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Blogger Smackdown: Stephen Higdon Of The Crawfish Boxes

While we anxiously await Omar Minaya's firing and the signing of Barry Bonds, the Mets' slow train to nowhere keeps slogging along. Next stop: Houston, and a three-game series with the surprisingly-competitive Astros. To see what's new in Houston (and to check in on some former Mets) I tapped Stephen Higdon from SB Nation Astros site The Crawfish Boxes.

The Astros have scored 17 fewer runs than they've given up, but they're three games over .500 and just one game back of the Cardinals in the central. Are they definitely buyers? What holes do they need to address? Does the fact that they have a very old team put them in a win-now mode?

We’re definitely not buyers. Ed Wade has made it clear that there will be nothing big. The Astros don’t have enough prospects in their system to leverage a mid-rotation starter, or an average, to above average, infielder (3B or MI preferred). The one avenue I could see them going to "buy" would be to find a utility guy like a Mark Teahen to give them adequate depth off the bench—something the Astros are woefully without.

There’s not enough payroll to play around with to make this a win-now situation, but that’s always an issue with you lock up more than half your payroll in five players while simultaneously having a barren farm system (2008 draft excluded). With a lot of payroll coming off the books heading into the offseason, I think most of us at TCB are content with the Astros to hold steady at the helm and go forward with this flawed, but capable group of players in an NL Central that has no definitive team. More than anything, though, I’ll just be happy if the Astros brass doesn’t get an itchy trigger finger and decide to once again mortgage the future of the team for a shot at the postseason no one expected them to have; I’m just happy we’re in the conversation.

Miguel Tejada has a bunch more plate appearances, but he and Ivan Rodriguez are neck-and-neck in the race to see who will walk the fewest times on the team. Both are currently at 12. Who wins this hotly-contested affair?

Ohhhhh, that’s a tough one. I’ll have to give it to Pudge just because he’ll see a lot less playing time now that he has his record. It’s hard to count Miggy out, though. With an 88.2% contact rate, walks will be few and far between.

How has Mike Hampton's return to Houston gone?

When the Astros initially signed Hampton, I asked Will Carroll what we could reasonably expect from him and Carroll threw out somewhere around 100 IP. Hampton is close to that mark, but those innings have certainly not been the greatest as of late and I can’t say I’m filled with confidence every time he takes the mound. His only sterling outings have come against the Pirates and the Padres (not the hardest thing to accomplish), but with seasonal 4.18 xFIP it’s hard to be disappointed in him as a rehab project. My concern is how he fares as he eclipses Carroll’s threshold and racks up innings he hasn’t put on his arm since 2004.

If he does go down with an injury, it won’t be the worst thing because it will give one of a trio of AAA pitchers, who have been wowing in 2009, a chance to crack into the bigs and contribute (Bud Norris, Polin Trinidad, and Yorman Bazardo—in order of who I put the most faith in).

Prior to this season did you think we'd actually see Michael Bourn: Useful Player?

Honestly, no. I had a small glimmer of hope because he was a totally different guy at the plate in the VWL this offseason, but it was also the VWL. Even the inkling of hope that existed in the non-rational part of my brain wouldn’t have predicted the success he has this year. Ed Wade is looking smart like a fox after taking a lot of heat for this trade last season. By far Bourn is the pleasant surprise the Astros have had in a long, long while.

Why is Kaz Matsui still starting every day at second base? Shouldn't Jeff Keppinger be getting more time there?

If you were asking me this in early May, I’d say I couldn’t agree with you more. However, since Matsui’s return from the DL in June, he has been quietly putting up solid-enough numbers. My biggest qualm with Matsui is where he bats in our line-up, but I won’t argue with a .740 OPS paired with Kaz’s glove since his return; they just need to stop putting him in the 2-hole.

Keppinger needs to find more playing time. I think his value as platoon player could be increased by platooning more with Matsui because Kaz has been awful batting right handed in 2009. Aside from Carlos Lee’s absurd contract, Matsui’s contract is the one that makes me the most incensed because I feel like the front office and Coop give him every opportunity he doesn’t earn because of his price tag.

What have been the biggest surprises for the Astros this season, both good and bad?

Good: Being one game out of the NL Central with a 49-46 record. I would have never predicted the Central would be so wide open. Our Community Projection Project pegged the Astros for an 83-win season and we seem to be on course for it, but for it to be good enough for us to be competitive—delightful surprise.

Bad: Jason Michaels continuing to have a MLB job. I can’t think of a more useless bench player. Michaels however is a distant second in the bad column because Cecil Cooper got a two-year contract extension April.

What's your take on Cecil Cooper? What is he good at? What is he utterly inept at?

There is a theory with some of the beat writers for the Astros that Coop has managed to alienate his clubhouse so much that it actually lead to them rallying together just because they can’t stand the man…so I guess that could count as something good? Maybe?

Coop is inept at intelligent utilization of relief pitchers (see: Sampson, Brocail, Valverde), late game strategy, strategy in general, and effective communication with any of his players. I’ll live it succinct because I could really get on a roll if I started to get into specifics. Why he was given a contract extension in April I will never know. Hopefully, though, the front office won’t confuse team success with effective management because I can’t wait for the Cecil Cooper era to be over with.