Wednesday, July 11, 2007

The Astros at midseason

The second half of the 2007 baseball season begins today, and it's no stretch to say that the Astros are struggling. They are 39-50 and in fifth place in the NL Central. So far, it hasn't been a fun season for Astros fans.

There have been some bright spots, to be sure. Craig Biggio's entry into the 3,000-hit club is one. The exploits of Hunter Pence, who has a great shot at being named NL Rookie of the Year, are another. Carlos Lee has proven to be a solid addition to the team.

But the overall situation looks bleak. This team - currently sitting 11 games below .500 - has some serious shortcomings both at the plate (Morgan Ensberg, where are you?) and on the mound (the bullpen is unreliable, to put it mildly). At 10 1/2 games behind Milwaukee, the Astros are all but out of the division championship race. And ten teams are ahead of them in the Wild Card chase.

Sure, we've seen the Astros come back from adversity before. They came back from a .500 record at the 2004 All-Star break to win 46 of their last 72 games, capture the NL Wild Card, and make it to the National League Championship Series after defeating the Atlanta Braves in their first-ever playoff series victory. 2005 was an even better story; the Astros rebounded from a poor start - they were 15-30 at one point - to win 89 games, capture the NL Central Championship, defeat Atlanta and St. Louis in the playoffs and go to their first-ever World Series. Even last year, the Astros were able to salvage a mediocre season with a stunning late-season surge that saw them win 10 out of their last 12 games and come within 1/2 game of the division-leading (and eventual World Champion) St. Louis Cardinals.

Given their history, it's certainly reasonable to expect the Astros to pull off another second-half surge this time around. And, indeed, their ability to win seven out of their last eleven games has given fans a glimmer of hope.

But I just don't think they're going to pull it off this time around. Call me a pessimist, but there are just too many problems with this team. They are neither hitting nor pitching particularly well; their team batting average and their team ERA (.260 and 4.59, respectively) put them squarely in the bottom half of the NL for both categories. Chronicle sports columnist Richard Justice, who notes that the team has a 101-121 record since their World Series appearance, seems to see it the same way I do:
To win 85 games, they'd have to go 46-27 the rest of the way. They'd have to pass 10 teams to get the NL wild-card berth or erase a 10 1/2 -game deficit to win the NL Central. Translation: It won't be happening this year.
Which begs the question that Justice asks: would replacing General Manager Tim Purpura and/or Team Manager Phil Garner make a significant positive difference? It's hard to tell, but if the losses, and attendant frustration among the fan base, mount, owner Drayton McLane might have to pull one or both of those triggers just to make a symbolic statement. But the team's current configuration is a completely different matter: it, as it currently exists, is not one that is a championship contender, and near-term prospects for its improvement look weak. The farm system isn't producing quality prospects right now, and the trading deadline is quickly approaching. More likely, there are no quick fixes for this roster; the team is stagnant, and that a few seasons of painful rebuilding might be necessary before the Astros become a contender again.

I'd love to be wrong about that, of course. I'd love to see the Astros step up and kick some ass over the second half of the season like they've done before. But, for whatever reason, this season just seems different.

The next couple of months will tell the tale.

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