Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Sacred Cow Ausmus finally led to graze on bench

(the heavily edited DC version)

With the Astros struggling offense dragging the team to a 12-17 May record, manager Phil Garner and GM Tim Purpura finally came to a long overdue conclusion: Brad Ausmus is not an everyday catcher.

Ausmus has long been a Houston favorite, giving terrific quotes to all the beat writers and being a leader in the clubhouse and in the community. The club has been very successful since he rejoined in 2001, peaking in 2005 with a World Series appearance. Because of the high esteem that he’s been held in, Ausmus has become somewhat of a sacred cow on the Houston sports scene. Nobody wants to write ill of someone who by all accounts seems like a good guy and gives great quotes. However, despite the hustle and intangibles he is known for, Ausmus’ on-field play has been holding back the Astros offense for years.

In his last seven years with the Astros, Ausmus has never hit above .260, never hit ten homers, and never driven in more than fifty runs. Moving beyond the triple crown stats shows an even more telling picture; Ausmus’ .314 on-base percentage in his second tenure in Houston has been keeping runs off the board that the Astros could have used in close playoff races. Taking out the intentional walks that he is given in front of the pitcher lowers this to .304, and he has grounded into over a hundred double plays throughout the same period of time, killing many rallies.

Fifty-six games into the season, the Astros have scored only two hundred twenty-seven times, ahead of only the Nationals and Cardinals among the NL’s sixteen teams. Ausmus is hardly the teams only offensive problem; Lance Berkman is off to a slow start, Craig Biggio’s quest for 3,000 hits has been sputtering along slowly, and Adam Everett has never been able to hit. However, Berkman will bounce back, Everett has his sterling defense to fall back on, and Biggio will probably lose playing time to Mark Loretta as soon as he reaches his milestone. Ausmus has three Gold Gloves, the most recent of which came last year, and also carries a reputation for working well with young pitchers.

Unfortunately, the gold gloves are more an indication of reputation than actual skill. His 2006 Gold Glove was laughable, as he only threw out twenty-two percent of runners attempting to steal. By comparison, the American League Gold Glove catcher last year, Ivan Rodriguez, threw out fifty-one percent of attempted basestealers. As for his reputation with young pitchers, the Astros haven’t broken in a rookie starter with an ERA under 4 since Tim Redding in 2003, and Redding hasn’t been in the majors since 2005.

So today’s ultimate solution for the Astros with Ausmus is to let him split time with failed ex-Tigers prospect Eric Munson, a career .212 hitter. Munson has demonstrated that he can hit well at Triple A, but this has never translated to the majors. While this probably isn’t a permanent solution, recognizing the problem is the first step. For far too long, the Astros have been content with Brad Ausmus sucking up outs at the bottom of their order.

Actual solutions will be harder to find. Cubs catcher Michael Barrett could be available, especially in the wake of last Friday’s fight with star starter Carlos Zambrano. The problem is that the Astros have very little to offer; their farm system is downright barren now that Hunter Pence has graduated to the majors. What the Astros need to do is something that Tim Purpura has never demonstrated an ability to do: get creative. Trading a career backup who has shown an ability to hit but never gotten an extended opportunity would make a lot of sense for the Astros. A few players who could fit this bill include Mike Redmond of the Twins, Javier Valentin of the Reds, and Kelly Shoppach of the Indians.

The Astros main trade chip will probably be Brad Lidge, who has quietly lowered his ERA to 2.70 after being removed from the closers role early in the season. Given the Reds penchant for trading for relievers, it’s not impossible to envision a trade between these two teams involving Lidge. Perhaps a deal of Lidge for recently demoted but promising third baseman Edwin Encarnacion and Valentin would work out for both teams. Especially since the Astros seem to hold Morgan Ensberg in a much lower regard than most teams around baseball.

Either way, the first step to solving the problem is admitting you have a problem. Brad Ausmus has clearly been a problem for the Astros for years, and it’s nice that they’ve finally realized it. Getting a quality catcher isn’t easy, but if the Astros just get a little creative, they can turn a weakness into a strength.

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