Astros Begin Reloading in 2010 Season
By Bill Gilbert
After a miserable start to the 2010 season, the Houston Astros made a mid-course correction in July. Astro icons Roy Oswalt and Lance Berkman were traded for 6 younger players and the Club made a modest recovery in the second half of the season with rookies manning four positions in most games. Catcher Jason Castro and third baseman Chris Johnson were recalled from the minor leagues, first baseman Chris Wallace was acquired as an add-on to the Oswalt trade and shortstop, Angel Sanchez was obtained in a trade with the Red Sox to share the shortstop job with fellow rookie Tommy Manzella.
After losing 5-2 to the Giants on opening night to start an 8-game losing streak, the Astros never reached .500 and dropped as much as 19 games below on July 4. Two and a half months later, the team improved to a mark of 73-77 on September 20 before faltering on a 10-day road trip to finish at 76-86, two games ahead of last year. The Club spent most of September in 3rd place ahead of the Brewers but needed a shutout of the Cubs on the final game of the season to finish a game ahead of the Cubs in 4th place. The Astros compiled a record of 40-33 after the All-Star break.
The biggest problem the team faced was a lack of offensive production, particularly early in the season from the three hitters in the middle of the lineup, Berkman, Carlos Lee and Hunter Pence. Pence and Lee improved in the second half as Pence hit 25 home runs for the third straight year and led the team with 91 RBIs. Lee was close behind with 24 home runs and 89 RBIs but his .246 batting average was far below his career average of .291. Berkman had only 13 home runs and a .245 batting average before his trade on July 30. The team finished last in the National League in home runs and the only other Astro player in double figures was rookie Chris Johnson with 11 in a little over half of the season.
The team scored an average of 3.77 runs per game, far below the league average of 4.33. The Club allowed opposing teams 4.50 runs per game. With figures like this, a team would be expected to win about 66 rather than 76 games. Thus, it can be concluded that the team may not be as good as the record indicated. Compounding the lack of power is a deficiency in getting on base. The Astros finished last in the National League in both on-base percentage (.303 vs. league average of .324) and slugging percentage (.362 vs. league average of .399). They were also last in the major leagues in walks and next to last in runs.
Pence and Lee are the only established power hitters on the team. To overcome the power deficiency, newcomers Johnson, Wallace and Castro must provide about 20-25 home runs apiece if the Astros are to be competitive since little power can be expected from the second base, shortstop and center field positions.
There were a few offensive bright spots for the Astros in 2010. Johnson batted .308, the highest figure among National League rookies. Second baseman Jeff Keppinger batted .288 and was the hardest player in the league to strike out. Michael Bourn led the league in stolen bases with 52 and again played gold glove-caliber defense in center field. And who can forget the unlikely 4-game sweep of the Phillies in Philadelphia in August.
Turning to pitching, the Astros were in the middle of the pack with an ERA of 4.09 vs. the league average of 4.02. After the departure of Oswalt, Brett Myers was the staff ace with a 14-9 record and an ERA of 3.14. He pitched 6 or more innings in his first 32 starts before getting hit hard in his final start of the season and being removed after 5 2/3 innings. Wandy Rodriguez, after a very slow start, was the only other pitcher with more than 10 wins with a record of 11-12 and an ERA of 3.60. The bullpen was reasonably effective and produced two pitchers with 20+ saves in Matt Lindstrom (23) and Brandon Lyon (20). It was only the 5th time that a team had two pitchers with 20 saves.
Looking forward, the Astros resurgence in the second half of the season provides some hope for 2011. Manager Brad Mills and his staff are providing the type of leadership and stability the team needs. The starting pitching was generally strong in the second half with the emergence of J.A. Happ, obtained in the Oswalt trade, the continued development of Bud Norris and the surprising success of Nelson Figueroa. The bullpen was strengthened by the addition of Wilton Lopez, Fernando Abad and Mark Melancon. However, on the offensive side, the lack of power and on-base skills must be addressed if the team is to be a contender.