Astros finally choose right path

With the Astros struggling offense dragging the team to a 12-17 record in May, skipper Phil Garner and general manager Tim Purpura finally came to a long overdue conclusion: Brad Ausmus is not an everyday catcher.

Ausmus has long been a favorite among beat reporters and a leader in the clubhouse and in the community. The Astros have been very successful since he rejoined in 2001, peaking in 2005 with a World Series appearance.

However, despite the hustle and the intangibles he is known for, Ausmus’ on-field play has been holding back the Astros offense for years. In his last seven seasons as an Astro, Ausmus has never hit above .260, never hit ten home runs and never driven in more than 50 runs.

Moving beyond the Triple Crown stats shows an even more telling picture. Ausmus’ .313 on-base percentage in his second tenure in Houston has been keeping runs off the board that the Astros could have used in close playoff races. More so, he has killed several rallies by grounding into 106 double plays over the same period of time.

Fifty-six games into the season, the Astros (23-33) have scored only 227 runs, a total that ranks 14th-highest among 16 National League teams. Oddly, Ausmus is hardly the team’s only offensive problem. Lance Berkman is off to a slow start, Craig Biggio’s quest for 3,000 hits has been sputtering along slowly and Adam Everett has never been able to hit.

Berkman, however, will bounce back, Everett has his sterling defense to fall back on and Biggio will probably lose playing time to Mark Loretta as soon as he reaches his milestone. Ausmus has three Gold Gloves, and also carries a reputation for working well with young pitchers.

Unfortunately, the Gold Gloves are more an indication of reputation than actual skill. His 2006 Gold Glove was laughable, as he only threw out 22 percent of runners attempting to steal. By comparison, the 2007 American League Gold Glove catcher, Detroit’s Ivan Rodriguez, threw out 51 percent of runners attempting to steal. As for his reputation with young pitchers, the Astros haven’t broken in a rookie starter with an ERA under 4.00 since Tim Redding in 2003, and Redding hasn’t been in the majors since 2005.

Today’s ultimate solution for the Astros is to let Ausmus split time with failed ex-Tigers prospect Eric Munson, a career .212 hitter. Munson has demonstrated that he can hit well at the Triple A-level, but could never translate that success to the majors.

While this probably isn’t a permanent solution, recognizing the problem is the first step. Actual solutions will be harder to find. Cubs catcher Michael Barrett could be available via trade, unfortunately, the Astros have very little to offer.

The Astros need to do something that Purpura has never demonstrated an ability to do: get creative. Trading for career backup who has shown an ability to hit but never received an extended opportunity would make a lot of sense for the Astros.

Either way, the first step to solving the problem is admitting you have a problem. Brad Ausmus has clearly been a problem for years, and it’s nice that they’ve finally realized it. Finding a quality replacement won’t be easy, but if the Astros are creative, they can turn weakness into strength.

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