Inside Look: Houston Astros

Houston Astros old baseball jersey logoTo get a better idea of the team the Mets will face for the next four days, MetsToday called on Lisa Gray of The Astros Dugout for a more in-depth, Houston fans-eye view of the team.

Before this interview, I thought I was a typical, ignorant New York fan whose knowledge of the Astros was limited to the Houston player(s) that happened to be on his/her fantasy team (I have Wheeler, btw). After this interview, I’m certain of my ignorance — though Lisa has expanded my Astros knowledge considerably.

1. The Astros are mired near the bottom of the NL Central — but if recent history has told us anything, it’s don’t count them out before the All-Star break. Is there hope for Houston to have a hot second half, and if so, what are the keys?

Well, as the saying goes, when it comes to baseball, there’s just one word – youneverknow (Joaquin Andujar)

I would think that the probabilities of a sudden comeback are minimal to non-existent, because it would require:

A – the entire bullpen to excel, including Lidge returning healthy and pitching as he did the first half of this year after he recovered his 2004 mechanics. Frankly, asking Brian Moehler and Trever Miller to excell is like asking Tom Glavine to hit 30 homers a year, but I guess miracles CAN happen.

B – Lance Berkman and Luke Scott to return to their 2006 forms and Ausmus and Everett to hit over .250 for the rest of the year.

C – improved defense. Now that Adam Everett is on the DL, every fielder except Lance Berkman (only at first base) is below league average.

2. Who is Hunter Pence, where did he come from, and is he ever going to stop hitting?

Hunter Pence is our second round draft pick from 2004, picked from University of Texas at Arlington. He moved very quickly through the minors, unlike 99% of Astros draftees, posting a .932 OPS over his minor league career. He came to the attention of Astros fans in Spring Training because he hit over .500 and runs fast. Chris Burke was installed as the center fielder, to the immense anger of almost every Astros fan, and when Burke hit .240, he was sent down and Pence called up after only 3 weeks in AAA. At this time, he has become the overwhelming Astros fan favorite. His minor league 20% strikeout rate has carried over to the majors, but his walk rate has significantly decreased, and he has only 10 walks over his 264 PA.

As for if/when he will stop hitting, it is hard to say. He seems to be a streaky hitter who will have several days of no hits followed by several days of multi-hit games. So far, I don’t really see holes in his swing and he seems to hit breaking pitches decently. He certainly isn’t a Vlad Guerrero bad-ball type hitter though.

By the way, I notice that like Astros fans, you have no interest in his fielding abilities, or lack thereof.

3. The Brad Lidge implosion put the bullpen into a disarray. Now that he’s on the DL, and Dan Wheeler’s ERA is over six, who is being counted on to take the 7th, 8th, and 9th innings?

Brad Lidge didn’t implode, he pulled a muscle in his side and went on the DL. The bullpen is in disarray because the Astros management, for some reason, decided to replace 1 inning pitcher (and informal assistant pitching coach) Russ Springer with washed up pitcher Rick White, who for some reason, they thought could not only pitch multiple innings per appearance, even thought he hadn’t done so for several years, but also maintain his miniscule Spring Training ERA. Naturally, it was only a matter of time before White, designated 8th inning guy, blew up and was released. At this time, the only pitcher in the bullpen who has NOT been a catastrophe is Dave Borkowski. Chad Qualls has been either good or lousy. This means that no one can be “counted on” to take the 7th, 8th and 9th inning roles, even though Dan Wheeler is still designated closer unless he starts giving up runs or hits.

4. Morgan Ensberg has been a disappointment, but his ineffectiveness opened the door for Mike Lamb. How do you feel about Lamb at 3B, and do you think Ensberg’s days in Houston are numbered?

As a third baseman, Lamb is a very good hitter. His defense is, quite simply, not good, although he sometimes will shock me and make a good play. He can’t make plays toward the line nor go to his left very well, but he is pretty good at coming forward to get balls, especially one-hop balls, and he has a very strong and accurate arm. He has only made one catastrophic throwing error this year, but has not made uncounted numbers of plays which have allowed hits or runs.

I sincerely hope that Ensberg’s days here are numbered, not because I HATE him, as most Astros fans do, but because I would like to see him get a new start somewhere else. I have NO idea whether or not his shoulder injury really healed or whether it permanently changed his stance/swing, but it is time for him to try his luck elsewhere. He certainly isn’t in the Astros plans.

5. Craig Biggio was having a tough time until recently. Do you think he was affected by the quest for 3000, or is it time for him to hang ’em up?

Biggio is twice the player at home that he is on the road. Of COURSE he was affected by the 3000. He is not even close to league-average with defense any more, doesn’t get on base well, and really should retire at the end of the year. Also, he really should sit on the road, unless he is facing a lefty. I hope Chris Burke gets increased playing time at second, his REAL position, so that the Organization can make some sort of decision on whether to keep him or trade him. Unless Mark Loretta has no intention of re-signing, I also hope the Organization trades Burke so the guy can have a career SOMEwhere.

6. Mark Loretta’s been a pleasant surprise. Is he the main shortstop while Everett is out, and if so, can he handle the job defensively?

Loretta is indeed the main SS while Everett is out. Bruntlett plays SS when Roy Oswalt pitches, as Roy is the ace and can, shall we say, request a player who can play adequate defense. Mark Loretta is to playing SS as Mike Piazza is to playing first. Loretta is decent, even if not league-average at third and second. He is simply dreadful at short as he has NO range whatsoever. I know he has very few errors, but it is hard to make an error when you don’t get near a ball.

7. Jason Jennings has had an up and down year, most likely due to his elbow issues. His last two starts indicate he’s healthy — at least from a boxscore standpoint. From your view in Texas, is Jennings now the pitcher you thought you were getting back in December, and was he worth the price?

Jennings in fact looks like the pitcher they thought they were getting in December. Although most fans deeply mourn the loss of Willy Taveras (he runs very fast and fast runners are always great, great ballplayers, you see) who too many think is the second coming of Kenny Lofton (he isn’t) the real loss was two cheap, decent-to-good young pitchers who would have been under club control for 5 more years. The fans were demanding a number-2 pitcher to replace Pettitte, but a 1-year rent-a-pitcher stopgap, when he certainly was not the ONE missing piece of the puzzle, was a foolish trade.

8. Other than Pence, are there any other new faces who might impress us ignorant New Yorkers in this series?

No, because you won’t be facing Chris Sampson, who is a better pitcher than he gets credit for. Mark McLemore, the new LOOGY, is actually a starting pitcher who seems very uncomfortable in the LOOGY role, and I hope he eventually returns to starting. Matt Albers, another AAA/#5 ML starter who was recently placed in the bullpen, has flashes of brilliance, but is otherwise not impressive.

9. Tie game, ninth inning, two outs, man on third. What Houston Astro do you want at the plate?

Carlos Lee, believe it or not. As the saying goes, he can smell an RBI and he is the most likely guy to get a hit up the middle. He seems to have escaped the Crawford Box Syndrome.

10. Same situation, Mets are up. What Met would you least like to see step into the batter’s box?

Mo Alou. Yes, I know he’s on the DL, but he’s the guy I think is most likely to beat you. Next to him, I think, Jose Reyes.

Thanks to Lisa for providing her insights on the Astros. Be sure to check out The Astros Dugout for more great information on that Major League Baseball team in Houston.

Joe Janish began MetsToday in 2005 to provide the unique perspective of a high-level player and coach -- he earned NCAA D-1 All-American honors as a catcher and coached several players who went on to play pro ball. As a result his posts often include mechanical evaluations, scout-like analysis, and opinions that go beyond the numbers. Follow Joe's baseball tips on Twitter at @onbaseball and at the On Baseball Google Plus page.