The Houston Astros entered the season with a 25-man roster that was a veritable Who's Who of "Who's That?" With such a dearth of on-paper talent, many wondered if they'd contend for worst-ever status.
After three months of merely mediocre baseball, they're living down to their billing, and with a vengeance. Over at Baseball Nation, Jeff Sullivan wrote that the Astros are "putting on a clinic in bad." Steven Goldman said they're the best at being bad. With 31 losses in their last 35 games, the Astros are really, really bad.
It's absurd how bad they are. I mean, just look at how they lost their last game on Monday night:
The Astros were cloaked in irrelevance before Opening Day. They've only become relevant because they're setting new standards in how poorly a team can function on the field. They're doing it with a purpose -- the roster needs an overhaul -- but this is ruthless. They're taking no prisoners, unless you count their own fans.
Brett Myers was one of their few bright spots, but when talking about closers on last-place teams, it's hard to know what kind of difference he could truly make. The Astros took fringe prospects and sent a lot of cash to deal Myers, so there probably wasn't a whole lot of buzz for his services.
Entering the third week of Myers' White Sox career, it looks as though the Houston environment depresses both performance and trade value. Myers says playing for a contender is invigorating, and the early numbers reflect that notion.
We've talked about Kevin Youkilis being perhaps the best midseason solution in White Sox history, and Myers would have to start pulling a Satchel Paige (three innings every game) to make up ground. In his own field, though, Myers is helping more than outside help usually does. In a couple cases, it didn't help at all.
Nate Jones received the most attention for pitching in all three games of the series against the Los Angeles Angels, and it was entirely deserved. He threw four innings and 52 pitches, not counting the ones he threw warming up more than once. Even when he wasn't at his best, he avoided disaster. In fact, he picked up the win the only game he allowed a run.
But Myers also pitched in all three games, and unlike Jones, he wasn't so dramatic about it ("Oh no, I loaded the bases! How will I ever get out of this?"). He pitched an inning in each game, and his outings were increasingly quick. He allowed a hit and a walk in the first outing, but even then, it wasn't that bad. He pitched around Albert Pujols to face Mark Trumbo. Then he struck out Trumbo. Good walk.
He followed up that semi-tightrope walk with a pair of 1-2-3 innings that ended so quickly that, in the "Coop at The Cork" interview on The Score 670, Don Cooper didn't rule out Myers' availability on Monday night. Chris Sale made it a moot point, but it's still quite a statement when a reliever might be considered useful for four days in a row. As one previous trade showed us, it's not a guarantee that a reliever can be useful for four days period.
More than other positions, it seems like relief pitchers -- especially non-closers -- would be able to transfer their track records from one team to another the easiest. Pitching an inning at a time would truncate the learning curve, even if the pitcher changed leagues, wouldn't it?
But it hasn't quite worked that way with the Sox. Kenny Williams has tried to add relievers from the outside, and it goes over as well as the Bears adding wide receivers. Even when it makes sense on paper, it might work out at an 80-percent satisfaction level at best. At worst, well, Horacio Ramirez.
Take Tony Pena and Jason Frasor. Pena came to the Sox with eighth-inning cred, and seemed like classic Coop'll-fix-him material. His White Sox career neither started nor ended well. He immediately started rolling sliders in key situations, and that sent him sliding down into the low-leverage realm. The Sox were 11-24 in games he pitched. A lot of guys can pitch in hopeless situations.
Frasor was even harder to explain. As a lifelong Blue Jay, he not only pitched in the American League his whole career, but in the toughest division, and in a hitter-friendly ballpark to boot. With the White Sox, he walk rate jumped up by 80 percent, and he proved ineffective when used on back-to-back days. Maybe he didn't like leaving Toronto, even for his hometown (maybe he was a CUB FAN operative). Maybe he was immediately enveloped by the post-trade ennui on the South Side. Whatever the case, he didn't deliver when all signs said he should have had more to offer.
Ramirez is the extreme case, and all you have to do is look at his numbers:
It seemed like Ramirez would be a second lefty with long relief experience. Instead, lefties went 13-for-26 against him (six walks, one strikeout). When he was done, he set a record for the highest WHIP of any White Sox pitcher who appeared in at least 15 games. That's even worse than Rob Dibble, who walked nearly two batters an inning alone in 1995.
(Here's Dibble rapping, by the way.)
Really, you have to go back to Mike MacDougal in 2006 to find a reliever who met or exceeded expectations upon joining the Sox during the season. He became the best right-handed option in the bullpen down the stretch that season. In fact, he was too good, because Williams bought out his arbitration years after the season and would regret it almost immediately.
This is all to say that outside help can't be taken for granted, no matter the role. Think what you will of Myers as a person, but as a ballplayer, he's already made a considerable impact. He's passing tests at an individual level, and in the process, he's brought an order to the bullpen that's been missing all season.
I watch this balanced bullpen step up and win games, and it highlights just how well the White Sox played with chunks of their roster in disarray throughout the year. Jake Peavy, while talking about the management of Sale's workload, pointed to the big reason:
"This organization has handled Chris Sale brilliantly," Peavy said. "When you look how Washington seems to be all over the map -- 'We got this many innings or there's no number. I'm in control, and this and that' -- we've had an open line of communication from the front office, from Kenny to Rick Hahn to what's going on in this clubhouse to all of us. That's something that hasn't happened in the past. It's so nice to see an organization work as a cohesive group from the top of the chain all the way down to us and make good decisions for all the players on the club."
Jon Greenberg, who wrote that column, said Peavy took "a seemingly unnecessary shot" at Ozzie Guillen there, but I don't see it as either a shot or unnecessary. Amid all the injuries and cratering and injury-related cratering, the open communication between the front office and the manager's office has kept the team afloat. Guillen refused to swap out underperforming parts last year, and the front office didn't have the will and/or authority to overrule him. Imagine where the Sox would be with that mindset this year.
Thankfully, that's only a hypothetical. This year, the front office has a lot more freedom to add outside help. And it just so happens that the outside help -- Myers, Youkilis, and now Francisco Liriano -- is helping more than it has helped in the past. Maybe that isn't coincidence. Maybe baseball helps those who help themselves.