[The signing of Jeff Kent and the 2003 Astros offense]

Jonah Keri: Wow, is this a monster line-up.

Jeff Bower: It's not so impressive when you step through it. Berkman's the only hitter in the top 10% of his position. Bagwell's still in the upper third, and Kent should be at third base. Maybe Hidalgo returns to that level.

Aside from that, Ward, Lane and Lugo are probably around average. Then you've got the remains of Biggio and Brad Ausmus.

All in all, it's a lineup that should rank around 4th or 5th in the NL in runs scored.

JK: Dude, when you have two superstars, one star, one slightly above average, two average, one possibly average and one bad player, that's a monster lineup. No one out there is sending 8 Bondses to the plate. Top 3 offense barring major injuries.

Chris Kahrl: Top three? I'll take the Giants and the Cardinals over them, and the Phillies aren't carrying Doug Glanville and a zero at first any more. Then we get into preferences, and I'd rather have what the Padres have got, and I'd take the Braves' core, assuming I got to fill out the rest of the lineup.

The Astros don't suck, but I don't see it, unless you're arguing raw stats.

JK: Drew's a part-time player until he proves otherwise, and Edmonds is going to miss more than 20 games one of these years, very soon.

Given that, I'd say Giants-Phils-Astros-Cards-? looks about right to me.

CK: I'll take Drew and his substitute over Ward or (now) Biggio; I don't even think it's particularly close. Biggio's not an asset as a 2B, and he might now be the team's LF. Ick.

Derek Zumsteg: Uh, did you guys see how awful Daryl Ward was last season? He was not an average hitter.

JB: Neither was Hidalgo. Both are part of why adding Kent doesn't turn the Astros into a "monster lineup".

JK: 2002 Team EqA : St. Louis .267, Houston .260.

The Cards added Joe Girardi. The Astros added Jeff Kent. If everything else stays the same, I don't see how it's unreasonable to expect the Astros to match or slightly better the Cards, given the addition of an all-world bat at one of two positions where offense is at a premium. If you assume Bagwell, Biggio and Kent decline slightly with age, you make the same assumptions for Edmonds, Vina, Tino and Matheny. And the Astros have a younger supporting cast with Ward, Lane et. al. reasonable candidates for a bump in offense as they enter peak age range.

I will say that if Drew, Rolen (who'll tack 3 months worth of production on the team didn't have last year) and Edmonds somehow stay healthy, that's a tremendous lineup that would likely improve too. I just worry about a core built around that many Tin Men, as good as they are.

CK: Rolen's a tin man? Two full seasons, two seasons slightly affected by injuries, and then two more full seasons, and we're calling him Fred Lynn already? Farfel. Drew and Edmonds, I can accept that epithet, but Rolen?

Biggio has done more than decline with age. He's no longer useful except as filler in the absence of useful alternatives. While you and I might agree about Ward and Lane, one might not be an Astro, and the other might get boxed out by Kent pushing Biggio to the OF. Wishcasting the lineup card doesn't count, otherwise, like I said, I'd take the Braves and the waiver wire.

JB: Nah, Kent will be at third and Biggio at second. I'm sorry to say that Geoff Blum has to accumulate enough Jimy Bux to push the 35th best player in baseball history to the outfield [we later learn Kent will play second base with Biggio moving to the outfield].

I'm also confident that Williams can keep the Astros offense from achieving all that it's capable of. I have no idea why they're interested in Jay Payton.

JK: Presumably because they have no one who can catch the ball in center who's not named Brian Hunter. Berkman playing tons of CF is great for my Strat team, not so much in real life.

JB: Berkman was adequate in CF last year. Stretching their players defensively is one of the fun things the Astros organization does. They played Lane in CF in New Orleans last year.

How quickly we forget that Hidalgo was a pretty good centerfielder in 2001 and before.

I'm also confident that Williams can keep the Astros offense from achieving all that it's capable of. I have no idea why they're interested in Jay Payton.

JK: Hey you're preaching to the choir. Still, Houston's staff skews toward fly-ball tendencies, n'est-ce pas?

Nate Silver: Maybe someone who gets to see the Astros play more often can help out here. Is there any chance that Biggio can be a defensive asset in CF at this point in his career? It's hard to tell how well his wheels are holding up; he was a highly efficient base-stealer last year, but set a career high in GIDP.

I don't know how it would stroke his ego, but absent that, it seems like the optimal solution might be to plant Kent at second, and turn Biggio into a utility guy, making sure that he gets a couple of days off each week.

Either that, or put him back behind the plate.

JK: Remove the hyperbole if you'd like, but if nothing else my gut tells me Hidalgo and Lane take a step forward this season. I've got my crack staff working on the .EqA jumps in players who've been shot in the off-season. The results are apparently off the charts.

(What I want to know is, has Minaya offered to take the extremely expendable Ensberg off Houston's hands for an A-ball pitcher yet?)

CK: Hmmm, a Lyman Bostock punchline would probably be politically incorrect, but that was an in-season shooting, so I guess it doesn't count.

JB: Even if it was in-season, Bostock's EqA plunged, IIRC.

CK: During our replay of the '78 season in my Chicago Strat league, we had the bad taste to have a Bostock rule, where if you rolled his injury spot and then a '20', that would be his last game.

He survived a hundred-game season.

[On speculation that Darryl Ward may be non-tendered]

JB: That would be a good move. They need to get Lane into the lineup, and getting rid of Ward should take care of that. Of course, Williams may see it as an opportunity to give Brian Hunter 500 plate appearances.

JB: This is more or less lifted from my player comment, but Hidalgo isn't dramatically different than Darin Erstad. Though I was unaware of your study of off-season shootings, Jonah…

JK: And Darin Erstad was not only good enough to get a 4-year, $32 mil. contract (much like Hidalgo), he also was the gritty sparkplug who drove the Angels to a World Series victory! Come on, how much more evidence do you need?

NS: Of course it's absurdly early to do something like this, but here is the sum of the projected VORPs for the NL teams next year, per PECOTA. What I did is simply sum up all of the positive VORPs and throw out the negatives, without accounting for how many plate appearances this would add up to or at what positions. Most of the recent transactions should be accounted for.

Philadelphia     244.9
San Francisco    235.0 (Barry = 111.4)
St. Louis        212.6
Houston          207.9
Atlanta          180.0
Chicago          164.0
Colorado         163.0
Montreal         148.8
New York         144.5 (includes Nakamura)
San Diego        141.1
Cincinnati       135.2
Los Angeles      130.9
Florida          124.5
Pittsburgh       109.0
Arizona          106.6
Milwaukee         62.6 (includes Jose Hernandez)

JK: While acknowledging said earliness and the rough sketchery of Nate's effort (and thanks for this Nate), I'd say this looks awfully close to my expectations.

CK: Wow, that list is a stunning affirmation of what you might interpret as the consensus in this discussion. The Astros aren't top three, but they're plausibly close, and the Braves… well, like I said, give anybody a chance to replace Lockhart and Castilla and stock 1B with somebody like David Ortiz or whoever…

JK: Yup, the whole argument is whether the Astros can reasonably expect to make up a tiny projected gap between them and the top three, with St. Louis standing in the way. The whole exercise was of course a ludicrously silly argument given the anything can happen nature of the sport and the closeness of the two teams anyway. Maybe if I said, "wow, that's an above-average lineup" we all could have gotten some work done this morning.

[After learning of the Phillies-Braves/Millwood-Estrada trade]

Jeff Hildebrand: I just got multiple reports landing in my e-mail of a Braves-Phillies trade. Kevin Millwood to the Phillies, Johnny Estrada to the Braves.

OK, now I pick the Phillies to finish first. Christmas just came a few days early for me.

JK: Come on, there's GOT to be something else involved. It's not only a brutal trade for Atl, it's in the same division, to the one team that can challenge them.

Gary Huckabay: Wait…. Johnny Estrada? What am I missing here?

They couldn't get Papo Casanova from the Brewers? Wiki Gonzalez? Creighton Gubanich? ERIK Estrada from Telemundo?

CK: Is it just me, or is the only safe bet left to defend their division title the Twins?

Dave Pease: They're counting on some young pitchers (unless/until Kenny Williams trades them all), but with their lineup I could see the Sox winning the Central this year.

DZ: You think the Yankees are going to fall apart? I don't see it.

JH: I think it's more a matter of stiff competition. The Yankees will be there next year, but the Red Sox were unlucky last year and have improved so they'll be right there as well. Likewise the A's aren't going to fall apart, but that division is murder.

JK: This, apparently, is true.

This is probably in my top 5 all-time for worst trade I've ever seen, all things considered. Unless the payroll cleared enables the Braves to trade Castilla for ARod.

NS: Out of all the starters the Braves have spun through this winter, Millwood would be the first one I'd retain, Maddux and Glavine included. And to get such little value for him with such obvious holes to fill?

JK: In other news, the Expos should expect to get Bower's dog and a Devil Ray to be named later for Colon, tops.

JH: The only thing that makes any sense whatsoever with this is if the Braves think that Millwood's shoulder is going to disintegrate within the next hundred innings he pitches. And even then I still take the chance if I'm the Phillies.

Thank you for reading

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