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Monday morning, I spent about 15 minutes on the the air in College Station,
Tex., discussing the Houston Astros. Last year, of course, the Astros were
perhaps the most disappointing team in the game, stumbling from a
three-year run atop the NL Central to a 72-90 record and a fourth-place
finish.

The team wasn’t quite that bad; they scored just six fewer runs than they
allowed, which should have made them a .500 team. Of course, the
performance seemed worse, thanks to a brutal first few months, a terrible
record in close games, and a handful of key injuries that contributed to
the collapse. It was a painful 72-90.

The move from the Astrodome to Enron Field got a significant amount of the
blame, but in reality, the Astros were a good offensive and poor defensive
team everywhere. They finished fourth in the league in runs scored on the
road, and 12th in runs allowed on the road. Their .271 EqA was good for
second in the league. Even had they stayed in the Eighth Wonder of the
World, they would have had an off-year; it just would have been shaped
differently.

In the offseason, the ‘Stros made perhaps the most polarizing trade of the
winter, sending Mitch Meluskey, Roger Cedeno and Chris
Holt
to the Tigers for Brad Ausmus, Doug Brocail and
Nelson Cruz. Most analysts, including our staff, saw this as an
overreaction to Meluskey’s reported problems with defense and attitude, as
well as a waste of the team’s primary resource, extra quality outfielders.
The people who defended the trade leaned heavily on the idea that the gap
between Meluskey’s defense and that of Ausmus would make up the difference
between their production, as well as the notion that Meluskey had to be
dealt to appease the team’s veterans.

I won’t rehash those debates, except to say that even if trading Meluskey
for Ausmus doesn’t hurt the team, the rest of the deal is a big loss;
middle relievers are fungible commodities, while .380-OBP outfielders with
speed aren’t. But even with that deal, spending a few minutes discussing
the Astros made me extremely bullish on the team.

Here’s a look at the Astros’ projected starting lineup, along with the
Wilton forecasts from Baseball Prospectus 2001:

Player            AB    BA   OBP   SLG   EqA  EqR
Craig Biggio     422  .287  .383  .431  .273   60
Julio Lugo       476  .307  .368  .477  .277   69
Jeff Bagwell     539  .317  .437  .603  .330  117
Richard Hidalgo  460  .317  .390  .613  .313   87
Moises Alou      317  .344  .421  .599  .324   62
Lance Berkman    407  .312  .409  .545  .309   75
Chris Truby      462  .279  .325  .459  .253   54
Brad Ausmus      442  .285  .368  .394  .255   53

Wilton is far from a perfect tool, but if you add up the projected EqRs
there, you get 577, which is a pretty good base to an offense, especially
when you consider how many players in that list are projected to play less
than a full season. The list doesn’t include good bench players like
Daryle Ward (projected 54 EqR in 330 AB) and Bill Spiers (40
projected EqR in 346 AB) or the Astros’ duo of infield prospects who can
hit, Morgan Ensberg and Keith Ginter.

This excellent offense comes at a price. An outfield with Moises
Alou
and Lance Berkman on the corners is going to give up a lot
of extra hits, many for extra bases. The middle-infield defense is a
problem as well, with an erratic Julio Lugo and a rehabbing Craig
Biggio
. Only Jeff Bagwell and Richard Hidalgo are good
defenders, so the Astros’ pitching staff faces a problem.

That staff is no sure thing, either. Scott Elarton appeared to have
a breakout season in 2000, but his translated peripheral numbers were the
worst of his career, and he threw a ton of pitches for someone coming off
rotator-cuff surgery. Jose Lima was something of a national joke
last year, and Shane Reynolds missed four months with a knee injury.
The Astros have some good young pitchers, but seem more interested in
letting Kent Bottenfield prove beyond a doubt that he’s not very
good, rather than putting Tony McKnight in the rotation. Save
Octavio Dotel, none of the projected Astros starters have a great
strikeout rate, so they will all be subject to the effects of Enron Field
and the so-so defense.

If you combine the rotation full of questions with a defense full of, well,
pretty good hitters, you have a team that is going to allow more runs than
average, and that’s before the park inflates that total.

Making up for this is that the Astros’ pen will be better in 2000. Doug
Brocail and Nelson Cruz cost too much to acquire, but they should provide
140 innings of above-average relief; Billy Wagner should be
effective again, if not his 1999 self, and Mike Jackson is a good
gamble who has always been effective when healthy.

None of that may matter, because the team in baseball with the best shot at
1,000 runs this year is the Astros, and that could be enough to cover any
amount of pitching problems. Look for the Astros to bounce back to 88-92
wins and challenge the Cardinals for the NL Central title.


Joe Sheehan is an author of Baseball Prospectus. Contact him by

clicking here
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