As we come into the last week of the season, four of the six division titles are now decided. It seems that a flotilla-full of contenders and pretenders has been eliminated in the last week or so. Over the weekend, the Cardinals and Yankees clinched their divisions and the A's clinched a playoff spot.
The Astros were eliminated from the NL Central race on Friday and the NL wild-card race on Sunday. Seattle and Boston are still (just barely) holding on-if they win all of their games and Anaheim loses all of theirs then they can force a tie for the wild-card.
Anaheim and Arizona need only to win one more game to clinch a playoff birth but have failed to do that in their last two and three, respectively, ballgames. The Yankees and the A's are vying for the number one seed in the AL. The Braves now hold a three game lead over the D-Backs for the NL's best record. The A's are now three games up on Anaheim and seem a good bet to win the division. San Francisco leads LA by two games and appears to have enough of a lead in their foot race to win going away.
I just that now was the appropriate time to write the epitaph for the expired or expiring teams. Let's start with the Astros. Houston started off cold in the first half and got hot in the second but never really hot enough to challenge the Cardinals. They never really had a stretch drive. When the going got tough, the Astros got cold going 4-7 since September 11. This is a disappointing year for Houston who had the number one seed in the NL last year and then lost in the first round of the playoffs. Even though the 2001 team improved 18 games over the previous year and five games over their expected record, and the Astros defeated the Cardinals 2-of-3 in a playoff-like atmosphere to win the division-not to mention garnering four division titles in five years (but only 2 games won in four playoff appearances)-, management felt that the team had underachieved and manager Larry Dierker was fired.
Expectations remained high for this season. Jimmy Williams was hired to replace Dierker. Aging Moises Alou, Pedro Astacio, and Vinny Castilla were allowed to leave as free agents and were replaced by younger players. Darryle Ward was assigned to replace Alou. A pair of righthanders (Morgan Ensberg and Geoff Blum) formed a rotation at third, but Ensberg was found lacking and sent packing to New Orleans in May. Rookie pitcher Carlos Hernandez joined the young starting rotation.
Also in the offseason, the Astros finally divested themselves and their park of the Enron name, a name that had become anathema to Houston fans.
So what went wrong. First, the Astros has a good number of injuries especially to the starting rotation. Of the original rotation only Roy Oswalt avoided a stint on the Disabled List. Veteran starting pitcher Shane Reynolds was lost for the season June 8 with back problems. Hernandez missed a month and one-half with shoulder problems (always encouraging in a young pitcher). Dave Mlicki missed two months with a muscle pull and was largely ineffective. Wade Miller missed a month and one half early in the year with a pinched nerve in his neck. 2001 draftee Kirk Saarloos was rushed to the majors to fill in and proved ineffective (5.96 ERA in 16 starts) as did 2001 part-time starter Tim Redding. Peter Munro, already a journeyman at 27, faired better (3.24 ERA). Bullpen pitcher and winter signee T. J. Mathews was released at the end of July after a DL stint posting a 3.44 ERA (?).
The Astros also lost two starting position players for most of the year. Young shortstop Julio Lugo was hit by a Kerry Wood fastball and lost for the season with a broken wrist August 12. Richard Hidalgo missed a number of games in late July due to injury, proved ineffective when he returned, and finally succumbed to the DL with a hip strain. He return a few weeks later but has only drawn pinch-hitting duties (and that only twice) since his return. Of course, Jeff Bagwell has labored all year with a sore shoulder.
Second there was a problem with underachieving or perhaps an overestimation of talent: Ensberg disappointed and was sent down. Their corner outfielders, Daryle Ward and Richard Hidalgo, continued a two-year slide (both have a .734 OPS). Hidalgo's problems were due in part to injury, but Ward's slide should be particularly concerning. Aging B's: Craig Biggio's OPS dropped nearly ninety points and Bagwell's is his lowest since 1995 (but still .924). Vinny Castilla's homers at third proved hard to replace (though his many replacements have a collective OPS that is higher).
Third, their sub-.500 first half put them in a hole that even a great second half couldn't clean-and-jerk them out of. At the break the Astros stood in 3rd with a 41-45 record, 6.5 games behind first-place St. Louis and 4.5 behind the Reds. The Astros are 41-29 since the All-Star break while St. Louis has gone 44-26 and Cincinnati 29-40. Actually, Houston's rebirth started a little before the break. On June 19, they had just lost three straight to Milwaukee and stood at 30-40. Since then they are 52-34. On August 30, they were 2.5 behind St. Louis but lost three straight and stayed luke-warm while St. Louis got hot in September. On September 10 the Astros still appeared to be in striking distance of the Cardinals, 5.5 games out with seven of their next 11 games with St. Louis. Unfortunately the Astros went 4-7 (3-4 vs. St. Louis) over that period while St. Louis went 8-3, which left them 9.5 behind the leader.
The Astros' record by month shows just what kind of Jeckle-and-Hyde kind of team they have been:
Month W L PCT
April 11 14 .440
May 13 15 .464
June 12 14 .462
July 18 9 .667
August 18 11 .621
September 10 11 .476
Overall 82 74 .526
For July and August they played at a .643 clip (36-20). For the rest of the season they played at a .460 clip (46-54). That second percentage would put them solidly between Cincinnati and Pittsburgh in the Central or in last place in the NL East.
There were some positives. Lance Berkman continues to be one of the best players in the league. Bagwell played well despite injury. Oswalt became a premier pitcher. Their pitching though often injured and extremely young has held together well, dropping their starter's ERA by nearly 60 point from last year. Some of the young replacements were a disappointment and Dave Mlicki stunk up the field, but neither of those two things could be called unexpected. Their relievers pitched well again this year.
So where do the Astros go next year? First. Jeff Bagwell will have surgery for the second straight offseason. Dave Mlicki, Tom Gordon, Mark Loretta, and Shane Reynolds (whose option should not be picked up by Houston) should all leave as free agents. Weak-hitting Brad Ausmus' option will probably be mercifully picked up. Lugo and Hidalgo will return. An upgrade at third would be nice but may be difficult to find. The free agent and trade waters should be plumbed for a replacement for Daryle Ward (or at least a righty to platoon with him-he has a .442 OPS vs. lefthanded pitching). The rotation will probably good and young with Oswalt, Miller, Hernandez, Munro, and Saarlos (though they may hold on to Reynolds if they feel Saarlos is not yet ready depending on the money involved). They should have a good team but just how good will depend on the rapid maturation of their young players and the slow maturation of their veterans. After three disappointing seasons (at least according to perception), this team needs to have a breakout year.