Tagged: lance berkman

Bargain Basement Baseball


This is what a baseball player looks like.
The regular season didn’t quite end up the way the Astros would have liked, but that takes a back seat now to the grand theater that is October baseball. The Rangers could bring only the second ever World Series to the State of Texas with a win in Arlington tonight. Astros fans, you remember the first, don’t you?
I began these playoffs cheering for Billy Wagner, Bobby Cox and the Braves, but unfortunately that didn’t work out. I was cheering for the Rangers, though I hated cheering against the Rays in what may be their last postseason for a while. I liked the underdog Reds, but Roy Oswalt was enough to persuade me and I was cheering for the Phillies. I went in expecting that Lance Berkman would do the same and I would cheer for the Yankees, but as I watched their first game, I just couldn’t do it – I found myself cheering for the Twins. Game 2, starring Puma and Pettitte, was a nice gift for Houston baseball fans, but I’m sorry, Lance – I love you no less than Roy, but I hate the Yankees more.
So only the Rangers worked out among my original four favorites, but now my loyalties are clearly defined. And those loyalees are both up 3 games to 2 with Game Sixes on the horizon. As much as I would morbidly love to see Berkman v. Oswalt in the World Series, I would only care about that series whenever Lance was batting or Roy – OUR Roy – was on the mound. I want a Giants/Rangers World Series, and I would be glued to every pitch.
The Rangers had the lowest payroll in the American League this season, and the third lowest in MLB, at $55.25 million. While it’s true that the Giants have the ninth highest payroll in baseball, their highest paid player (Barry Zito) is not even on their playoff roster. Subtract his $18.5 million, and San Francisco drops to 18th in payroll. Subtract their next two highest paid players – Aaron Rowand and Edgar Renteria, who are both bench guys – and their payroll would be $56.5 million, fifth lowest in both leagues and only just ahead of Texas. These are teams built more with brains than with banks.
It’s not all about the Benjamins, either. As a fan of a team that has never won a World Series, my loyalties (and sympathies) switch first to join fans of other teams in the same purgatory as I. With a Texas/San Francisco Series, we’d be guaranteed one city that has never experienced a MLB championship would be hosting a victory parade in November. And incidentally, AT&T Park and Rangers Ballpark are the only two active big league stadiums that I’ve visited – both this year.
I’ll be all about Colby Lewis & Co. at 7:07 Central tonight. NLCS Game 6 presents a problem, though. In my mind, I want the Giants to win Game 6. I do. I don’t want them to face a Game 7 versus Cole Hamels and potential elimination. But even as my head stayed behind the Giants when Roy O came in to close out Game 4, my heart sank when he picked up the loss. I’d have been fine with any other Phillies pitcher on the mound, even Brad Lidge, but Roy, I can’t quit you. I really do want the Giants to win Game 6, but can someone not #44 take the loss?
Two final tidbits: Watching Oswalt and Lidge warming up side by side on Wednesday night was surreal. Even moreso in Phillies uniforms. Dangit, Philadelphia, I hope you appreciate our boys. And Cody Ross – holy crap, man! He has to be the greatest waiver claim ever, like Johan Santana is the ultimate Rule 5 draftee. Oh, Santana should have been ours?

A play in three acts

As we enter the final two weeks of the 2010 regular season (and, in all likelihood, the final two weeks of the Astros’ 2010 season), many have taken the opportunity to look back at all that has happened since April 5 and analyze the season in hindsight. Much has been written about “the Astros since June 1” or “the Astros since the All-Star Break,” but either one of these views shortchanges just how far this team has come in so little time.

Every Astro fan would love to forget April and May of this year. The 2010 Astros matched the 2005 Astros’ 15-30 start, but the comparisons would never hold up. The Clemens/Pettitte-led 2005 squad went 4-2 to finish May and begin a turnaround that ended, of course, in the World Series. The 2010 edition maintained their lose-two-of-three pace to enter June at 17-34, and the infamous tombstone would have looked much more appropriate five years later. Houston was on pace for their worst-ever season by far, 2005 hero Roy Oswalt asked to be traded, and it seemed the Astros had picked up right where they left off in their abysmal ending to 2009.
From June 1 through July 28, Houston alternated stretches of continued futility with runs of improved play, and they went 25-25 over their next 50 games. They showed, as many had expected, that they were not as bad of a baseball team as their first two months seemed to indicate. At the same time, however, they also showed they were far from a first division club, as they posted a 4-15 record against contending clubs (Yankees, Rangers, Padres, Cardinals, Reds) during that stretch. The overall improvement was helped by an infusion of youth, with the callups of Chris Johnson, Jason Castro and Jason Bourgeois, and the acquisition of Angel Sanchez from Boston, but it was clear every time the club ran up against elite competition that there was still work to be done.
July 29 was a day off for Houston’s players, but not for Ed Wade and the front office. Soon came the move that had been hanging over the team since May – Roy Oswalt was traded. When the Astros returned to the field on the evening of July 30, Lance Berkman was out of the lineup too, as it turned out he had also been traded in a move that would be officially announced the next day. It may have been the darkest weekend in franchise history for Astros fans, but the blow was softened at least slightly by a weekend sweep of the Brewers. July 30 marked the beginning of the post-Berkman/Oswalt era in Houston, but it also marked the beginning of the 2010 Astros’ final act. Since that dark day in late July, Houston has gone 30-18, climbed from 5th to 3rd in the NL Central, and they’re knocking on the door of a .500 season that no one dared to fathom even eight weeks ago. Perhaps even more telling, they’re 12-4 against the elite competition (Cardinals, Braves, Phillies, Reds) that gave them so much grief in June and July. Now the comparisons to 2005 would seem more appropriate, as they look like a team that could actually have a shot in October, if they hadn’t buried themselves alive in April and May.
Here’s a wild thought: if these Astros manage to win every game the rest of the way, if the Reds lose every game, and if the Cardinals only win half of their remaining schedule, then the Astros are your 2010 NL Central Division champs. Will it happen? No, it won’t. 2006 was once in a lifetime, when the Astros shaved a 9.5-game Cardinals lead to just half a game in the last two weeks of the season, but even that run ultimately fell short (and St. Louis ultimately won the World Series). The Astros could be eliminated from contention as early as tonight, if they lose to the Nationals and if Cincinnati beats Milwaukee. But the fact that they still have any chance at all on September 20, no matter how slim, is a testament to the incredible job that these young guys have done in a remarkably short period of time. Earlier this year, most would have written them off by some date in August.
The 2010 Houston Astros have gone from awful to interesting to exciting – it’s almost felt like three seasons in one. Following the big trades in July, Ed Wade and Drayton McLane refused to say that the franchise was “rebuilding,” preferring the term “retooling” instead, but I scoffed and dismissed it as PR semantics. But maybe Ed was right after all. The last time this team truly “rebuilt” was in the early ’90s before Drayton came on board. 1990 was the aging team trying unsuccessfully to hold onto past glories (1986) – see April/May 2010. 1991 was the young team that often got their butts whupped but that held promise for the future – see June/July. Then 1992 saw the youngsters growing up and clawing their way to a .500 record that no one expected – see August/September this year. 1993 brought new promise and new hope. Even if the 2010 Astros fall short of .500, the new promise and new hope for next year are already shining through. Of course it took until ’97 for McLane’s Astros to finally reach the playoffs (though we’ll never know about ’94), but at this condensed rate, that’s 2012 at worst… 2011 at best.

Which would you rather have?

On July 22 of last year, the Astros played their 95th game of the season, beating the Cardinals 4-3 to pull within one game of first place. They were 49-46.

On July 21 of this year, the Astros played their 95th game of the season, beating the Cubs 4-3 in 12 innings, but 15 games back and buried in fifth place. They were 39-56.
After game #95, the 2009 Astros went 25-42 the rest of the way, including an abysmal 4-16 over their final 20 games, as it became apparent to all observers that the team had rolled over and given up. They finished the year 74-88, fifth out of six teams in the NL Central, 17 games back.
Since game #95, the 2010 Astros have gone 25-17 to climb from fifth to third in the division. They’re still 15 games back and going nowhere in October, on pace to finish with roughly the same record as 2009. But they feature 12 rookies on the big league roster now, and instead of playing like all is lost, they’re playing like they’ve got nothing to lose.
The final tallies on the two most recent editions of the Houston Astros might end up looking identical, but the roads they took to get there couldn’t be more different.
In a way, maybe Astros fans should be grateful for their miserable 17-34 April & May this year. Had they been in contention in July again, Roy Oswalt and Lance Berkman would probably still be wearing Houston’s pinstripes, instead of Philadelphia’s or New York’s. But – perhaps paradoxically – this is a more energetic, more interesting, more exciting baseball team without their two biggest stars. I daresay they’re a better team now, too.
2011 may still be too early to start buying playoff tickets at Minute Maid Park again – many, many things would have to go right for that to occur – but there’s hope. In this case, better than having contended and lost, is never having contended at all.

The times, they are a-changin’…

So. Wow. What is there for Astro fans to say about the past weekend that hasn’t already been said? Roy was expected, and while it was sad indeed to see him go, at least we had two and a half months to know that it was likely coming. We knew it might happen with Lance too, but I didn’t truly expect that it would until it was already upon us. Losing both him and Roy within 48 hours of each other made their departures all the sadder than losing either one alone. As fan blogger Chip Bailey said, has there ever been a darker weekend in Astros history? 

I know it was necessary. I know it’s for the good of the team. I know that the Astros are closer  today to being competitive again than they were four or five days ago, and I wanted these trades to happen – both of them – before they did happen, or at least that’s what I told myself. But as a lifelong Astros diehard, it still hurts.
There was one scary winter in the mid-’90s – 1995, I believe it was – when Craig Biggio became a free agent for the first time. He’d already been an Astro for eight years by that point, but the other teams came courting. The Yankees, in particular I recall, were interested, and New York is Bidge’s home state, so everyone in Houston feared that he would skip town for the Big Apple. That story had a happy ending, as he resigned with Houston, ultimately retiring as a career Astro 12 years later. I dreaded the thought that winter of seeing one of our own in Yankee pinstripes. I know exactly how that feels now. I tried watching Yankees and Phillies highlight reels over the weekend, but I had to walk away.
But I dwell too much in the darkness of these deals. I’m happy for Lance and Roy, excited for both of them. I’ll get used to seeing them in opposing uniforms, the same way I got used to seeing Billy Wagner with the Phillies after 9 years an Astro. I hope they both end up with championship rings, as Brad Lidge did two years ago. I’m excited for the youngsters that they’ve brought in, too – J.A. Happ impressing in his Houston debut, and Brett Wallace earning his first big league hit yesterday afternoon. I’m excited that Carlos Lee is the only everyday Astros regular over 30 years old now, and I hope that this winter, Ed Wade will do what he just did twice and take whatever steps necessary to move Carlos out of the way for younger talent to break through (Brian Bogusevic, I’m looking at you). Not that I hate El Caballo like it seems many do these days, but as with Lance and Roy, the team will be better off in the long run if they can move him for almost anything now. I like the Brett Myers extension, even though many wanted him traded too; he’s younger than Wandy, and without many or any additional youngsters ready to step into the rotation right now, his innings-eating tendencies should prove very valuable while the best of the youngsters rise to the top around him in the next few years.
It feels like 2010 may be the return of the 1990 Astros – a team that’s been hanging onto players from past glories (’86) finally trades a couple of fan favorites (Bill Doran, Glenn Davis) while a few youngsters are taking over (Biggio, Ken Caminiti). If Wade can move Lee in the off-season and doesn’t make any dumb veteran signings, then 2011 could be the return of 1991, with the oldest regular being a 30-year-old 2B (Casey Candaele vs. Jeff Keppinger). ’91 was a rough year in the standings, but watching all those kids was fun.
At least the Astros managed a sweep of Milwaukee while the off-field drama played itself out. May it be the sign of better things to come. At long last, things are looking up in Astroland.

Roy-mors, Roy-mors everywhere…

Is it sad when fans are more interested in their team’s off-field dealings than what they’re doing on the field? I believe that it is sad, and yet such is how I find myself feeling. Such it will likely continue until this week is over.

When last we spoke, Roy Oswalt had just recorded career win #143, the All-Star Break was looming, and Cliff Lee had just been dealt to the Texas Rangers. Now the All-Star Break is over, Dan Haren has just changed addresses from Arizona to Anaheim, and Roy Oswalt still has 143 career wins. More significantly, he’s still in an Astros uniform. Whether that last will still be true come Sunday is the cause of much weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth, by Roy himself, by Astros management, and by seemingly all Astros faithful.
Astros team president Tal Smith said yesterday that he expects Oswalt to be gone from Houston by week’s end, and he expected things to start heating up today. According to the reports, the Dodgers, Phillies, Yankees and Cardinals were all in town to scout Roy’s outing on Saturday, so those four at least seem to be interested. Now that Dan Haren is off the market, more clubs may be interested as well. With all of the many, many rumors (or Roy-mors) floating around in the past week, it would seem that a deal could happen any minute, and yet the reports are so conflicting that it seems like nothing may happen at all. Welcome to life on a “seller” club before the MLB trade deadline.
Roy wants to go to St. Louis. The Astros seem to prefer Philadelphia, if the Phillies can come up with suitable prospects, perhaps by dealing Jayson Werth to the Rays. The Rays apparently don’t want Werth. Roy seems to not want Philadelphia, and Houston really, really does not want to deal with St. Louis – their farm system is even worse than ours, and the very thought of Roy O in a Cardinals uniform is abhorrent to almost every Astros fan. The Dodgers reportedly “kicked the tires” on Wandy Rodriguez and Brett Myers before starting to focus on Roy, but the Astros reportedly would need to be “overwhelmed” to deal either Wandy or Brett, so how much moreso for Oswalt? The Astros may be looking at Houstonian James Loney from L.A., but where does he fit with Lance Berkman still on the team? Or is Berkman soon to be dealt too? And the Yankees… well, they came out of nowhere to almost land Cliff Lee, so why shouldn’t they be players for Roy too? Speculation is that NYC may be too “big time” for quiet country boy Oswalt, but old pal Andy Pettitte is there, and Andy talked Roger Clemens into the Astros before. Couldn’t he talk Roy into the Yankees?
It’s a mess. A certified, grade A, first class mess. But at this point, I really do think that Roy needs to go. His not-so-secret desire to go to St. Louis is damaging his standing with Houston fans, and I suspect with Houston teammates and management too. It seems he’s starting to burn bridges. He’s scheduled to start again on Friday night, for his last shot at tying Joe Niekro’s club wins record, but wouldn’t it almost be fitting now if he finishes one win shy? As a symbol of why he’s so frustrated with Houston, a symbol of the championship he couldn’t quite achieve as an Astro, and so he wants to pick up his toys and move to a different sandbox. It’s a symbol of the sacred place in Houston hearts that he could have had, did have, as the greatest pitcher in pitching-rich Astros history… but now he’s alienating himself from the fans that loved him so long, so will they ever love him the same? It’s not nearly King James to South Beach, but it’s approaching a Houstonian version of that.
I want to wish Roy well wherever he goes. Brad Lidge’s story with the 2008 World Series champ Phillies is the closest thing to redemption that the 2005 Astros may ever see, but I’d love to cheer Roy onto to a championship elsewhere if he can’t get one here. Roy to St. Louis, though… I don’t think I could do it. I would wish him well individually, but I could not cheer for his team. Roy to Yankees would only be slightly less easy to swallow than St. Louis, but by this point… I don’t hate Roy. I don’t think I ever will. But he needs to be gone. It’s better for both Roy and the Astros in the long run if he’s not here after this week, almost regardless of what they get in return. Certainly I want to see Houston get the best deal they possibly can for Oswalt, but if they come down to Saturday evening and still haven’t been “overwhelmed,” then the best possible less-than-ideal deal is better than no deal at all. Roy is not going to help the Astros back to the World Series while he’s still playing, so any young players who might help towards that end would help more than standing pat.
Which is why I’d also like to see the Astros deal Brett Myers and/or Wandy Rodriguez for prospects if they can, too. Likewise Lance Berkman, or I think there’s a strong chance that Lance will walk away in free agency this winter. Keep the young core guys that you already have – Pence, Bourn, Johnson, Castro, Lindstrom, Paulino. But really everyone else should be fair game.
Maybe that’s asking too much. At least start with Roy, and both sides will be happier in the end. There’s a game tonight, but I’m more interested in watching my RSS feed reader for any new trade news. This is Astroland 2010.

Those were the days

Roy Oswalt and Lance Berkman carried the Houston Astros franchise throughout the 2000’s. It’s possible that by the end of this month neither will be an Astro any longer, but if that happens, then today they wrote Houston fans a love letter to remember them by.

Maybe Oswalt is offended that everyone is talking about Cliff Lee as the premier pitcher available on the trade market. Roy may have botched his audition in Texas two weeks ago, but he’s been absolutely brilliant since then: seven scoreless innings in San Diego on Friday, followed up with a one-hit shutout versus Pittsburgh today. The Rangers are evidently now entering the Cliff Lee sweepstakes, but Roy put on a show today for Dodgers, Phillies, Mets and Rays scouts. After a first-inning single, he was untouchable – it was Wizard of the highest vintage, for career win #143.
And it was old friend Lance Berkman providing all of the support Roy needed. Lance wasted no time extending his streak, homering in the first inning for his fourth in as many games. He added another home run in his next at bat, making it five in four games, and it was more than the Astros would need. The Big Puma is 7-for-13 in these last four games; throw in a couple of glittering defensive plays at first base this afternoon, and at least for one day, Astros fans had plenty to smile about.
Three more games before the All-Star Break, against St. Louis, then four days off. Roy is scheduled to start next Friday in Pittsburgh, then after that… who knows? This Houston team is already beginning to look to the future, but you can’t help today remembering the glory days of the past. Way to go, Lance and Roy O. And thank you.

Goin’ deep, lookin’ to sweep

The Astros’ weekend series in San Diego ended much the same as their other recent encounters with playoff-caliber clubs. The frustrating part is that they legitimately could have left town 4-0 instead of 1-3, as Houston’s starters were brilliant. But the Padres wouldn’t be where they are this year without some brilliant pitching of their own, and when you pit the league’s worst offense against the league’s best pitching, you don’t expect to score a lot. The opportunities were there for the Astros, but like any good team, the Padres found a way to work out of trouble and come up with just enough to win. I’m seriously impressed by San Diego’s squad this year, and I think they’re the real deal – very reminiscent of the ’05 Astros, with stellar pitching and just enough offense. Mat Latos is a hoss. (Peavy who?)

Of course what could be a better remedy for another mini-losing streak than the Pittsburgh Pirates? I don’t mean to rag on the Pirates the way that most have ragged on the Astros this year; I really do feel bad for Pirate fans. Houston baseball fans have nothing to complain about compared to those in Pittsburgh. But the Pirates continue to be the only team in the NL Central worse than the Astros this year, which has been reinforced by their head-to-head play. Houston looks this afternoon to make it 6-0 against the Bucs, and Roy O makes his fourth attempt at career win #143. Please? Please?? Brad Mills has already announced that Roy will be first out of the gate on July 16 following the All-Star Break – also against Pittsburgh – so he’s got as good a shot as ever to at least tie Joe Niekro’s 144 Astro wins before he’s wearing a different uniform. I still expect Roy to be traded this month, but it looks more and more like that will happen later than sooner, so he could potentially make as many as three more starts for Houston following that July 16 game, including their game against Milwaukee on the July 31 trading deadline. It would be a crying shame for Roy to leave Houston without that career wins record in his pocket, after all that he’s done here and as well as he’s pitched this season.
Almost last night felt like 2004 again. Four home runs in one game? Lance has now homered in three straight games, Carlos Lee in two straight, and last night Hunter Pence (along with Jeff Keppinger) decided to join the party too. Two or three good games does not a turnaround make, but that’s hugely encouraging for Houston fans nonetheless. The 3-4-5 slots have slumped together this year more than they’ve surged, which has arguably been the greatest source of this team’s struggles. Chris Johnson has also been a huge breath of fresh air at the plate; it may be unreasonable to expect him to continue hitting over .300 the rest of the year, but if he can maintain a respectable average and toss in the power that he’s capable of, the lineup suddenly doesn’t look too bad 1-6. Houston fans are used to a “black hole” in the 7-9 slots from the Ausmus/Everett days, but the 3-4-5 struggles this year have been made even more frustrating (or despairing) by an even bigger black hole 6-9. Whenever Brad Mills rested one of the Big 3, the lineup fell off a cliff after 1-4. If the new 1-6 can sustain production from here on, Houston is poised for a much better post-All Star season than pre – still not a playoff-caliber club, but at least respectable. Of course, this is all subject to who gets traded this month, too…
The Astros All-Star question has been answered since my last entry, and I’ll confess I was surprised that Michael Bourn was the answer. I still think that Roy was arguably the only Astro this year actually deserving of the honor, but his candidacy was hurt by a logjam of pitchers with stellar stats. It’s been suggested that Roy could have legitimately been chosen over Chris Carpenter of the Cards, which I agree with, but if you’re going to replace Carpenter with anybody, Mat Latos has the strongest case. That said, I’m not unhappy with the Bourn selection, and I actually think it’s rather cool. I had hoped (and still hope) that Michael will develop into an All-Star caliber player one day, so I’m glad to see him get this honor, even if it wasn’t expected this soon. He is the Astros’ only league leader in a major stat (stolen bases), and he was a Gold Glover last year; with several spectacular catches recently, including a game changer last night, he’s demonstrated why he should be well on his way to Gold Glove #2 this season. So he’s already a star in those aspects. His batting average is just that – average – but I can also understand Charlie Manuel’s desire to have him on the team, as he’s exactly the kind of player who could prove extremely valuable in the right situation if it’s a close game. He was the Astros MVP last season, and he may be en route to repeating that honor this year, so I don’t think it’s a bad pick, and I look forward to seeing him play (hopefully) next Tuesday. Congrats to Michael!
Bernardo Fallas tweets that the Astros have given Russ Springer a tryout today. I honestly didn’t think he was still playing! But given the bullpen struggles (and frequent injuries) this season, I don’t think it would be a bad idea to give Russ another shot, if he’s up to it. We’ll find out soon, I assume.
And one further note about last night’s game – Brian Moehler. You hate to hear any time that a guy gets hurt, but if it has to happen, at least it couldn’t really happen at a better time than this. After starting last night, Mo wouldn’t pitch again before the All-Star Break anyway, so he’s got until the end of next week to recover. Felipe Paulino should be ready to come off the DL after the Break himself, so he could take Mo’s rotation slot if Mo needs to miss some time. If they’re both healthy after the break, it’s decision time for Brad Mills, but he’s got plenty of time for now to wait and see.
No runs on one hit for Roy in the top of the first, and Big Puma just homered in his fourth straight game, so it’s 1-0. Let’s go ‘Stros!