Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Trades are a nice start, but what about the offense?

When Matt Cain happened back on June 13 (sorry), a lot of national media had a lot of fun at the Astros' expense - "it deserves an asterisk, it's ONLY the LASTros" kind of junk. But reality was that the Astros, while slumping, still had a middle-of-the-road offense at the time. In 61 games leading up to June 13, Houston as a team posted a .253/.318/.389 line, which would place them around 8th or 9th in the 16-team National League today. Here's the lineup that Brad Mills trotted out that night, with their 2012 stats through June 12:

CF Jordan Schafer (.246/.319/.328)
2B Jose Altuve (.325/.365/.477)
SS Jed Lowrie (.284/.358/.522)
LF J.D. Martinez (.230/.324/.362)
1B Brett Wallace (.385/.484/.731)
3B Chris Johnson (.284/.327/.433)
RF Brian Bogusevic (.228/.305/.345)
C Chris Snyder (.194/.292/.333)
P J.A. Happ (.091/.167/.091)

The Astros played 30 more games after that night before last Thursday, when Edinson Volquez came within three walks and an excuse-me infield squibbler of matching Matt Cain's feat. These Astros, however, were not the ones that Cain faced. Over the intermining 30-game stretch, Houston put up a .219/.292/.350 collective line, which would deservedly be last in the majors. By a lot. Their lineup vs. Volquez, with stats through July 18:

2B Jose Altuve (.290/.333/.419)
SS Marwin Gonzalez (.294/.326/.388)
3B Scott Moore (.235/.268/.451)
LF J.D. Martinez (.243/.316/.393)
1B Matt Downs (.191/.238/.409)
RF Justin Maxwell (.225/.312/.442)
CF Jordan Schafer (.230/.311/.312)
C Chris Snyder (.182/.300/.307)
P Lucas Harrell (.212/.212/.212)

Of the players involved in both games, only Martinez took a step forward. Maxwell exceeds Bogusevic in power, Harrell is a better hitter than Happ, but every other position featured a significant drop-off at the plate. Houston is now 15th of 16 in NL team batting average and falling fast, ahead of only the San Diego team that just outscored them 17-8 in a four-game set.

The Astros are 8-27 since June 14. Of course the pitching hasn't been great either, but in that stretch, they've lost 10 games they would have won if they had scored just a league-average 4.22 runs per game. Instead, they've scored 3.1. With those 10 games, they could be above .500 over the last month plus.

Now, we know that Jeff Luhnow is working on it. He has a plan in place, and he's executing it. In the last three weeks, he's unloaded three of Houston's Big Four Contracts (Lee/Lyon/Myers), and it seems likely that the fourth - Wandy Rodriguez - is soon to follow. But with our limited view of that plan, the work-in-progress we can see is frustrating to watch every night.

Of the 10 names we know that Houston has received this month, 7 are pitchers. One is a defense-first 3B prospect, one is a single-A catcher, and only one - Ben Francisco - could be any help to the immediate offensive woes. Where is Brett Wallace? Where is Jimmy Paredes? What about Brandon Barnes, or giving Fernando Martinez more than a 4-game concussion-addled chance? J.B. Shuck lacks power, but he's a OBP machine. Is career .259 hitter Francisco really supposed to be our offensive savior?

Mostly those are intended as rhetorical questions - Luhnow has promised us at least Wallace soon, and I'd wager there's more on the way than that. This is a team building for the long-term, to get good and stay good, and trades are a big part of that building process. Luhnow's focus this month, then, is rightly on maximizing those trade possibilities until the July 31 deadline. After that, he's hinted at a flurry of moves throughout the farm system, and it's fair to believe that those moves will also affect the big club. Why not promote some kids now? We don't know why, but kudos at least to Luhnow for sticking to his plan. It's a better plan than this Houston franchise has seen in a great many years.

Patience, patience, Astros fans. The team you see now is not the team you'll see soon, and the end of the dark days is in sight.