2012/13 Offseason: Starting Pitchers

The move to the American League West means a lot of things for the Astros. One that a lot of people might overlook is pitching. With the DH, many opposing lineups can hit 1-9, which means that a weak bullpen or back of the rotation is going to get exposed.

Not good news for a team that finished 2012 with the worst record in baseball.

When it comes to pitching in Houston, there aren’t many sure things. This is a team where Lucas Harrell is the ace, after all. His 2.8 WAR in 2012 led the team, and it was thanks in large part to his ability to induce ground balls (57.2% GB) and reduce home runs (9.7% HR/FB).

Behind Harrell, the only sure things in the rotation are Jordan Lyles and Bud Norris.

Perhaps the best comparison is the Seattle Mariners, who finished dead last in the AL West in 2012. Harrell’s 2.8 WAR would have been good enough for second on their rotation. Norris’ 1.5 would have been third, and Lyles’ 0.8 would have tied him with Jason Vargas and Hisashi Iwakuma for fourth. Not that the Mariners are the benchmark for success, but the Astros’ three pitchers match up well with the Mariners’ rotation, with one exception:

Houston doesn’t have a Felix Hernandez. With a 3.20 xFIP and 8.65 Ks per 9 IP, Hernandez is the definition of an ace, and that’s something every team needs. Especially a team that wants to compete in the AL West.

Unfortunately, there are no aces laying around the Astros organization. At least not right now. And even though this is a team building for the long run, if they hope to remain the least bit competitive this season, they’ve got to think long and hard about signing a free agent who can slot into the rotation above Harrell, Lyles, and Norris. Someone who can miss bats and help the youngsters along.

A rebuilding team certainly isn’t going to sacrifice a first-round draft pick to sign a free agent, but there are some high risk/reward guys on the market, and one I really like is Francisco Liriano. For those of you who don’t remember, Liriano dominated for the Twins in 2005 and 06 before needing Tommy John surgery. He’s shown flashes of brilliance since then – posting 6.0 WAR in 2010 – but has struggled with his consistency.

This is exactly the kind of guy that Houston can take a flyer on. You’re not going to expect a 6.0 WAR in the AL West, but if he can stay healthy, he can certainly lead a young rotation. And he should be fairly affordable. For my money, he should be Houston’s #1 free agent target this winter.

The fifth starter spot could go to just about anyone: Dallas Keuchel showed some nice things in his cup of coffee despite underwhelming numbers overall. Personally, I like Jose Cisnero, who struck out 9.61 per 9 innings in Corpus Christi, and who allowed just 0.58 HR/9. Rudy Owens or Paul Clemens could also be called on to eat innings.

By the end of the summer, I fully expect Jared Cosart to join the big league club. But I think you let Keuchel, Cisnero, Owens, and Clemens battle it out in Spring Training to be the fifth starter.  Of course, you could also work the waiver line, the Rule 5 draft, minor league signees, and non-roster invites. Anything to shore up the back end of the rotation.

But none of it means anything unless you can get someone who can slot into the front end.

 

My Prediction:

LHP Francisco Liriano
RHP Lucas Harrell
RHP Bud Norris
RHP Jordan Lyles
LHP Rudy Owens

2012/13 Offseason: Hitters

I like the idea of the Astros spending money on a DH, and Mike Napoli is – in my opinion – the perfect guy for this team. He’s a veteran presence, he can fill in at 1B if Wallace or Dominguez struggles or at C if Castro gets injured, he knows AL West hitters, and he swings a big bat.

If that signing comes true, my predictions then become:

C Jason Castro (L)
1B Brett Wallace (L)
2B Jose Altuve (R)
3B Matt Dominguez (R)
SS Jed Lowrie (S)
LF Fernando Martinez (L)
CF Justin Maxwell (R)
RF Brad Snyder (L)
DH Mike Napoli (R)

Bench: Jake Elmore, Tyler Greene, Brandon Barnes, Che-Hsuan Lin

Now, that’s not a team that’s going to give the Angels and Rangers a run for their money. But it’s a respectable lineup that can go in and win a couple of games while the prospects develop.

Next, we’ll talk about pitching.

2012/13 Offseason: Outfielders

There is no doubt in my mind that Fernando Martinez and Justin Maxwell will begin the 2013 season as starting outfielders.

Martinez, claimed on waivers from the Mets prior to the 2012 season, was a former top prospect whose development had been hampered by injuries. He had 90 good games in Oklahoma City last season, and even earned 107 wRC+ in his time in the big leagues. Houston may be the only place where he can continue his development on the field at the big league level, and they could certainly use his .477 Slugging Percentage in the lineup. For my money, he can start at either corner outfield spot for Houston.

Maxwell is a different story. He strikes out way too much, but after he began to receive regular playing time with Jordan Schafer on the DL, he looked a lot more comfortable at the plate. His defense was the real story, and he managed to scrape together 2.3 fWAR and 107 wRC+. I’d slot him into center field and challenge someone to try and take it away from him.

The question then must become: Who plays alongside them?

Brandon Barnes was abysmal in his 43 games in Houston (.232 wOBA!? .061 ISO!?). Che-Hsuan Lin, a waiver claim from Boston, shows promise and has a nice low strikeout rate, but nothing immediately leaps off the page at me. Forget J.D. Martinez and his .686 OPS.

A look around the system does show some interesting prospects, however.

Most of the good ones aren’t quite ready. Andrew Aplin had a 187 wRC+ in low-A ball with an extremely lucky BABIP; Preston Tucker put together 165 right alongside him. Speaking of BABIP, 2011 first-rounder George Springer had a .404 on his way to a .955 OPS in Lancaster. Along with his 28 stolen bases and an 11.2% walk rate, it’s not hard to see him as the leadoff man of the future. But that’s the future.

Maybe the two most-intriguing outfield prospects are Domingo Santana and Telvin Nash. Both are power-first guys who are mashing so far. Santana, received as the PTBNL in the Hunter Pence trade from Philadelphia, went 302/385/536 in Lancaster – and he’s just 20 years old. Even with Lancaster’s reputation for power hitting, a .385 OBP looks mighty nice, even if it was aided by a .397 BABIP. Sure, he may strike out 28.2% of the time, but he’s improving: It’s actually his first full season where he struck out less than 30% of the time.

Nash, on the other hand, strikes out more than forty percent of the time – now that’s a problem! Still, it’s really hard not to lick your lips at a .270 ISO, even if it is in Lancaster.

I wouldn’t be surprised to see Santana begin the year repeating high-A ball, but no doubt both these guys will be plugging away in Corpus Christi before July, along with Springer. It could be a glimpse of the future.

There’s also Brandon Meredith, who had 143 wRC+ in Lexington this year, and who should begin 2013 in Lancaster. Meredith’s peripherals look great: 11.2 BB%, 23.2 K%, 278/377/506 line in Lexington.

None of that helps the major league team right now, however.

When I look at possibilities for the Houston club, three names jump to my eye: Marc Krauss, Jimmy Paredes, and Jake Goebbert.

Paredes is an intriguing player – he’s been tried at third and second base, and is transitioning to the outfield, where he seems to be doing a little less damage, defensively. He went 318/348/477 in Oklahoma City last year, but I think he needs to repeat the level to further develop into an outfielder. Something tells me, though, that he might not have the chance, and that his learning curve may take place in the majors.

Krauss came over last year from Arizona in the Chris Johnson trade. He was raking in AA-ball for the D-backs, and in just 7 games in Corpus Christi. His call-up to Oklahoma City didn’t go as well (123/203/123 in 22 games), but don’t be surprised if you see him hanging around Spring Training.

Goebbert seems like he’s been in the Astros system a long time. He’s bounced back and forth between AA and AAA the last couple of seasons, and hasn’t been able to make the adjustment to AAA pitching. Still, his .872 OPS in the Texas League in 2012 is hard to ignore.

Personally, I can see Paredes nailing down the right field spot in spring, with Martinez in left and Maxwell in center. Lin will almost certainly hang around as the 4th/5th outfielder, and barring any sort of a Rule 5 draftee or a low-risk free agent signing, I think Barnes hangs around as a late-inning defensive replacement.

Prediction:

LF Fernando Martinez
CF Justin Maxwell
RF Jimmy Paredes

Bench: Che-Hsuan Lin, Brandon Barnes

2012/13 Offseason: Infielders

By claiming Jake Elmore off waivers from the Diamondbacks, the Astros front office added an intriguing piece to the mix for the 2013 version of the infield. Essentially a middle infielder, he’s also spent time at the corners. He’s shown some pop in the minors, though it didn’t translate in his brief stint in the majors in 2012.

If the season were to begin today, the Astros’ infield would probably project as Brett Wallace at first and Jose Altuve at second, with Jed Lowrie probably manning shortstop while Matt Dominguez handles third. Tyler Greene could also handle shortstop, moving Lowrie to third.

Marwin Gonzalez, Elmore, Scott Moore, and Brandon Laird would duke it out for the utility jobs.

Gonzalez has the ability to play almost any position on the field, but a .093 ISO and just a 66 wRC+ isn’t going to help him make much of a case to play in the big leagues.

First Base

Wallace remains the only actual option at first base to begin the season, but Mike Hessman did have a good year in Oklahoma City (.813 OPS despite .244 BABIP), aided by a nice hefty slugging percentage (35 HR, .281 ISO, .512 SLG). I can’t imagine he’d be anything but a stopgap in case Wallace gets hurt, however.

Wallace needs to produce now, because Jonathan Singleton is coming. The 21-year-old lefty was blocked by Ryan Howard in Philadelphia before coming to Houston in the Hunter Pence trade, but Wallace is no Ryan Howard. Singleton hit 284/396/497 in Corpus Christi this year, and figures to be knocking on the door by the end of 2013. If Wallace doesn’t produce, expect Singleton to make his case.

With the need for a Designated Hitter, I wouldn’t be surprised to see a free agent first baseman come into camp to challenge Wallace, with the booby prize being the DH spot. A lot of guys fit the profile, not least of them being Lance Berkman and Adam LaRoche. Mike Napoli, mentioned in the Catcher segment, can also play first base.

A prospect to keep your eye on is Jean Batista. The 20-year-old switch-hitter out of the Dominican Republic hit 321/345/531 in 51 games for Greeneville this year, earning a call-up to Lexington.  I expect he’ll start the season in Lancaster, where his power numbers should be off the charts. He’s played all over the field already, too, which is a good sign.

Second Base

There’s no question Altuve is a lock at second. There’s really no one he needs to worry about for the 2013 season.

The upside at second is that former first-rounder Delino DeShields, Jr. is progressing nicely. He repeated a level, and is still learning to play middle infield, but he went a solid 298/401/436 in Lexington, and spent some time in Lancaster, as well.

Shortstop

Lowrie is the best offensive player on the Astros. There are only two questions: 1) Will he play shortstop or third base? and 2) How long will he stay healthy? Lowrie has shown an exceptionally-frustrating inability to stay on the field, but he did manage to post a 2.1 WAR in 2012, while playing a career-high 97 games.

Personally, I think he projects at shortstop, with Dominguez at third, so I’m keeping him here in my projections.

Greene filled in admirably for Lowrie after being traded from the Cardinals. Though his 246/278/460 line in Houston might make him attractive to another team looking for middle infield help, it makes more sense to me to keep him as a utility man, especially given Lowrie’s propensity for injuries.

Also hanging around is Jonathan Villar, a piece of the Roy Oswalt trade. The 21-year-old went 260/336/394 while repeating AA ball. Nothing to write home about, but time is still on his side.

Other guys I like are former first-rounder Jiovanni Mier and Nolan Fontana. Mier repeated Lancaster last season, going 292/396/409. We’ll see how he does in Corpus Christi this year, but it’s at least encouraging.

Fontana, the 2012 2nd rounder out of the University of Florida, will likely take Mier’s place in Lancaster after going 225/464/338 at Lexington. Yes, you read that line correctly. He had nearly twice as many walks (65) as hits (34). Intriguing, to say the least.

Third Base

I think Dominguez projects as the starting third baseman in 2013; his 111 OPS+ and 0.5 WAR in 31 games in 2012 is too enticing to pass up.

Outside of Lowrie, no other Major League-ready third basemen pass the “sniff test,” though Scott Moore tore the cover off the ball in AAA, and put up some decent numbers in the big leagues, which may shorten the leash. But Moore is already 28 years old and Dominguez, a former first round pick by the Marlins acquired in the Carlos Lee trade, has a ton of upside. I can’t imagine he won’t be given the chance to fail.

One prospect to keep your eye on is Matt Duffy. At 23, he was too old to be playing in Lexington, but his 280/387/447 line there is impressive nonetheless. A 20th rounder in the 2011 draft out of the University of Tennessee, his 16 home runs tied him for 8th in the Sally League. He may start in Lancaster or maybe even Corpus Christi this season, and cutting down his errors is going to be paramount. But he should be interesting to watch.

Darwin Rivera and Rio Ruiz are others to keep your eyes on.

Projections

1B: Brett Wallace
2B: Jose Altuve
SS: Jed Lowrie
3B: Matt Dominguez

Bench: Tyler Greene, Jake Elmore

Non-Roster Invites

The Astros are going to be rumored to be in on a lot of reclamation projects – for instance, a report surfaced this week that they had discussed the possibility of adding Hideki Matsui to be the DH. This probably isn’t the last such rumor we’ll hear – guys like Berkman, Jason Giambi, Lyle Overbay, Andruw Jones, Eric Hinske, and Aubrey Huff figure to have their tires kicked to come in as veteran presences and to help swing the bat and anchor the lineup.

More likely, in my opinion, is seeing a couple of minor league signings or non-roster invites to Spring Training. Don’t be surprised if you see guys like Orlando Hudson, Jason Bartlett, or Cesar Izturis lurking around the compound in March, trying to catch on. In fact, there’s a possibility one of these guys could catch on, holding down shortstop and letting Lowrie DH, where he’s less likely to get injured.

2012/13 Offseason: Catchers

I’ll be taking some time this offseason to look at the Astros’ rebuilding efforts as they make the move into the AL West (upside: I’ll be able to see them take on the Angels a few times a year!)

I’m going to break things down by positions, starting with the catchers.

Jason Castro is, undoubtedly, the Astros’ starting catcher in 2013 and beyond. The former first-round pick had a decent enough year, but yet again struggled with injury.

Chris Snyder’s option was declined, making him a free agent. Snyder hit just 176/295/308 over 76 games behind the dish, so letting him go wasn’t a difficult decision.

But the question now becomes: Who is going to back up Castro?

Ordinarily, a backup catcher is someone who plays a good defense and who can handle a pitching staff, when called on to do so. It’s not a position where major league teams put a ton of money. In the Astros’ case, however, there is a very real chance that their backup catcher will need to fill in for Castro for an extended period at some point, given his history of injuries.

Replacing Snyder’s -0.2 fWAR isn’t a problem. Carlos Corporan could handle that duty by himself, having provided 0.5 fWAR in just 27 games at the big league level. Another option already in the system is Landon Powell, who has big league experience, and who hit a respectable 251/353/377 in Oklahoma City this year.

Carlos Perez (part of the 10-player deal), M.P. Cokinos, and Tyler Heineman are all interesting, but at least a year away in all cases.

So if Corporan and/or Powell can’t be “the guy,” the Astros and GM Jeff Luhnow will need to look to trades or free agency. Trading pieces away to get a backup catcher – even one who can be called upon to start in an emergency – probably isn’t an option, so a free agent signing seems likely.

Guys like Russell Martin and A.J. Pierzynski – or even, probably, Dioner Navarro – are going to demand the starting position over Castro, so it’s unlikely Luhnow will go that direction.

That leaves, basically, two options: Mike Napoli, and everyone else.

Image

The reason Mike Napoli stands alone in this group is because he is a slugger. And because, well, he isn’t a very good catcher. Why might that be a good thing, you ask? Well, the Astros are moving into the American League, and have an immediate need for a Designated Hitter. By signing Napoli, they can kill two birds with one stone: A middle-of-the-lineup slugger at DH, and a backup catcher in case Castro goes down to injury.

In a “down” year, Napoli still managed 2 fWAR, better than Castro and Corporan combined (despite being unlucky with BABIP). He popped 24 home runs, thanks in part to a 0.97 GB/FB ratio (though he’s progressively hit more ground balls with each passing season), which will play well in Minute Maid Park. Add to that the fact that he’s played his entire career in the AL West with the Angels and the Rangers, so he knows the rest of the division.

Add it all together and it seems like a winner.

My prediction for 2013’s catching duo is Castro and Napoli.

 

Prospect Watch

Tyler-Heineman

One prospect to keep an eye on, mentioned above, is Tyler Heineman. Heineman’s a switch-hitting catcher from Los Angeles Windward High School, who walked on at UCLA, and was named All-Pac 12. The Astros took him in the 8th round and he finished the season as the leading hitter in the New York-Penn League with a .358 average.

Considering he’s actually a defense-first catcher, this is very intriguing. I imagine he’ll start the season in Lancaster, and will probably show his face in Corpus Christi at some point in 2013. Keep an eye on him.

 

Other Possibilities

The Astros aren’t likely to be Napoli’s only suitor. Even after signing David Ross to complement Ryan Lavarnway behind the dish, and with Jarrod Saltalamacchia hanging around their roster, the Red Sox are rumored to be in on Napoli.

Now, aside from the obvious truth that rumors are rumors and not fact, even if the Red Sox aren’t interested, other teams will be. Some may even be more attractive to Napoli than staying in the AL West as primarily a Designated Hitter.

So what do the Astros do then? Well, if it’s a team like the Red Sox, it’s possible a trade could be worked out for Saltalamacchia, but that could complicate things with Castro. Though Salty could DH and play some first base, he’s young enough and has enough value that I find it unlikely he’d want to hassle with the situation in Houston.

The current crop of free agents includes Rod Barajas, Henry Blanco, Gerald Laird, Miguel Olivo, Ronny Paulino, Humberto Quintero, Brian Schneider, Kelly Shoppach, Matt Treanor, and Yorvit Torrealba.

 

All-Bergen Team: NL Position Players

Catchers
Rob Johnson (SDP).  Most backup catchers hit fairly lightly, it’s true, so the Padres probably aren’t too upset at his complete lack of production, but it’s pretty rare that a Major League Baseball player has an AVG, OBP, and SLG under 250.  If Johnson’s slugging falls five points, that’s exactly what he’ll be.  Beyond that, he’s lost 0.2 wins defensively.  Not a good combination.

Dioner Navarro (LAD).  Johnson’s neighbor to the north, Navarro isn’t putting up much better numbers – especially considering he’s had two seasons with an OPS+ of 100 or better, and his 94 OPS+ in his previous stint in Los Angeles (2005).  If he continues on his current pace, he will post his third consecutive negative-WAR season since his All-Star year, 2008.  Unlike Johnson, however, Navarro has a positive dWAR, so at least there’s that.

 

First Basemen
Aubrey Huff (SFG).  Those of you who remember watching Huff struggle in Houston in 2006, only to turn around and have a couple of strong seasons in Baltimore, already know that he is an often-frustrating player to watch.  Imagine, then, Giants fans – who saw Huff post 5 Wins Above Replacement last year, only to put together a -1.3 bWAR so far this season.  He’s done it by slugging worse than he ever has in his career, but the real damage has been done on defense, where he’s lost 1.2 wins.

Lyle Overbay (PIT).  When the Pirates signed Overbay to a $5-million deal this offseason, they likely weren’t expecting the .230/.306/.356 line he’s put together so far this year, or the seven errors he’s accumulated at the halfway point of the season.

Jorge Cantu (SDP).  Even with an offensive decline in 2010, Cantu looked like a solid offseason pickup for the Padres, who was expected to platoon at first base with Brad Hawpe and backup Chase Headley at third for the Friars.  But after watching him stumble to a .194/.232/.285 line through 155 plate appearances, the Padres requested release waivers for him on June 21.

 

Second Basemen
Bill Hall (HOU/SFG).  Arguably the Astros’ biggest offseason acquisition, Hall’s tenure with the team only lasted 46 games, during which he hit just .224/.272/.340 before he was released from the worst team in baseball.  The Giants, no doubt thinking that Hall deserved another chance after the 104 OPS+ he put up in 2010 with the Boston Red Sox.  It’s still only 12 games into his San Francisco career, but he’s already lost almost half (0.4) of the Wins he lost in almost four times as many games in Houston.

Dan Uggla (ATL).  Uggla is a two-time All-Star, and finished third in the ROY voting in 2006.  Last season, he won a Silver Slugger award and finished in the top twenty in MVP voting.  This season, he’s hitting just .175/.241/.330 while remaining the butcher in the field he’s been his entire career.

Wilson Valdez (PHI).  Certainly, starting Valdez at second base thirty-one times wasn’t Plan A for the Phillies, but it hasn’t exactly hurt in their quest to be the best team in baseball, despite the 0.6 wins he’s lost for them, mostly on the defensive side of the ball.

 

Third Basemen
Casey McGehee (MIL).  After two consecutive seasons with an OPS+ well over 100, McGehee looked to be one of the rising stars in Milwaukee, but he’s struggled so far this season, posting just a .221/.272/.305 line, and is on pace to hit just half as many home runs as he did in 2009, his career low (16) – far off of the 23 he hit last season.

Chris Johnson (HOU).  Johnson hasn’t exactly hit poorly this season, though he hasn’t hit particularly well, either.  He’s well off of the pace he set his rookie season, dropping 65 points in batting average; 53 points in on-base percentage; and 88 points in slugging percentage.  But he’s third among NL third basemen in errors, which has helped him lose an amazing 1.6 wins on defense alone.

Jose Lopez (COL/FLA).  Another former All-Star, Lopez struggled mightily at the plate in his first season for Colorado – so much so (.208/.233/.288) that the Rockies released him.  Enter the Marlins, who picked him up after his release.  It took just twelve games, during which he performed even worse (.103/.161/.138) for them than he did for Colorado, before Florida decided to designate Lopez for assignment.

 

Shortstops
Yuniesky Betancourt (MIL).  Sure, the right side of the Brewers’ infield are starting the All-Star game for the National League, but between Betancourt and McGehee, the other half of the infield holds down the fort in the All-Bergen team.

Edgar Renteria (CIN).  1996 ROY runner-up, 5-time All-Star, two-time MVP top twenty candidate, two-time Gold Glove winner, 3-time Silver Slugger.  But his tenure in Cincinnati has been less than stellar.  Just 1 home run through 150 plate appearances, a .315 OBP, and a .282 SLG is far off of his pace.

 

Outfielders
Raul Ibanez (PHI).  Prior to 2011, Ibanez had posted 10 straight seasons with an OPS+, so the 84 he’s put together so far this year is pretty surprising.  In fact, it’s his lowest since 2000, the last year of his first stint in Seattle.  He’s on pace to lose as many wins this year defensively as last (1.2,) but is also on pace to drop his oWAR by 2.5.

Tyler Colvin (CHC).  Colvin was a pleasant surprise last year in Chicago, so they can be forgiven for thinking that he would continue to grow and flourish.  But he’s dropped more than 400 points in OPS this season, which hasn’t offset his improved defense.  He’s currently on pace to hit one-fifth as many home runs this year as he did last year.  The upside is that Colvin is just 25 this year, and has plenty of time to return to form.

Ryan Spilborghs (COL).  Spilborghs has quietly put together a nice career in Colorado, including three seasons with an OPS+ over 100.  He’s well off the pace this season this year, however, down in almost every offensive category and losing almost as many wins (.04) defensively as offensively (0.5).

Willie Bloomquist (ARI).  What’s always amazing to me isn’t that Willie Bloomquist continues to struggle as a Major League player, but rather that he continues to get chances.  The 85 OPS+ he posted last year (split between Cincinnati and Kansas City) was the highest of his career; he has a career .652 OPS; and he’s had a negative dWAR in almost every professional season in which he’s played.

Mark Kotsay (MIL).  The 35-year-old Kotsay is down over a hundred points from his career OPS this season, and after posting his worst statistical season of his career in 2010, he’s brought it down even farther this year.

Willie Harris (NYM).  Harris has traditionally hit fairly lightly, but this year he’s not hitting too poorly.  Unfortunately, his defense has declined in recent years.  He had -0.2 dWAR in 2009, -0.3 in 2010, and -0.4 so far this year.

Jerry Sands (LAD).  Just 23 years old, Sands has been pressed into service this year for the Dodgers, largely because of a number of injuries they’ve faced.  Sands has been a superstar in the minors, however, belting 35 home runs last year between Great Lakes and Chattanooga.  He’s a bright star on Los Angeles’ horizon, but his Major League season in 2011 has been far less than stellar.

Eric Patterson (SDP).  Patterson hit just .214 in 2010 between Oakland and Boston, but apparently the Padres saw enough potential in him to make him the Player To Be Named Later in the Adrian Gonzalez trade.  Through 103 plate appearances, he was hitting just .180/.272/.292, and was designated for assignment on June 9 before he could do any more damage.

 

Up next: AL Pitchers.

The All-Bergen Team

Bill Bergen, a catcher with the Cincinnati Reds (1901-03) and the Brooklyn Superbas (1904-11), is quite possibly the worst position player in the history of baseball.

Now, that’s not to say that Bergen wasn’t without merit.  He was considered a superior defensive catcher, and holds the record (6) for most base stealers thrown out in a single game.  Of course, he also finished in the top 5 in Passed Balls three times in his career.

But never mind that.

Bill Bergen amassed an 11-year career – 3,228 plate appearances – despite never posting a WAR above -0.6.  His career -15.0 WAR places him well at the bottom of position players all-time.

So it seems fitting that the “anti-All-Star” team should be named after him.

I’ve put together a list of the Major League players with the lowest WAR totals so far this season in my all-new “All-Bergen Team.”

It would be a misnomer to call these the worst players in baseball.  After all, to really accumulate negative WAR, you have to have some sort of staying power.  To even be considered, players had to have a minimum of 100 PA or 20.0 IP at the Major League level.

So these are, instead, the consistently-worst players in MLB this year.

There were a few no-brainers.  The two teams (our beloved Houston Astros and the Minnesota Twins) with the most players represented (five each) have also been the two teams to have spent the most time in the bottom of the standings.  The best team in the AL (the New York Yankees) did not have any representatives at all.

Of course, there were a few surprises, as well.  The best team in baseball, the Philadelphia Phillies, had two players on the list.  Only three teams did not have any players on the list – as mentioned, the Yankees.  But also the Washington Nationals and the Atlanta Braves.

Outside of the Yankees, no team in the American League had fewer than two. Several teams in the NL (the Nationals, Braves, Pittsburgh Pirates, New York Mets, and San Francisco Giants) had fewer than two.

Most surprising, perhaps, is that only two of these players – Bill Hall and Jose Lopez – have been released from their teams outright.

Rules for selection were similar to the All-Star game.  34 players, including 13 pitchers, and at least two players from each position.  Obviously, there was no rule that each team had to have a representative.  I simply laid it all out there.

And now, presenting to you the 2011 Mid-Season(ish) All-Bergen Team, starting today with the American League position players:

AMERICAN LEAGUE

Catchers:
Jeff Mathis (LAA).  Mike Napoli, The oft-injured Angels’ all-time leader in home runs by a catcher, had a bit of a tumultuous offseason – traded by the Angels to the Blue Jays as part of the Vernon Wells deal (more on Wells later), and then again by the Blue Jays to the Rangers for pitcher Frank Francisco.  Part of the reason was to end a long-standing position battle with Mathis, as well as to make room for rookie catcher Hank Conger.  The decision hasn’t exactly worked out well for the Angels, as Mathis has lost 2.0 wins this season, more than Napoli (1.3) has won.

Drew Butera (MIN).  In Kevin Smith’s “Clerks,” hero Dante Hicks is famous for his decree, “I’m not even supposed to be here today.”  No doubt Butera feels the exact same way.  When perennial MVP candidate, three-time batting champion, and three-time Gold Glove winning catcher Joe Mauer went down with bilateral leg weakness after undergoing arthroscopic knee surgery in the offseason, Butera – who never hit above .235 in the minor leagues – was pressed into service.  He’s struggled mightily at the plate – so much so that, like Bill Bergen himself, his strong arm never really compensated for it.  Bergen ranks 5th in the AL with 37.9% of baserunners caught.

First Basemen:
Justin Morneau (MIN).  In 2010, a strong season by Justin Morneau was cut short when he suffered a concussion, and it seems as if he’s been battling injuries ever since.  There’s no doubt that Morneau – a former MVP – is a very good player when healthy, but the key word is healthy.  In his 231 plate appearances this season, he’s managed to go just .225/.281/.338.

Daric Barton (OAK). In three of his four previous Major League seasons, Barton has posted an OPS+ over 100.  In the fourth, he managed a respectable 85.  The former Cardinals first rounder and Baseball America Top 100 prospect has struggled out of the gate so far this season, however, and was sent down to Triple-A in June, but not before losing .4 wins.

Second Basemen:
Luke Hughes (MIN). This one is a bit misleading, as the Australian Hughes has actually played more at first base than second for the Twins, but he has played over 147 innings at 2B this season, and has given up .1 runs, which actually isn’t terrible, but the overall AL class is pretty good here.

Jack Wilson (SEA). Wilson is a former All-Star with the Pirates and won a share of the triples crown (tying Juan Pierre and Jimmy Rollins) in 2004.  But since moving to Seattle, he simply hasn’t been very good.  This season, he’s actually responsible for .1 win above replacement, but again, stiff competition in the AL landed him on the All-Bergen squad.  Generally known as a shortstop, he’s played enough innings to qualify, though two of his teammates – Adam Kennedy and Dustin Ackley – have him beaten in WAR at the position.

Third Basemen:
Chone Figgins (SEA). After the 2009 season, ESPN’s Gordon Edes called Figgins “probably… the third baseman most likely to be in demand, especially given his versatility.” The Mariners snapped him up to replace Adrian Beltre, who had failed to live up to the hype surrounding his 2004 season, when he finished second in the MVP voting to Barry Bonds.  Figgins has followed in Beltre’s footsteps, however, and was recently voted by Seattle Magazine as the third-worst player in the history of the franchise.

Brandon Inge (DET). In 2009, Inge was an improbable All-Star, selected in the Final Vote.  Two years later, he’s on the DL with mononucleosis and has a batting average below the Mendoza line.  His career has been full of these sorts of moments – brilliance followed by impotence.  In that same 2009 season, for instance, he entered the Home Run Derby and hit not a single home run.

Felipe Lopez (TBR). Since his 2005 All-Star appearance as a Cincinnati Red, Lopez has been an interesting case study.  Now on his seventh team in six seasons (eighth if you count his two Cardinals stints – 2008 and 2010), he entered the season as a fringe player who was expected to serve as a bench player to showcase himself in anticipation of earning a starting nod somewhere in Major League Baseball.  He hasn’t done himself many favors, going .216/.248/.320 in his limited playing time.

Shortstops
Reid Brignac (TBR). Just imagine. Had the Astros never traded Ben Zobrist to the Rays for Aubrey Huff, Brignac might well be their starting second baseman today.  As it stands, he’s become pretty much the opposite of a super-utility man.  Despite the ability to play all over the field, he’s only seen time at shortstop this year for Joe Maddon, and has responded with a 31 OPS+ and a batting average well below the Mendoza line.

Matt Tolbert (MIN). Matt Tolbert was a Freshman All-American at the University of Mississippi in 2002.  In 2011, he’s a soft-hitting utility infielder who is hitting just .186/.239/.279 in 141 plate appearances for the Twins, who are struggling with injuries all through their lineup and could probably really use a Freshman All-American right about now.

Designated Hitters
Adam Dunn (CWS). There can be little doubt that when the Chicago White Sox signed Adam Dunn to a four-year, $56-million contract, they expected more than 7 home runs at the All-Star break, though they might not have been very surprised by the accompanying 103 strikeouts.  Dunn has always been a feast-or-famine hitter, but this year is almost entirely famine, as he’s on pace for an OBP almost 50 points lower than his previous career low.

Edwin Encarnacion (TOR). It seems official: If you make a former Cincinnati Red your designated hitter, he’s going to struggle.  Like Dunn, Encarnacion was a super-prospect for the Reds once upon a time.  He’s struggled with injuries since coming over to Toronto as part of the Scott Rolen trade, and was signed in the offseason by the Oakland Athletics, who non-tendered him before he re-signed with the Blue Jays.  No doubt they wish they hadn’t bothered, as his -0.6 WAR makes him – along with Dunn – one of only two Designated Hitters with a WAR lower than the player the Athletics ended up with at the position, Hideki Matsui.

Outfielders
Magglio Ordonez (DET).  Ordonez is not a .211 hitter.  Ordonez is a career .312 hitter – or at least he was before this season.  But this season, he’s more than a hundred points off of his career average.  And we won’t even discuss his .286 SLG.

Mike Cameron (BOS). I will always have great respect for Mike Cameron as a player. He’s won three Gold Gloves, with the Mariners, Mets, and Padres, and since 1997, he’s never finished a season with a WAR under 1.0.  But this year, he was losing wins on both sides of the ball before Boston designated him for assignment last week.

Rajai Davis (TOR). Rajai Davis has walked just 8 times in 268 plate appearances, and he’s struck out more than six times as often – 51.  So it shouldn’t be surprising that his .224/.252/.332 line merits him a starting nod on the All-Bergen team.  And yet it is surprising, as he has posted back-to-back .320+ OBP seasons, and in 2009 had an OPS+ of 107.  But playing on an aggressive Blue Jays team that led the majors in home runs last year seems to have affected him a great deal.  Add to that the -0.8 wins he’s giving up as a defender, and you can see why he’s an All-Bergen this year.

Felix Pie (BAL). It doesn’t seem that long ago when Pie and Angel Pagan were both highly-touted Chicago Cubs prospects, but the “five-tool” Pie has struggled in the Major Leagues. Unable to win the starting center field job from Reed Johnson and Jim Edmonds in Chicago, he was traded to Baltimore for Garrett Olson and Henry Williamson prior to the 2009 season.  At just 26 years old, Pie still has time on his side, but his numbers have dipped drastically this year from the previous two seasons, in which he posted OPS+ of 98 and 93.

David Murphy (TEX). You still have to think the Rangers got the better end of the 2007 trade that brought Murphy to Texas in exchange for Eric Gagne, as Murphy has finished with an OPS+ over 100 in every season he’s played in Arlington.  This year, however, has been one to forget thus far for the lefty, who is slugging just .316, more than a hundred points below his previous career low.

Juan Pierre (CWS). Juan Pierre has always been a frustrating player for fans.  Despite a career batting average of .296, he’s never really put it all together, and only twice has he finished a season with an OPS+ over 100.  Still, he’s always been able to run.  Eleven times, he’s finished a season in the top five in stolen bases, and ranks 29th all-time in career stolen bases.  He’s led the league three times, including last season when he had 68.  This year, he already has eleven – but it’s come at a cost, as he’s been caught stealing 10 times.  The 52% stolen base percentage would easily be the lowest of his career, adding to a pretty frustrating season for a man once considered by many to be the best leadoff hitter in baseball.

Michael Saunders (SEA). Michael Saunders is very young – just 24 years old.  So it’s not a cause for great concern when he stumbles out of the gate hitting just .168/.223/.248, especially when it comes with 117 putouts, 1 outfield assist, and 0 errors.  But he’ll need to find the stroke he had in Tacoma, where he had an OPS of .922, if he’s going to turn his career around after a rocky start.

Vernon Wells (LAA).  Clearly, the Angels were the losers of the Mike Napoli-for-Vernon Wells trade.  Not only is Jeff Mathis, Napoli’s successor behind the plate, an All-Bergen, so too is Wells.  The three-time Gold Glover is losing 0.6 wins with his glove alone, so the 0.1 he’s gaining with his bat doesn’t carry him very far.

 

Coming next: N.L. position players.

Introducing the 2011 MLB Some-Stars Teams…

Every year.  Every year, I join in a chorus of statistical slaves railing against the fan vote, this year witnessed by Derek Jeter (14th in WAR* among AL shortstops, with a paltry 0.2) getting a starting nod.  Jeter is at least chasing 3,000 hits.  There’s even less explanation for Josh Hamilton (1.6 WAR, 12th among AL outfielders.)

But this year, I’m not stopping there.  The whole selection process is pretty silly.  Bruce Bochy used his managerial picks to give Ryan Vogelsong an All-Star nod, which raised a lot of eyebrows around the league.  But Vogelsong (1.9 WAR, 20th among NL starters) isn’t even the worst offender.  Jose Valverde made the squad despite a 0.4 WAR (38th among AL relievers,) as did Brandon League, who is tied with him.

And then there’s Jay Bruce, whose 0.9 WAR ranks him 39th among NL outfielders.

Meanwhile, Bochy snubbed his own third baseman, Pablo Sandoval, who leads all NL third basemen with 2.0 WAR.  Sandoval isn’t alone; he’s tied at the top with Chase Headley, who also wasn’t voted in.  Neither were Ryan Roberts (1.9) – who wasn’t even on the printed All-Star ballot – or Aramis Ramirez (1.6).  That’s right, the NL’s starting third baseman, Placido Polanco, ranks fifth.  The reserve third baseman, Chipper Jones, ranks tenth.

The second base situation in the AL is almost as bad.  Robinson Cano (2.4, 5th among AL 2B) was voted the starter, and Howie Kendrick (3rd with 3.1) is the backup, leaving Dustin Pedroia (1st with 3.7) as proof that even big-market players aren’t exempt.  He’ll have company watching the game; the Rays’ Ben Zobrist is 2nd with 3.6 WAR, and also didn’t receive a nod.

David Robertson is tied with his bullpen mate, Mariano Rivera, to lead all AL relievers with a 1.5 WAR, but he’ll be sitting at home, also.

But it is what it is, and most of the guys who belong there end up there, one way or the other.   But would it kill Major League Baseball to rectify this situation somehow?  Maybe give the General Managers a vote?  Maybe SABR?  I don’t know; but I do know that something needs to change. The guys who earn All-Star nods must be allowed to play in the All-Star Game.

I’m all for the idea of the fan vote: Fans should be able to watch their favorite players take the field in July against one another.  But if a player out-performs every other player at his position, he should be on that field.

As is my tradition, I’ve taken the liberty of creating my own All-Star team, based on statistics, while maintaining current MLB rules (i.e. at least one player from each team**).

So, without further ado, my own choices for the 68 Major League All-Stars:

NATIONAL LEAGUE

STARTERS

C: Brian McCann (ATL)
1B: Joey Votto (CIN)
2B: Rickie Weeks (MIL)
3B: Chase Headley (SDP)
SS: Jose Reyes (NYM)
OF: Matt Kemp (LAD), Andrew McCutcheon (PIT), Ryan Braun (MIL)
SP: Roy Halladay (PHI)

BULLPEN

Cole Hamels (PHI), Cliff Lee (PHI), Clayton Kershaw (LAD), Jair Jurrjens (ATL), Jonny Venters (ATL), Craig Kimbrel (ATL), Eric O’Flaherty (ATL), Mike Adams (SDP), Carlos Marmol (CHC), Ian Kennedy (ARI), Daniel Hudson (ARI), Matt Cain (SFG)

BENCH

C Miguel Montero (ARI), 1B Prince Fielder (MIL), 2B Danny Espinosa (WSN), 3B Pablo Sandoval (SFG), SS Troy Tulowitzki (COL), OF Shane Victorino (PHI), OF Michael Bourn (HOU), OF Matt Holliday (STL), OF Carlos Beltran (HOU), 1B Gaby Sanchez (FLA), 2B Brandon Phillips (CIN), OF/1B Lance Berkman (STL), 3B Ryan Roberts (ARI)

AMERICAN LEAGUE

C: Alex Avila (DET)
1B: Adrian Gonzalez (BOS)
2B: Dustin Pedroia (BOS)
3B: Alex Rodriguez (NYY)
SS: Asdrubal Cabrera (CLE)
OF: Jose Bautista (TOR), Curtis Granderson (NYY), Jacoby Ellsbury (BOS)
DH: David Ortiz (BOS)
SP: Jered Weaver (LAA)

BULLPEN

Justin Verlander (DET), CC Sabathia (NYY), Josh Beckett (BOS), James Shields (TBR), David Robertson (NYY), Mariano Rivera (NYY), Jim Johnson (BAL), Aaron Crow (KCR), Sergio Santos (CWS), Felix Hernandez (SEA), C.J. Wilson (TEX), Gio Gonzalez (OAK)

BENCH

C Matt Wieters (BAL), 1B Miguel Cabrera (DET), 2B Ben Zobrist (TBR), 3B Kevin Youkilis (BOS), SS Jhonny Peralta (DET), OF Alex Gordon (KCR), OF Denard Span (MIN), OF Brett Gardner (NYY), DH Victor Martinez (DET), OF Matthew Joyce (TBR), OF Carlos Quentin (CWS), 2B Howie Kendrick (LAA)

* I calculated WAR by averaging bWAR and fWAR.
** Yankees 6, Red Sox 6, Braves 5, Tigers 5, Diamondbacks 4, Phillies 4, Brewers 3, Rays 3, Reds 2, Dodgers 2, Mets 2, Padres 2, Giants 2, Cardinals 2, Angels 2, Royals 2, Cubs 1, Rockies 1, Marlins 1, Astros 1, Pirates 1, Nationals 1, Blue Jays 1, Rangers 1, Mariners 1, Athletics 1, Twins 1, Indians 1

Down On The Farm

Every year, Major League Baseball teams spend millions of dollars on player development, scouting, and assessment.  So it should come as no surprise to learn that prospect evaluation is a tricky process.  One must watch a lot of different things, fully aware that the numbers can be deceiving, and can only tell part of the story.  Unfortunately, it’s usually the only part that we, the casual fans, can observe.

So any time I evaluate prospects, it has to be understood that these are simply educated guesses, based on the available data.  Still, I think it’s important to be aware of where the Astros minor league system stands today, and to that end I’ve taken a look at the players in each of the four primary minor leagues (Triple-A, Double-A, Single-A, and A-Advance) to see how their 2011 seasons are shaping up.

Catchers

The defensive element of a catcher is so vital to his development, which makes their offensive numbers somewhat misleading.  Still, of the six prospects (Robinson Cancel, Federico Hernandez, Chris Wallace, Roberto Pena, Rene Garcia, and Ben Heath) with at least 100 plate appearances this season, very little jumps off the page.

Cancel, recently called up to the majors, has the best numbers (.324/.384/.431 at Triple-A Oklahoma City), but at age 35 he can hardly still be called a prospect.  Which turns the eye toward Wallace, who’s hitting .293/.372/.550 in Single-A Lexington.  Still, a twenty-three year-old in the South Atlantic League comes with a distinct advantage, so his numbers must be taken with a grain of salt.

Heath (.260/.324/.423) has looked decent at the plate in Lancaster, where he splits time with Garcia, but those numbers don’t exactly get the pulse running.

First Basemen

At first glance, Kody Hinze’s numbers (.333/.469/.635) look impressive.  But again, he’s a 23-year-old playing in the low minors… worse than Wallace, he’s playing in the California League, against pitchers five years younger than he.  Still, he’s got great size and a nice pedigree (he was on the Chronicle’s 2005 All-Greater Houston team with Jay Bruce, Kyle Drabek, and Koby Clemens).

Clemens himself is one of the more interesting prospects in the system.  After time spent behind the plate, at third base, and in the corner outfield, he seems to have found a home at first base, where he’s effectively blocked by Brett Wallace.  Clemens’ .247/.335/.418 in Oklahoma City isn’t glowing, but he’s just 24, and could be knocking on the door sooner than later, especially with his experience around the diamond.

Brian Dopirak, at 27, is fast losing his prospect status, and Tyler Burnett has shown some ability at the plate (.287/.357/.395 at Lexington), but his low power numbers put a big question mark on any evaluation.

Second Basemen

Again, primarily a defensive position, it’s rare for second basemen to really pop out on a stat sheet.  Which makes it all the more surprising that the Astros have two players in Brandon Wikoff (.402/.478/.939 at Corpus Christi) and Jose Altuve (.408/.451/.606 at Lancaster), who both look like they might be able to contribute.

Altuve’s power numbers are a bit inflated because of his 7 triples, but he’s a prototypical leadoff hitter (19 SB, .451 OBP, 38 RS).

Delino Deshields, Jr. is still a bit of a work-in-progress, but his .221/.294/.369 line in Lexington is quickly propelling him down on my evaluation.

Shortstops

Once again, a primarily-defensive position, but one where the Astros have lacked real production for a long time.  Wladimir Sutil, at 26, is a bit old for the Texas League, but his .302/.375/.755 in Corpus Christi isn’t bad.

Jiovanni Mier (.254/.367/.405 inLexington) hasn’t turned into quite the prospect his first-round draft status promised, but he’s just 20 years old still.  Jonathan Villar’s numbers (.259/.353/.414) are comparable, and are buoyed by his 20 stolen bases, tied (with Corpus Christi second baseman Jimmy Paredes) for the most of any Astros’ prospect.

Third Basemen

A quick glance at the Astros’ third base prospects brings Michael Kvasnicka’s name front and center.  Hitting .307/.371/.453 at Lexington, his age (22) is right on the upper border of the SAL.

Farther up, in Oklahoma City, Oswaldo Navarro is putting together a competent .253/.381/.330.  Astros fans saw Navarro take 20 mostly-disappointing plate appearances last year, and before that, he spent four games with the Seattle Mariners in 2006.  Still, he’s hardly a bankable commodity.

Outfielders

A few names leap out on the stat sheet when looking at the Astros’ minor league outfielders, not the least of which is Jacob Goebbert, the left fielder in Corpus Christi, who’s hitting .326/.415/.511.  Just 23, I wouldn’t be surprised to see him make the leap up to Oklahoma City before the July All-Star break.

Adam Bailey is hitting .310/.355/.552 for Lexington, but at 23 years old, he should be hitting well against California League pitchers.

Another 23-year-old, Daniel Adamson, has a .329/.402/.503 line, but again in Lexington, he’s at a competitive advantage over the much-younger pitchers.

The next look, then, must be at center fielder Brandon Barnes (.245/.348/.554 in Oklahoma City) and left fielder J.D. Martinez (.329/.406/.486 in Corpus Christi), both of whom are putting together very nice seasons in their respective leagues.

Pitchers

If it’s hard to evaluate position players in the minors, it’s next to impossible to evaluate pitchers.  I will always remember the time I was watching Homer Bailey, then an uber-prospect for the Cincinnati Reds, pitching for the Dayton Dragons.  He had an awful game, and when I asked why, I was informed that he had been instructed to only use off-speed and breaking pitches, because his fastball was already solid.

So judging a pitcher from a few games is a tiring process.  Still, it’s important to look and see what the Houston farm has to offer.

There are 15 pitchers currently with FIPs below 4.00, which is where I’ll start my look.  In order of lowest FIP to highest, they are: “Old Man” Andy Van Hekken, Jason Chowning, Fernando Nieve, Gabriel Garcia, Jorge De Leon, Fernando Rodriguez, Murilo Gouvea, Danny Meszaros, Sergio Escalona, Jordan Lyles, Wesley Wright, Alex Sogard, Xavier Cedeno, Dallas Keuchel, and Ross Wolf.

Nieve, Rodriguez, Escalona, Lyles, and Wright should be familiar to Astros fans from 25-man rosters past and present, but here we’re just going to evaluate their minor league numbers from this season.

31-year-old Van Hekken, who has always pitched well but far above his age range, strikes out 11 batters for every nine innings pitched. But a high WHIP (1.681) and H/9 (11.6) are causes for concern.

Garcia has had a much more promising season: a razor-thin WHIP (0.815), 10.0 SO/9, and 7.5 strikeouts for every walk he’s issued.  He’s been pretty lucky with balls in play (hitters who put the ball into play are just .246 against him), but overall he’s looking very sharp in Lexington.

Also of note in Lexington is Chowning, despite some pretty alarming hints at some character issues.  Still, with a 1.069 WHIP and 10.6 strikeouts per 9 innings, he’s pitching well, though being a 23-year-old in the SAL helps.  He has an extraordinarily-high strand rate (83.9%), which is contributing to his success.  The third pitcher in Lexington’s stable is De Leon, another 23-year-old, which a 0.969 WHIP and 4.8 strikeouts for every walk issued.

The scarcity of starters among this group is of concern.  Cedeno and Keuchel are the only starters without big-league resumes, and while neither has been amazing, they’ve both pitched well in Corpus Christi this season.

Sogard has some nice numbers: 1.081 WHIP, 9.1 K/9, but the 1.3 HR/9 is alarming, especially in Lexington, where the balls tend to stay in the park.  He will need to work on that if he’s going to advance.  Meszaros is the other outlier, with a 1.214 WHIP and 10.3 K/9 in Corpus Christi, and his 7.1 H/9 is pretty good among this group.

 

Overall, there aren’t a lot of guys who leap out at you, but definitely some developing players who could make solid contributions in the future.

Bud Norris

It’s still early, but after today’s pitching performance, Bud Norris is the Astros’ best player, with 1.2 WAR so far this season.  He’s been a very pleasant surprise so far this season; let’s see if he can keep it up.

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