Editor’s note – This article originally appeared on AstrosConnection.com on April 23, 2001.
Clearly Astros pitching has improved tremendously. Right now the staff sits at 9-6 with a smooth 4.03 ERA. That falls in the middle of the NL pack – excellent coupled with the team’s potent offense and a half-run better than the next best team. In 2000, their ERA of 5.41 was dead last in the National League, and the biggest culprit in the rotation was Jose Lima. So why is El Loco still a Stro when given Brad Ausmus, winter-ball, and time for an attitude adjustment he has shown no improvement?
There should be no doubt Gerry Hunsicker looked for a way to move the mercurial righty during the offseason. It is not easy to find someone to swallow hard and roll the dice on a guy whose 2000 was so negatively epic though, and Lima’s paycheck doesn’t help. It would buy Sally Struthers’ kids all the cups of coffee they could drink. Who knows, maybe she could set Jose up with some correspondence courses on pitching.
Still there is another reason Jose Lima is a tough sell – Jose Lima. Yes, GM’s all over the contiguous forty-eight and Canada can obviously still smell what he cooked up in 2000, but his ’98 and ’99 seasons were excellent. Yes, he is on the receiving end of a fat paycheck, but owners are notorious for compounding one another’s financial mistakes.
The biggest sticking point has got to be that if Jose Lima is not on your team, you hate Jose Lima. His mannerisms on the mound were an embarrassment to many when he was winning. Now that he is losing, they are an embarrassment to all. You get the feeling his picture is in the middle of more than a few dartboards. It is simply hard to imagine any GM wants the head occupant of the hitters’ top-ten most wanted list on his team.
That leaves the Astros with just a few options regarding the Loco Kid. They can keep trotting Lima to the mound, getting enough good performances here and there to tease them into continuing the cycle until he either gets it back completely or loses it completely. They could drop him in the pen and give his slot to either Kent Bottenfield or Tony McKnight, who pitched well for the big club last season and looks solid again at New Orleans, or even Olympian Roy Oswalt. They could even assign him to the minors for the purpose of granting his unconditional release.
Putting Lima in the pen may seem a little harsh, but consider some of the humility going around baseball. Kent Bottenfield, Chris Holt, and Andy Benes are all established starters, all had better seasons than Jose Lima in 2000, and all have been moved to various pens already this season. No one could say the Astros did not give Lima a chance.
Releasing Lima would be drastic indeed. Drayton McLane would have no chance at getting his money’s worth, and the Astros rotation might suddenly look a little thin on innings-eaters. But Wade Miller has shown he can work deep with regularity, Scott Elarton has picked up where he left off in 2000, Shane Reynolds is back, and the same options that go for replacing Lima would be available if Octavio Dotel cannot get a handle on going through an opposing lineup three times.
There is one more slim possibility, which is to trade Lima. It is a bad time of the season for trades, and it’s doubtful they would find many, if any, interested parties, but there are ways it could work.
They could try to staple him to a highly touted player, much as they did with Mike Hampton and Derek Bell, but to a lesser degree. He might not look so bad in a case such as that to a pitching-poor team with nowhere to go this season like the Devil Rays or the Angels.
A trade might also be easier if the Astros agree to eat a good portion of Lima’s contract. If they paid around four million, the two million difference picked up on the receiving end would defray the incentives cost of having Bottenfield in the rotation for the rest of the season. Four million sounds like a lot, but the Astros are paying it either way.
It is possible the Astros can continue as they are, with Lima, and keep winning. He only pitches every fifth day, and despite his ridiculous 7.17 ERA, his record is 1-1 and the Astros are .500 in his starts. But the goal should not be to get by – it should be to improve. The question has become whether having Lima start every fifth game gives the Astros a better chance to win than if they ran out any of their other options. The answer has become no.
Sandwiching Lima’s pathetic Saturday showing against the Cardinals were two of the finest pitching performances Astros fans have seen in big games in some time. Scott Elarton was masterful in allowing just one run on three hits over seven against the Division champs Friday, and although he gave up three runs – all on two Albert Pujols yard jobs – Wade Miller was flat-out dominant Sunday night. The list of pitchers who have had strikeout totals in the teens is pretty selective, and now includes this young righty.
Wade Miller’s rubber game with the Cards was a hard-fought one-run affair, the Astros’ Achilles’ heel last season. The story was different Sunday though, as Miller hit for himself late in a tie game and stayed in an extra inning to get the win after Craig Biggio found a way to get on and score with help from Lance Berkman and Richard Hidalgo in the bottom of the eighth.
Billy Wagner slammed the door shut, and while the Astros made no errors, the Cardinals were not so lucky with Jim Edmonds getting picked off first by Miller. That is what it takes to win the tight ones.
The game was a very exciting finish to what had been a feast or famine series with rival Cards. Combined with a Cubs loss, the Astros moved up to just a game-and-a-half out of first and a .588 winning percentage.
It is only April of course. There is a long way to go and much can change, but right now baseball’s schedule-makers look prescient. Thirteen of the Astros’ final sixteen games are against the Cubs and Cardinals. A six-game trainstand with both – sadly, the two most popular teams among Missouri denizens – is followed by a four-game set at Wrigley to wrap up the season.