March 2009

Here It Comes

In three hours, the West Coast will be shrouded in April.  Can you feel it?

April.

It’s a magical month for baseball fans.  The last month full of hope and promise, before the summer lazes before us, full of disappointment for some; celebration for others.  The magical march to October has begun.

In less than a week, the Major League Baseball season will be underway.  As Spring Training winds down, what do Astros fans have to look forward to?

The Asros are last in the Grapefruit League, owing largely to a massive winless streak.  But they seem to be heating up at the right time: 9-2 since March 20th.

During that stretch through the end of March, the actual members of the Astros 25-man roster went .306/.329/.436.  That includes new arrival Jeff Keppinger, whose numbers came with the Cincinnati Reds.  Without his 2-for-24 line, the numbers are .325/.349/.466 for the 25-man roster.

The pitchers expected to make the 25-man roster have gone 7-1 in 72 IP with a 3.50 ERA, an incredible 1.17 WHIP, and a 3.89 DICE; 39 K to 16 BB.  That’s sure to go up with the move to Minute Maid Park, but it’s nice to see that, at the very least, the 25-man roster looks to be heating up at the right time.

And they’re going to need to be hot going into the season.  A lot has been made of their difficult second-half schedule, and rightly so. 

Looking at their 2009 schedule, and breaking each game down by the opponents’ 2008 record (using home records for home games and road records for road games), this is how the season looks by month:

April: 267-309 (.464)
May: 396-422 (.484)
June: 348-380 (.478)
July: 125-199 (.386)
July (post-All Star Break): 230-175 (.568)
August: 438-371 (.541)
September: 367-372 (.497)
October: 96-66 (.593)

As you can see, prior to the All-Star Break, the Astros’ opponents in every month are less than .500 – after the All-Star Break, with the exception of a brief respite in September (during which, though the opponents are under an aggregate .500, they are still better than during any single month before the All-Star Break), every month features opponents with overall winning percentages.

So clearly, the key to the Astros season is not waiting until August or September to make a run, as they have in the past, but rather to get off to a quick start.

Luckily, they appear poised to do just that.

Redemption For Wade

The offseason and Spring Training leading up to the 2009 season wasn’t exactly spectacular for the Houston Astros.  Ty Wigginton, the incumbent third baseman, was non-tendered.  Coming into camp, the likeliest scenario for his replacement was a platoon of Geoff Blum and Aaron Boone.

The hole at catcher was plugged at Ivan Rodriguez, a move that left me largely unsatisfied, as I’ve talked about before.  The fifth starter spot went from Brandon Backe to Russ Ortiz, which is a slight upwards move, but does not make up for the additional loss of Randy Wolf‘s 16.1 VORP went un-replaced, unless you count Mike Hampton‘s paltry 6.6.

When Boone left the team to have open heart surgery, it opened a big hole at third base.  The options seemed to be to prematurely promote Christopher Johnson, or to go with Blum as the everyday option at third.  Blum has value, but it’s largely as a utility infielder off the bench: A defensive third baseman who plays shortstop, second, and first, and provides a switch-hitting option off the bench.

Jeff Keppinger.jpgToday, though, General Manager Ed Wade may well have redeemed his poor offseason by trading for the Cincinnati Reds’ Jeff Keppinger, primarily to play third base.  A lot of fans won’t know much about Keppinger, who has only strung together 876 at-bats over periods of four seasons with the Reds, New York Mets, and Kansas City Royals.  He’s a natural second baseman, but has gotten more time at shortstop in the majors than at any other position.

His career line is .287/.338/.390, which is not fantastic, but it does include time missed tending to – and recovering from – a fractured tibial plateau.  In other words, the shin bone was broken at the knee, which is the same injury Jermaine Dye suffered once upon a time.  His .322/.375/.423 line in the minors (including .338/.380/.432 in AAA action) gives him a lot of upside, despite the fact that he will turn 29 in April.

Should Johnson prove himself in Round Rock and merit a mid-season promotion, Keppinger becomes a great utility player off of the bench.  And he was acquired for a PTBN or cash – far superior to a free agent signing, or spending a top-line prospect, who are preciously few in the Astros’ system.

Three available players interested me – Keppinger, Colorado’s Jeff Baker, and Florida’s Dallas McPherson – but I absolutely love this move.  In fact, I would say it’s redemption for Wade’s otherwise-mediocre offseason.

PECOTA had Keppinger slotted at a VORP of 11.6, with just 457 plate appearances at three positions (as well as pinch-hitting).  They have him slated for a .342 OBP.  Keeping him at third and moving Blum to the bench gives a swing of 3.5-4.0 wins, by my estimation.

To me, this unsuspecting move – which won’t raise a lot of eyebrows among casual fans – is the single-most exciting news I’ve gotten all day.  I love this move.

Fairchild Released

On February 26th, I profiled Astros pitching prospect Thomas “Tip” Fairchild, who was entering 2009 trying to bounce back from Tommy John surgery he’d undergone in 2007.  Unfortunately, his hometown newspaper reported that the Astros released Fairchild. 

Fairchild.jpgOddly, this comes on the heels of what is reportedly one of Fairchild’s best springs.  He turned 25 in December, and has fallen to at least fifth, if not lower, among right-handed pitching prospects in the Houston organization.  But, to be fair, he had Tommy John surgery.

I’m not very fond of this move, which should come as no surprise to anyone.  I think this is the season when the Astros would have been well-served to at least have him begin the season in the Corpus Christi rotation, with a possible promotion to Round Rock’s bullpen if he looked healthy. 

He’s staying in Florida to try and audition for another team, but everyone is breaking camp now, which makes it a very tough time for him to catch on with someone.  I don’t know if Tip will ever pitch professionally again, but I really hope someone gives him a shot.  In the 2006 season, before his surgery, 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.

If he’s anywhere near his old form, he can still be very productive.

Lima Time

Canseco.jpgThe independent Golden League of Professional Baseball sure does seem like a lot of fun.  It seems to be a haven for insane baseballers, be it something minor like illeist Rickey Henderson, or something a little more questionable, like Jose Canseco‘s pitching career. 

I haven’t been to a game in this league yet, despite the fact that their teams are generously sprinkled around my new home, Los Angeles.  The San Diego Surf Dawgs played at Tony Gwynn Stadium on the campus of San Diego State University – was less than two miles from my home in San Diego while Rickey Henderson played for them.

Lima Dodgers.jpgWhen Canseco was traded to the Long Beach Armada after just one game with the Surf Dawgs, his new home stadium was just 23.5 miles from my home in Culver City.  Now, with the news that former Astros 20-game winner Jose Lima has signed with the Armada, I am determined to make the 41-minute drive from Sherman Oaks to Long Beach to see him pitch.

Lima may have been many things, one thing he definitely was is entertaining.  When he was on the mound, you were always waiting for him to explode.  Since 1999, when he went 21-10 for Houston, he has pitched 860 innings in 171 games for Houston, Detroit, Kansas City, Los Angeles, Kansas City (again), and the New York Mets. 

Lima Mets.jpgHe had a surprising 2004, which saw him go 13-5 for the Dodgers with a 4.07 ERA, 1.24 WHIP, 93 K, and 34 BB in 170.1 IP, and then followed up with a five-hit shutout of the Cardinals in the in the NLDS, the Dodgers’ only postseason victory between 1998 and 2008.

Other than that, though, he has been far less than spectacular since his career season in 1999.   He’s gone 43-62 with a 6.00 ERA, 1.50 WHIP, 5.39 DICE, 458 K, and 258 BB.

In 2007, he pitched for Saraperos de Saltillo in the Mexican League, and for the Dominican Winter Baseball League Águilas Cibaeñas.  He spent 2008 pitching for the Kia Tigers of the Korean Baseball League, but was eventually released, and took Lima Time to the Camden Riversharks of the independent Atlantic Baseball League.

Lima Royals.jpgThis guy’s career may never end.  Like Rickey Henderson, he just wants to play ball.  Unfortunately, he’s not half as good at it as Rickey was, but the guy is exciting – if only in a schadenfreude, what’s-going-to-happen-next kind of way.  Because Jose Lima, friends, is insane.  And I can’t wait to see him toe the rubber against the Calgary Vipers, Orange County Flyers, Edmonton Cracker Cats, or any of the other ridiculously-named Golden League teams.

It’s Lima Time!

Flying The Coop

I’m becoming increasingly worried about Astros manager Cecil Cooper‘s mental health.

Last year, despite rumors that he was alienating his veteran players, Cooper rode the team to a 86-75 record, third in the division and 3.5 games out of the NL Wild Card.  They outperformed Pythagoras by nine wins – and one way to explain a team outperforming their Pythagorean W-L% almost certainly has to be managerial skill.

There were definite moments, however, where Cooper seemed to be exceedingly out of his element.  This offseason has brought his bipolar disorder into sharper focus.  During the team’s extended winless streak during Spring Training, Cooper began to lose his mind.  On March 10, Alyson Footer quoted him as saying “I don’t have any answers about why this is happening, unless someone put the hex on us,” and that “this is bordering on ridiculous.”

That was when they were 1-10-1.  A hex?  Coop, no one put a hex on the team.  It’s a veteran team, missing key players to the WBC, with very little organizational depth to help them hold leads late in games, once the major leaguers are gone.  There’s no hex, Coop.

The next day was a day off, and Cooper said he went golfing because he “had to hit something.”  Then he bemoaned the team’s low batting average, saying “We’re hitting .220 as a team in Spring Training. No one hits .220 in Spring Training. Come on. Two hundred. Are you kidding me?”

Then, on March 17, Alyson posted one of the most disturbing quotes of the offseason: “I’m not concerned about our pitching.  I’m concerned about the hitting.”  Not concerned about a rotation that includes such luminaries as Brian Moehler, Russ Ortiz, and Mike Hampton in the starting rotation,  spelled by Brandon Backe and Jose Capellan?  You’re more concerned about the hitting of a team that features Lance Berkman, Miguel Tejada, Carlos Lee, and Hunter Pence?

This is also when the rumblings of the players, led by Berkman, began to seep out.  In sharp contrast to Cooper’s daily rants, Berkman and the other players didn’t seem to be paying any attention at all.  It became clearer and clearer that Cooper and his staff were most assuredly not on the same page as their players – at least not their veteran players. 

His inability to coach big leaguers became showed itself when Footer quoted him as saying, “I keep calling them out and nobody seems to step up. That’s all I can
tell you, we need somebody to step up and nobody’s stepping up.”

Then the Astros started to win, at which point Danny Knobler of CBSSports.com quoted Cooper as saying, “We should win 90 games, without question.  We have a terrific bullpen. We have one of the best closers in the game. We’ve got the
ace in the National League. We’ve got three of the best offensive
players at their position. We’ve got, if not the best, then one of the
top catchers in baseball.

“I mean, c’mon. We’ve got what it takes. You’re telling me we’re not going to win that many games?”

FanGraphs reprinted the quote in their article “Cecil the Delusional.”  I understand wanting to pump your team up, but we should win ninety gamesWithout question?  “Delusional” is definitely the right word, and kudos to Eric Seidman at FanGraphs for nailing it. 

So Cooper is on the same page as neither the players nor reality.

On March 13, Coop said “…we thought we didn’t have catching.  That was kind of the general consensus of people on the outside.
And for the most part, there were some people here that didn’t think
that. But I had a chance to see five guys catch, and I’m very confident
in all five guys.  They
all can catch and throw. And they receive pretty well… To me, I
think our catching is in pretty good hands for a long, long time.”  Three days later, the report surfaced that the Astros had signed Ivan Rodriguez, pending the end of his WBC service and a physical. 

That’s when it became clearer that Cooper was also not on the same page as the front office, in addition to the players or reality.

Perhaps the most concerning thing, however, has been the way he’s handled the David Newhan situation in Spring Training camp this year.  Newhan was on the 2008 squad, and had a decent September (.281/.314/.344) to help the team in its final playoff push.  He was released and subsequently re-signed as the Astros began to look into utility infielder options to replace the departed Mark Loretta.

Cooper, convinced that the utility infielder needed to be a shortstop, allowing them to spell Miguel Tejada more often.  Despite the obvious truth that spelling Kazuo Matsui (who has never been able to string together even 115 games in a season) should be a priority over Tejada (who has played in fewer than 150 games only once since 1999), Cooper wanted a shortstop who could play other positions, rather than an infielder who could play shortstop.

Which is fine, if that’s what he wants, but he basically took Newhan out of the running without giving him a chance.  Among quotes like, “I have to say this, there’s a difference between a pure shortstop who
can play over there and someone who can maybe go and stand over there,
really. We have to be able to play it,” he didnt’ even play Newhan at shortstop to give him the chance to play himself out of contention.

He simply wrote him off.  Newhan told Cooper he felt comfortable playing there, despite his major league inexperience.  He’s been on rosters behind Miguel Tejada (Houston and Baltimore,) Jimmy Rollins (Philadelphia), and Jose Reyes (Mets).  “There’s a whole bunch of other guys I have to look at there. He did tell me he could play it. We’ll cross that bridge when we
get to it,” was Cooper’s response

He even said that there were six others to look at – Jason Smith, Tommy Manzella, Edwin Maysonet, Blum, Drew Sutton and Matt Kata – with shorstop experience, pushing Newhan to seventh.

Okay, fine, put him as seventh coming into the season, but give him a shot.  The worst part was that, despite writing him off so early, was that the Astros then waited until March 29 to release him, seriously affecting his ability to get a job somewhere else.

I have to tell you, I have not been overly impressed with Cooper during his tenure as the Astros manager so far, and this Spring Training has been one enormous train wreck.

#20

Thank goodness for Julia over at Julia’s Rants; otherwise, I’d never know when the newest MLBlogs “Latest Leaders” list had come out.  I’d boycotted Mark’s blog until Albert Pujols was no longer named at the top.

It’s not something I necessarily strive for – being on the leaderboard – but it’s something that’s definitely humbling, and which I very much appreciate.

For those of you unfamiliar with Julia, she’s basically the MLBlogs team captain.  She roots us all on, comments on very nearly every blog, and has an enormously-catchy enthusiasm that helps many of us get through the slow times, when we begin to debate whether or not we truly want to do this.  If you haven’t already, I highly recommend you check her blog out.

Upon hearing the news that I was #20, I was thrown into a quandary.  There have been several players to don the number for the Astros, including the longest-tenured #20 in club history, Tony Eusebio, a backup catcher that probably only a true Houston fan could love – and who all true Houston fans love.

But I opted to go a different way, and began to write a long apalogue about Cesar Geronimo, who I had watched growing up – in his Cincinnati years, after he’d left Houston – and whose signature had graced the glove I’d worn in Little League.  My father had always joked that Cesar couldn’t catch because he wore four Gold Gloves.  I didn’t get the joke at the time, but it stuck with me.

Then I realized that my glove had actually been signed by another Astro who had gone to the Reds and won multiple Gold Gloves – Cesar Cedeno.  By the time I was old enough to go to and remember Reds games, Geronimo was either in Kansas City or out of the league entirely.

Other names flashed through my memory – Lee Maye, Dave “Soup” Campbell – but I kept coming back to one man.  The only Houston Astro to be inducted to the Hall of Fame wearing #20.  Who – if there was a Hall of Fame for white afros – would be in on the first ballot.

Don Sutton
.

Don Sutton.jpgSutton didn’t spend much time in Houston.  He signed as a Free Agent before the 1981 season, and in late August the following year, we was sent to the Milwaukee Brewers for Kevin Bass, Frank DiPino, Mike Madden, and cash.  Anyone who has read my About Me knows that, without that trade, I might never have become a Houston fan at all.

To top it off, he helped pitch the Brewers to their only World Series appearance (though he was shelled by the Cardinals in the Series), playing with current Astros skipper Cecil Cooper.

Houston’s pitching staff in the strike-shortened 1981 season was insane.  In addition to Sutton, the rotation boasted Joe Niekro, Hall of Famer Nolan Ryan, lefty Bob Knepper, and Vern Ruhle.  The bullpen had Billy Smith, Dave Smith, and Joe Sambito

No starting pitcher that year had an ERA over 3.00.  Ruhle’s 2.91 was the highest, and the average ERA+ was 139.  With a full year of baseball, there’s no telling how well this team could have done, despite a questionable offense led by Tony Scott, Jose Cruz, and then-first baseman and former Gold Glove outfielder Cedeno (not Geronimo.)

Sutton threw 158.2 innings that year, going 11-9 with a 2.61 ERA, 1.015 WHIP (with three fewer hits or walks, he would have had a WHIP under 1.00… coincidentally, three is the exact number of intentional walks he was asked to issue).  He walked just 29 batters – the fewest ever in his career, including 1988 when he walked 30 despite pitching just 87.1 innings with the Dodgers – and struck out 104 (also the fewest in his career, but who’s counting?)

Old Black & Decker followed up his 1981 campaign by going 13-8 in 27 appearances in 1982, pitching 195 innings and striking out 139 to 46 walks, a 3.00 ERA and a 1.103 WHIP before being traded to the Brewers.

Aces

For all intents and purposes, the Astros have always had an ace.  A dominant pitcher who could be given the ball every fifth game and be expected to shut down the opposing team as often as not.  In 2001, a skinny, unseemly right-hander from Weir, Mississippi was called up in May and asked to do just that.  Less than a month later, he was entered into the starting rotation, and the team won the next eight games he started, with him collecting the W in six of the eight games.

He went 12-2 as a starter that year, with three complete games including a shutout.  He threw 127.2 innings as a starter, with 130 strikeouts, 17 walks, a 2.82 ERA, and a 1.03 WHIP.  He was second in Rookie of the Year voting, fifth in Cy Young voting, and 22nd in MVP voting.

Roy Oswalt.jpgEight seasons later, Roy Oswalt is the undisputed ace of the Houston rotation, but in 2001 – despite the tremendous year by Wade Miller – the ace was Shane Reynolds, who went 14-11 with a 4.34 ERA.  Not ace-type numbers, but Reynolds had been the de facto ace since his 16-win campaign in 1996.  Though Darryl Kile and a young Mike Hampton also pitched well for that team, Reynolds was clearly the leader.

Before Reynolds’ emergence, most people would probably have pointed at veteran Doug Drabek.  Before that, Pete HarnischMike ScottNolan Ryan

Other teams, on the other hand, have trouble defining an ace.  Specifically, the Pittsburgh Pirates – an intradivisional foe – have had a string of seriously bad luck with their aces. 

Ian Snell.jpgIn 2006, after a 14-win campaign, Ian Snell was annointed with the “ace” title.  Entering the 2009 season, he has only managed 16 wins in the two years since then.  In 2007, Tom Gorzelanny was the 14-game winner on the roster, and now he finds himself in minor league camp.

It seems that, as an organization, the top of the Pirates’ rotation has been befuddling at least since Oliver Perez’s Dr. Jekyll-and-Mr. Hyde act from 2004-2006.  This year, their hope lies in the left arm of Paul Maholm

Maholm is a sinkerball pitcher who has gone 19-24 over the past two seasons with 244 K and 112 BB in 384 IP.  Over that time, he has an ERA of 4.31 and a WHIP of 1.35.  His DIPS was 4.26 and his DICE was 4.18.  By almost any metric, saber or otherwise, he’s at best an above-average pitcher.

Paul Maholm.jpgAnd last month, they awarded him with a three-year, $14.5m contract to avoid arbitration.

That’s a lot of money for a guy who had 2.7 Value Wins a year ago.  So does Maholm have ace-type stuff, or is he merely benefitting from being part of a weak pitching staff?

Maholm’s VORP in 2008 was 40.8 – 30th in the majors among pitchers with a minimum 100 IP.  Roy Oswalt’s 43.3 was just five spots ahead at 25th.  It was almost double the next-highest VORP on the team, reliever John Grabow with 22.3, and far away above Zach Duke, who had the second-highest VORP among Pirates starters in 2008 with 5.3. 

Compare that to Gorzelanny in 2007, whose 41.5 VORP was 31st in the majors and just 0.2 ahead of rotation-mate Ian Snell.  In 2008, Gorzelanny’s VORP had tumbled to -13.2; in other words, worse than a replacement-level player.  Snell’s was “better” at -3.9, but hardly good.  There is some indication that Snell, at least, was the victim of bad luck, as his BABIP was a hefty .360, compared to Maholm’s .298.

But Pirates coaches believe Maholm has the mental makeup of an ace, which can of course be important.  Pitching coach Joe Kerrigan, who used to work with the Yankees and the Red Sox, told Sporting News “If you’ve seen him throwing on the side, see his understanding of the
game, the understanding of his craft — pitching — you can tell he has
a great idea,” Kerrigan said. “He’s a coach’s dream. The effort he puts
into the side sessions, his bullpen sessions, is translated into the
game.”

That’s great, but it doesn’t exactly make him an ace.

Maholm has been coolly efficient this spring, going 2-0 with a 0.46 ERA, 12 K, and 1 BB in 19.2 IP.  He’s run out of innings in games well before hitting the maximum pitch count set aside by his coaches this spring.

Considering the rapid falls from grace many of the Pirates’ other “aces” have seen in recent years, it’s definitely too early to give Maholm the title – and as of right now, he is being vastly overpaid – but there’s certainly room for hope for the Pirates, who need as much as they can get.

Astros Come Back For Sixth In A Row

Geoff Geary and the Florida sun allowed the Cardinals to tie today’s Grapefruit League game at 3-3 in the bottom of the seventh inning, but Wesley Wright and Jeff Fulchino shut them down in the final two innings, and Michael Bourn‘s single up the middle in the ninth gave the Astros their sixth win in a row.

Right now, we’re winning games in the same fashion we were losing them just a week ago.  Back then, Jason Michaels losing the ball in the sun or Jason Smith sprinting across the diamond to drop a pop-up while trying to backhand it just feet from Chris Johnson, whose ball it clearly was, would have spelled disaster.

Today, they were mere bumps in the road.

Of particular note during this streak is Bourn, who went 1-for-3 today with two walks.  Bourn’s numbers during this stretch are perhaps the single-most encouraging part of the Astros’ Spring Training: .333/.389/.400 with 2 SB in 4 attempts, 2 BB, 2 K, 5 RBI, and 4 R over six games.  It’s a small sample size, to be sure, but holds a lot of promise.  If he can continue to get on base at anything near a .350 clip or above, the Astros’ offense will succeed.

For the first time in 2009, I’m disappointed to have a day off.

Danny Graves.jpgThat day off will be spent by at least one person in Astros camp, Danny Graves, to look for a new job.  Graves was assigned to minor league camp, and had until Tuesday to decide whether to accept the assignment or to ask for his release.  He asked for, and was granted, his release.

Though his spring wasn’t great, neither was it as terrible as the 6.43 ERA suggests.  First of all, he was only given seven innings to show his wares, and though he gave up five earned runs in those seven innings, none were from home runs.  He also only issued one walk, didn’t hit any batsmen, and struck out three for a DICE of 2.57 despite a WHIP of 1.71.

Unfortunately, given human nature, most people will see the high WHIP and ERA and fail to give him a chance to show his wares.  But based on his ability to keep his walks, HBP, and HR to an absolute minimum – even over such a short amount of time – should at least warrant him the ability to go out and show someone what he can do.

I wouldn’t be surprised if this wasn’t the last we heard from Graves.

Five In A Row

The Astros topped the Mets in Grapefruit League action today to extend their winning streak to five.  It’s probably no coincidence that this all started when our beloved Astros Fan in Exile headed down to Kissimmee.  It’s official, Susan, you can never leave.

As if to highlight the theory that the contracting roster and further conditioning of the veteran starters was the key to the turnaround, it is the continued evolution of those very starters that has provided this turn around.

I took a look at the numbers for the Astros’ projected starting lineup of Ivan Rodriguez, Lance Berkman, Kazuo Matsui, Miguel Tejada, Geoff Blum, Carlos Lee, Michael Bourn, and Hunter Pence.  First, their numbers during the 13-game winless streak between their 7-5 exhibition win over Panama on 03/05 and their 4-2 win over Cincinnati on 03/20.  Then, their numbers over the past five games:

Winless Streak: .173/.240/.259
Unbeaten Streak: .363/.392/.538

It’s no surprise that a team who gets on base at a .392 clip will out-perform one that gets on at a rate of .240.  Neither is it terribly shocking that one who slugs .538 is better than one with a SLG of .259. 

As the veterans – Rodriguez, Berkman, Matsui, Tejada, Blum, and Lee – continue to fall into their comfort zone, and as the starting eight begin to jell, they should continue to get better.  The scary part comes with injuries.  If I had to guess at our bench right now, I’d take Humberto Quintero, Jason Smith, Edwin Maysonet, Darin Erstad, and Jason Michaels.  Neither the most nor the least efficient bench in the majors.

But the deeper we have to go into the organization, once we get past the top tier of Chris Johnson, John Gall, Brian Bogusevic, J.R. Towles, and Tommy Manzella – we will run into trouble, and a lot of it.  This year is going to be topsy-turvy.  Can the current team compete while the younger guys continue to get ready to take over?  It should be fun to find out.

Streaks

The Astros won their fourth game in a row, and fifth of the entire Spring Training, today.  A lot of people are scratching their heads and trying to figure out what happened.  What changed?  Why is this team, who went winless in nineteen straight, suddenly able to win four consecutive?

It’s pretty simple, really.  There are two basic reasons, and neither of them has anything to do with Ivan Rodriguez.

The biggest is that our lack of organizational depth, as you get deeper into Spring Training, is less exposed.  As more teams begin to send their minor leaguers back from whence they came, it becomes major leaguers against major leaguers.  Suddenly, the games that we were losing in the seventh and eighth innings, when our mediocre Double-A pitchers gave up hits to other teams’ slightly-better-than-mediocre Double-A hitters, are falling our way when we have major leaguers playing in those innings.  This is great in Spring Training.  As the season progresses and we need to patch holes in our roster, as every team does over the course of a 162-game season, we will begin to feel this.

The second reason is that our major league team is made up largely of veterans.  Veterans always seem to, from my observations, take a little longer to get into the “groove”.  Our starting eight average 8.75 seasons of experience between them.  There wasn’t a lot of competition this spring, so no one felt much pressure to produce sooner.  So now, as Opening Day approaches, it looks like things are falling into place and we can all take our fingers off of the panic button.

Of course, we’re still a fourth-place team in a weak division at best.

Speaking of streaks, tonight I watched Japan extend their World Baseball Classic title streak to two.  It doesn’t sound impressive, except that there have only been two WBCs. 

We arrived early today.  After two days of getting there just in the nick of time, I wanted to get a chance to watch the warmups and batting practice, get a few shots, and chat with the folks around me.

Of course, many of the folks around me didn’t speak English.  And of the few that did, far too many spoke a broken, gutteral English that NL Central fans will recognize as Cubspeak.

WorldBaseballClassic 036.jpgThere was a decidedly-international feel.  In addition to Korea and Japan, the U.S. of course had a large contingent on hand.  And, it being Southern California, after all, Mexico was well-represented:
WorldBaseballClassic 042.jpgWorldBaseballClassic 079.jpgSince I didn’t really have a dog in the race, I mostly allowed myself to get caught up in the fervor as gametime approached.  The Korean and Japanese contingents showed up in full-force and rooted on their teams.  Chants of “Nippon!  Nippon!” and the Korean phrase for  “Republic of Korea” (or so I was told… it was a three-syllable chant that sounded vaguely like “Attica” with five drum beats after it) overlapped and battled with one another in a multi-layered force of energy and enthusiasm, but both sides were respectful of one another.

In fact, as I allowed myself to get caught up in the excitement of the fans sitting around me, in a way I was glad to see Japan against Korea, instead of the USA in the finals.  These fans deserved it more.  In America, we complain about the WBC.  We complain about players potentially getting injured.  We complain about them missing time with the ballclubs paying them millions of dollars.  We complain about the playing time they get; the playing time they don’t get.  We don’t really like the WBC as a nation.  But Japan and Korea, on the other hand, wanted to win this thing, and they wanted to win it very badly. 

WorldBaseballClassic 080.jpgOf the sixteen teams participating, I began to wonder if maybe the USA was the least deserving.  Not based on talent, but rather on a pure lack of motivation to prove themselves on the national stage.  After all, don’t the best and the brightest from all of these other countries try to come to the US to compete in our major leagues?  Monetary reasons aside, the best players in the world have to prove themselves against the best competition, and that can only be found in Major League Baseball.  We’ve grown accustomed to it, and the puny and occasional chants of “USA! USA!” at Sunday night’s semi-final matchup simply could not compare to the inescapable, loud, constant cheers in Monday night’s finals.  From the first pitch until the last out, the fans cheered.

WorldBaseballClassic 085.jpgAs the game progressed into the later innings, however, I found myself rooting for the scrappy Koreans.  The reasoning was two-fold, I suppose: 1) I am from Ohio, and my second-favorite team is the Indians.  The sole major leaguer on the Korean roster is Shin-Soo Choo, an Indian.  Compare that with Ichiro, who would rather punch himself in the face than play in Cleveland.  2) I didn’t want to see Japan continue to dominate the WBC.  We’ve seen them win it.  This Korean team, on the other hand, was as much fun to watch and hadn’t yet won it all.  Besides, isn’t saying Japan is a great baseball country becoming old hat by now?

I guess not.

Two things struck me as I was watching the game.  Despite all the talk of fundamentally-sound Asian baseball (and it was), each team had one gaffe that may have helped to decide the game.  With two outs and a runner on second in the bottom of the ninth, up 3-2, Japan’s shortstop was playing almost directly behind the runner, very close to second base.  The third baseman was playing very nearly on top of third base.  A right-handed hitter was up, with about 80 open feet in the 5.5 hole.

I couldn’t quite understand the positioning, and as should have been expected, the batter knocked a grounder through that massive gap, scoring the runner from second and sending the game into extra innings.

The second moment came in the top of the te
nth inning.  With runners on second and third, Ichiro came to the plate.  Ichiro may very well be the greatest player in the history of Japanese baseball.  Without a doubt, he is the biggest star.  He now has eight seasons in Major League Baseball, and ice water runs through his veins.  I don’t care who’s batting behind him, I don’t know why you don’t walk him to load the bases and get a force at any base, especially with two outs.

At the very least, you don’t give him anything to hit.  At all.  Instead, an eight-pitch at-bat followed, during which Ichiro hit a two-run single to put Japan up for good, 5-3.  Especially puzzling was that a few batters later, with first base open, Korea intentionally walked Norichika Aoki for the second time in the evening to get to cleanup hitter Kenji Johjima of the Mariners.

All things considered, though, it was a well-fought game and I’m extremely glad I went. 

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