One of the season's most surprising early developments is that the Astros lead the majors in rotation ERA by a considerable margin — even without right-hander Brandon Backe, who is out until at least June 1 with a sprained elbow, and right-hander Roger Clemens, who has yet to decide whether he will play for the Astros or another club.
The Astros had a 2.89 rotation ERA entering Friday's play, more than a half-run per game better than the next-best team, the Cardinals. Lefty Wandy Rodriguez, 4-0 with a 2.53 ERA, might be a fluke. But rookie righty Taylor Buchholz, in the estimation of one scout, is better than Backe.
Buchholz, the centerpiece of the Billy Wagner trade with the Phillies in Nov. 2003, was hindered by shoulder trouble in '04 and '05. He excelled in his first two starts against the Brewers and Pirates, prompting a rival G.M. to say, "He looks legit. I'll be surprised if he doesn't stick."
Astros owner Drayton McLane is notoriously thrifty, but those who know him do not expect him to back off Clemens, who is expected to command a contract of $3 million to $4 million a month. The Astros plan to renew contact with Clemens on Monday, the first day they are permitted to negotiate with him after declining to offer him salary arbitration in December.
One rival executive describes Clemens as "Drayton's opium," and the recent Forbes magazine valuations of major-league clubs indicate that the Astros are in strong enough financial position to give Clemens the salary he desires. McLane would be villified in Houston if he lost Clemens over money.
Forbes estimated the Astros' value at $416 million, 10th highest in the majors. It also estimated that the team generated a $30.2 million profit last season — second highest in the majors — before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization.
Rob Manfred, baseball's executive vice president of labor relations, said that the Forbes estimates "misstate" the finances of both the industry and the individual clubs. Perhaps, but there is little doubt that the Astros did big business last season — and that Clemens played a major role in both their on-field and off-field success.
The Reds: Bound to fall?
Contending teams usually feature strong pitching and defense. The Reds are deficient in both areas, making it doubtful that they'll be a serious threat in the NL Central.
The Reds' split personality isn't as pronounced as it was last season, when they led the NL in both runs scored and runs allowed, finishing 73-89.
They were again first in runs scored entering Friday's play, but third in runs allowed — progress of sorts. Two of their projected starting pitchers, right-hander Paul Wilson and lefty Eric Milton, are on the DL, though neither is certain to be a significant contributor. Veteran reliever Rick White, 37, might have the best fastball on the club.
The defense doesn't help matters. The Reds committed 22 errors in their first 22 games, most in the majors, and ranked 25th out of 30 in defensive efficiency, a statistic that measures the percentage of balls in plays that are converted into outs.
The defensive struggles of third baseman Edwin Encarnacion, who leads the majors with eight errors, are curious; Encarnacion, 23, does early work every day with bench coach Bucky Dent, according to G.M. Wayne Krivsky.
"He has enough raw ability that it shouldn't be so difficult — he's got a good arm, good enough feet, good enough reactions," says a scout who recently saw the Reds. "But it might just be that he's a bat who belongs in the American League."
Left fielder Adam Dunn, who has made four errors, is another issue.
"He's worse now than he has ever been in the outfield," the scout says. "His range is limited. His routes to balls are a little scary. They're going to have to move him to first base."