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September 30, 1998
Playoff Preview - Houston vs. San Diego
Our Appraisal of the Astros/Padres playoff
The Astros boast a multi-faceted attack that is the National League's best. In previous years, the team depended almost exclusively on leadoff hitter extraordinaire Craig Biggio and slugging first baseman Jeff Bagwell, and not much else. This year, the "Killer B's" have been joined by a solid supporting cast, and the results have been nothing short of outstanding. The Astros added potent third cog Moises Alou, who has responded with the finest season of his career. He's a gap hitter with power, but he had 38 HR through late August and has hit none since. RF Derek Bell is similar, minus some power and patience, and Carl Everett has been effective this year. The Astros are a great baserunning team, stealing 155 bags this season with a 75% success rate, and have multiple basestealing threats in the lineup, to the consternation of opposing pitchers. Overall, Larry Dierker is content to let his team swing away, and this policy has resulted in great success over the regular season. The Astros have almost no left-handed hitting other than tokens like Billy Spiers, which could hurt them against the Padres.
The Padres have a solid offense marred by injuries and poor Septembers. They actually outhomered the Astros this year, led by reborn LF Greg Vaughn's 50, but scored over 100 fewer runs than Houston. Part of that is Qualcomm Stadium, which severely cut into run-scoring this season. Another factor were several injuries, which helped keep Quilvio Veras, Tony Gwynn, Ken Caminiti, and Wally Joyner out of 121 games between them. All of these hitters had good seasons, but none of them are completely healthy as the postseason begins. CF Steve Finley soaked up almost 500 PA in the top two spots in the order, doing almost nothing with them. Clearly, he's not the player he used to be. Neither is SS Chris Gomez, who has been very solid for the last half of the season. Team speed is almost an afterthought, as leadoff hitter Veras and Finley were hampered by injuries and ineffectiveness. Nevertheless, this team's offense is too good for the run manufacturing manager Bruce Bochy is somewhat fond of. A telling stat - Runs scored/game in September: Houston 4.5, San Diego 3.3.
The Padres' leathermen feature Finley's acrobatics in center field and Joyner's deft work around the bag at first. Caminiti's all-world defense at third has been somewhat erratic this season, as he again plays through various ailments. Range at the outfield corners is a problem, as Greg Vaughn's awesome offensive season hasn't meant anything in the field, and Gwynn continues to lose range and effectiveness in right. Shortstop Gomez has a steady glove but is not gifted with great range, and Quilvio Veras turns a nifty deuce but has had problems with his throws this year. Luckily, he's throwing to vacuum cleaner Joyner at first; backup first baseman Jim Leyritz is a notable step down. Carlos Hernandez and Greg Myers split time at C. Myers is notably better at stopping the running game than Hernandez, but overall the Padres are not a difficult team to run on.
When the Astros take the field, watch for Carl Everett in center and Derek Bell in right. Everett has had a problem with keeping his head in the game in the past, but seems greatly improved this season. Bell, a transplanted CF, may be the best defensive RF in the game. He has a fine arm and excellent range. Moises Alou is solid in left. Sean Berry and Bill Spiers platoon at third. Berry is a better hitter but a much worse fielder, and Spiers can also handle short and second base in a pinch. After years of overrated defense, Biggio is a steady asset at second, and Ricky Gutierrez is a competent shortstop. Jeff Bagwell doesn't have Joyner's glove but he more than makes up for it with his range. Brad Ausmus is a good defensive catcher who had an off-year stopping controlling the running game. He can't block the plate, but he can do everything else.
For most of the season, the Astros seemed to be overmatched by the Padres and Braves in this department. That changed dramatically with the addition of ace Randy Johnson, who has been almost unbeatable since his trade to the National League. The Padres struggled against him in Seattle earlier this year, and he looks to continue his season's good work (11 G, 1.28 ERA) in the playoffs. He has been especially tough in the Astrodome. Following Johnson, the Astros have Shane Reynolds, Mike Hampton, and Jose Lima in the rotation, while former Pad person Sean Bergman moves to the pen. Reynolds nearly bagged 20 wins this season, but he could prove vulnerable to the Padres' left-handed bats. Hampton started off strong, and had a particularly good September. If the Astros are in trouble going into the fourth game, they might bounce Lima for Randy Johnson.
The Padres counter the Big Unit with Kevin Brown, who has been outstanding this season, and especially in August and September. It's not his fault the Padres have had trouble winning lately. In Game 2, the Padres will start Andy Ashby, the most important player in this series. Before the break, Ashby was a monster; after it, he was very hittable. Rumors of injury are rampant, and his control has gone out the window. If he pitches like he's capable, the Padres have two aces to Houston's one. If he continues to have problems, this could be a short series. He did have a good final start this season in Los Angeles. Third starter for the Padres will be Joey Hamilton, who has rebounded from his poor numbers to start the season. Hamilton's main problem is his control; when he loses it, his strikeouts turn into bases on balls. Always a fast worker, pitching coach Dave Stewart had him concentrating and working more slowly later in the season, and it seemed to pay off. Lefty Sterling Hitchcock moves to the pen.
The Padres have had some exceptional performances from their rebuilt relief corps this year, led by closer Trevor Hoffman, who has been his usual unhittable self. Setup man and top righthander Dan Miceli is very tough on right-handed batters and has exhibited good control this year. Former Astro Donne Wall has been a surprise, with good work in the bridge spot between the starters and Miceli. A converted starter himself, he's good for multiple innings, so expect to see him early and often if the starter gets into trouble. Top lefty Randy Myers isn't the pitcher he was last year, but he isn't Mark Langston either. He's lost some juice on his fastball, and he isn't all that tough on lefties anymore; luckily, with the Astros' shortage of left handed batters, he'll likely be a nonfactor in this series. Sterling Hitchcock probably joins the pen to help out in long relief - a job he didn't do well during the season - though the organization is making some noises that he may start Game 3, which wouldn't be a good move on San Diego's part.
The Astros bullpen is deep and effective. It all starts with closer Billy Wagner, an injury victim during the regular season who hasn't pitched well since his return. Jay Powell has been very good since his arrival from Florida. After struggling with the Marlins, he's flashing his strikeout-an-inning heat and will be used as the setup man in the playoffs. Doug Henry has pitched well most of the season, though he tires and loses his effectiveness quickly. Scott Elarton has been eased into the majors in relief, and has responded--he's striking out almost a batter an inning, and though his control isn't great he's pitching effectively He averages about two innings per game and can easily handle more work than that in a pinch. Trever Miller is available as a token lefty, and Sean Bergman moves to the pen after a successful campaign as a starter.
Houston brings whoever isn't starting at 3B, and both Sean Berry and Bill Spiers are tough hitters off the bench. Young prospect Richard Hidalgo is the fourth outfielder, and hit very well despite losing the starting job to Carl Everett due to an early-season injury. Dave Clark is the team's top lefty pinch-hitter when Spiers starts at third. Once a very good player, he may be over the hill - he hasn't hit at all this year. Beyond that, the Astros have a thin bench. Utilityman Tim Bogar and catcher Tony Eusebio are not serious threats with their bats. Ultimately, the Astros lack of left-handed bench players will likely hurt them more than anything else, as San Diego's best pitchers, both in the rotation and the pen, are all right-handers.
The Padres sport one of the strongest benches in the league. 1B/C Jimmy Leyritz is the top Padre pinch-hitter, and will spell Joyner at 1B against some lefties. He can hit anyone, and has excellent patience. Left-handed Rockie import John VanderWal has had another good season in his pinch-hitting role. Like Leyritz, he's pretty selective and has extra-base power. Last year, Mark Sweeney was the top Padre pinch hitter. This year, he's behind VanderWal as the second lefty off the bench. Ruben Rivera, mainly around as a defensive replacement and pinch runner, hit well most of the season, but faltered lately. Infielder Andy Sheets and catcher Greg Myers, solid backups, aren't going to scare anyone.
The Astros have the stronger team, but their weaknesses play to the Padres' strengths. If the Astros can get to the back end of the Padre bullpen, they'll romp; if not, and if Andy Ashby reclaims his dominating form, the Padres have a great chance. Whatever the outcome, this should be a really fun series to watch. Prediction: Astros in 5.
Dave Pease is an author of Baseball Prospectus. Follow @davepease
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