Inside Pitch: Astros at a crossroads

Inside Pitch: Astros at a crossroads

Once again, the Houston Astros and general manager Tim Purpura are at a crossroads.

The Astros began play Tuesday night 30-40 and nine games behind Milwaukee in the National League Central Division, but then being behind in the race this time of year is nothing unusual for the Astros.

Two years ago the Astros started 15-30, and they were 30-39 after 69 games and 14 1/2 games out, but Purpura stuck to his guns and was rewarded when the Astros took the National League pennant and the franchise's first appearance in the World Series.

A year ago the Astros were 36-33 and six games behind St. Louis and wound up 82-80, just a game and a half behind the Cardinals in the division race.

With the trade deadline roughly six weeks away, Purpura must once again decide whether this team's disappointing first-half performance will be eclipsed by an impressive second-half run or whether it is time to make changes.

Once again, it will be a very difficult decision.

As poorly as the Astros have played, they are still very much in the race and have given indications recently that they might be ready to pick up the pace. An offense that had been averaging 2.75 runs per game earlier this season has scored 91 in the last 17 games (5.35 per game), including 37 (6.16 per game) in the six-game homestand against Oakland and Seattle that ended Sunday.

Left fielder Carlos Lee is among the league leaders in RBIs. Center fielder Hunter Pence is a leading candidate for Rookie of the Year, Mark Loretta and Mike Lamb have provided a much-needed boost to the offense. Before he fractured his leg Thursday night, shortstop Adam Everett had been hitting .328 since May 25 while providing his usual stellar glove work.

Some of the other regulars haven't fared as well. First baseman Lance Berkman hasn't been hitting to his usual standards, third baseman Morgan Ensberg is batting just .213 (entering Tuesday night's game) and the production from right field, second base and catcher hasn't been what the Astros had hoped for coming out of Spring Training. The bullpen has had its ups and downs, and the rotation has had to compensate for injuries to starters like Jason Jennings, who has since returned.

"The way I look at it is this, if we get improved performance from some guys on the team, we should be in it," Purpura said. "I think our starting pitching is really starting to come together. Woody [Williams] has had some good starts, but we just haven't produced many runs for him. Chris Sampson had a really great outing [in his last start] and is doing well. Jennings has looked good, and of course Roy [Oswalt] is doing what he does, so if we get three or four of our starters to give us some good outings, we're going to stay competitive in ballgames. Our issue is scoring more runs; we just to have to score more runs. I'm hoping the improvement will come from within, but if not, I'm certainly willing to look outside."

Purpura realizes that it will likely be difficult to trade for the type of hitter who could make a significant difference to the offense unless he's willing to make major changes.

"I think you have to be willing to do that," he said. "With some of the players we have, we have close to a half a season more data to work with, and you know you can't just keep hoping forever that guys are going to turn it around or step it up," he said. "Sometimes you have to change some scenery for guys before they get back to what they can be. That's always the thing you worry about as a general manager -- you trade a guy and he'll go off somewhere else and take off. But by the same token, if he's not producing for you, you've got to think about moving him. From our point of view, we've got to find a way to score more runs; that's imperative for us.

"I do think we've got some guys, especially on the offensive side, that they need to start stepping it up from a career point of view, let alone from a season point of view. The more and more data you have on a player, the more you have to look seriously at if this is going to work in this environment for that player, or do we need to make a change?"

Purpura has been talking with other teams and has flexibility in the payroll. But nothing is imminent on the trade front.

"We've made some calls, we're trying to inquire about some things, but nothing's real hot on the front burner right now," Purpura said.

Purpura said he couldn't even guess on the likelihood he would make a deal before the deadline.

"A lot's going to depend on where we're at in six weeks and what we're doing in six weeks," Purpura said. "If we're at a point where we're doing well enough that we have the confidence to add, we might, but I can't predict that at this point."

Purpura would prefer not to deal pitching, which is what every team is looking for this year.

"That's pretty much always the way it is, it seems to me, everybody's looking to improve their pitching staff and there's very few pitchers available," he said. "You covet what you have, and what you have you try to make better. That's pretty much what I'm hearing, [everybody wants] starters and relievers, especially relievers now when you look at the free-agent market and how the values shot through the roof in the offseason. Guys are making $4 million as a left-handed specialist. That's amazing. That's definitely going on now that there's a lot of demand for relievers."

Purpura still has time before he must choose which direction to take. The deadline to make trades without going through waivers is July 31. More than enough time to get a clearer picture.

"I think this team will play better," Purpura said. "Hopefully sooner rather than later."

Pearls from the diamond:

  • With Kenny Rogers and Nate Robertson due back soon and Andrew Miller pitching well, the Tigers are shopping left-hander Mike Maroth. Maroth, who had surgery last year to remove bone chips from his elbow, doesn't become a free agent until after next season.

  • Astros manager Phil Garner said the shove that Houston reliever Dan Wheeler gave teammate Chris Sampson was nothing compared to some of the teammate scrapes he'd witnessed during his playing days with Oakland in the 1970s. "Compared to our fights in Oakland, this was Sunday school," Garner said. "I mean, we had fistfights with guys getting knocked out. Then they'd go out and win the game. Once we went on the field we were all on the same side." As for the incident Wednesday night, Garner and the pitchers said it was over and done with. "Sampson quite innocently was offering a pat on the back, and Danny didn't want a part of anything," Garner said. "I understand, because I'm the same way. Just give me space until I calm down. There's nothing personal."

  • Fausto Carmona's breakout year continues, as each team the converted reliever faces comes away impressed with the Cleveland right-hander. "There's got to be a different league for that guy," Florida manager Fredi Gonzalez said. "There's got to be one higher. That's 96 [mph] with some sink. That's nasty."

  • Milwaukee's Yovanni Gallardo was called up for a spot start on Monday night against San Francisco, but don't be surprised if the right-hander is back very soon. "With Gallardo and Carlos Villanueva, that gives them seven legit starters in a year where everybody is looking for pitching," one AL official said. "They're in a great position to help themselves [by dealing one or more of the starters for help in other areas]."

  • The Padres called up highly-regarded third-base prospect Chase Headley on Thursday to fill in for Kevin Kouzmanoff after Kouzmanoff strained his lower back, but if Headley hits, the Padres will have four third basemen (Geoff Blum and Russell Branyan) and might decide to deal one of them. Headley was leading the Texas League in hitting (.357) and was tied for second with 13 home runs and ranked second in RBIs (42) in 62 games for the Missions. The switch-hitting Headley, a 2005 second-round pick from the University of Tennessee, was hitting .436 in June and impressed Padres general manager Kevin Towers.

  • Astros second baseman Craig Biggio is 9-for-21 in his last five games and the 41-year-old seems to benefit when playing no more than three or four games in a row. "He's running better this spring and throwing this spring than I've seen him do in three years that I've been there," Garner said. "How do you figure that out? He's been running great too. If you watched him a couple of games on that [recent] road trip, you'd swear he was never going to get another hit, he looked tired. Then he comes home and man, his bat is quick again and he's on it."

  • The Mets have stepped up efforts to find another right-handed bat in case Moises Alou is out longer than anticipated. Alou is scheduled to begin rehab in Florida next week and if all goes well, he'll return to the team in mid to late July.

Jim Molony is a writer for This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.