February 2009

Jeff Bagwell: Hall of Famer?

In Alyson Footer’s Inbox today, Miriam G. of Houston asked the following question:

What is all this talk about Biggio getting into the Hall of Fame on
the first ballot and not Bagwell? People actually seem to believe that
Biggio was always the better player and bigger star! Am I the only
person here who grew up idolizing Bagwell, and thinking of Biggio as
“the other guy?” Don’t get me wrong, I love Biggio as much as any other
Astros fan, but this just isn’t justice! As far as I can see, all
Biggio has on Bags is having outplayed him by a few years.

Craig Biggio.jpgLet’s say something right up front: Craig Biggio is an absolute first-ballot Hall of Famer.  There is absolutely no doubt about that.  Second, let me point out that the fact that “Biggio… outplayed him by a few years” is absolutely important.  Career longevity is very important to the Hall of Fame.  It’s what may keep end up keeping the great Todd Helton out, if the Rockies do not do right by this legendary man and let him continue to play every day.

Craig Biggio, despite coming up as a catcher and playing in the outfield for several years to make room for another Hall-of-Fame second baseman in Jeff Kent, was a second baseman.  He played over 17,000 innings there, and approximately 6,500 elsewhere on the diamond (6,483, but who’s counting? Oh, right. I am.)

There are 18 playes currently listed in the Hall of Fame as second basemen, plus recent Veteran’s Committee inductee Joe Gordon. Looking at the statistics of the Hall of Fame second basemen who have played since 1950, plus likely Hall-of-Fame second basemen Roberto Alomar, Jeff Kent, and Craig Biggio, we get these numbers:

SEASONS: 1. Joe Morgan (22); 2. Craig Biggio (20); 3. Rod Carew (19); Nellie Fox (19); Red Schoendienst (19)

GAMES: 1. Craig Biggio (2850); 2. Joe Morgan (2649); 3. Rod Carew (2469); 4. Roberto Alomar (2379); 5. Nellie Fox (2367)

AT-BATS
: 1. Craig Biggio (10876); 2. Rod Carew (9315); 3. Joe Morgan (9277); 4. Nellie Fox (9232); 5. Roberto Alomar (9073)

RUNS
: 1. Craig Biggio (1844); 2. Joe Morgan (1650); 3. Roberto Alomar (1508); 4. Rod Carew (1424); 5. Jeff Kent (1320)

HITS
: 1. Craig Biggio (3060); 2. Rod Carew (3053); 3. Roberto Alomar (2724); 4. Nellie Fox (2663); 5. Joe Morgan (2517)

DOUBLES
: 1. Craig Biggio (668); 2. Jeff Kent (560); 3. Roberto Alomar (504); 4. Joe Morgan (449); 5. Rod Carew (445)

HOME RUNS
: 1. Jeff Kent (377); 2. Craig Biggio (291); 3. Ryne Sandberg (282); 4. Joe Morgan (268); 5. Joe Gordon (253)

RBI
: 1. Jeff Kent (1518); 2. Bobby Doerr (1247); 3. Craig Biggio (1175); 4. Roberto Alomar (1134); 5. Joe Morgan (1133)

SB
: 1. Joe Morgan (689); 2. Roberto Alomar (474); 3. Craig Biggio (414); 4. Rod Carew (353); 5. Ryne Sandberg (344)

SB%:
1. Jackie Robinson (86.8%); 2. Joe Morgan (81.0%); 3. Roberto Alomar (80.6%); 4. Craig Biggio (77.0%); 5. Red Schoendienst (76.7%)

WALKS
: 1. Joe Morgan (1865); 2. Craig Biggio (1160); 3. Roberto Alomar (1032); 4. Rod Carew (1018); 5. Bobby Doerr (809)

OBP
: 1. Jackie Robinson (.409); 2. Rod Carew (.393); 3. Joe Morgan (.392); 4. Roberto Alomar (.371); 5. Craig Biggio (.363)

GIDP
: 1. Joe Morgan (106); 2. Jackie Robinson (113); 3. Ryne Sandberg (139); 4. Craig Biggio (151); 5. Joe Gordon (159)

HBP
: 1. Craig Biggio (285); 2. Nellie Fox (142); 3. Jeff Kent (125); 4. Jackie Robinson (72); 5. Roberto Alomar (50)

As you can see, Biggio ranks in the top five in every single one of these categories (and fares pretty well in the others, too).  He ranks second all-time in HBP (which brought about an hilarious website to cheer him on to the record), fifth all-time in doubles, and ninth all-time in Power/Speed Number (behind only Joe Morgan at the position).  He produced at a very high level for a very long time, and that is the profile of a Hall-of-Famer.

But what about Bagwell? I hear you asking.  It’s a fair question.

Certainly, of the “Killer B’s” in the nineties, Bagwell was the power bat that commanded respect, whereas Biggio was more of the silent threat.  He was Rookie of the Year.  He was MVP – Biggio never finished closer than 4th (and even that year, Bagwell finished ahead of him.)  He was a consummate team leader and brought a multi-faceted game.

And he may very well end up being a Hall of Famer.  But his numbers are nowhere near as convincing when compare to his peers.

Jeff Bagwell.jpgJeff Bagwell played in 14 full seasons from 1991-2004, and part of a 15th in 2005.  Aside from seven innings in right field and 10 games as a Designated Hitter, they were all at first base. 

During that time, thirty-six first basemen (if one includes designated hitters Paul Molitor and Edgar Martinez) represented their leagues in the MLB All-Star game.  For the sake of argument, we’ll call this group Bagwell’s peers.  Though many are still playing, we’ll put their numbers up against his and see where we end up.

Nine of these players – John Jaha, Ron Coomer, Mo Vaughn, Shea Hillenbrand, Dmitri Young, Richie Sexson, Tony Clark, Ken Harvey, and Cecil Fielder – get thrown out for not being in the top ten in any offensive category.

Even still, this is where Bagwell sits on the list:

SEASONS: 1. Eddie Murray (21); Paul Molitor (21); 3. Rafael Palmeiro (20) … 17. Jeff Bagwell (15)

GAMES: 1. Eddie Murray (3026); 2. Rafael Palmeiro (2831); 3. Paul Molitor (2683) … 10. Jeff Bagwell (2150)

AT-BATS: 1. Eddie Murray (11336); 2. Paul Molitor (10835); 3. Rafael Palmeiro (10472) … 8. Jeff Bagwell (7797)

HITS: 1. Paul Molitor (3319); 2. Eddie Murray (3255); 3. Rafael Palmeiro (3020) … 8. Jeff Bagwell (2314)

DOUBLES: 1. Paul Molitor (605); 2. Rafael Palmeiro (585); 3. Eddie Murray (560) … 8. Jeff Bagwell (488)

TRIPLES: 1. Paul Molitor (114); 2. Will Clark (47); 3. Mark Grace (45) … 8. Jeff Bagwell (32)

HOME RUNS: 1. Mark McGwire (583); 2. Rafael Palmeiro (569); 3. Jim Thome (541) … 8. Jeff Bagwell (449)

RBI: 1. Eddit Murray (1917); 2. Rafael Palmeiro (1835); 3. Frank Thomas (1704); 4. Fred McGriff (1550); 5. Jeff Bagwell (1529)

STOLEN BASES: 1. Paul Molitor (504); 2. Jeff Bagwell (202); 3. Gregg Jefferies (196)

WALKS: 1. Frank Thomas (1667); 2. Jim Thome (1550); 3. Jeff Bagwell (1401)

OPS+: 1. Albert Pujols (170); 2. Mark McGwire (162); 3. Frank Thomas (149); 4. Jeff Bagwell (149)

BtRuns: 1. Frank Thomas (754.9); 2. Jeff Bagwell (620.2); 3. Mark McGwire (589.2)

BtWins: 1. Frank Thomas (69.6); 2. Jeff Bagwell (58.4); 3. Mark McGwire (54.9)

Bagwell has some interesting peripherals – his baserunning ability and his ability to draw walks, for instance – that make him an interesting candidate.  But for a first baseman in the late 20th century, it’s all about power, and Bagwell simply didn’t play long enough at a high enough power plateau to earn his spot.

Will he still make it?  Possibly, but the debate is nowhere near as open-and-closed as Biggio’s is.  Several of his biggest competitors – Frank Thomas and Jim Thome, for instance – continue to play in the majors and solidify their own standing.

Had Bagwell been able to play for 3-4 more years, there’s little doubt that he’d be at the top of the class.  But because he wasn’t able to do that, hi
s Hall of Fame status is very much in question.  Unlike #7, who played long enough to silence all doubts and ensure first-ballot entry into the Hall.

Tip O’ The Cap

Thomas “Tip” Fairchild isn’t going to top anyone’s list of Prospects to watch in the Astros organization, but there was a time when he was one of the more promising players in the system. 

The Astros’ 12th-Round selection in the 2005 Rule 4 Draft – the same class that gave us OF (then-LHP) Brian Bogusevic, SS Tommy Manzella, RHP Chris Blazek, OF Eli Iorg, and C (then-3B) Koby Clemens – out of the University of Southern Maine, Fairchild is an unimpressive 6’2″, 200-pound right-hander.

In that 2005 year, he landed first in Tri-City, where he threw 58.2 mediocre innings, going 3-6 with a 4.91 ERA and a 1.43 WHIP.  But his 63 strikeouts and just 14 walks (though he did plunk six batters) raised a few eyebrows, and he was advanced to Lexington to start the 2006 campaign.  There, he was used more-or-less full-time as a starter, and responded with a 1.65 ERA, 1.00 WHIP, and 98 strikeouts to just 19 walks in 109 innings.

That prompted his mid-season promotion to Salem, where he continued to throw well.  In fact, at the end of the 2006 season, he led all Astros minor leaguers in wins (14), strikeouts (142), and innings (173), all while carrying the fifth-best ERA, with a 2.45. 

Tip Fairchild.jpg2007 saw a promotion to Corpus Christi, and the understanding that Round Rock was within reach for him.  Then he felt something in his throwing elbow during his first start with the Hooks.

One more tortuous start later, he was done for the season.  That “something” that he’d felt had been a torn ligament, and Tip underwent Tommy John surgery that very year.

He spent 2008 back in Corpus Christi, getting shelled as he recovered from the surgery.  He threw sixty-one and a third innings, mostly bad ones.  But he seemed to be regaining his control and confidence as the year went on.

He was re-learning how to pitch.

2009 will be a watershed year for Fairchild.  A player’s second year back from Tommy John surgery is generally regarded as the one during which they’re finally healthy enough to really be evaluated, at least physically.

So, though he’s fallen off of the organizational depth charts, keep an eye on Fairchild.  He might turn back into being one to watch.

The Steroid Era: It Ain’t Just in Baseball

I’m sure you all heard the news today.  A high-profile name linked to steroids, threatening to tear the ballroom dancing world apart.

I’m sorry, did you say ballroom dancing?

That’s right, folks.  In her blog today, Dancing With The Stars contestant Jewel revealed that she came down with tendinitis in her knee.  She went on to say:

“Hopefully these steroids will really do the trick and I can keep bad flare ups at a bay in the future.”

So there it is – admission that she’s juicing.

If you’re anything like me, your first response was: Jewel has a blog?  And people read it?

If Jewel pulls this thing out and wins it, I think we’re going to have to talk seriously about an asterisk.


In other news – this a little more baseball-related, it was great to be at work this morning and see the Astros-Braves game on ESPN.  For a baesball addict with serious withdrawals, this was precisely what the doctor ordered.

Though Sergio Perez and Rule 5 pick Gilbert De La Vara (two pitchers not expected to make the 25-man roster out of camp anyway) blew the lead established by the Astros offense, Roy Oswalt, Brandon Backe, and Alberto Arias, there were a lot of positives in this game.

Christopher Johnson.jpgFirst and foremost, Christopher Johnson.  With the quagmire that is the Astros’ third base situation – where all talk has been of Aaron Boone and Geoff Blum creating the worst platoon situation mankind has ever envisioned – Johnson is emerging as the guy to beat at third.  He still probably needs some time in AAA before he’s called up full-time, but the way he’s seeing the ball right now, he’s making the most of his time in Spring Training.

It’s still very early, of course, but this is very promising.  Aside from Blum, he’s the most competent defender at third base, as well, so the faster he proves himself ready, the better.

ph_430571.jpgThe second player to make the organization notice him is John Gall.  Gall has always shown an ability to hit in the minors, but hasn’t gotten regular work at the Major League level.  With the lack of outfield depth in the Astros’ organization, this may well be his time to break through.

He’s been putting together some very nice at-bats in this very young Spring Training, and looks like he may be forcing a tough decision.  We’ll see if he can keep it up.

World Baseball Classic

It occurs to me that I probably could have milked about 30 articles each out of my last three articles.  It would have saved me from the marathon sessions to get it all done in time, given me more posts, the indication of more activity, fewer unwieldy paragraphs, less for my reader(s) to have to digest at once…

But to be fair, I’m a guy who started a blog primarily to explain the Rule 4 Draft.  I’m still finding my voice, and I expect to be completely awkward and long-winded and sing-songy and condescending and impossible to relate to most of the time.  Much like Bobby Jindal’s Republican Response last night, come to think of it.

Seriously, did anyone else think he was going to try to sell them a ShamWow?

Yesterday, final rosters were announced for the World Baseball Classic.  Ah, the World Baseball Classic.  Just the name takes you back to the Golden Age of Baseball… 2005, when Bud Selig announced that there would be one and no one had any idea how it was going to be organized and put together competently in such a short amount of time.

Bud quickly answered that the way he answers most questions: It wasn’t.

Three years after the first Classic and we’re on the verge of its sophomore effort.  Surely, you must have thought, the process has been cleaned up since then.

Think again.  And don’t call me Shirley.

The Dominican Republic, which finished fourth in 2006, is going into this year’s edition of the WBC as one of the favorites to win.  That’s why I was a little surprised when their roster was announced and an aging, fading veteran shortstop was added, behind two of the human race’s best shortstops in Hanley Ramirez and Jose Reyes.

His name?  Miguel Tejada.

Hey, I thought, that’s my aging veteran shortstop with diminishing power numbers, fading durability, and an increasingly-suspect glove!

Well, not mine.  But the Astros’.  And they’re mine; I claimed them off waivers.
Miguel Tejada.jpg
It didn’t seem to make a lot of sense for Tejada, who had to “re-dedicate” himself to conditioning this offseason… whose manager has said that he’s going to work to give more rest this year to keep him fresh… who is facing impending legal issues and has enough distractions… who was at best the third-best Dominican shortstop on the roster (Cano used to play a decent shortstop in the minors, you know)… to play in the World Baseball Classic.

He has a job to do, and hasn’t exactly put himself in a position to look like he’s not working toward that goal.  The Astros sold the farm and took on his albatross contract.  He isn’t exactly Carlos Lee or Roy Oswalt – guys who do the job they’re here to do, and who have relatively few question marks.

Then, this morning, news came that Tejada, like seemingly half of the Dominican roster, will be opting out of the Classic.

Why, Miguel, why?

According to this article by Alyson Footer, it wasn’t because he wanted to dedicate himself to winning over the Houston Astros fans who feel cheated by the deal that sent Matt Albers, Luke Scott, Dennis Sarfate, Michael Costanzo, and perhaps our only legitimate pitching prospect, Troy Patton, to the Orioles last offseason for Tejada, who was then outted for lying about his age, struggled through a long season slump that left many fans questioning his abilities (he finished .283/.314/.415 with just 13 home runs), and then followed it up by admitting he lied to a federal investigator about a teammate’s steroid use. 

No, that’s not why.  Rather, it’s because they might have wanted him to move to first base.

Might have.

“I heard from somebody that they’re going to make me play first base or
another position,” Tejada said. “I don’t want to do that. I feel I’m a
good enough shortstop for me to be playing my postion. If they think
that I’m not, it’s good to let somebody else play.

“I love my country and I respect my country. I don’t want to do
something where I can hurt my country. If I play another position that
I’ve never played, I might hurt my country. I might make an error,
because I don’t know how to play first base. I don’t know how to play
another position. I could do something wrong, and I don’t want to do
that.”

I want you to re-read that.  I heard from somebody that they’re going to make me play first base or another position.

Okay, I get it.  You have Hanley Ramirez and Jose Reyes.  They are both better shortstops than Miguel is.  But first base?  Is someone who has played 1,832 professional games – all of them at shortstop (not counting 23 games as a DH) – the best the mighty Dominican Republic can do at first base?

I understand Albert Pujols and Carlos Pena can’t play;  and that David Ortiz is a fat tub of goo whose range almost approaches my own grandmother’s; but Miguel Tejada at first base?  Why not Placido Polanco or Jhonny Peralta?  Heck, why not Francisco Liriano, at that point? 

But what concerns me the most is the way Tejada phrased it: “I heard from somebody that they’re going to make me play first base…” He heard from somebody.  Not from Felipe Alou, I’m guessing, or from anyone on the Dominican coaching staff.  Then he would have said, “They told me that they want me to play first base.”  Not I heard from somebody.  Not They’re going to make me.  Not First base or another position.

Couldn’t someone pick up the phone and call the guy?  Ask him if he’d be interested in playing first base?  Tell him where they’d like to use him?  You just put him on the roster and try to let him figure out where he’s going to be playing?

Man, this WBC sure is exciting!

Fifteen Pitchers

It’s pretty tough to get through a single conversation about the Astros that doesn’t turn toward the team’s lack of depth in the starting rotation.  If you were to listen closely to many of the naysayers, you’d think that the Houston farm system may never produce another Roy Oswalt-type ace.

Surely, you the True Astro Fans® are wondering, our farm system must have someone in it to give us hope… if not this year, than at least for the future.

Well, the news is good, but maybe not great.  The Astros actually do have some very promising pitchers in the system, but not very many at the top levels.  Round Rock and Corpus Christi had fairly unimpressive staffs last year, and even the standouts didn’t tend to have fantastic lines.

However, there are fifteen pitchers – not counting new free agent Chia-Jen Lo – that I think are worthy of note.  This is a bit different from my last entry, because there I talked about players who might impact the big league roster this season.  I didn’t talk about 3B Ebert Rosario, LF Brian Pellegrini, 2B Albert Cartwright, or one of my favorite prospects, OF Nathan Metroka.  Their time will come. 

With the pitchers, however, I’m switching things up.  It’s a position where the Astros have such a razor-thin margin of error that some shocking things may come up.  Or, at the very least, some depressed fans may simply start to wonder if we’ll ever have any quality pitching coming from the farmhands.

Any talk of the Astros’ pitching prospects has to begin with the three that excite me the most: One who will probably bear the Astros uniform this year, and two who almost certainly will not.

Two Men Named Trinidad

Polin Trinidad.jpgI’ve talked before about Polin Trinidad, who played for the World team in the 2008 Futures Game (he earned a hold by allowing 1 hit and striking 1 out in his single inning of work… the one hit was to MegaProspect Matt LaPorta, who Trinidad erased from the basepaths by forcing Dexter Fowler to ground into a double play).  He’s got the slim figures that I love to see in a prospect: 23-year-old lefty, 10-7, 3.14 ERA, 1.11 WHIP, 109 strikeouts in 169 innings — with only 32 walks. It’s hard not to get excited about his chances.  His numbers budged a little bit with the move from Salem to Corpus, but his AA numbers were still stellar at 6-5, 3.61, 1.21, 75 K/21 BB in 107 IP.  Projection: Polin got a Spring Training invitation this year, and I expect he should see some time in the majors during the regular season, as well.  I’d still like to see him pitch a little deeper, and he may project more as a long reliever until he can do that, but this kid could be a future ace.

Jose Trinidad.jpgHave I got you pretty excited about the Trinidad kid?  Not so fast, my friends, because as good as he is, he may not have been the best prospect named Trinidad in our system last year.  That’s because down in Greeneville, Jose Trinidad managed to string together one of the most mouth-watering seasons I’ve seen in a while: 3-2 in 10 starts (56.0 IP), 40 strikeouts, 2.73 ERA, 1.13 WHIP.  That’s very exciting, but just how many walks did Señor Trinidad give up to go with those 40 strikeouts?  Six.  That’s right – he faced 241 professional hitters and walked just six of them.  In the Appalachian League last year, 1,964 walks were issued.  Six of them by Jose.  And did I mention he didn’t allow a single home run?  I’m really excited to watch this 20-year-old righty develop.  Projection: 2-3 years away from even pitching at Round Rock.  He’ll probably spend this year in Tri-City, though I wouldn’t be overly surprised if he jumped straight to Lexington.

Jordan Lyles.jpgJose wasn’t alone in Greeneville last year.  There was one other starter who really grabbed my attention: Second-round draft pick Jordan Lyles.  Just seventeen years old, Jordan threw 49.2 innings as a starter in Greeneville, and warranted enough attention that he also was asked to start two games for Tri-City (though he went just 5.2 innings between them).  His Greeneville line was astonishing for someone his age: 3-3, 3.99 ERA, 1.09 WHIP.  And of the 208 batters he faced, only 10 reached base via walk.  Of couse, that’s more than Trinidad’s six, but consider that he did it while striking out 68.  That’s exactly 4 strikeouts for every walk issued.  He didn’t fare quite as well when he moved to Tri-City, but this is a kid who had been throwing to high school sophomores a few months prior.  Very impressive. Projection: You try not to read too much into Rookie ball statistics, especially when you’re dealing with pitchers drafted out of high school.  But Jordan showed he was at the very least worthy of the Astros’ second round pick, and I’m looking forward to seeing him progress over the next 4-5 years.

The Big Leaguers

There are four young pitchers who are likely to find significant time on the major league roster this season that I’m really looking forward to seeing.  These are the guys nearing (or, in one case, past) “major league age,” where it’s do-or-die time for a pitcher.  And these four guys appear poised to do very well in the majors.

Christopher Blazek.jpgThere are better indicators to pitching ability than ERA or Wins.  In fact, these statistics, like RBI, have a box score-driven popularity among “casual fans” that drive sabermetricians crazy.  You can completely fail as a pitcher and come up with a win, a save, or a low ERA.  That said, when looking at a pitching prospect’s stats line, I look for three things: Did he have a WHIP at or below 1.30?  Did he strike out more than he walked, preferably by at least a 1.5:1 ratio?  And how close were his strikeouts to his innings pitched?  When I’m introducing people to prospect evaluation, and all they have is a stats line and no mathematical ability, these are the three things I tell them to look for.  So it’s no surprise that a left-handed 24-year-old Corpus Christi pitcher who went 4-4 as a reliever with a 4.52 ERA suddenly looks a lot better when you realize he did it with a 1.36 WHIP, 84 strikeouts, and 28 walks in 69.2 innings of work.  That’s why, though you may not have noticed Christopher Blazek before, you’re likely to notice him in the future.  Projection: Chris will probably start off at Round Rock, but may very well be called up during the season if there are injury woes in the bullpen.  I suspect his numbers will take a hit in the Pacific Coast League
, as so many pitchers’ numbers do, but I like his make-up.  I think he’ll be just fine.

Joshua Miller.jpgThough not quite as dominant, Joshua Miller had a similar issue last season: PCL hitters lit him up to the tune of an 8-9 record in 21 starts with a 5.41 ERA.  Looking deeper, though, you see that this 29-year-old righty may have had the worst statistical year of his career, but when that still means a 1.39 WHIP, that’s not so bad.  True, he only struck out 74 in his 148 IP, but he also only walked 19.  And in 630 batters faced, he didn’t drop a single wild pitch.  Projection: Miller isn’t our top prospect, but he’ll be thirty years old this season, and I think he’s got to get a chance somewhere along the way to play in the major leagues, where I think he can be a competent pitcher.  I don’t expect him to knock anybody out, but I think he’s worthy of a legitimate shot.

Gilbert De La Vara.jpgWhen Astros fans hear about the Rule 5 draft this offseason, we think of Wesley Wright, or maybe Lou Palmisano.  Well, we didn’t even acquire Palmisano in the Rule 5 draft.  The Orioles did, on our behalf, and traded him to us for cash money.  Our Rule 5 selection?  Why, Gilbert De la Vara.  Gilbert and Wright share a lot of similarities – both 5’11”, 160-pound lefties drafted in the Rule 5 by Ed Wade and tacked onto a roster with a bullpen pretty much already set.  And I think De La Vara can have the kind of success that Wright had.  He went 6-3 last year as a bullpen guy at Wilmington (A+) and Northwest Arkansas (AA) for the Royals’ organization, and despite only 52 strikeouts to 27 walks in 77 innings, his WHIP was a razor-thin 1.08, including 1.16 at the AA level, with a pair of saves.  Projection: I’d love to see Gilbert get some seasoning at the AAA level, but that won’t be possible since he was a Rule 5 selection.  As it is, I think he fits very nicely into the Astros’ bullpen, perhaps even replacing Wright for 2009.

Sergio Perez.jpgSergio Perez didn’t throw a lot in 2008 – just 27.1 innings at Corpus Christi – but his tidy 1.39 WHIP and 2.30 ERA showed that it didn’t affect him that much.  He went 2-3 in 5 starts with just 18 strikeouts and 8 walks, but when you look at his 2006 and 2007 lines in Salem and Lexington, respectively, a fuller picture begins to emerge: 9-13 in 30 starts, 171.2 IP, 3.57 ERA, 1.32 WHIP, 123 K, 59 BB with 732 batters faced.  Projection: Sergio will be just 24 this year, and I think he’ll split time between Corpus Christi and Round Rock; maybe a cup of coffee with the big league club.  His WHIP has eked up slightly with each promotion, and I think the PCL will be a bigger adjustment for him than anything else he’s faced, but I suspect he’ll continue to pitch very well.

Will They?  Won’t They?

Two pitchers in the Astros organization had such limited time played in 2008 that it’s nearly impossible to gauge – from a purely-statistical basis – where they’re at in their development.  But that shouldn’t lead anyone to think any less highly of these two studs:

Ross Seaton.jpgThe 2008 draft, as we know, was one of the better drafts the Astros have had in a while.  Both Jason Castro and Jordan Lyles emerged as studs.  When you look farther down the list, though, another name may jump out at you.  Texas high schools are notorious for their fireballers, but the 2008 class didn’t really have a reprsentative from that category.  The closest was Ross Seaton from Second Baptist School.  The 6’4″ righty was expected to go to Tulane unless his signing bonus was right, which is part of the reason he fell to the Astros with the 109th pick of the draft.  Then, in completely-atypical Astros fashion, they managed to sign him.  Ross started 3 games in 2008 for the Greeneville Astros, and his numbers weren’t amazing.  In fact, they were bad: 4 IP, 4 K, 2 BB, 13.50 ERA, 2.50 WHIP.  But that doesn’t tell the entire story, as the simple fact that we were able to land him is a step in the right direction for the Astros as an organization.  Projection: Put Seaton on the back burner.  He’ll probably play a full season in Greeneville, and may not impress anyone as he learns the professional game.  But with a 94-mph fastball, a sinking two-seamer, 85-mph slider, and a big athletic frame (he swings a good bat, too), he could turn out to be very good.  I’d love to see him improve his changeup, because at the moment he doesn’t really have one.  But he should be one to watch.

Felipe Paulino.jpgWe’ve heard so much about Felipe Paulino Del Guidice already that it’s almost hard to think of him as a prospect.  He spent the 2008 season injured, throwing just two thirds of an inning for Round Rock (he gave up a hit, walked one, struck one out, and didn’t give up a run, in case you’re wondering.)  He’s still one of the team’s top pitching prospects, though, as indicated by his invitation to Spring Training this season.  Projections: I’m going to go against the grain and advocate Felipe spend a year in Round Rock.  There will be opportunities this season for spot starts at the major league level, and he should be considered for that, but I think regular work is vital for him right now.

The Invitees

Four pitchers are left on my list of 15 who are currently with the Astros in Spring Training.  They represent a nice little cross-section of the organization, and each has his own strengths and concerns.

Fernando Nieve.jpgVery few pitchers have the do-or-die feeling surrounding them this season quite the way Fernando Nieve does.  He was supposed to be a back-end guy by now, if not actually the big league closer.  And if he hadn’t been derailed by Tommy John surgery, he may have been.  The last two seasons have been a struggle for Fernando, and as he enters camp this season, it’s time for him to prove that he’s back on track.  I think he’ll do just fine.  Projection: I don’t know if there’s room for Nieve right now at the major league level, but you can’t risk losing him.  His upside is just too great.  For that reason, I suspect he’ll stick around the bigs and actually get stronger as the season progresses.  I really like this kid, and I think he’ll win back quite a few Astros fans.

A lot of guys in the organization are high on Bud Norris right now, and fairly so.  Last year at Corpus Christi, he went 3-8 in 19 starts, fanned 84 batters to just 31 walks, and clocked in with a 4.05 ERA and a 1.50 WHIP.  I’m not quite as impressed with him as I am with some other guys in our organization, but there’s no doubt that someone who records 84 K in 80 innings has some upside.  Projection: Bud will be a top-of-the-rotation starter at Round Rock, where he’ll spend time with the older guys and lock his game down.  Next year, he may be ready for steady big league service.

Samuel Gervacio.jpgIt’s a little hard not to like what Samuel Gervacio brings to the table as a pitcher.  He went 3-5 last season between Round Rock and Corpus Christi, with 96 strikeouts in 73.1 innings – in just 8 innings of work in AAA, he fanned 14 batters.  That came at the expense of just 29 walks, with a 3.94 ERA and a 1.42 WHIP.  He’s the same age as Norris, and may not get quite the same buzz because he’s not a starter.  He’s generally pitched at the backend, recording 5 saves (most on the team, who only won 55 games) in the Texas League last year with 31 games finished (also most on the team) and pitching in a total of 47 games (you guessed it… most on the team.)  When did he have time to go to Round Rock?  Projection: I’m not ready for Gervacio to pitch in the majors yet, because I think this is the kind of guy whose confidence you want to gradually build up, but there’s little to no doubt that he will, at some point this year, if he performs well at Round Rock (which I expect him to do.)

Brad James.jpgBrad James started 18 games last season for the Hooks.  He won exactly one-third of them, and he lost exactly one-third of them.  In 93 innings, he struck out 45 and walked 35.  He allowed 107 hits, which put his WHIP at 1.53.  None of these stats is stellar, but what I do like is that, of the 406 batters he faced, only 9 of them put his pitches into the seats.  Projection: I’m not huge on James, but I think he can be serviceable.  I particularly don’t like his ever-escalating WHIP: It climbed by 0.27 from A+ to AA ball.  I would actually advocate he spend some more time in Corpus Christi before advancing to Round Rock.

But Wait, There’s More!

There are two more guys on my list of fifteen Astros pitchers to watch, and they’re at two different places in their careers, but both are capable of raising some eyebrows.

Chance Douglass.jpgThe first is Chance Douglass.  Many expected him to have cracked
the big leagues by now, but a shaky couple of seasons have kept him
from that goal.  He’ll be 25 this year, and needs to step on the gas
pedal if he’s going to to succeed within this organization.  I do think
he’ll eventually be a big league pitcher somewhere, so whether it’s in
Houston or elsewhere is really the only question.  Chance’s AAA numbers
last season actually outshine his AA numbers, but there is also a
significantly smaller sample size.  Still, a 1.16 WHIP in the PCL is
impressive.  A 1.46 WHIP for the season, however, isn’t.  Projection: I
hope Douglass gets it figured out and performs well at Corpus Christi,
where I’m guessing he’ll start the season.  If not, I suspect he and
the Astros will part ways.

Leandro Cespedes.jpgThere’s a thoroughbred in Lexington, Kentucky, and he was let out to run every fifth day.  He was fifth in the South Atlantic League in strikeouts (137), led the Legends starters in strikeouts, Innings Pitched (130), and ERA (4.02), and was second in WHIP (1.41) to only Anthony Bello.  What I like most about this racehorse, Leandro Cespedes, is that he was only 21 last year and should get even better this season.  He’s definitely one to watch.  574 batters faced, 137 strikeouts, 45 walks.  Could be a keeper.  Projection: I think Cespedes will spend most of the year in Lancaster, and we’ll see how he does against better – and older – competition.  If he continues to mow them down, look for a move to Corpus Christi by the end of the year.

So there you have it: Fifteen pitchers to watch. 

Fresh Faces (Position Players to Watch)

The big question for the Houston Astros this offseason may well be: Can this team compete this year?  We’ve all heard the naysayers.  Baseball Prospectus recently released their 2009 PECOTA rankings, projecting us as the fifth place team in the NL Central, with 98 losses.

The good news: Historically, the Astros tend to out-perform their PECOTA rankings.  They also tend to out-perform their Pythagorean W-L%.  In 2008, we outdid PECOTA (74-88) by 12 wins, and our Pythageorean W-L% (77-84) by 9 wins. 

This could be viewed as a positive, of course, but it could also be viewed as a false positive.  Giving fans hope beyond expectations heading into the 2009 season.  When you look at this team, not a lot distinguishes it from the 2008 San Diego Padres after Chris Young went down: One of the best aces in the game (Peavy/Oswalt), a good-hitting first baseman (Berkman/Gonzalez), a good corner outfielder (Lee/Giles), a streaky but overall above average shortstop (Greene/Tejada), a patchy starting rotation made of largely of “maybes,” a decent ‘pen with a top-notch closer (Hoffman/Valverde), and not a lot off of the bench.

That Padres team put together 99 losses.  This Astros team is predicted, by PECOTA, to lose 96 games.

I don’t say this to be a naysayer at all.  Like most Astros fans, I will still live and die with each game.  I will still cheer just as loudly for each win.  I will still try to put a positive spin on even the worst game.  But it’s important to be realistic, and with that in mind, I believe it’s time to see what the youngsters can do.

The buzz has it that the Astros organization is pretty low on talent.  That’s not untrue, but there are a few standouts, and I suspect we’ll get a look at a great many of them.  Let’s take a look at some of these young men and what we may have to look forward to.  By and large, this could very well be a glimpse at the Astros’ 2010 lineup.  For now, let’s view it as a look at the silver lining.  Because while the organization may not be in the best shape, it does have some decent prospects who could earn valuable playing time this season:

Lou Palmisano.jpgC Lou Palmisano – The catcher position is an awkward one for the Astros.  They actually have a pretty decent stockpile of talent at the position, at least in terms of quantity, but not a lot of quality.  That situation wasn’t exactly remedied when the Orioles chose Lou Palmisano from the Brewers organization in the Rule 5 Draft and then sent him to Houston for cash.  For those unfamiliar with the Rule 5 Draft, basically if you select a player, you must keep him on your Major League roster for the entire season.  If you do not, he can be claimed off waivers by another team (who must then keep him on their major league roster) or return him to the original team.  Palmisano is a promising offensive option behind the plate, but has yet to play above AA ball.  Because of medical issues, he hasn’t played catcher in a game since 2007.  Anything but a sure-fire major league prospect at the moment.  Projection: With Toby Hall out due to injury, if Palmisano shows any promise at all at the plate, he will probably break camp with the big league team. Still, it’s hard to imagine Towles and Quintero both being sent down, and since catcher is one of the few positions with some organizational depth, I suspect Palmisano will be returned to the Brewers organization.

Tommy Manzella.jpgSS Tommy Manzella – Despite hitting a major bump when he got to AAA Round Rock, Manzella is one of my favorites among the Astros’ minor league players.  His Round Rock line is anything but impressive: .219/.273/.294 in 228 at-bats, but his 2008 line in AA Corpus Christi was .299/.346/.446 in 224 at-bats.  He’s improved his defense, and with a good spring and a few more months of AAA ball, he could well be poised to step up and claim his place as the Astros’ shortstop of the future.   Projection: Manzella will wear a Houston Astros uniform this season.  Expect him to make the club sometime in late May or early June and compile somewhere in the vicinity of 100-120 at-bats.

Edwin Maysonet.jpgSS Edwin Maysonet – Maysonet is a versatile infielder – he’s mainly played the shortstop position, but has also played a lot of second base, and has occasionally been asked to fill in at third and in the outfield.  He’s shown remarkable consistently through the minors, clocking in right around .260/.330/.360 each season.  Last year at Round Rock, his line was .271/.343/.379.  Nothing that will blow anyone away, and his glove isn’t the best in the organization, either.  Still, he’s a serviceable-enough backup infielder.  Projection: Maysonet will likely be pressed into service at some point this season, but don’t look for anything more than 50 or so at-bats.

Drew Sutton.jpg2B Drew Sutton – Sutton is a promising young infielder who plays primarily second base, but also third.  He has yet to make a plate appearance at any level above AA, but his 2008 Corpus Christi line sure does look good: .317/.408/.523 with 20 stolen bases in 27 attempts, 20 home runs in 520 AB, and 76 walks to 98 strikeouts.  His glovework isn’t dazzling (16 errors in 99 games), but he’s one of the better prospects currently in the organization.  Projection: With the revolving-door that third base promises to be this season, as well as Kaz Matsui’s inevitable injury woes, Sutton figures to see the big leagues.  I don’t know that I’d expect him to perform extraordinarily, but don’t let that put you off.  He may be a year or two away, but expect Sutton to continue to do well in the organization.

Brian Bogusevic.jpgSP OF Brian Bogusevic – The Astros drafted Bogusevic as a position player out of Tulane University, then moved him to the pitching mound, where he struggled, never posting a season ERA under 4.61.  He’s since been moved back to the outfield, and has responded by becoming one of the Astros’ highest-rated prospects, thanks largely to his .371/.447/.556 line in 124 at-bats at Corpus Christi in 2008.  In case you’ve never heard of “baseball” before, that’s pretty darned impressive.  Projection: Bogusevic hasn’t played above AA yet, but expect a meteoric rise through the system this year.  With so many questions in the Astros’ outfield, I expect him to get some time at the big league level, perhaps even breaking through as a starter late in the season if there are injuries to Lee or Pence.

Yordany Ramirez.jpgOF Yordany Ramirez –  With the unfortunate departure of Jordan Parraz in the Tyler Lumsden trade, Ramirez and 17-year-old Jay Austin may be the two best “fast guys” in the Houston Astros organization.  Ramirez didn’t have a stellar year at Round Rock in 2008 – in fact, it was pretty lousy  (.231/.254/.382).  But he’s shown flashes throughout his time in the minors, and he’ll be 24 this year.  He was widely-regarded as the Padres’ top defensive outfield prospect, has stolen 108 of 140 in his minor league career, and just happens to play centerfield, a position of need for the Astros.  Projection: It’s tough to know which Yordany we’re going to see.  If he can strike out less and walk more (he has 67 career minor league walks to 322 strikeouts), then the sky is the limit.  As it is, he projects as another Michael Bourn type.  I’d love to think either of them is going to turn it around this year, but I’m not overly optimistic.

Jason Castro.jpgC Jason Castro – Since I became an Astros fan in the mid-eighties, I can remember four times when I threw my hands up at an Astros’ draft choice.  It all starts with the time we made Phil Nevin the #1 overall draft choice… ahead of Derek Jeter.  Second was when we took catcher Max Sapp over Joba Chamberlain. The third-most egregious pick, in my opinion, was when we selected Mike Rosamond ahead of Carl Crawford.  Last year’s selection of Jason Castro, a contact-hitting lefty catcher out of Stanford University, ahead of switch-hitting first baseman Justin Smoak, may well break those ranks.  I’m reserving judgement for now, but I have to say that every time I see Astros fans pinning the hopes of the team’s future on Castro, who went .275/.383/.384 in 138 at-bats at Short Season Tri-City.  He inexplicably received a Spring Training invitation this year, and has definitely been tagged as the catcher of the future.  Oh, and Smoak?  .304/.355/.518 for Texas’s Midwest League affiliate, the Clinton LumberKings.  Projection: Don’t expect Castro to play in the big leagues this year.  He’ll need to prove himself over the course of a full minor league season first, and the Astros have plenty of depth at the catcher position.

Brian Esposito.jpgC Brian Esposito – Esposito will be 30 years old coming into the 2009 season, and has amassed a grand total of one inning of major league experience since being drafted by the Red Sox in the 5th round of the 2000 draft out of the University of Connecticut.  The Astros are his sixth organization in the past nine seasons, and he’s likely to start the season in Corpus Christi, his twelfth team in that same nine seasons.  In that time, he’s put together an unimpressive .214/.251/.305 line.  The fact that he is in Spring Training this year, instead of a more-deserving candidate like, say, Eli Iorg, is a testament to the Astros’ trainwreck of a catching situation.  Projection: Esposito will not play as an Astro this season.

Lou Santangelo.jpgC Lou Santangelo – In 2008, 109 baserunners tried to steal a base against Santangelo.  34 of them were caught.  And that sums up Santangelo behind the plate.  At the plate, he generally registers in the .240/.310/.420 mark, though he did hit a major speed bump in limited play at the AAA level last year.  At the moment, he shouldn’t be considered a big league catching prospect, and only makes this list because he received a Spring Training invitation.  Projection: Santangelo may actually be pressed into service at the big league level to protect Castro from being rushed, but not much should be expected of him.

Chris Johnson.jpg3B Chris Johnson – Finally, the Bataan Death March of catchers ends and we return to an area that seems to have at least some organizational depth – the infield.  Johnson was a bright spot in the organization last year, going .324/.364/.506 at Corpus Christi before being called up to Round Rock, where
he hit a bit of a speed bump to the tune of .218/.252/.287 in just 101 at-bats.  I think with a full year of AAA behind him, he could be a legitimate starting option at third base in 2010.  He needs some work defensively – 23 errors in just 230 chances isn’t exactly sound – but I’m confident he’ll do whatever it takes to get to the big league level.  Projection: Johnson will likely see some time in the big leagues this year, with the large question mark surrounding third base in Houston, and may post some decent numbers.  I still think he’d be better served with another year of seasoning and serious defensive work – or even a move to first base.

Mark Saccomanno.jpg3B Mark Saccomanno – It’s no surprise that I’m a big Mark Saccomanno fan.  He led Round Rock in home runs (27) and total bases (275), and was in the top five in doubles (33), triples (2), RBI (84), SLG (.521), and… er… errors.  In fact, his 24 errors was 11 more than Maysonet, who was second with 13 at a tougher position.  In fact, only Tacoma’s Matt Tuiasosopo had more errors in the PCL with 27.  So make no mistake: Saccomanno is a butcher in the field.  But his stick is something to be reckoned with, even beyond the fact that he turned the very first big league pitch he ever saw – an Ian Snell fastball – into a home run.  Projection: Saccomanno should find his place as the everyday starter at third base by late May, and aside from ceding some late-inning defensive innings to Geoff Blum, should see a lot of time there.  I expect a big season from him.

Eli Iorg.jpgOF Eli Iorg – If Eli’s name sounds familiar to you, it should.  His father, Garth, played for the Blue Jays for nine seasons from the late eighties to the late nineties.  His uncle, Dane, played outfield and first base (and even pitched three innings!) for the Phillies, Royals, and Padres – but mostly the Cardinals – over the span of 10 seasons from 1977-1985.  His brother, Cale, is a shortstop in the Tigers’ organization.  As for Eli, he’ll be entering his fifth season in the Astros minors, and has put together a nice little .274/.325/.450 line in his time at Greeneville, Lexington, Salem, and Corpus Christi.  Projection: Eli’s been moving right along, and should start the season in AAA Round Rock.  I do think he has an outside shot at cracking the big league squad this season, and I’m pretty confident he’ll rise to the challenge.  Definitely one to watch.

Koby Clemens.jpgC Koby Clemens – Clemens started life in the Astros organization as a third baseman, but in 2008 he was moved to catcher, because apparently someone thought that there wasn’t enough depth at that position.  He hasn’t exactly exploded offensively, but in 2008 with Salem, he put together a very respectable .268/.369/.423.   He threw out 45 of 130 basestealers (meanies, picking on the new catcher) – 35%.  Not bad, all things considered.  Projection: I actually wouldn’t be too surprised to see Koby crack the big leagues at some point this season, but I do expect he’ll spend the majority of the season between Lancaster and Corpus Christi.

Up next: The fresh-faced pitchers.

Spring Training

I love Spring Training.  It’s a time of hope; a time of wondering and talking.  Everyone has the same record this time of year.  Everyone has the same dream: The World Series.

Astros fans have a lot of questions after this offseason: How will our suspect rotation hold up?  Who will man third base?  Who will be the catcher?  I’ve made my predictions in other areas.  This entry won’t be used for that.  Instead, I’d like to turn my attention elsewhere.

56 players reported to the Astros’ Spring Training facilities.  28 pitchers and 28 position players.  And one question on everyone’s mind, especially after hearing so much about our horrible farm system is: What new faces can we expect to see this year?  What can we expect of them?

New Faces
Gone is Ty Wigginton.  Gone is Randy Wolf.  Brad Ausmus.  Mark Loretta.  In their place are some faces many Astros fans may not recognize.  Among them are some big league commodities new to the team:

Alberto_Arias.jpgAlberto Arias – The Astros claimed Arias off of waivers from the Rockies last season, on July 31.  He pitched at Round Rock and, for three games (including 2 starts), in Houston at the major league level.  He didn’t respond terribly well in his limited time, but such a small sample size (8.0 IP) could easily be ignored.  He will be 25 years old this year and has only thrown 29.0 big league innings.  He has nice minor league numbers, and projects well to Minute Maid Park, with about 55% of balls hit off of him being hit on the ground.  Projection: Could spend some time in the big league bullpen, or pressed into service as a starter.  Look for about 50 innings from Arias, but nothing mind-blowing. 

Jeff_Fulchino.jpgJeff Fulchino – The Astros claimed Fulchino off of waivers from the Royals on December 8.  He’s only thrown 14.1 big league innings, fourteen of which came last season with the Royals (the other third of an inning was in 2006 with the Marlins).  He hasn’t excelled at any level since the 43 innings he threw for the Jupiter Hammerheads of the Florida State League in 2004.  I don’t like his chances to make the big league club, and if he does we may well be in trouble.  Projection:  The chances are good that Fulchino will get pressed into service at some point this season, but don’t look for anything more than 20 innings or so as an injury callup.

Jose_Capellan.jpgJose Capellan – Astros fans will remember Capellan for his time in the Milwaukee Brewers’ bullpen, though he last pitched for the Rockies in 2008.  Though he hasn’t started in the majors since 2 games in 2004 with Atlanta, he will be allowed to compete for a starting rotation spot in Houston.  His time in the minors has been split between the bullpen and the rotation, with decent results.  Over the past three seasons, he’s thrown 91.2 innings in the minors with a 1.26 WHIP, 7-4 record, 4 saves, and a 4.12 ERA.  Over the same time, he’s thrown 99.2 less impressive innings in the majors with a 1.36 WHIP, 4-5 record, 80 strikeouts to 40 walks, and a 4.69 ERA.  Projection: The hope is always that a little stability will help a player who’s been moved around.  In the past three season, Capellan has pitched for the Brewers, Tigers, and Rockies, not to mention five minor league teams among those three systems, along with the Royals organization.  That’s not likely to change, though, as he looks like he’ll go between Round Rock and Houston frequently.  Look for 60-70 innings in the big leagues, with an ERA in the 4.50-5.00 range.

Danny_Graves.jpgDanny Graves – Most Astros fans will remember Danny from his time in Cincinnati from 1997-2005, most of it as their closer while he moved to #50 on the all-time saves list.  He has bounced around since then, and hasn’t pitched in the majors since 2006, when he threw just 14.0 relief innings with the Cleveland Indians.  He hasn’t had an ERA under 4 since 2004.  2008 was a forgettable year spent in the Minnesota Twins’ organization, most of it with the AAA Rochester Red Wings.  He went 4-6 there, with an ERA of 6.30, WHIP of 1.70, and just 32 strikeouts in 84.1 innings.  Projection: I don’t expect Graves to break through to the Major League level at all this year.  He has not shown that he can consistently be counted on as a pitcher at the big league level.

Clay_Hensley.jpgClay Hensley – Hensley showed a lot of promise early on with the Padres organization, and was projected along with Jake Peavy and Chris Young to be a dominant top of the rotation.  In 2007, he ran into some injury problems, and was sent to AAA Portland after struggling in his minor league rehab stints.  Despite his 5.31 ERA and 1-2 record (mostly out of the bullpen) in 2008 in limited time (39.0 IP) for the Padres, his time in Portland was very productive: 1-1 in 10 starts, 34 strikeouts and 16 walks in 48 IP, a WHIP of 1.29 and an ERA of 3.94.  Prior to his injury-plagued 2007 season, he was 12-13 with a 3.30 ERA, 1.278 WHIP, and 150 strikeouts to 93 walks.  Projection: I have high hopes for Hensley.  I expect him to break camp as the #5 starter.  I’m looking for 7-9 wins out of him, as he returns to form i
n his second season back from injury.

Russ_Ortiz.jpgRuss Ortiz – Ortiz is a fresh face in Houston after missing the 2008 season recovering from Tommy John surgery.  For his major league career, he is 110-82 with a 4.42 ERA, 1.479 WHIP, and 1,121 strikeouts in 1568.2 innings pitched.  Since 2005, he hasn’t thrown more than 115 innings in a season, and hasn’t had an ERA under 4 since 2003, when he went 21-7 and finished 4th in the Cy Young voting (pay close attention to the year.)  Projection: I don’t expect Ortiz to shake the injury bug completely, but do expect him to crack the major league roster for somewhere in the vicinity of 60 IP. 

Aaron_Boone.jpgAaron Boone – Boone’s most productive years came between 1997-2003 with the Reds, but his most memorable moment in Game 7 of the 2003 ALCS, when he hit the game-winning home run for the Yankees off of Tim Wakefield and the Red Sox.  Since then, he has bounced between the Indians, Marlins, and Nationals. Boone is still a major league commodity.  He plays all infield positions, and though he’s been inconsistent, he does still show flashes at the plate and in the field.  Projection: There’s no doubt Boone will get some starts at third this year, and probably at second and first, as well.  He should hit in the .250 range, with 5 or 6 home runs in 175 or so plate appearances.

Jason_Michaels.jpgJason Michaels – Michaels came to Houston after 8 seasons between Philadelphia, Cleveland, and Pittsburgh.  He’s a career .271 hitter (.345 OBP) with the ability to play all three outfield positions.  Not a standout, but a very good player to have on the bench, and an upgrade when Michael Bourn doesn’t pan out.  Projection: 200 plate appearances with a .260 batting average and 5 home runs.  Will be used, along with Erstad, to spell the outfield starters and provide a defensive replacement in left field late in games.

Toby_Hall.jpgToby Hall – Formerly the starting catcher of the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, Hall has spent the last three seasons between the Rays, White Sox, and Dodgers.  Coming into the 2009 season, the Astros were looking for a veteran presence behind the plate to help out their youngsters – Palmisano, Castro, Towles, Quintero – at least through Spring Training.  The news that he has shoulder soreness hasn’t helped his already-weak case to make the team.  Projection: Hall will probably start the season at AAA Round Rock, but uncertainty with the youngsters will virtually guarantee a lot of movement at the catcher position.  He should pick up about 120 plate appearances, hit about .238 with a home run or two.  Don’t expect too much.

John_Gall.jpgJohn Gall – Gall has failed to blow anyone away in his few major league appearances, but hasn’t had much of an opportunity to shine.  Between 2005-2007, he’s had just 53 at-bats with the Marlins and Cardinals.  However, in his minor league career, he’s gone .298 (.356 OBP) with 115 home runs in over 3,700 at-bats over 9 seasons, mostly in the St. Louis organization.  He plays the corners, both in the oufield and the infield.  Projection: I don’t know if Gall will play in the majors this season, but it certainly wouldn’t surprise me, if only because of his defensive versatility – anyone who can play third base should get a chance to ply his trade in Houston this year.  Gall has shown a lot of promise in the minors, and deserves a chance to spend some time in the majors.  I think he will get at least 50 plate appearances this season.

Matt_Kata.jpgMatt Kata – Since 2005, Matt Kata has spent time with the Diamondbacks, Reds, Pirates, Phillies, and Rangers organizations, though very little of that time was spent in the majors.  None in 2008.  He’s a versatile utility man who could be called on in a pinch – he plays all positions but pitcher and catcher and has a .242 career batting average in the majors.  Projections: I don’t expect Kata to break into the majors this year, as the Astros have two utilitymen in Geoff Blum and David Newhan who are significantly better Matt Katas than Matt Kata is.

Jason_Smith.jpgJason Smith – Jason Smith was a questionable signing from the start.  A left-handed-hitting utility infielder who has spent time over the last 8 seasons between 7 teams: The Cubs, Devil Rays, Tigers, Rockies, Blue Jays, Diamond
backs, and Royals.  Not a terrific fielder (3.23 RFg, .968 F%), not a terrific hitter (.221/.259/.286), not a terrific anything.  The quintessential no-tool player.  Projection: If Smith plays at the major league level, the Astros are in serious trouble.  I don’t expect this to happen.

Next up, in addition to the new faces are the young faces: Guys like Bud Norris, Sergio Perez, and Chris Johnson who have come up through the Astros’ system.

NL Central Predictions

I’ve never done a set of preseason predictions based on statistical analyses before, at least not on any real scale.  There are so many questions when you start, not the least of which being “Whose stats do I even include??”  A quick look at three random teams’ statistics from 2008 shows an average of 33 batters per team, combining for an average of 5,524 at-bats.  Some of those players began the season in the minor leagues.  Some began the season – or ended it – on completely different teams.  Or on the DL.

Because none of these things can be predicted, I realize that trying to project a Major League Baseball season in early February is a bit… er… “ambitious,” let’s say.  But I wanted to do it anyway, so I felt the need to establish some ground rules.

Methodology

The methodology employed was fairly simple.  I predicted a 25-Man roster for each team, based on offensive performance, but bearing actuals in mind, as well.  For instance, though Jason Kendall ranked #3 on my list of Brewers catchers behind Vinny Rottino and Jesus Salome, I fully realize that he will be the starting catcher in Milwaukee.

The 25-Man rosters included starters and five bench players – including a catcher, two outfielders, and two infielders who could – at the very least – combine to play all infield positions.  I then calculated the Runs Created for the roster (starters, bench players, and starting pitchers), based on the players’ statistics from the past three seasons.  To create a uniform number of games played, I then broke this into RC27 and multiplied by 162 to get the Projected Runs for the season.

To project Runs Allowed, I broke down the pitching staff (12 pitchers, including five starters and a closer) using statistics from the previous three seasons, and calculated BaseRuns.  I then used 1458 (162 games x 9 innings) divided by IP to create a multiplier for the BaseRuns projection, which I then used to project Runs Allowed.

Then, I used the Pythagorean Theorem (with a multiplier of 1.81) to determine an expected W-L%.  Simple enough, but there are some issues with my methodology:

1) Because I am multiplying all statistics for minor leaguers, rate statistics will remain largely unchanged.  For instance, if a player had 100 hits in 300 at-bats at the AAA level, he was a .333 hitter.  In multiplying both hits and at-bats, he becomes 75/225 – still a .333 hitter.

2) Players are not currently weighted as starters and backups.  At present, I am only weighting by average number of games over the past three seasons, adjusted for level.  For instance, J.R. Towles is listed as the Astros’ starting catcher, but only receives 211 AB in 65 games.  Quintero, his backup on my list, is credited with 230 AB in 75 games.  This is also true of starting pitchers and relievers in terms of innings pitched.  This is somewhat offset by adjustments on team totals – I used RC27, multiplied by 162, to determine Runs Scored, and multiplied team runs allowed to cover 1458 IP (9*162) to determine Runs Allowed.  Teams are now evaluated as a unit.  In the future, I would average the number of at-bats per position in the division and do a similar adjustment for individual players.

3) The likelihood of one 25-man roster playing for an entire season is practically nil.  Because roster moves are tough to predict, I’m content simply to allow this for now.

4) 25-Man rosters were chosen by me, using a few factors.  First, I went with the most offensively-sound possibilities, using my own analysis, with some consideration given to actuals.  For instance, despite Jason Kendall’s projections falling third of the four Brewers catchers I projected, I know he will be the Opening Day starter, and so I have slotted him into their roster.  I used whatever information I had available, which is incomplete at times.  Where Rule 5 draftees are concerned, I did my best to predict who would make the roster, and who would be returned.  This is subjective, though a lot of attention was paid to the projections.  Additionally, I included at least one left-hander for all bullpens, even if that weakened the bullpen overall.

Since the methodology is consistent from team to team, for now I am content with it.  At the end of Spring Training, once rosters are set, I will do a new set of projections with some adjustments to my method.

1. Chicago Cubs (908 R, 674 RA): 103-59
Catchers: G. Soto, K. Hill
Infielders: D. Lee, M. Fontenot, R. Theriot, A. Ramirez, B. Scales, M. Hoffpauir
Outfielders: A. Soriano, K. Fukudome, M. Bradley, J. Fox, R. Johnson
Starting Pitchers: C. Zambrano, R. Harden, R. Dempster, T. Lilly, S. Marshall
Relief Pitchers: C. Marmol, K. Gregg, A. Guzman, C. Gaudin, N. Cotts, A. Heilman, L. Vizcaino

2. Cincinnati Reds (739 R, 697 RA): 87-75
Catchers: R. Hernandez, R. Hanigan
Infielders: J. Votto, B. Phillips, J. Keppinger, E. Encarnacion, A. Rosales, D. Richar
Outfielders: C. Dickerson, W. Taveras, J. Bruce, N. Hopper, D. Anderson
Starting Pitchers: A. Harang, E. Volquez, B. Arroyo, J. Cueto, M. Owings
Relief Pitchers: F. Cordero, H. Bailey, M. Lincoln, J. Burton, R. Ramirez, A. Rhodes, D. Weathers

3. Houston Astros (759 R, 723 RA): 86-76
Catchers: J. Towles, H. Quintero
Infielders: L. Berkman, K. Matsui, M. Tejada, M. Saccomanno, G. Blum, D. Newhan
Outfielders: C. Lee, H. Pence, J. Michaels, D. Erstad, M. Bourn
Starting Pitchers: R. Oswalt, W. Rodriguez, B. Moehler, M. Hampton, B. Backe
Relief Pitchers: J. Valverde, W. Wright, D. Brocail, L. Hawkins, G. De La Vara, C. Sampson, G. Geary

3. Milwaukee Brewers (750 R, 710 RA): 86-76
Catchers: J. Kendall, V. Rottino
Infielders: P. Fielder, R. Weeks, J. Hardy, B. Hall, M. Lamb, A. Escobar
Outfielders: R. Braun, M. Cameron, C. Hart, T. Gwynn, L. Cain
Starting Pitchers: S. McClung, M. Parra, Y. Gallardo, J. Suppan, D. Bush
Relief Pitchers: T. Hoffman, J. Julio, D. Riske, C. Villanueva, T. Coffey, E. Morlan, R. Swindle

5. St. Louis Cardinals (762 R, 725 RA): 85-77
Catchers: Y. Molina, J. LaRue
Infielders: A. Pujols, A. Kennedy, K. Greene, T. Glaus, J. Hoffpauir, B. Barden
Outfielders: S. Schumaker, R. Ankiel, R. Ludwick, C. Duncan, J. Mather
Starting Pitchers: C. Carpenter, A. Wainwright, J. Pineiro, T. Wellemeyer, K. Lohse
Relief Pitchers: C. Perez, T. Miller, R. Ring, B. Thompson, R. Franklin, C. Manning, J. Motte

6. Pittsburgh Pirates (726 R, 811 RA): 74-88
Catchers: R. Doumit, R. Diaz
Infielders: Adam LaRoche, F. Sanchez, J. Wilson, Andy LaRoche, B. Bixler, A. Boeve
Outfielders: B. Moss, N. McLouth, S. Pearce, E. Hinske, A. McCutchen
Starting Pitchers: P. Maholm, Z. Duke, I. Snell, J. Karstens, T. Gorzelanny
Relief Pitchers: M. Capps, T. Yates, J. Grabow, P. Dumatrait, V. Vazquez, R. Ohlendorf, E. Meek

2009 Astros Lineup

In the Astros forums, we’ve been debating a great many things.  Chief among them (other than our desperate need for a #2 starter) are: Who will play catcher?  Who will start at third base?  What will be our batting order?  I’ve been piecing together some analyses, but I’ve yet to sit down and take an objective look at our roster.

Obviously, answering the third question requires answering the first two, so I sought to answer these, as well.  I decided to focus on the outfield situation, too, as I don’t believe Michael Bourn is a solid option in center field at this point in his career.

I took each player’s stats from the past three seasons, at both the major and minor league levels.  Of course, the farther away from the majors you get, the less dependable statistics become.  So what I did was to multiply AAA stats by 75%, AA stats by 60%, A+ stats by 50%, and A, A-, and Rookie ball stats by 40%.  I then averaged out the stats of the past three seasons to come up with my predictions.  This is a somewhat crude method, but hey.  I’m a somewhat crude statistician.

The catcher position features four hopefuls: Veteran Toby Hall, youngster J.R. Towles, returning starter Humberto Quintero, and Rule 5 draftee Lou Palmisano.  Each comes with question marks – Towles was considered a big prospect entering the 2008 season, began the season as the starter, and quickly flamed out.  Palmisano has never played above AA ball, and hasn’t played at the catcher position since 2007, acting as DH last season due to surgery.  Hall is more or less a career backup, and Quintero has not shown an ability to hit consistently.

Their adjusted stats worked out like this:

J.R. Towles’ numbers pop out here.  More home runs, second-highest batting average, highest OBP, SLG, and Total Bases. Palmisano warrants a look, especially because he walks so frequently and Towles strikes out more often.  But it looks like Towles is the clear winner here.

From here, we move on to third base.  The departure of Ty Wigginton left a sizable gap at third base, and there are three contenders for the slot: Veteran Aaron Boone, youngster Chris Johnson, organizational player Mark Saccomanno, and veteran utilityman Geoff Blum, considered by most to be the favorite to win the battle.

Again, I compared the three players’ stats from the past three seasons, adjusted for level and averaged out by season.  This gave me the following look:

third_basemen.JPG

Much to my own surprise, Mark Saccomanno stood out among this group.  Not only did he display the most power, but he also consistently gets on base, largely owing to his ability to draw walks.  He also had the highest batting average of the group.  This kind of plate discipline, combined with his ability to hit for a little power, made him my favorite.  I should admit that, coming in, I thought Boone would be the guy to beat, but I would actually place him third on my list, behind Saccomanno and Johnson (who I believe needs more seasoning at the AAA level, and should be ready to seriously compete next year, if not by the All-Star break.)

This leaves us with the outfield.  Carlos Lee is definitely the starter in left field, and Hunter Pence will certainly be a starter, as well.  He has some flexibility, though, and can play either center or right.

This leaves three outfielders vying for the third spot: Veteran Darin Erstad, who plays all three outfield positions and first base and who proved to be a good left-handed bat off the bench last season; young speedster Michael Bourn, a left-hander who began 2008 as the starter in center, and who proved to be one of the worst leadoff hitters in the league as he struggled mightily at the plate; and Jason Michaels, the veteran free agent who can play all three  outfield positions.

Their stats, when adjusted and averaged out, look like this:

right_fielders.JPGNone of the other three options leap off of the page, but Michaels has shown the ability to hit for a higher average, as well as get on base and hit for power better than Bourn or Erstad.  Bourn has to merit strong consideration, as he’s not far behind Michaels in either of these categories, plus he runs far better, but at the moment I have to give the edge to Jason Michaels.

So that gives us the following starting lineup:

lineup.JPG

Simply looking at this group points out at least one glaring problem – the lack of a left-handed bat.  Aside from Berkman and Matsui, who are switch-hitters, every player in this list is a righty.  For the moment, I’m not going to let that sway me into one solid option: Moving Pence to right and starting left-hander Bourn into center.  For now, at least, I’m going to go with this group.

Batting Order

When determining a batting order, I always start with the #3 and #4 spots, and then build around those.  The third spot should be the team’s best hitter.  This is the guy who will get the third-most at-bats, and should have the majority of the opportunities with runners in scoring position.  The choice here is pretty obvious.  Lance Berkman combines power and average better than anyone else on this team.  This leaves us with the cleanup hitter.

Most teams expect their cleanup hitter to be able to hit for doubles and home runs to capitalize on any scoring opportunities.  The Astros have a player who fits this mold perfectly in left fielder Carlos Lee, who leads the team in doubles, is second behind Berkman in home runs and SLG, and who actually is also second in OBP, which makes him a very promising candidate for the #4 spot (or, more likely, points out the deficiencies found elsewhere in the lineup.)

Leadoff

A good leadoff hitter is a guy who can get on base consistently and run the bases responsibly.  In the current lineup, there are no players who fit this mold.  Even were we to use the speedster Bourn, he does not have a solid OBP.  2B Matsui steals some bases and comes with a nice .286 batting average, but he lacks an ideal on-base percentage.  Towles and Saccomanno actually have better OBPs, but neither is much of a concern on the basepaths.

The best combination of speed and on-base is actually Towles with .355/6 SB/4 CS, but his .265 average is most definitely not ideal.  His high OBP is mostly because of the number of pitches that hit him, as he doesn’t draw walks or hit for average.  For this reason, the best option is likely Matsui, at least until Bourn comes around.

#2 Hitter

Let me start with an admission: I do not believe that there is such a thing as a “productive out.”  This puts me at odds with many baseball fans, which is why I feel the need to tell you up front.  For me, a #2 hitter is one who gets on base himself, and who doesn’t hit into double plays.  Though I try to keep that in mind, OBP
is king here for me. 

This should lead us to Towles, whose .355 on-base percentage is behind only Berkman and Lee, but again I don’t like his low average and walk total.  This leaves Saccomanno and Tejada with their .350 OBP.  Since 2002, Miguel Tejada has only had one season in which he was not have one of the three most double plays grounded into.  In 2008, he had the most by a big margin.  Because I’d rather have a consistent hitter who doesn’t eliminate the leadoff man, allowing the #3 and #4 hitters RBI opportunities even when he doesn’t get on base, I’m going to shy away from Tejada.

That means that my #2 hitter is Mark Saccomanno.

#5 Hitter

The #5 spot is a multi-faceted one.  First, you want someone dangerous enough to keep opposing pitchers honest when facing the cleanup hitter.  You also want him to be able to “cleanup” anything the cleanup hitter hasn’t been able to take care of ahead of him.

When you get to the #5 spot, you become aware that subsequent hitters will be less and less dangerous.  For that reason, someone who gets on base via singles and walks isn’t ideal, as he’s likely to get stranded on base.  The primary job of this hitter is to deliver power.  When choosing this spot, I think OPS is the single-most important statistic.

Hunter Pence is #4 on the team in OPS, behind Berkman, Lee, and Saccomanno.  He’s also fourth in SLG, behind the same three players.  He’s also fourth in batting average, behind Lee, Tejada, and Berkman.  It seems pretty obvious that he should be the #5 hitter.

#6 Hitter

When rating the “10 worst number 6 hitters since 1957“, the Hardball Times came up with possibly the best description of the number six hitter I’ve ever come across: “The great majority of the time, the guy batting sixth is simply the least bad of the remaining hitters.”

They also go on to point out that most teams will get solid at-bats from their third and fourth slots, as well as some pretty good ones from their fifth slot, the #6 hitter is usually a pretty good indication of their offensive run production. 

If that’s true, then the Astros offense may not be in complete jeopardy, as Miguel Tejada is a pretty easy projection here at #6.  Second on the team with a .304 batting average, Tejada also provides some power with 19 home runs and a .454 SLG.  He’s no longer an elite power hitter, but he is still a great option to have this low in the order.

#7 and #8 Hitters

The #7 hitter is generally thought of as the guy who isn’t as bad as the #8 hitter.  His job description, really, is “don’t suck.”  The two players we have left are J.R. Towles, the catcher, and Jason Michaels, the right fielder.  Obviously, we want the guy who will stink up the field less.  It’s ideal if he can also stretch a single into a double.  This way, the #8 hitter can end up with a single and score a runner, rather than relying on an extra base hit.

Once again, I turn to OPS, as this gives us a better indication of the ability to get on-base and hit for extra bases.  With a .791 OPS to Michaels’ .702, Towles is a significantly better candidate here.  For this reason, I put him in at #7 and Michaels at #8. 

This leaves our batting order as this:

batting_order.JPG

I really don’t like the weightedness towards right-handers, but even if Bourn was inserted into center field, that would only change the #8 – maybe the #7 – spot.  This would still give us a lot of right handers. 

However, beyond that concern, I believe this batting order to be the most efficient use of the current Astros’ roster.

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