and Sanchez came from the draft. As a market Houston has the potential to support a $80-$100M payroll. They don't need a bunch of cheap, replacement level filler the way the Pirates do.

Now if the question was whether to aim for a larger catch of 4 star guys that might be 2-3 years out vs. getting 1-2 that are in AA/AAA, I would opt for the former. Neither the 'Stros lineup nor rotation are anywhere close to competitive once the older guys are sold off.

Despite the gradual decline, Oswalt is certainly the pick of the litter. I agree Berkman's value is probably limited, but they need to get what they can. Given the modest contracts and MLB service time it'd be tempting to trade Wandy. I think he's still 1 year from free agency and would certainly have trade value.

You must not now much about the Pirates because Bryan Morris is doing a fantastic job in A+ Bradenton, a pitcher they picked up in the Jason Bay trade. Also, they have Jose Tabata in AAA who they got in the Xavier Nady deal. Alvarez and Sanchez are the most visable prospects right now, but there's a few guys in the low minors that the Pirates got in trades who might end up becoming decent major leaguers.
The Astros are out of the division race already, so there is not much they can do other than try and unload the little talent they have left for prospects.

The Mariners are spend-happy and can win the division with a little pop. I was trying to sell my buddies on the Mariners trading Ackley and some combination of other prospects for some combination of Alex Rios, A.J. P, and Konerko.

Seattle may be the only team in the bigs willing to pay Rios, and if Rios continues to return to form and it leads to a division win it will pay dividends. A.J. and Konerko might be rentals, but they would be valuable rentals to win the division.

My buddies think Seattle will never part with Ackley. But do you really think signing Dye will win the division? You have to pay to play.

And yes, I think my White Sox are done.
Seriously? Why would you think the Mariners would trade Ackley for anything? Much less Rios (watch his production plummet after having to face anyone other than his old teammates), Pierzynski and Konerko?
Seattle may be the only team willing to pay Rios? The White Sox were the only team willing to do so last year!
This is ridiculous in every way. Trade your number one prospect, and the top hitting prospect in the draft last year, for a bunch of aged, over-priced crap from the White Sox?
It reminds me of when, before Mauer re-signed, every chat would have a question from some Red Sox or Yankee fan asking whether the Twins would take, say, a middle reliver and a couple of middling prospects for the league's MVP.
Everybody knew the Mariners would have trouble scoring this year. It doesn't seem as though this should be a shock.
The Astros are just terrible, and should try to move any body they can; Oswalt has some value, Wandy more, and I'd imagine Berkman just about none.
The M's need to trade pitching for power. They need to sign Dye immediately and encourage Griffey to retire (barring that, release him). They need to put Cliff Lee on the table and offer him to Milwaukee for Prince Fielder. Fielder is a born DH at first and both he and Lee are free agents at the end of the year looking for a big payday.

But, I hope they do none of these things, because, as a Rangers fan, a losing Mariners team makes me very happy.
Why would the Brewers want to make that trade? They are not one pitcher away from competing with the Cardinals, or even for the wild card. Why would they not want to lock up Fielder long-term, especially since Lee has stated he wants to test the open market? They have a much greater chance at signing Fielder than Lee. Fielder is far from the worst defensive 1B in the majors, so the claim that he's a born DH is fallacy as well.
For the Mariners:

Try to swing a trade for Chris Ianetta--maybe the Rockies will want a lot for him, but maybe they won't want anything but the privelege of not paying him so they can continue their Miguel Olivo love affair. Rob Johnson can be the backup (at least he can walk) and Adam Moore can revisit Tacoma.

If they can use Dustin Ackley to get an impact bat who's under contract (i.e. Adrian Gonzalez) they should do it, but otherwise, he's the kind of prospect you build on, not toss away for a longshot pennant run.

Sweeney probably needs to get released and Griffey probably needs to retire or, at least, never start. (I'm thinking about my Ken Griffey, Jr. jersey and remembering the pain of watching him fly out helplessly to the warning track, and recalling my father's stories of watching Willie Mays's last year or two in the Majors...)

Dukes might be a good option, or Jack Cust, but the A's don't want Cust going anywhere else and Dukes might just be too much of a head case to be worth the trouble.

An incentives-laden deal for Dye would be nice, but $3mil for an old DH-only guy who had a terrivel second half and sat for the first month of the season sounds like a lousy investment to me.

Joe Crede could be an option, but I don't know his current health status beyond that if he isn't injured he probably will be soon. Same goes for Carlos Delgado.

I'm skeptical about Sheff, but how about Barry Bonds? Don't worry, I know it won't happen, but...

Beyond that, there's not much to do but wait until teams start deciding to sell and hope that in the meantime Jose Lopez and Chone Figgins play like they were expected to (even the bottom range of reasonable expectations would be a huge improvement).
The Rockies aren't trading Ianetta but, even if they were, as a longtime Rox viewer, I beg of you not to imagine that Ianetta is some great untapped talent. He's preferable to Olivo, I grant you, but aside from some good power on the rare moments he makes contact, the amount of teeth gnashing on this site over his temporary demotion makes it clear that nobody on BP has ever actually watched him. I hope he lives up to the potential, but he is mostly a big swing-and-miss hitter who walks purely because he bats eighth, and defensively is no better than any other low-level starter. Sorry to rain on the 'Free Ianetta' parade.
Lyle Overbay could probably be had from a few of the newer releases from the Sub-Pop catalogue.
Well played but I wouldn't part with Blitzen Trapper even if it meant Overbay--the draft pick compensation alone would be worth more.
do you really think Overbay will be worth a compensation pick? He's no Rod Barajas!
Tonight (weather permitting) a series between the Orioles and Mariners begins. The Mariners are scoring 3.29 runs a game, and allowing 4.00 runs per game (negative 0.71 runs per game). The Orioles are scoring 3.34 runs per game, and allowing 4.07 runs per game (negative 1.63 runs per game).

The Orioles are hoping that finally getting out of the AL East will help, but they did not do well in their earlier series against the Mariners in Seattle.
I'm putting this comment in Jay's article today as well:

Manny Ramirez for Cliff Lee
"the whiplash of a dead cat bounce"

I'm proud to know you, Tom.

Anything in the offing on the reasons why the 'stros are so reluctant as an organization to blow it up and start over when it's so obviously the right call? Perhaps an ethnography of Houston Astros institutional culture would provide some answers.