- First Half Overview: The high point has been the bullpen, which features three of the top 10 relievers in the majors. While Ricky Stone has tailed off a bit and fallen out of the top 30, Brad Lidge, Billy Wagner, and Octavio Dotel put up huge first halves under Jimy Williams’ whip. Throw in some other nifty performances and the unit ranks as the third-best in the bigs.
Still, bullpens can only do so much to swing the fortunes of a club. The rotation has been a touch below average, and the offense a touch above, so the pen’s best efforts propped the team up to just a 50-44 record and one-game division lead heading into the All-Star break.
Looking Ahead: The Astros have left the All-Star gate running, sweeping a four-game set from the Reds to open a three-game division lead. But good trades by Chicago and St. Louis could easily push the Astros from the driver’s seat back into the child safety restraints, and this is one year where they don’t want to get involved in the wild-card rumble.
So what can the Astros do to help themselves? Unfortunately, there really aren’t any areas where they’re both ripe for improvement, and inclined to remove the incumbent players.
- Outfield: Lance Berkman has rebounded nicely from a balky elbow to jockey for top-five honors at his position, and Richard Hidalgo has been there all year. Craig Biggio has been one of the least offensive center fielders in the league, but he has a history with the club and turns out to be an average defender there, so he isn’t going anywhere.
- Infield: Jeff Bagwell and Jeff Kent are entrenched at their positions. Brad Ausmus is hyped as an asset to the club, which is kind of like hyping a movie based on a comic book based on public domain literary villains as “the most original of the summer.” Regardless, Ausmus is also entrenched, despite hitting far below even his own lowly standards. Third base is more than covered by Morgan Ensberg, never mind Geoff Blum. The club is predictably enamored with the glove and youth of Adam Everett, even if his bat remains a work in progress.
- Bullpen: As noted above, the bullpen has been great, and even so, it hasn’t been enough to push the Astros into the league’s elite. Besides, any pickup here, no matter how good, would be slotted so far down the depth chart that his presence almost wouldn’t matter.
- Rotation: Roy Oswalt and Wade Miller are entrenched, and Tim Redding has settled into the #3 slot. More at risk are shaky-peripheraled Jeriome Robertson, who may implode at any time, and Ron Villone, who’s had an ugly history but a great couple of months.
Still, unless Gerry Hunsicker witnesses a major implosion from one of the southpaw starters (or Oswalt’s groin), he’ll probably settle for the hand he’s dealt himself, especially as the upper minors’ cupboard doesn’t give him much to work with. Meanwhile, the Astros’ division rivals have obvious holes, the willingness to fill them, and (at least in the Cubs’ case) the resources to do so. It’ll be interested to see if Houston to fight off its rivals.
Ned Instead: In three years, the Brewers have had three managers. In a future PTP we’ll look at the tactical differences among Davey Lopes, Jerry Royster, and Ned Yost. For today let’s look at how the pitching staff has fared under each. Lopes was replaced early last season, but in the interest of keeping it simple we’ll assign 2001 to him, 2002 to Lopes and 2003 to Yost. The rankings that follow are relative to the rest of the National League.
Year Manager SNWL ERA H HR BB K PAP (1st = least abuse) 2001 Lopes 14 14 10 12 16 14 13 2002 Royster 16 15 12 15 16 11 9 2003 Yost 15 14 13 16 8 8 1
That’s a sad report for a team putting up half its stats in a pitchers’ park. Milwaukee’s winning percentage hasn’t improved over the three-year span–as bad as Lopes’s record was, it was the best of the group. But while the overall pitching results look static, Yost’s staff differs from their predecessors. The first thing that jumps out is that Yost has babied his staff. This is more an indictment of Lopes and Royster than a measure of Yost’s virtue. Just as it was under the previous managers, the rotation is made up of mostly fungible back-enders. But it’s not as if the club has moved from a staff of wild softies to finesse pitchers who are simply wild in the strike zone. If that were the case, we probably wouldn’t see the strikeouts jump as much as they have. The improvement in Milwaukee’s walk rate, in light of the increased frequency of home runs allowed, suggests Yost has his pitchers working more aggressively.
Star Performer: It’s time we got around to Matt Ford. A Rule Five draftee last December, Ford had never pitched above A-ball until this year. Making the three-level jump hasn’t been the obstacle we predicted for him in this year’s book. He is just outside the Top 30 of all major league relievers in Adjusted Runs Prevented. His overall ERA of 4.33 is nothing special, but his rate of Adjusted Runs Allowed per nine innings is 2.18, a half-run better than anyone else on the team.
While Yost hasn’t stretched him out much, he hasn’t wasted him as a LOOGY either. Good thing, too, because Ford’s work against lefties has been far from special–in 10.2 innings he has allowed 21 baserunners, with just three strikeouts. His overall strikeout/walk ratio is 26/21, far below the 2-to-1 and 3-to-1 ratios he put up in the minors, though we’re talking about a guy making the leap from the Florida State League. Slotted by Baseball America as the #10 prospect in the Brewers’ organization, Ford isn’t out of his league in the Brewers’ middle-class bullpen.
Ford’s made his last four appearances as a starter, and in that role he’s had it rough, allowing 24 hits and 10 walks in 14.1 innings. All five homers he has allowed this year have come as a starting pitcher, all in his last three appearances. His ERA as a starter is 8.79. His strength so far has been in the bullpen, and given that Ford is jumping three levels this year, Earl Weaver might have kept him in the pen all season. But since the Brewers see Ford’s future as a starter, and since the team isn’t going anywhere any time soon, the experiment will likely continue.
- First-Half Top Performer: Though his recent slump has taken a bite out of his otherwise big first half, Eric Byrnes has for the most part played so well since entering the lineup in late April that it’s difficult to remember the A’s without him. When Jermaine Dye went down with knee problems on April 24, Byrnes stepped in and immediately caught fire, putting up a .305 EqA in the first half and outpacing everyone in the A’s regular lineup. Byrnes kept his starting spot when Dye returned, forcing manager Ken Macha to switch to a deeper outfield rotation that cost off-season acquisition Chris Singleton the most playing time.
Now without Dye again, the Oakland outfield has shown a different look nearly every game, with Adam Piatt, Billy McMillon, and Quadruple-A journeyman Dave McCarty getting a fair amount of playing time and performing well. But Byrnes, careening around the outfield and the basepaths like Super Happy Fun Ball, is the new mainstay in center.
- First-Half Disappointments: What’s wrong with Eric Chavez and Miguel Tejada? Well, we’ve got an idea or two, but whatever it is, it needs to change for the Oakland offense to pick things up again. Byrnes and All-Star Ramon Hernandez, have helped keep the ship afloat, but somebody needs to tell the left side of the infield not to steal Jobu’s rum.
- Precap: Who had July 21 in the Rich Harden pool? The 21-year old Harden will finally make his highly anticipated major league debut today against the Royals. Harden is the tip of the iceberg of hot minor league pitchers on the way for Oakland. Nipping at his heels are Justin Duchscherer (81/10 K/BB in 104.1 IP) and Mike Wood, who was injured with a bad back for much of the season, but has returned to put up consistently solid numbers in line with last year’s solid performance.
The A’s front office has some tough decisions to make in the next few weeks before the trade deadline. With a surplus of solid pitchers roving the minors, the front office needs to decide who to deal for a major league bat to aid the slumping offense. Look for Billy Beane to try to move slumping prospect John Rheinecker (demoted to Double-A Midland) before parting with either Duchscherer or Wood (note to GMs: don’t bother asking about Bobby Crosby or Nick Swisher.)
Though J.P. Ricciardi snatched up Bobby Kielty before Beane could get him (and made getting Shannon Stewart more unlikely in the process), rumors abound about Beane’s next target for the A’s outfield, the leader in the clubhouse being J.D. Drew. The A’s could hope to do with Drew what they’ve done with Erubiel Durazo–keep him healthy, productive, and in the lineup.
Oakland has been the strongest finishing team in the bigs the last two years, putting up winning percentages that look like they belong in some other sport (53-21, .716 in 2002; 58-17, .773 in 2001). They will be hard-pressed to keep up that pace, but with Boston one game ahead in the wild card race and Mariners yet to show their age, they may have to. If the offense continues as before, Oakland may have to keep squeezing out tight wins like they did in the three-game sweep of Baltimore before the break, a series in which they scored a paltry eight runs. If the A’s can get to the postseason, their tough frontline pitching will make them a threat in any series, but coming out of the AL West would make getting there all the more exciting.