H-Town Sports

Houston Sports Blog - Real sports cities have TWO Conference USA teams

Friday, March 31, 2006

The Black Flag Is Flying On Tal's Hill...

We here at H-town Sports have very few favorites, so when one of them is unceremoniously dumped, we can be counted on to deliver a proper eulogy. Astros.com is reporting the 'Stros placed Raul Chavez on waivers and that he has been picked up by the Baltimore Orioles.

Farewell, Cha-Cha. We hardly knew ye, but the memories you gave us will last a lifetime. Not so much on the field, as you didn't see it very often, but the stories of you and your brood terrorizing the postgame spread at Minute Maid are the stuff legends are made of. Our sources inside the Astros organization uniformly said they had never seen anyone, much less a father and son team, eat more hot dogs in one sitting. You were truly the Everyman of Houston sports, if Everyman is a glutton who has a lifetime batting average of .215. You will be missed. But fear not--we hear the Orioles' postgame spread is replete with stone crab and all manner of seafood delicacies. For every referigerator door that closes, a drive-thru window opens.

On a related note, this means hot-hitting Eric Munson has seemingly sewn up the back-up catcher's job after a torrid spring. Congrats to the Houston fanbase, who will now get to incorporate more "Kingpin" references than we ever thought possible.

Houston Astros--2006 Campaign

As I think I have sufficiently recovered from the massive stroke I suffered after reading Scott's prediction that the Reds will finish at .500, I will endeavor to write my own prediction column on the Astros' chances for the upcoming season. In short, I'm calling 87 wins, a narrow loss of the NL Central crown to the Cards, and yet another wild card berth for the good guys. This crowning of the Cards pains me greatly, as I am loathe to predict good things for any team that features a starting pitcher known more for his love of booze, pastries, and fighting than his productivity on the field. That said, here's the answer key:

1. Cards 89-73
2. 'Stros 87-75
3. Brewers 80-82
4. Cubs 75-87
5. Reds 74-88
6. Pirates 73-89

The Cards shouldn't be as good as they were last year; losing Morris will hurt more than people think. As I stated in a comment to one of CincinScotti's posts yesterday, I foresee a meltdown of epic proportions for Brandon Backe. I'm hoping there's some way for Garner to trick him into thinking every start is in the heat of the playoffs. Perhaps some form of hypnotism will work. I do think the Katy Rocket will return in June; the 'Stros should be right around .500 and close enough that he'll be able to rationalize doing it. My final big prediction is that we see Chris Burke making the majority of the starts at SS in the second half. Or he's traded. One or the other, anyway.

With regard to the rest of MLB, my crystal ball says the Braves win the NL East (picking against them is sheer lunacy despite the seeming improvement of the Mets) and the Padres win the NL West. The AL West will go to Oakland, the AL Central to Chicago, the AL East to the Red Sawx, and the wild card to Cleveland. The World Series will feature redemption for the 'Stros as they beat Boston in seven games.

I fully realize this playoff scenario is a bit far-fetched, but I have decided I want to be the idiot they interview on the local news trumpeting "I told you so!" when the 'Stros win the World Series. There has to be one such face-painted moron who "never stopped believing," and I'll be damned if it's not gonna be this guy.

Official 2006 Predictions

Here are my official 2006 MLB predictions, with additional detail on the NL Central:

AL West: Anaheim
AL Central: Cleveland
AL East: Boston
AL Wildcard: Oakland

NL West: San Francisco
NL Central: St. Louis
NL East: Philadelphia
NL Wildcard: Atlanta

NL Central Standings:
1. St. Louis 90-72
2. Milwaukee 84-78
3. Cincinnati 81-81
4. Houston 80-82
5. Chicago 77-85
6. Pittsburgh 71-91

ALCS: Anaheim over Boston
NLCS: Philadelphia over St. Louis

WS: Anaheim over Philadelphia

Texans, Astros News

Eric Moulds?

Megan Manfull reports that Eric Moulds has agreed to a contract offer from the Texans, which clears the way for Moulds to come to Houston if the Bills and Texans can agree on compensation for Moulds. Reportedly Moulds will receive a $5 million signing bonus and could be paid as much as $14 million over the next four seasons, although anyone with a pulse realizes that in the NFL, the totals in a contract do not matter at all since players can be cut at any time. Manfull reports that the Texans are offering a fifth-round pick, while the Bills are asking for a fourth-round pick. Remember that those picks are each the first in their respective rounds. The Bills do not want to keep Moulds under the terms of his current contract, and the Texans know that, which means technically the Texans could hold their ground and dare the Bills to cut Moulds. At that point, the Texans could simply sign Moulds as a free agent and avoid losing a draft pick. However, the risk for the Texans is that the Eagles are also negotiating with the Bills for Moulds' services.

Moulds did have 81 catches for the hapless Bills in 2005, but will also be 33 years old when the 2006 season kicks off this fall. Health has never been an issue before for Moulds, who has missed only six games throughout his entire ten-year career with the Bills. If I'm the Texans, there's no way that I'm giving up the first pick in the 4th round for Moulds. A fifth-round pick seems fair for a 33 year-old WR, especially knowing that the Bills are desperate to lose Moulds' contract.

Taylor Buchholz?

Jose de Jesus Ortiz also reports in Friday's Chronicle that Taylor Buchholz has pretty much cinched up the fifth rotation spot for the Astros. Buchholz has had an outstanding spring, and this is the right decision for the Astros to make, although there seems to be little doubt that Zeke Astacio actually pitched himself out of the rotation as much as Buchholz pitched himself into it.

Oswalt and Pettitte are as good a 1-2 punch as any in the majors. After that, Backe-Wandy-Buchholz is about as shaky of a 3-4-5 as any rotation in the majors. Take a quick look at the 3-4-5's in just the NL Central:

Astros: Backe (4.76 ERA), Wandy (5.53 ERA), Buchholz (4.81 ERA in AAA)
Brewers: Capuano (3.99 ERA), Bush (4.49 ERA in Toronto), Helling (2.39 ERA in relief)
Cards: Marquis (4.13 ERA), Suppan (3.57 ERA), Ponson (6.21 ERA in Baltimore)
Cubs: Maddux (4.24 ERA), Sean Marshall (2.52 ERA in AA), Jerome Williams (4.26 ERA)
Pirates: Snell (5.14 ERA in 5 starts), Maholm (2.18 ERA in 6 starts), Santos (4.57 ERA with Milwaukee
Reds: Claussen (4.21 ERA), Milton (6.47 ERA), Williams (4.41 ERA)

Of those, clearly St. Louis is at the head of the pack. After that, there are plenty of question marks to go around. Is Capuano the real deal? How much does Maddux have left in the tank? Will Sean Marshall's low-minors and spring training success carry over to the bigs? Are the Pirates young arms ready to pitch consistently? Can Eric Milton bounce back from a nightmarish 2005? Is Brandon Claussen as good as he was in August and September (5-2, 3.09 ERA)?

Whichever team's 3-4-5 performs best will get a significant jump over the competition. The biggest burden, however, may be on the Astros and Pirates, who were both in the bottom-third of the NL in runs scored in 2005. The Reds and Brewers figure to have powerful young offenses that may be able to pick up some of the slack if their pitching falters, but the Astros and Pirates will both likely struggle to score runs, leaving them little room for error on the mound.

Thursday, March 30, 2006

Daily Reading for March 30, 2006

Bob Kravitz's take on the puzzling hiring of Kelvin Sampson by Indiana University
Rick Bozich on what the Sampson hiring means about the current state of IU hoops
Adrian Wojnarowski's story of how George Mason has won "the right way"
Kirk Bohls' story on the Longhorns' potentail early NBA entries
Scott Fowler on (shockingly) shady dealings by new K-State coach Bob Huggins
Mike Triplett's report on new Saints' coach Sean Payton's feelings regarding new QB Drew Brees*

*The signing of Brees to such a massive deal continues to boggle my mind, especially with the Saints holding the second pick overall.

Three Lingering Issues: Houston Astros

Heading into the 2006 season, the performance of the following three Astros will be most crucial as the Astros attempt to defend their National League pennant:

1. Morgan Ensberg: Coming off a 7-39 "streak" in the NLCS and World Series that was much more painful to watch than the numbers even indicate, the pressure is on the Astros' reigning clean-up hitter to produce like he did for most of the 2005 regular season. Ensberg's patience at the plate is a known strength (85 walks in 2005), but his strikeout total noticeably skyrocketed from 46 in 2004 to 119 in 2005. I am never one to put much emphasis on spring training numbers, but Morgan is currently hitting .149 in 47 spring training at-bats with 12 K's and only one extra-base hit. His incessant need to modify his awkward batting stance has always been a red flag that he lacked true confidence in his natural abilities at the plate and that any success that he enjoyed was more gimmick-based than talent-driven. The 2006 season will be a true test for Mo-E, and it will be interesting to see how long Garner sticks with his All-Star 3B if he gets off to a start in the regular season as miserable as his postseason and spring training performances were.

2. Brandon Backe: Backe continued to enhance his reputation as Houston's own "Mr. October" in the 2005 postseason by winning both of his starts in the NLCS and World Series and allowing a grand total of one run in 12 2/3 innings of work. Unfortunately, Galveston's favorite son has had difficulty repeating such performances between April 1 and September 30 throughout his young pitching career. Backe has never had a WHIP in the bigs under 1.45, and his K/BB ratio took a precipitous dive in 2005. Backe's spring his been forgettable to say the least: 8.87 ERA in 23+ innings, including 11 HR allowed and K/BB count of 11/10. By process of elimination and based on the flashes of promise in the postseason, Backe has been handed the #3 rotation spot, but if he does not start improving his control and missing opposing bats at a better rate soon, he may find himself sliding out of the rotation in Houston and into the rotation in Round Rock. Questions have also been raised about Backe's health by pitching coach Jim Hickey. The Astros' #4 and #5 rotation spots are shaky enough. They can ill-afford to have anything less than an effective #3 if they intend to compete for the postseason again.

3. Tim Purpura: The 2005 season was the most successful in franchise history, and it was also the first at the helm for GM Tim Purpura. Purpura certainly deserves his share of the credit based on his work in years past in the player development realm, but many rumblings were heard heading towards the trade deadline in 2005 as the Astros' hopes were fading and nary a move was made. Throughout the offseason, rumors floated about names like Miguel Tejada and Adam Dunn, but again, nothing truly materialized, aside from the "splash" signings of Preston Wilson and Trever Miller. Purpura does not have the luxuries of Roger Clemens in his rotation, Jeff Bagwell at 1B or lukewarm fan expectations heading into 2006. Clemens is sidelined until at least May, Bagwell is watching games at sports bars and the fans will be clamoring for a repeat of last season's magic. The Astros stockpile of young pitching prospects is well-publicized, and it will be very interesting to see how Purpura manages Patton, Hirsh, Nieve, Barthmeier & Co. during the summer of 2006.