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Are The Astros A Bad Team, Or A Team Playing Badly?

How do you solve a problem like Carlos Lee?

How many games into a 162 game season should you start judging a team by its' performance? One? 10? A dozen? 162? 

As the underwhelming crowds roll into Minute Maid Park, you have to wonder how bad the attendance will be if this team really does plumb the depths. 

The Astros have the worst record in the NL at 4-10, behind the Mets at 4-9, but the second worst record in the majors, tied with Seattle, and ahead of the Boston Red Sox, moored on 2-10. 

Aaron Harang, looking like a smart acquisition on the Padres part, stifled the Astros bats, just as he had done in starts against the Giants and Dodgers. He improved to 12-9 against Houston with a 4.43 ERA in 25 starts. 

We're getting more from Angel Sanchez and a timeshare of Humberto Quintero and J.R. Towles than we are from corner infielers Chris Johnson and Brett Wallace. And who thought we would be saying that two weeks in? Quintero and Towles have actually made catcher by far the most productive offensive position for the Astros, putting up OPS' of .894 and .926 respectively. 

They've chipped in here and there, and Wallace's numbers are not too shabby at this stage, but our four through seven hitters are not doing enough. Bill Hall, Johnson and Carlos Lee are making far too many outs, all with on-base percentages in the dumps (mid .250s). 

Lance Berkman meanwhile has six home runs in his past five games, and an OPS of 1.112 so far in 2011. The Astros have seven home runs, as a team in 14 games. Extrapolate that over an entire season you would get 82. They managed 108 last season. 

As pathetic as it is, ripping into Ed Wade for trading away Berkman would make zero sense at this point. It would be like laying into Drayton McLane every time Drew Stubbs gets a basehit against the Astros. The deal made sense at the time and in Mark Melancon and Jimmy Paredes the Astros got a good hall for two months of Berkman. 

It also gave Berkman, who had played his entire career in Houston, the chance to play for a bona-fide contender. I do not begrudge him or Roy Oswalt that. The scenario would have been much simpler had the Astros held options on both Carlos Lee and Berkman for 2011. But once again we go back to Tim Purpura and that $100m contract. 

I'm just preparing Astros fans for the fact that they might start to get angry when Berkman tears through 2011, while Lee bombs through it. Have we already seen Lee's season peak in a 4 RBI night against the Phillies? He has just two RBI hits in the 12 games since. And we already have people shouting for Lee's head.

And even with the offensive problems we have had, the real problem is the pitching. Either they give up lots of early runs and give the offense no chance to get back, or they blow a late lead (given, the game was tied at one when J.A. Happ gave up three Padres runs in the seventh). 

Look at the Astros' ten losses and in four of them they gave up very early leads, and in three of them very substantial leads. We have three where they have blown leads from the sixth inning onwards. And we have a bullpen that the manager Brad Mills does not trust. With Jose Valdez in for Wilton Lopez, who heads to the DL a few days late, this problem becomes further exacerbated. 

Mills therefore is looking for his starters to get through the seventh every time, leaving Happ in to face Ryan Ludwick with no outs and men on second and third. That scenario was probably going to end up with two runs scored however Mills played it, but it still makes you wonder, even if Happ's pitch count was moderate at that point. 

But we've bashed two starting pitchers out of 14, Anibal Sanchez and James Russell, but the rest, we've hardly scratched. That has to change, or we'll slide further away from .500. If they want their first series win of the season, they will have to do better against Matt Latos and Clayton Richard this weekend. 

Images by eflon used in background images under a Creative Commons license. Thank you.