The Astros are playing better in part because they couldn’t play worse.
Don’t look now, but the Astros are 44-37 since their 17-34 start. Even more telling, they’re 17-12 in August after trading right-hander Roy Oswalt and first baseman Lance Berkman.
Crazy stuff — but maybe not that crazy.
• The offense. General manager Ed Wade says the Astros’ early struggles were due in large part to the poor performance of the middle of their batting order — Berkman, Carlos Lee, Hunter Pence and Pedro Feliz (Berkman missed the first two weeks coming off knee surgery).
Some of the Astros’ offensive problems were attributable to poor luck. The Astros batted only .268 on balls in play during their 17-34 start, and still rank last in the NL at .286. For Lee, in particular, the hits just were not falling — his BABIP for the first two months was just .215.
Of course, BABIP works both ways: Rookie third baseman Chris Johnson’s .415 average on balls in play is a strong indication that he has been awfully lucky.
• The pitching. This is the stunner. The Astros’ rotation over the last 22 games has posted a 2.16 ERA.
Right-hander Brett Myers has worked at least six innings in all 27 of his starts, setting a team record. Lefty Wandy Rodriguez has posted a 1.65 ERA in his last 12 starts. Lefty J.A. Happ has pitched well since arriving in the Oswalt trade, and righty Bud Norris continues to improve.
• The trades. Oswalt asked to be traded on May 20. The Astros sent him to the Phillies on July 29. In between, the franchise was in limbo.
“Roy’s situation had hung over our club for an extended period of time,” Wade says. “In all candor, once he made people aware he wanted out, it hung there for a while. Until we made a move, there was a negative drag with all that stuff going on.”
In the end, the Astros traded not only Oswalt, but also Berkman and third baseman Pedro Feliz, receiving $16 million of salary relief and six players in return. Three of those players — Happ, first baseman Brett Wallace and right-handed reliever Mark Melancon — are currently with the major-league club.
• The kids. The Astros’ roster currently includes nine rookies, all of whom appeared last Tuesday in the second game of a four-game sweep in Philadelphia. The Astros team has used an all-rookie infield — Wallace, second baseman Angel Sanchez, shortstop Tommy Manzella and Johnson — along with a rookie catcher, Jason Castro.
Castro is a keeper. Wallace and Johnson should be, too. The jury is out on most everyone else, but at least the Astros are no longer old and boring.
• The manager. The Astros’ dismal start was the kind that could break a first-time manager. But Brad Mills and his coaches endured.
“I’ve got to give them a ton of credit,” Wade says. “They’re so consistent in their approach. I talked about how happy I was when we hired Mills as manager, how happy I was with how he ran spring training. My feelings have only grown stronger that he is the right guy. He got us through the storm of the first half. The guys appreciated his approach.”
Wade says the Astros want to get younger still, and will spend the final month evaluating their kids, knowing they will face payroll limitations this offseason. The team needs more power in the middle infield positions, another starting pitcher, bullpen help and a deep bench to support the youngsters.
“We’re not deluding ourselves that we’re where we need to be,” Wade says.
But finally, the Astros are on their way.
THEY COULDA BEEN CONTENDERS
The Red Sox are just about cooked, but as one rival executive says, “If everyone would have stayed healthy, they would have been the best team in the major leagues.”
Actually, if the Sox’s bullpen had performed better, they still might have been among the best teams in the majors.
The offense isn’t the problem – the Sox, depleted by injuries, criticized for their off-season emphasis on run prevention – are third in the majors in runs per game behind the Yankees and Reds.
The starting pitching, despite the underwhelming performances of right-handers Josh Beckett and John Lackey, isn’t the problem, either — the rotation ranks sixth in the AL in ERA, and righty Clay Buchholz and lefty Jon Lester rank among the top seven individuals.
The bullpen, though, is another matter.
Consider where the Sox’s ‘pen ranks in the AL compared to the Rays and Yankees in three significant categories:
• ERA: Rays 3rd, Yankees 4th, Red Sox 10th.
• Opponents’ OPS: Yankees 1st, Rays 2nd, Red Sox 10th.
• Strikeout-to-walk ratio: Rays 1st, Yankees 4th, Red Sox 9th.
It spoke volumes Tuesday when the Red Sox traded once-promising right-hander Manny Delcarmen to the Rockies. Manager Terry Francona trusts closer Jonathan Papelbon and setup man Daniel Bard. Right-hander Scott Atchison has had his moments, and rookie lefty Felix Doubront is on the rise. But the bullpen, as a whole, has helped fuel the Red Sox’s demise.
LILLY TO STAY IN L.A.?
The Dodgers had no interest in trading left-hander Ted Lilly, whom they pulled back from waivers after the Yankees won the claim. The team intends to pursue a multiyear deal with Lilly, a potential free agent, sources say.
Lilly wanted to sign with the Dodgers the last time he was a free agent, during the 2006-07 off-season. The Dodgers — ahem — signed right-hander Jason Schmidt to an ill-fated three-year, $47 million deal instead.
As for right-hander Hiroki Kuroda, the Dodgers never engaged in serious discussions with the Padres after the Pads won the waiver claim on the Japanese pitcher.
Dodgers GM Ned Colletti told Padres counterpart Jed Hoyer the same thing Hoyer’s predecessor, Kevin Towers, used to tell him. Something to the effect of, “If I trade with you, I’m going to have to crush you in the deal.”
GARLAND: THE PADRES’ BARGAIN
Padres right-hander Jon Garland says he was “kind of shocked” that the Padres even called him last winter. He knew they had a low payroll, and didn’t think they would be active, much less signing him as a free agent for $5.3 million.
The Nationals were the only other team to pursue Garland; the Mets and others passed. Garland thought the Padres had a better chance to compete than the Nats. And, as a pitcher who puts the ball in play, he says that spacious Petco Park fit him “almost to a T.”
Garland is 7-3 with a 2.62 ERA at Petco, 6-6 with a 4.04 ERA on the road. Perhaps he should exercise his end of a $6.75 million mutual option for next season; the Padres almost certainly would want him back that number. Then again, perhaps Garland would be in greater demand if he went back on the open market.
He turns 31 on Sept. 27. He ranks 16th in the NL with a 3.29 ERA. He already has secured his ninth straight season of 10 or more wins, and is headed for his ninth straight of 190 or more innings.
THE YANKEES’ SUPER NOVA
Yankees right-hander Ivan Nova could have been another of Kevin Towers’ low-budget pitching finds for San Diego; the Padres selected Nova in the Rule 5 draft when the Yankees left him unprotected after the 2008 season.
Nova, then 22, allowed 11 runs in nine innings the following spring, and the Padres returned him to the Yankees. But here’s a twist: The way Towers remembers it, he couldn’t justify keeping Nova because his soon-to-be-powerhouse bullpen was a mess.
“Nova actually threw the ball very well for us in the spring, up to 97 mph,” said Towers, who now works as a special assistant to Yankees GM Brian Cashman. “Our problem was that our entire bullpen was so bad early in the spring, we only had Heath Bell and not enough good pitchers to protect a young Rule 5 pick.
“You have to make a decision on the player before the last week of the spring. We tried to work out a trade so we could send him down but ‘Cash’ wanted him back for OBVIOUS reasons. Glad I have him here in New York now.”
Nova went 1-0 with a 2.45 ERA in his first two starts for the Yankees.
HEADLEY’S COMMITMENT TO CONSISTENCY
Former major-league outfielder Dave Roberts, now a special assistant for the Padres in baseball operations, visited the team over the weekend in between treatments for Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
One by one, the Padres’ players greeted Roberts warmly, many embracing him. Roberts, who is expected to make a full recovery, was his usual positive self, offering words of encouragement in return. He had special praise for third baseman Chase Headley, saying, “I love your commitment to consistency. You’re a pro, buddy.”
Consistency in baseball can be elusive even for the best players, but Headley has rebounded nicely from a difficult June. The Padres’ trade of Kevin Kouzmanoff last winter enabled Headley to return to third base from left field and helped improve his outlook.
“Being back at third base, even when I’m not swinging the bat, I feel like I can still help the team,” Headley says. “When I was in the outfield and not hitting, I felt I wasn’t doing the team a lot of good. Not that I wasn’t making the routine plays, but being at third base gives me the opportunity to contribute on both sides of the ball.”
AROUND THE HORN
• Wondering how the heck the Rays could have afforded the remaining $3.8 million on Manny Ramirez’s contract if they had ended up with him on a waiver claim?
Well, the Rays have made no secret that they intend to reduce their payroll from $74 million next season. If they had landed Ramirez, they would have just needed to cut $3.8 million more.
• The sample size is ridiculously small, but Mike Quade’s 5-3 start as Cubs’ interim manager had one scout saying that the team was showing more energy than it had in the past two seasons under Lou Piniella.
“(Andrew) Cashner is a changed guy. (Kosuke) Fukudome is a changed guy. When Lou loses faith in a player, it’s very evident. You can read it. And players pick up on it.”
Could it be that Quade is the Cubs’ long-term solution, the next Jim Leyland? Quade, 53, spent 17 years as a minor-league manager. Those who know him consider him a tireless worker and strong communicator.
• Orioles manager Buck Showalter spent part of his day off Monday watching the professional debut of the team’s No. 1 draft pick, shortstop Manny Machado, in Aberdeen, Md.
The Orioles’ short-season, Single-A Aberdeen franchise is owned by Hall of Famer Cal Ripken Jr. Showalter and Ripken talked baseball while taking a look at Machado and some of the Orioles’ other recent draft picks, including fifth rounder Connor Narron, the son of former Rangers and Reds manager manager Jerry Narron. Connor played third base.
“What else am I going to do on a Monday night?” Showalter said. “My wife’s not here.”
• There is no getting around it: Cardinals catcher Yadier Molina this season has been an offensive liability. The Cardinals rank 13th in the NL in OPS at catcher.
The Cardinals also are 14th at shortstop with Brendan Ryan, and 10th at second base only because of about 100 surprisingly good plate appearances from Aaron Miles and Tyler Greene. Skip Schumaker, too, is a disappointment.
More on the Cardinals’ collapse and the future of manager Tony La Russa later this week.
• Twins GM Bill Smith says he isn’t sure whether his team has gone beyond $100 million in payroll, joking, “I quit checking on that.”
The Twins added about $2.5 million with their trades for relievers Matt Capps and Brian Fuentes. Their Opening Day payroll was $97.55 million.