Astros season in danger of being over before it really begins
The Houston Astros are 0-7, the only winless team left in the major leagues
No team has ever rallied to make the postseason after starting 0-7
Lance Berkman's injury and Carlos Lee's slow start have limited their offense
George H.W. Bush is a former World War II pilot who was once shot down and had to be rescued at sea, a former President who has been through numerous political battles and an Astros fan, so he might be presumed to know a little something about facing tough situations. After attending three games of Houston's opening homestand -- all losses en route to an 0-7 start that has left the Astros the only winless team in the majors -- the former college baseball star had a message for rookie manager Brad Mills, reportedly telling him, "Hang in there, it's going to get better."
Astros fans aren't buying that optimistic rhetoric. In a comment on the Houston Chronicle's website, one recently suggested that the newspaper put the daily Astros score on its obituary page.
Indeed, a death notice on Houston's season may not be far off.
Already it will take a precedent-setting comeback for the Astros to make the playoffs. Of the 24 teams to start a season 0-7 (or worse) in the modern era, none have ever rallied to reach the postseason and only one -- the 1983 Astros, who began 0-9 but recovered to finish 85-77 -- managed more than 81 wins.
This year's edition of the Astros will need to start that record turnaround very soon. While a seven-game losing streak makes for a small sample size, the club has already fallen into some bad habits. Houston has shown non-existent pop (two home runs) and plate discipline (six walks and a .245 on-base percentage) and an alarming inability to turn balls in play into outs, as measured by Baseball Prospectus' park-adjusted defensive efficiency, ranking last in the majors in all three categories. The pitching hasn't been much better, ranking 14th out of the 16 NL teams with a 5.95 staff ERA.
The Astros have managed the fewest runs scored in the majors (13) -- as many as the Diamondbacks scored in the fourth inning on Sunday -- and have allowed 42, tied for fourth most in the majors. The absence of first baseman Lance Berkman, who has been sidelined with a knee injury, has had a significant impact on the Astros lineup, particularly the loss of his .412 career OBP and .303 average with runners in scoring position.
Consider that 20 individual players have at least as many walks as the Astros, who aren't known for filling the basepaths on even the good days -- the team OBP hasn't ranked higher than 20th since 2004. And even the more established hitters are struggling, as All-Star outfielders Carlos Lee and Hunter Pence are a combined 0-for-18 with runners in scoring position. It is poor timing for both of them to be slumping at the same time, which gives Houston hope that it could rebound quickly.
Following Sunday's loss to the Phillies, Mills approached every player in the clubhouse and told them to keep battling. On Monday general manager Ed Wade admitted frustration but dismissed the notion that he was ready to panic.
"I wouldn't call [our start] a concern, but the fact is we just haven't swung the bats well," Wade said. "But our feeling is that the guys who are struggling have pretty good track records, and this is a slump that teams normally hit at some point in the season.
"It's always magnified at the beginning of the season, and it's magnified even more because this is becoming thematic with the franchise -- 'The Astros always get off to slow starts.'"
In fact, the Astros' recent early-season track record (starting the past three years 1-6, 3-8 and 1-5 though rallying for 86 wins in 2008), Berkman's injury, Mills' new tenure as manager and the schedule that pitted them against four aces (Tim Lincecum, Matt Cain, Roy Halladay and Adam Wainwright) in their first seven games all mean this team has some chance to become competitive again.
Wade said players always look at a new manager out of the corner of their eyes, looking to see how he reacts to adversity, but added that Mills "has been very consistent since the first day of spring training. They clearly realize where the struggle exists right now, and it falls back on them to perform at the level that they're capable of performing at. I think they'll respond sooner rather than later."
The 1995 Reds won the NL Central after starting 0-6 -- one of just two teams to make the playoffs after losing their first six games -- but they had the luxury of a proven veteran lineup that was merely sidetracked by the abridged spring training following the previous season's strike. Shortstop Barry Larkin, who was the NL MVP that season, remembers the club holding a number of team meetings that April but that the players never worried because of the great personalities in the clubhouse and because they knew how much talent was on their roster.
"I remember we had a 'Let's not panic, we're not where we need to be yet' attitude," said Larkin, now an analyst for the MLB Network. "Without Berkman on that team for the Astros, that's going to be a tough hole. On our team in '95 we had some really good players. We didn't have a lot of new, non-established guys."
Houston, meanwhile, is essentially breaking in players at several key positions, including catcher J.R. Towles, shortstop Tommy Manzalla and starting pitchers Felipe Paulino and Bud Norris.
Larkin also said that he worries about the Astros' prospects because he hasn't seen a similarly dominant personality emerge on the club since Jeff Bagwell and Craig Biggio retired.
"I don't know if there is an identifiable leader of that team," Larkin said.
Wade said it's much too early to "go out and change the composition of the roster," but the Astros would be smart to consider trading one of their veteran stars -- Berkman, Lee or starter Roy Oswalt -- in mind if they have indeed fallen far out of contention by midseason. In December Baseball America ranked the Astros' farm system the worst in baseball, noting that they haven't had a single minor-league team with a winning record the past two years. Last season the Astros were the oldest club in baseball on Opening Day, and they aren't much younger this season. Both Houston's hitters and pitchers average more than 30 years of age, and once Berkman returns, four of the eight regular fielders will be either 34 already or, in the case of Lee, will be in June.
Even before 2009 began, one NL scout opined that the Astros were best served if they were to "trade Oswalt to a contender to get some young players and reshuffle the deck." It's more than a year later and the Astros, who went 74-88 in '09, don't seem any closer to contending. Including Oswalt's club option, both he and Lee are signed through 2012, so they'd likely fetch some value if traded to re-stock the farm system.
Yes, Houston's got a problem. And it may have already cost them their season.
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