Will league's worst offense be improved in 2011?

Last Season the Astros finished dead last in several offensive categories including homeruns, walks, total bases, on-base percentage, and slugging. What has Uber-G.M. Ed Wade done in the off-season to address this glaring deficiency? Not as much as Astros fans and pitchers would have hoped.  Free Agent Bill Hall was signed to a $3 million contract and handed the second base job. Clint Barmes was acquired from Colorado in exchange for Felipe Paulino and will be the every day shortstop. The Astros are promoting these moves as an effort to get some power from the middle infield spots. But at what cost?

Incumbent second baseman Jeff Keppinger is a far better all-around player than Hall. Granted Keppinger is out for the first month of the season with foot surgery, but that was not the case when Hall was signed and given the job. So what if  Hall hits a few more homers, 26 over the last two seasons compared to Keppinger’s 13, he strikes out a ton! Over that same two year time frame Hall has amassed an astounding 224 whiffs in 747 plate appearances while Keppinger has fanned only 69 times in 919 plate appearances. Meanwhile, (still focusing on the last two seasons) Hall has scored 76 runs and driven in 82 compared to Keppinger’s 97 runs and 88 RBI. In addition, Keppinger had a nifty .990 fielding percentage in 126 games at second base last year while Hall, not known for his glove, fielded at a .966 clip in 51 games at the position. When Keppinger gets healthy I fully expect him to win back the starting  job.

Surprisingly similar circumstances surround the shortstop scenario. Relegated to a backup role, Angel Sanchez comes into camp nursing a strained oblique. Sanchez (.280/.316/.348  last season) brought stability to the position and did an adequate job defensively considering he was coming back from a right shoulder injury. I don’t think it was a coincidence that the Astros turned their season around almost immediately after Sanchez was stolen away from Boston in exchange for journeyman backstop Kevin Cash. Barmes is a career .254/.300/.404 hitter with 61 homers in 665 games. Not exactly Ripken-like numbers, especially when you consider he’s played half his games at altitude. I’m also not convinced that he can hold up all season as an every day shortstop. Barmes has played only 107 games at the position over the last four years.

The two positions that really needed to be addressed have been completely overlooked. Brian Bogusevic is the team’s only left-handed hitter off the bench. Wade also failed to come up with a power hitter to play first base or leftfield. Carlos Lee will cover one of those positions. But if Brett Wallace continues to struggle there will be a gaping hole in a spot reserved for power and production. Wallace has been labeled a can’t miss prospect. But he didn’t show me enough last season for the Astros to forego a contingency plan. Nick Johnson is about the only remaining Free Agent that could fill the void. Given his recent struggles with injuries, Johnson could probably be signed to a minor league deal with no guaranteed money. I think it might be worth a shot.

Carlos Lee should bounce back from a down year. Lee hit at least .300 and had 100 or more RBI’s in his first three seasons with the club before slumping in 2010. Hunter Pence should continue to be productive as well. Michael Bourn will set the table.  But the jury is still out on second year starters Jason Castro and Chris Johnson. All in all not a lineup that will strike fear into the heart of opposing pitchers. Unless Ed Wade pulls off a last minute surprise deal it looks like the Astros will once again have to depend on pitching to keep the team in games.

Tags: Angel Sanchez Bill Hall Carlos Lee Clint Barmes Houston Astros Jeff Keppinger

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