First things first…I got some great response to yesterday’s wild-card column, but there was one major mistake in it. I referenced the possibility that the Cubs and Braves could be fighting each other for a division title had Fay Vincent gotten his way in 1992. That’s wrong. There’s no realignment structure that would have put the Cubs and Braves together. I knew this, and I wrote what I wrote anyway, which makes me dumb.

The central point of my piece–that the wild card has hidden costs and isn’t just the boon to baseball it’s presented as–stands, but that was a bad example. As it happens, in the National League of 2004, virtually any two-division structure would leave little in the way of races. Of course, that was also the case in some years in the 1969-93 period and everyone lived, so I don’t think that’s a great argument for the wild card. Moreover, just having a wild card doesn’t guarantee an interesting race. Some years, the best second-place team dusts the other also-rans.

Some readers pointed out that you can’t assume that the teams in question would all have the same records if the league had a different stucture. I don’t disagree, and as I wrote, you have to make assumptions in doing a piece like Tuesday’s. However, you can take the individual teams out of the equation and just think of it as math problem. If the records of baseball teams are more or less normally distributed, then lowering the standards for entry into the postseason will cause more inferior records to have a chance at the postseason, while guaranteeing that very good records will not be in competition with one another.

This is what the NFL has, enhanced further by its short season.

I think the wild card has cost us some terrific races over the past decade, replacing them with less interesting ones that don’t present nearly the same amount of drama. I’d just like to see that acknowledged by the pom-pom set. I miss the tension of great races for a division title between two very good teams, and unless things change, that’s permanently gone.

What I really want to write about today is a different kind of mess, the 2004 Houston Astros. I pegged them as the second-best team in the National League just five months ago, and their collapse this year–while only the second-biggest disappointment in the NL–is a big story.

Remember all the way back in March, when we were looking ahead to the season and trying to decide which team had the best rotation in baseball? There were five candidates for the crown, all with deep, talented fivesomes that were expected to carry their squads into the postseason. Four of those teams may yet make the playoffs, but all have been let down by their starting pitchers this season to some extent. Here are the stats for those five teams’ projected rotations:

             GS      IP    ERA    IP/S    VORP
A's         114   746.2   3.94     6.5    143.9
Cubs         98   614.2   3.43     6.3    143.9
Astros       96   598.2   3.67     6.2    113.5
Red Sox     114   735.0   4.24     6.4     93.4
Yankees      96   587.1   4.69     6.1     67.1

For the Astros, Roger Clemens is a candidate for the Cy Young Award, and Roy Oswalt has been a top-ten starter in the NL. Andy Pettitte and Wade Miller, however, have combined for 30 starts, while Tim Redding put up a 5.73 ERA and lost his spot in June. Brandon Duckworth was awful in his stead.

The trade of Billy Wagner to the Phillies has been blamed for some of the Astros’ pitching problems, but the real culprit was the rotation. The Astros had plenty of pitching with which to replace Wagner in the back of the bullpen–Brad Lidge has been dominant, and Octavio Dotel was effective before being traded–but when three-fifths of the rotation averaged 5 2/3 innings a start, the strain on the bottom of the staff cost the the team a lot of games in the early part of the season.

It didn’t help that this was the year in which the Astros’ offense finally died, and it did so while getting Craig Biggio‘s best season since he was a second baseman back in 2001. The team’s .257 EqA ranks 12th in the NL. This will be the first below-average offense the Astros have had since 1991, Jeff Bagwell‘s rookie season. Thirteen years later, Bagwell has been part of the problem, his bum right shoulder limiting him to a .443 slugging average that is flirting with his career low.

Jeff Kent and Morgan Ensberg have been disappointing as well, and a team carrying Brad Ausmus and Adam Everett just can’t affford that many underachievers. Even upgrading from Richard Hidalgo to Carlos Beltran in June wasn’t enough.

It would be nice if there was one easy answer to the Astros’ collapse, but there isn’t, and that’s baseball. Sometimes, if everyone is a little off-a couple of pitchers get hurt, a couple of hitters find their decline phase-you’re not good enough to win any longer. That’s the edge the Astros, with their love for their veteran players, have balanced on for a few seasons now. This year, even with Roger Clemens coming aboard and doing Roger Clemens things, they finally fell off.

It’s time to start over. While there will be a considerable desire to bring back the popular core of this team for another run, there’s no baseball reason for doing so. It’s an old team with no upside whose best player, Beltran, isn’t coming back. There’s no core of young talent ready to step in an rejuvenate the lineup, and there isn’t the willingness or ability to spend $100 million on the payroll, which might be enough to keep the engine running.

The Killer Bs had a long and prosperous run, winning four division titles in five seasons at their Larry Dierker peak. That they never won a playoff series became their story, but the fact remains that this is the dominant team in the storied history of the NL Central.

And it’s time to say goodbye to it.

A couple of notes…

  • Last week, I said that I didn’t think you could have seen the Indians coming. Well, I certainly didn’t, but Rob Neyer did, all the way back in February.

    Way to go, Rob. It’s not enough that you have better hair than me, right?

    Thanks to reader M.C. for digging that one up.

  • Tuesday, the Padres finally called up Freddy Guzman, who had only been the best center fielder in the organization for about a year. In his first game with the Padres, the team scored five runs in the first inning on its way to an 11-6 romp over the Braves.

    See how easy this game is? Get the right guys in the field, and everything looks a whole lot better. Look for the Pads to score 400 runs over the next six weeks, winning their final 40 games or so and running the table into the World Series.

    OK, so it’s not that simple, but the presence of a true center fielder will have a big impact on the Pads’ run prevention, and Guzman could well have an Alex Cole two months in the leadoff spot. With his defense, he just has to match Jay Payton‘s awful output to be an upgrade, and he should do much better than that. If the Padres couldn’t get Beltran, this is a fairly good solution, and gets them closer to the Cubs in the wild-card chase.

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