November 2012

Wilton Lopez Traded

[Edit: The trade fell through, presumably because Philadelphia found something they didn’t like in the physical. This isn’t exactly good news.]

Last night, I was looking at our 40-man roster and I said to myself, “Self, there’s no way Wilton Lopez finishes 2012 as an Astro.”

Then I woke up to this:

I did expect Lopez to begin the season as an Astro, but I guess it’s not to be.  Obviously, until we know who we got in return, it’s impossible to evaluate this trade on any level.

Luhnow clearly realizes that to have waited to trade Lopez, he risked him having a bad season or, worse, getting injured. You know his value right now, so it’s a reasonable time to deal him.

2012/13 Offseason: Non-Tender Candidates – Pitchers

Working again off of Tim Dierkes’ list of possible non-tender candidates, I took a look at possibilities that may arise after the November 30th deadline.

Starters

Four guys jump out at me as possible additions to the starting rotation in Houston:

1. Phillip Humber – Humber was a part-time starter for the White Sox last year, after serving as a full-time starter in 2011. These are his only two seasons with any real sample size, but they might as well be two different pitchers. The 2012 version of Humber struck out more batters (7.50 K/9 vs. 6.40), but he also walked more (3.88 BB/9 vs. 2.26) and gave up way more home runs (2.03 HR/9 vs. 0.77). His groundball rate dropped precipitously, from 47.1% to 34.9%, and more of the flyballs he gave up left the park (16.5% in 2012; 7.7% in 2011). That’s a bad combination. The 2011 version of Humber is very good – 3.6 fWAR over 163 innings. The 2012 version is very bad – -0.2 fWAR over 102 innings. There doesn’t appear to have been an injury, as his velocity didn’t change at all, but in 2011 he started throwing more of his low-90s fastballs, cut his changeup use in half, and essentially substituted his slider for his curveball, which was arguably his best pitch. I don’t know the reason for the change, but if he can go back to being closer to the 2011 version, relying on his offspeed stuff, I have a good feeling he can have a good season.

2. John Lannan – Prior to 2012, Lannan put together 1.0+ fWAR in 4 straight seasons, despite a FIP over 4. What I like about him for Houston is his ability to induce grounders – his career GB% is 53.0 – and his ability to limit home runs (0.88 HR/9 over his career). He strikes out about as many guys as you’d expect someone with a fastball in the high 80s to strike out (4.71/9), and he walks way too many to go with it (3.4/9), but I still think he’s an improvement over the current tail end of the rotation.

3. Charlie Morton – Solving the puzzle of Charlie Morton is a bit tricky. He’s another groundball pitcher (career 53.0%) who doesn’t give up a lot of home runs (0.80/9). In many regards, he and Lannan are the same pitcher, except that Lannan is a lefty and a year younger. But they both have way too few strikeouts and way too many walks, but they limit fly balls and home runs, which is always going to play in MMP. Morton has never approached 200 innings in the majors, which is a concern. 2011 was the only season he topped 100 innings, as a matter of fact (171.2). Morton’s a sinkerball/two-seamer guy who struggles against lefties (read Dave Cameron’s article on his platoon splits in 2011), which limits him a great deal.

4. Mike Pelfrey – Pelfrey was on the verge of becoming a pretty darn good starter when he went down in 2012, after just three starts. He had season-ending Tommy John surgery on April 30, which will certainly raise a few eyebrows, but this is still a guy who posted 3.0 fWAR in 2008 and 2.8 in 2010. If he can make any sort of a comeback, he could be the steal of the offseason for some lucky team. If you consider the 12-18 month “recovery period” finite, he could still come in and make an impact this season.

Relievers

1. Scott Atchison – I’m a little surprised to see Atchison’s name on this list, as he did manage to accumulate 1.0 fWAR last season. It was also his second-straight season with a FIP under 3 and a xFIP under 4. He’s not the strikeout artist he was when he first came up, but still punched out 6.31 per 9 IP while walking just 1.58/9. He’s given up just 2 home runs over the past two seasons (81.2 innings) with Boston, as well. If he gets non-tendered, I don’t expect that the Astros would be the only team on the phone with him, but he’d definitely be a worthy free agent target.

2. Kameron Loe – Astros fans aren’t strangers to Loe, who’s spent the last three seasons in Milwaukee, and was with the Rangers before that. He’s another guy who doesn’t get many strikeouts and who gives up too many walks, but he’s got a career 56.7% groundball rate, and has allowed fewer than 1 home run per nine innings pitched over his career, despite playing parts of 5 seasons in Arlington. Last year wasn’t a great year for him, but he still managed to be replacement-level. He doesn’t exactly belong on this list, as he is already a free agent after refusing an assignment to Triple-A.

3. Jose Veras – Veras is a big boy at 6’6″, 235 lbs. He’s pitched the last three seasons for three different organizations (Florida, Pittsburgh, and Milwaukee). He’s also put together two straight 0.5 fWAR seasons, and has struck out 9.39 batters per 9 IP in his career. Yes, he walks a lot of guys (4.92/9), but he doesn’t give up home runs, which if you hadn’t noticed, is a skill I personally value quite a lot, especially for Minute Maid Park. FIP likes him; xFIP likes him more – he’s been under 4 for the past 3 years. Though he’s lost velocity on his fastball over the past several years, it still sits right around 94, and he offsets it with a nice curveball.

Over Due

Recently, I was looking at the MLBPA FAQ on MLB.com, because that’s the kind of guy I am. My actual reason for going there was to brush up on “Super Two” status. But something else caught my eye:

Q: How much are union dues?
A: The players’ dues are $65 per day during the season.

I really let that sink in. $65 a day.

Let’s assume, for a moment, that that $65/day only applies to game days (because it makes the math simpler and it is the day before Thanksgiving, after all.) Let’s further assume that it applies only to the regular season. That’s 162 days at $65/day, or $10,530.

Now, let’s assume that only players on a major league team’s 25-man roster have to pay this amount. This probably isn’t the case, but let’s assume it for a moment, anyway. That’s 25 guys, 30 teams, 162 days, $65/day.

$7,897,500.

The bare minimum the MLBPA makes on dues alone in one year – the absolute minimum, assuming no minor leaguers pay them and that off-days are not counted, and that the post-season is not counted – is almost $8 million.

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone.

2012/13 Offseason: Non-Tender Candidates – Hitters

By November 30th of this year, teams will have to determine whether or not to tender a contract offer to their arbitration-eligible players. If they do not offer a contract, the players become free agents.

Tim Dierkes of MLBTradeRumors.com has compiled an excellent list of possible non-tender candidates. Of course, these are just his guesses, so there’s nothing official about this list, but it’s an interesting place to look for possible Astros pickups.

I’ve identified six guys from this list who might be reasonable targets for the Astros to fill immediate needs, should they be non-tendered, plus three others who address less-significant needs.

1. Daric Barton – In parts of six seasons, Barton has put together a slash line of 240/364/370. He’s not a prototypical slugging first baseman – he’s hit just 27 home runs in 1,901 plate appearances – but he doesn’t strike out a lot (16.6% career, though he spiked at 23.5% in 2012), and he makes contact. Barton looked great in 2010 – he had 10 home runs, had a walk rate of 16.0%, a .131 ISO, .360 wOBA, 126 wRC+, and 5.0 fWAR – all career highs. Since then, his power numbers have plummeted as his strikeout rate has spiked (from 1.08 BB/K in 2010 to 0.69 in 2012. ) His slash line in 2010: 273/393/405. In 2012: 204/338/292. If he can regain any of his pre-2011 form at the plate, he’d make a nice addition to the lineup.

2. George Kottaras – Kottaras is sort of a mystery to me. This is a guy who’s never really been able to receive a lot of playing time – edged out by Derek Norris in Oakland during their march to the postseason in 2012, for example. But he’s also a guy with a .205 ISO last year, .207 in 2011. He also topped .330 wOBA in each of those years. The Astros, in their search for a backup to Jason Castro, might be well-served to kick the tires on Kottaras. He’s never had negative fWAR, despite not exactly being a defensive stalwart. He’s got a career slugging percentage of .412, and he gets on base at a .320 clip. Bill James’ projections for 2013 – optimistic even by BIS standards – are 240/345/435 with 357 plate appearances (considering he’s never topped 250 in a season, that’s a bit puzzling, obviously.) But Kottaras is certainly a guy who could back up Castro, maybe even play some DH, and provide a left-handed bat with some pop off the bench. Well worth a look.

3. Casey McGehee – McGehee has worked his way through half of the NL Central – since 2008, he’s played for the Cubs, Brewers, and Pirates, as well as 59 plate appearances for the Yankees in 2012. In his first full season in Milwaukee (2010), he had 23 home runs and 104 RBI in 670 plate appearances. He’s a guy who’s never walked much (7.7% over his career), but has a reasonable strikeout rate of 17.2% in that time. He plays both corner infield positions, and even has 180.2 innings at 2B in his major league career, though his defense isn’t exactly his strength. He puts up good power numbers (career .414 SLG), and could be a candidate for a DH who can spell the starters at first or third.

4. Mark Reynolds – Everyone knows the score with Reynolds. He’s a guy who puts up prodigious power numbers (.240 career ISO), and prodigious strikeout numbers – only 5 times in Major League history has a player struck out 200 or more times in a season. Reynolds has done it three of those 5 times (2008-10). Still, even in a year where he’s considered a non-tender candidate, Reynolds put up an a decent .335 wOBA. In fact, he cut his strikeout rate to a career-low 29.6%. And though he clubbed “just” 23 home runs, do bear in mind that that’s still more than any Astro was able to hit. You have to expect Reynolds to hit in the 230 range next year, with 30+ home runs. Certainly a solid choice for DH.

5. Gaby Sanchez – Sanchez had 19 home runs in both 2010 and 2011, with a career slash line of 269/346/440, but struggled to a 202/250/306 line in 196 plate appearances with Miami in 2012. The Marlins optioned him to the minors in early July and traded him to the Pirates on July 31. He fared much better in Pittsburgh, going 241/323/397 in 130 plate appearances. If Dierkes is correct and Sanchez is in fact non-tendered, I’d be both surprised and delighted, as I happen to think he’s a no-brainer for the Astros. Prior to 2012, Sanchez hadn’t posted a wOBA lower than .342 (though it’s interesting to note that it has become progressively lower in every single season of his career). He plays a decent first base, but could just as easily slot in as a DH.

6. Andres Torres – Torres is a guy who’s seen great heights and great depths. He bounced back and forth between the majors and minors in the Detroit and Texas systems before landing in San Francisco in 2009. In that season, he put together a .374 wOBA season, going 270/343/533 in 170 plate appearances. The following season, he flashed a great glove and swung an equally-great bat, compiling 6.9 fWAR. From there, it’s been largely downhill. 2011 and 2012 were struggles for Torres, even as his strikeout rate has fallen and his walk rate has increased. His ISO fell to .107, his wOBA to .297. He still managed to put up 1.7 fWAR for the Mets in 2012, partially due to his plus defense and baserunning (13 SB), but he still failed to light the world on fire. If the Mets do end up non-tendering him (which I’m not so sure they will,) he’d be an interesting guy to take a look at – he plays all three outfield positions, shows power, steals bases, and hits from both sides of the plate.

And now, for something completely different…

7. Jesus Flores – Somewhere near the bottom of Jeff Luhnow’s offseason shopping list is finding a backup for Jason Castro. There are a few ideas on how this could be done – signing a top-line free agent like Mike Napoli is one way in which it could be done. Signing someone like George Kotteras (above) is another. A third would be to take a look at a guy like Jesus Flores. Flores presents an interesting case because there’s nothing spectacular about him. His career 241/289/375 line describes him pretty well – a guy who’s competent at baseball, but who doesn’t do anything beyond the ordinary. His fielding is reasonable, but not stellar. He’s just 28 years old and he’s served as more-or-less a backup in Washington for the last 6 seasons. In short, he won’t put any pressure on Castro, but would serve as a competent backup. He might not aid much in the growing-up process, like a Rod Barajas type might, but he’s also not completely lost at the plate, on the chance that Castro ends up missing part of the season due to injury.

8. Ben Francisco – If it doesn’t seem that long ago since Ben Francisco was a Houston Astro, that’s because it’s not. After receiving Francisco as part of the ten-player A.J. Happ trade with the Blue Jays, he played just 31 games with Houston before they flipped him to the Tampa Bay Rays for a player to be named later (any minute now). Well, what if Francisco ended up back at Houston at the same time as the PTBNL in his own trade? How incredible and amazing and awful and insane would that be!? The answer, of course, is “very.” Still, I like Francisco’s profile. He plays both corner outfield spots, and every year until 2011, he posted a wOBA over .330. It’s been falling ever since, but I still can’t help wondering if he might make a valuable bench piece.

9. Brendan Ryan – I can hear you all right now. “But… Brendan Ryan is a shortstop! If the Astros don’t need anything, it’s a shortstop!” Hear me out on this. Jed Lowrie, easily the centerpiece of the Houston Astros offense, plays shortstop. He’s actually better at third base, but for now he plays shortstop. With me so far? Okay, good. Now. Jed Lowrie has never put together more than 387 plate appearances in a single season. Why not, you ask? Well, because Jed Lowrie has a tendency to get injured, often in freakish and unfortunate ways. Now imagine, if you will, a scenario in which the very best offensive player on the team (Lowrie) was put in a position (designated hitter) where he would be less-susceptible to freakish and unfortunate injuries. The truth is, Lowrie is not a particularly good defender. He’s got a 1.7 UZR/150 at shortstop; 6.4 at second base; 5.5 at third base. Brendan Ryan, on the other hand, has a 12.2 UZR/150 as a shortstop. He’s not going to blow anyone away offensively. He has a career 244/306/327 line, and went just 194/277/278 in Seattle in 2012. In addition to that, he just had surgery to remove bone chips from his right elbow, which is particularly unfortunate because that is the elbow with which he happens to throw a baseball. But seeing his name on the non-tender list got my head a-spinning… imagine putting our best offensive player at DH, eliminating his propensity toward freakish injuries, and taking his defensive liabilities off the field at the same time? You have to admit, it’s not the worst idea I’ve ever had.

Yankees Claim Mickey Storey

According to this piece on MLBTradeRumors.com, Mickey Storey was claimed on waivers by the Yankees today. Presumably, the Astros were making room on their 40-man roster to protect their higher-tiered prospects from the Rule 5 Draft.

It’s too bad, because I thought Storey (30.1 IP, 10.1 K/9, 3.0 BB/9, 3.86 ERA, 2.80 FIP in 2012) would be a really nice piece of the bullpen. But I suppose he wasn’t going to be a key piece of the team moving forward, as he will turn 27 in March and will likely be on the decline by the time the Astros are ready to compete.

I guess.

He also puts too many balls in the air (37.5%) for sustained success in Minute Maid Park, but only 5% of his fly balls turned into home runs in 2012, so it might not be such a giant concern.

Either way, I think this is a solid pickup for the Yankees.

Could Carl Pavano Make Sense for the Astros?

Jeff Luhnow has specifically said he’s on the lookout for starting pitching – someone to slot in ahead of Lucas Harrell, Bud Norris, and Jordan Lyles. Because of the situation in which the Astros find themselves, however, going out and signing a high-priced free agent isn’t a likelihood. It’s barely a possibility. So they have to look for bargains.

I’ve mentioned before that I think Francisco Liriano could be a great fit in Houston. But today, in reading Nick Cafardo’s piece in the Boston Globe, another thought occurred to me.

I’ll quote Cafardo:

After an injury-filled season in Minnesota (a bone bruise in his right shoulder limited him to 11 starts) [Carl] Pavano was given a clean bill of health in September and has prepared for his new adventure this offseason. Agent Dave Pepe said he has received a few preliminary calls on Pavano, who turns 37 in January. Pavano could come in with a minor league deal or a one-year major league deal. He had pitched more than 220 innings the previous two seasons for the Twins and could be an interesting back-end-of-the-rotation starter.

In those 11 starts, Pavano still racked up 0.6 fWAR, which would have been good enough for 6th-best in Houston, behind Harrell, Norris, Lyles, Wandy Rodriguez, and Wilton Lopez. He would have been tied with J.A. Happ.

Pavano may be best known for his disastrous run with the New York Yankees from 2005-08. The Yankees signed him to a lucrative contract after the 2005 season, when he was an All-Star for the Marlins and finished in the top 10 in Cy Young Award voting. In parts of three seasons (he spent the entire 2006 season in the minors), he amassed just 1.1 fWAR for the Bombers.

That’s one version of Carl Pavano.

When you have the choice, always choose a picture of a guy playing for Montreal.

The other is a guy who has pitched parts of 11 seasons for 4 teams (Montreal, Cleveland, Florida, and Minnesota) and averaged over 2.0 fWAR. He’s a veteran presence, he doesn’t give up a ton of home runs (1.01 HR/9 over his career), he’s affordable, and he can eat innings. He has a 46.6% ground ball ratio. You’d like to see it a little higher, but I’d take it.

And what’s more, if 2012 was indeed a fluke and he’s now healthy, look at his time in Minnesota from 2010-2011, in which he averaged 3.1 fWAR and a FIP right around 4.

This is exactly the high-upside guy that minor league contracts with Spring Training invitations were built for, and the Astros are exactly the kind of team where Pavano could sign a one- or two-year contract and actually slot into the rotation. He’s been around a long time and could help bring the youngsters along. It’s a signing that makes a ton of sense to me.

Lance Berkman Opens His Big Fat Mouth

Boy, I sure used to like to watch Lance Berkman. Watching him come up as an Astro, alongside Bagwell and Biggio, was a lot of fun. Watching him move around the field until he sank in at first base. Watching him develop into an all-around player. From 2001-2008, he put up at least 6.0 WAR in 6 of 8 seasons. He became the face and the voice of the franchise.

But towards the end of his career in Houston, Berkman began to wear on me a little. He never seemed to be playing all-out. It looked like he was never took Spring Training seriously. He acted like he wanted to be anything but a team leader. He seemed, in a way, irresponsible. And lazy.

So when the Astros traded him to the New York Yankees for Mark Melancon (later flipped for Jed Lowrie and Kyle Weiland) and Jimmy Paredes, I wasn’t terribly sad to see Lance go.

His closing quote sort of summed up the Lance Berkman experience:

“I was thinking to myself on the way over here, I was like ‘Man, I’m going to play for the New York Yankees against the Tampa Bay Rays, basically for first place in the division,'” Berkman said before the game. “Or I’d be going up to play the Milwaukee Brewers, you know what I’m saying, there’s like 10 people in the stands.”

Yeah. That’s the Lance Berkman I came to know towards the end of his career as a Houston Astro.

When he joined the Cardinals – a division rival – prior to the 2011 season, I wasn’t sad to see him play against Houston. The Cardinals had a first baseman named Albert Pujols, so they moved Berkman to right field. I think that made him feel driven to not make a fool of himself.

It reminded me of another Berkman quote at the time of his trade to the Yankees.

“One of the reasons I decided, I was like here you are at this point of your career, something’s got to change,” Berkman said. “You’ve got to do something, either retirement or get into a situation where you’re scared again. If you come here and do great, the people will love you. If you flop, then they’ll be, this guy is a bum and get him out of here. Either way it’s simulating.”

Berkman finished with 4.9 WAR that season. He was an All-Star. He finished in the top ten in the MVP vote.

I didn’t think ill of him then, either. Because to me, that’s Lance Berkman. A guy who needs extra motivation. A guy who doesn’t seem to like playing baseball very much, so he takes it easy as much as he can unless there’s some sort of major incentive on the line for him.

Certainly not what you want to see in a veteran leader.

When rumors started swirling that Berkman may return to Houston as a DH in 2013, I was skeptical. His value, outside of the short-term value of hitting third and providing some switch-hitting power in the middle of the lineup for a team that isn’t going to be very competitive anyway, seems nil. This is a guy who never wanted to be a leader. Never wanted to teach. This is a guy who needs to be motivated in exceptional ways.

And then he opened his big fat mouth and summed it up all very nicely for me.

“It just depends on what kind of money they are talking about,” Berkman said. “Am I going to come back for a couple of million bucks, no.

“If they want to pay me close to what I feel like my value is in terms of what I bring to the table,  I mean if  they’re going to ask me to be there and hit third and play every day and DH every day, I want to be compensated like a guy who is a Major League three-hole hitter.

“Obviously, I would be willing to take a little bit less because it’s my hometown and for the opportunity to get back to the Astros organization. I’m just waiting for them to make some sort offer and go from there.”

An aging, oft-injured 37-year-old DH who thinks he’s still a superstar. Who thinks he’s worth more than “a couple of million bucks.”

You know what, Lance? Just go away. Go coach at Rice. I, for one, don’t really want you contaminating the Houston clubhouse.

1st Annual All-Astros Awards Winners

For some reason, no one seems to be throwing awards at the 2012 Houston Astros squad.

Rude.

So I thought it might be fun to distribute my own awards. And, so, introducing the First Annual All-Astros Award Winners:

Rookie of the Year

In theory, this was a wide-open race. Fifteen different players took the field for the Houston Astros who qualified as rookies. On the offensive side of the ball, third baseman Matt Dominguez led the pace. A piece of the Carlos Lee deal with Miami, Dominguez had a slash line of 284/310/477, with 5 home runs and 16 RBI in 31 games as an Astro.

But Dominguez’s output was dwarfed by fellow rookie Lucas Harrell. Harrell had time on his side – he pitched 193.2 innings in 32 games, all of them starts. He was able to keep the ball inside Minute Maid Park, allowing just 13 home runs. He won double digit games (11-11), with a 3.76 ERA, and 2.8 WAR (by comparison, Dominguez had 0.5 WAR, and NL Rookie of the Year Bryce Harper had 4.9. Arizona’s Wade Miley paced all rookie pitchers with 4.8).

So congrats, Mr. Harrell, you are the first-ever winner of the All-Astros Rookie of the Year Award.

Most Valuable Player

It only seems prudent to divide this award between hitters and pitchers. On the offensive side, shortstop Jed Lowrie may only have played in 97 games in 2012, but his slash line of 244/331/438 is very impressive. He had the best walk rate on the team (11.1%) and a pretty decent strikeout rate, too – just 16.8%.  He clubbed 16 home runs and had 42 RBI, both second only to Justin Maxwell, his primary competition for this award. But in the end, Lowrie edged out Maxwell in WAR, wOBA, and wRC+, which makes it awfully hard to pick against him.

On the pitching side, Harrell takes home his second trophy of the night. Bud Norris and Wandy Rodriguez were the next-best, but each fell at least a win lower than Harrell in WAR, and neither came close in ERA or wins, either. Wilton Lopez had some impressive numbers out of the bullpen, but pitched 130 innings fewer than Harrell.

Best Pitcher

Admittedly, it seems strange to go with Lopez over Harrell here, since Harrell did win the team MVP, but if we’re looking for the best pitcher, I still think the nod has to go to Lopez. He didn’t throw nearly as many innings as Harrell, so his cumulative stats are all a lot lower, but his xFIP of 2.80, a WHIP of 1.04, SIERA of 2.53, and a 20.8% strikeout rate (and 3.1% walk rate) are all miles better than Harrell. If the Astros had found themselves in more high-leverage situations, Lopez could have been called on to throw more innings. Since he didn’t, his overall value may pale next to Harrell, but compiling 1.4 WAR in just over 66 innings is nothing to scoff at.

Best Defender

I’m going to break this award up, as well. It’s hard to find a defensive metric where Justin Maxwell wasn’t the best in 2012, but there is one, which we’ll get to later. Maxwell more than doubled his nearest competitor (Brandon Barnes) in UZR. His ARM, RngR, and ErrR are all at the very top of the team. But there is one area where he lost out.

Brian Bixler – signed this morning by the Mets, by the way – may have played just 59 innings at the major league level last season, but he did it all over the field. Second base, third base, shortstop, and both corner outfield positions. His 73.3 UZR/150 is impressive – almost 2.5 times Maxwell’s 29.4.  So he wins as the best overall defender, though Maxwell wins as the best full-timer in the field.

Best Hitter

As mentioned above, there isn’t an offensive metric where Jed Lowrie didn’t dominate his teammates in 2012. Though Maxwell did end up providing more power (.232 ISO to .194), he simply couldn’t get on base anywhere near as often as Lowrie. Lowrie’s value comes from putting the ball in play. He led the team in wOBA, wRC+, and WAR. It’s difficult to get past Lowrie’s numbers, though Maxwell’s output can’t be denied. Still, in overall offensive capability, I have to go with Lowrie.

Could the Astros deal Lucas Harrell or Bud Norris?

Ken Rosenthal of Fox Sports recently wrote:

Another potential trade partner for the Royals could be Houston, which is open to moving certain assets for multiple parts. The price for a starter such as right-hander Bud Norris or righty Lucas Harrell would be lower than it is for, say, Hellickson. But of course, the impact might be lower, too.

That begs the question, then: Could the Astros deal Lucas Harrell or Bud Norris?

Harrell won’t be arbitration-eligible until 2015, and is under contract until 2018. He put up 2.8 WAR in 2012, his first full season as a major league pitcher, easily leading the Houston rotation. He gave up just 0.6 HR/9, and he has a 57.2% groundball rate, which is always going to play well in Houston. Sure, he doesn’t strike many guys out (6.51 K/9), but he projects as a nice #2 or #3 guy in this rotation for years to come, at an affordable rate. In short, I simply don’t see him going anywhere.

Norris is a bit of a different story. Under the right circumstances, he could be flipped for some interesting prospects. Norris misses more bats than Harrell (8.82 K/9), but his 39.2% groundball rate doesn’t play as well in Minute Maid Park, as evidenced by his 1.23 HR/9 and his 4.23 FIP. He’s arbitration-eligible in 2013, and he’s a free agent in 2016. His 1.5 WAR in 2012 was the highest of his career, and now may be the perfect time to sell.

Ladies of Kansas City, may I introduce… Mr. June!

The only problem is that there’s no one to replace him in the rotation. Outside of grabbing a free agent, or making a veteran pitcher part of the deal, I don’t think you can plan on plugging anyone else into the rotation in Norris’ place. As I’ve discussed before, Dallas Keuchel, Jose Cisneros, Rudy Owens, and Paul Clemens are the only guys I can see pitching at the big league level.

This isn’t an unsolvable problem. There are any number of free agents who could be had cheaply, and who could conceivably throw up 1.5 WAR, in combination if not individually. Besides, 2013 is not the Astros’ focus. But I do think Jeff Luhnow wants to put a competitive team on the field, even if he fully expects to land at the bottom of the standings again.

I wouldn’t expect a trade like this to happen until closer to the deadline, when Jared Cosart has put in some innings in Oklahoma City.  But it could happen this winter – stranger things have certainly happened. But if it’s going to be with the Royals, I think an innings-eater like Bruce Chen would have to be part of the deal, along with a prospect package that I really hope would include Danny Duffy.

Norris is probably at the height of his value, so it is a good time to sell, but he’s not going to net a top-tier prospect. So you have to look at things realistically. But it could certainly be the case that we’ve seen him throw his last game as a Houston Astro.

2012/13 Offseason: Bullpen

A bullpen is a funny thing. In theory, it’s the easiest thing to put together in baseball: A collection of pitchers, none of them good enough to start. A lefty specialist, a spot starter, a couple high-leverage guys, an innings eater.

But they’re also unpredictable. You can grab all the best relievers in baseball, put them in the same bullpen, and end up with mush.

It’s hard to quantify what makes a good bullpen.

The Cincinnati Reds had arguably the best bullpen in baseball in 2012 – opponents hit just .219 against them. The collective bullpen ERA was 2.65. They led the majors in saves (56). They had the eighth-most strikeouts in baseball (478). They had the third-most wins in baseball (31). All in hitter-friendly Great American Ballpark.

And this is a bullpen that featured Aroldis Chapman, Sean Marshall, Jose Arredondo, Sam LeCure, Logan Ondrusek, Alfredo Simon, J.J. Hoover, Jonathan Broxton, and a handful of innings from guys like Bill Bray and Todd Redmond.

With the exception of Chapman and Broxton, none of these guys were exactly household names prior to 2012. Broxton himself seemed pretty far removed from his 2007-09 form, having posting -0.6 bWAR for the Dodgers in 2011. Arguably the best reliever on the squad was Marshall, who had more than 1 win above replacement every year since 2007. Along with Bray (0.8), he was the only reliever in the Cincinnati bullpen who had had 0.5+ WAR in 2011.

So, then, where did all of the success come from in 2012?

Bullpens can be a bit of a mystery in that way. The Reds didn’t make any big free-agent splashes in the bullpen in the offseason (though they did trade Travis Wood, Dave Sappelt, and Ronald Torreyes for Marshall). They traded for Broxton in July, but they already had the best bullpen in baseball by then.

The 2011 Houston Astros had three relievers with positive WAR, so that’s a pretty good place to start building their bullpen: Wesley Wright (0.5), Xavier Cedeno (0.3), and Wilton Lopez (1.4). Sam Demel was recently claimed off waivers from Arizona, so I think it’s pretty likely he’ll be in the bullpen, as well. It’s not completely out of line to assume Fernando Rodriguez will be there, as well. He’s a Three True Outcomes guy who struck out 9.98/9 in 2012, and who could conceivably contribute, particularly in low-leverage situations.

That leaves a couple of spots open. Mickey Storey strikes me as a guy who could fill one of them – 9.97 K/9, 1.94 BB/9, 1.11 HR/9, 3.37 FIP in Oklahoma City. But once again, I think signing a veteran free agent to fill the remaining spot is something that can only help the rest of the team.

The Kansas City Royals signed Broxton at the beginning of 2012, and flipped him to the Reds in July. They bought low and sold high, which is exactly what you hope to do when you’re a non-contending team signing a free agent. So it makes sense to look for veterans with a solid track record, but who have fallen on harder times. Worst-case scenario, it doesn’t pan out. Best-case scenario, they impart some lessons on your youngsters and you can flip them at the deadline for rebuilding pieces.

Admittedly, it’s a pretty simplistic way to look for a reliever, but I want to find a pitcher – preferably under the age of 35, but certainly under the age of 40 – who was once very good (≥1.0 WAR as a reliever for at least one season, preferably more), but who has gone at least a season with a WAR of 0.0 or lower.

Taking away the guys who weren’t that dominant, or for whom it had been far too long, there were still fourteen names that came up for me, including some familiar faces (LaTroy Hawkins, Brad Lidge, Chad Qualls) and some that weren’t quite as familiar (George Sherrill, J.C. Romero, Brian Fuentes, Francisco Rodriguez, Jon Rauch, Ramon Ramirez, Kyle McClellan, Bobby Jenks, Kevin Gregg, and Todd Coffey). There was also one name – Francisco Cordero – that may make Astros fans shudder.

I don’t think anyone ever got scared when they found out they had to face Jon Rauch or Chad Qualls with the game on the line, so I took out some names that didn’t pass the “sniff test.” Of the names left, I had to get rid of Francisco Rodriguez, even though I like the idea a lot, because he’s a Scott Boras client and there’s just no way Jeff Luhnow is sitting across a table from Scott Boras this winter.

What I came up with is a list of Hawkins, Jenks, Lidge, Fuentes, and – yes – Cordero.

I can hear you all now, screaming “Not again!” For those who don’t remember, Cordero came to Houston as part of the 10-player J.A. Happ trade with Toronto. He pitched in 6 games for the Astros in 2012, and only managed to record 5.0 innings. He managed to record the loss in 3 of those 6 games, allowing 11 runs (all earned) on 13 hits. He also walked 4 and struck out 5. All told, his brief stint in Houston ended at 0-3 with a 19.80 ERA and 3.400 WHIP. He was released September 10.

But he can’t possibly be that bad. He pitched slightly better in Toronto in 2012, but not much. But before that, he had 11 straight seasons, and 12 of 13, with an ERA+ over 100. His only two professional seasons without an ERA+ over 100 was 2000 (94).

My suggestion is to sign him (or, if you’re too scared, one of the other guys above) at a low cost, with the intention of flipping them over at the deadline. You never know, it could turn out to be a big difference-maker. Buy low.

Prediction:

LHP Wesley Wright
LHP Xavier Cedeno
RHP Sam Demel
RHP Fernando Rodriguez
RHP Mickey Storey
RHP Wilton Lopez
RHP Francisco Cordero

(Editor’s Note: Storey was claimed off of waivers by the New York Yankees on 11/20/12).

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