Results tagged ‘ Astros ’

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.

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.

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: 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.

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

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.

The Thirty Greatest Astros of the Minute Maid Park Era

Minute Maid Park is now over a decade old, but when it opened, it signaled a very obvious change for the Houston Astros organization.  Gone were the pitching-friendly confines of the Astrodome, and in their place was a new park with a reputation (deserved or otherwise) as a hitter’s paradise.

On Opening Day, 2000, the ceremonial first pitch was thrown by Kenneth Lay (oops) to open what was then known as Enron Field, now Minute Maid Park.  Since then until the end of last season, no fewer than 97 position players and 124 have donned a Houston Astros uniform. 

The Astros have been through a lot during that period – 4th place in their division in 2000, and then starting a string of success that would culminate in the 2005 National League pennant, followed by a sharp and dramatic decline. 

As we step forward into a new era – one in which no single player who saw that ceremonial first pitch is still an active player for the Astros – I got the idea to look back and answer a very basic question: “Which Astros have been the best players during the Minute Maid Park era?”

For this, I looked at a number of stats, mostly WAR, only factoring in seasons in which the Astros called MMP (or Enron Field) home.  Most of the players were chosen for their total team value, though some were given the nod for big contributions over the course of just a few seasons.  A twenty-five player roster proved to make some decisions much too difficult, so I expanded it to 30.

What this is not is a look at the best hitters in Minute Maid Park.  No attention was paid to home-road splits, although I may revisit that idea down the road.  Also, I used B-R’s WAR, which sometimes varies wildly from FanGraphs’ WAR.  It is what it is.

The largest single-season WAR for any position player was posted by Lance Berkman in 2008, and the largest single-season WAR for a pitcher was the 7.2 that Roger Clemens put up in 2005.  In fact, not surprisingly, it was the pitching that year that propelled Houston into the playoffs.  Of the top five single seasons ever put together by an Astros pitcher in the Minute Maid Park era, 3 of them came that year: #1 Roger Clemens (7.2), #3 Andy Pettitte (5.8), and #5 Roy Oswalt (5.3).  Only one position player from that season, Morgan Ensberg (third at 6.5), had a season in the top ten of all-time seasons by an Astros position player in the MMP era. 

So without further delay, I present to you the 30 Greatest Astros of the Minute Maid Park era:

Starting Pitchers

1. Roy Oswalt.  Of the ten best pitching seasons in the Minute Maid Park era, Oswalt has four (2002, 2005, 2006, and 2007).  He’s far and away the leader in overall WAR, owing largely to the fact that his 291 starts dwarfs any other pitcher – Wandy Rodriguez has the second-most, with 167.  Oswalt came up with the Astros in 2001, and played his entire Astros career in the MMP era.  With 5 Cy Young top-five finishes, 3 All-Star appearances, 4 appearances in the Top 25 of MVP voting, and a Rookie of the Year runner-up, he’s easily the most-decorated pitcher of the era.  But it wasn’t just longevity that aided Oswalt.  His 4.2 WAR-per-season as a pitcher is second in the MMP era only to…

2. Roger Clemens.  Clemens was already a six-time Cy Young Award winner by the time he needled (see what I did there?) his way into Houston in 2004 to begin a three-year stretch of dominance that saw him win one more Cy Young, a second top three finish in the voting, two All-Star appearances, and two MVP top-25 selections.  He also threw at his son, Koby Clemens, who had earlier homered off of him in an exhibition game. I mean, I’m just saying that that happened.

3. Wade Miller.  When Miller’s name is mentioned around Astros fans, it usually takes them a moment or two to remember who he was, but he did post double-digit wins three years in a row (2001-03).  Unfortunately for him, the World Series year of 2005 was his first away from the club.  If one includes the 10.1 innings he pitched during the Astrodome era, Miller was 58-39 as an Astro, with a 3.87 ERA, 117 ERA+, 1.309 WHIP, 7.7 K/9, and 2.15 K/BB.  He also struck out 6 Braves in 7 innings in his only playoff appearance, Game 1 of the 2001 NLDS. 

4. Andy Pettitte.  Astros fans can be forgiven for thinking of Pettitte and Clemens as one in the same.  The strong lefty-righty combo came into town – and left town – at the same time, from the same New York Yankees, and back to those same New York Yankees.  Pettitte’s 7.5 WAR over that time pales in comparison to the other three names on the list, but he did finish fifth in the Cy Young voting in 2005 and helped propel the team to their first World Series appearance.  Pettitte also left town with a cool 1.230 WHIP and more than three strikeouts to every walk he issued as an Astro in the MMP era.

5. Wandy Rodriguez.  At first glance, Rodriguez’s place on this list seems to owe itself more to the fact that he’s the longest-tenured current Astros pitcher of the MMP era, and there is some merit to that.  His 167 starts is second among Astros pitchers during this time.  But his 1.3 WAR-per-season isn’t bad – the only pitchers not on this list who can match it are Shane Reynolds (1.3) and Chris Holt (1.9).  Wandy’s been successful as an Astro largely by keeping the ball in the park – he’s allowed just 1.0 home runs per 9.0 innings pitched since coming up in 2005, and his WHIP has been on a downward trend ever since the career-high 1.60 he posted as a sophomore.  Rodriguez has also posted three seasons (2008, 2009, 2010) with an ERA+ above 100, and has had three double-digit win totals: His rookie campaign in 2005, 2009, and 2010.

6. Brett Myers.  Myers may look out of place on this list, as he’s only had one full season as an Astros pitcher, but that season ranks among the best all-time in the MMP era.  His 4.7 WAR-per-season is second only to Clemens’ 5.1, outpacing even Oswalt’s 4.2.  In his lone season as an Astro, Myers finished 10th in the Cy Young balloting and posted a career-high 123 ERA+. 

Relief Pitchers

1. Octavio Dotel.  There aren’t a whole lot of surprises on this list, but the first might be seeing Dotel ranked above closer extraordinaire Billy Wagner.  A case could be made for either of the last two in the once-vaunted Lidge-Dotel-Wagner trio that was once used to mop up opponents during the early years of the MMP era, but Dotel wins on tenure.  His 10.6 WAR over the course of 5 seasons as an Astro during this period is the best for any reliever, and his insanely-good 3.05 K/BB ratio (which does include 85.1 IP during the Astrodome era) is pretty impressive, too.

2. Billy Wagner.  When the hard-throwing lefty came up in 1995, he captured Astros nation and held it for nine seasons, five of which came in the MMP era.  The final year of the Astrodome era was his best and earned him 4th place in the Cy Young balloting, but he pitched well even in the new ballpark.  In fact, it was his final year in Houston, 2003, that saw him post his career-high 44 saves, and he earned 2 of his 3 All-Star Game appearances as an Astro in the MMP era.

3. Brad Lidge. It’s easy enough, after watching Brad Lidge struggle through the end of his tenure as a Houston Astro, to forget how dominant he could be.  But from his first full season in 2003 through the World Series year of 2005, he owned opposing hitters, striking out more than 3.75 batters for every one he walked, posting a 1.078 WHIP, and putting together a string of devastating ERA+: 122 in 2003, 230 in 2004, and 185 in 2005.  He finished 5th in the Rookie of the Year balloting in 2003, 8th in the Cy Young voting in 2004, and earned an All-Star nod in 20
05.

4. Chad Qualls. Qualls was never quite as flashy as Lidge, Dotel, or Wagner, but he did post consistently-high ERA+ during his tenure as an Astro in the MMP era: 124 (2004), 130 (2005), 119 (2006), and 146 (2007).  During these four seasons, he posted a 1.236 WHIP, 6 saves, and 23 wins out of the bullpen.

5. Dan Wheeler. Wheeler has never enjoyed greater success as a pitcher than he did during the 3+ seasons he spent as an Astro during the MMP era, an era during which he posted an amazing 1.088 WHIP and a 145 ERA+ over 268.2 innings.  The 3.9 WAR he posted over the course of that time is incredible for a middle reliever, which he’s been for the overwhelming majority of his career.

6. Jose Valverde.  Antics aside, Valverde proved a useful commodity in the retooling years of 2008 and 2009, with a 3.3 WAR and a 1.159 WHIP.  He struck out 3.16 batters for every walk he issued, and 9.9 for every nine innings he pitched as an Astro – a full 139 of the 552 batters he faced (over 25%). 

7. LaTroy Hawkins.  Hawkins is much-maligned around certain (ahem, Cubs) circles, largely because he always seemed like a setup man who could never really step up and become a full-time closer.  That may well be true, but he pitched well during his Astros tenure, from midway through 2008 through 2009.  He held down a 1.71 ERA during those two years, and an amazing 244 ERA+.  Like Rodriguez, he was a guy who kept the ball in the park, allowing just 0.7 HR/9, with a 1.091 WHIP.  His 3.3 WAR for less than two full seasons is pretty remarkable for a middle reliever.

8. Brandon Lyon.  Though Lyon has pitched just one full season in Houston, 2010, his 2.0 WAR in that single season ranks among the best single-season WAR for any Astros reliever during the MMP era.  Never truly dominant, he did post a 125 ERA+ and allowed just 0.2 HR/9.

9. Dan Miceli.  A case could be made for lefty Tim Byrdak, but Miceli gets the nod for his 1.6 WAR in 2004 and parts of 2003, which saw him pitch for 4 major league teams.  His 375 ERA+ over the course of the 30.0 innings he pitched as an Astro that year reek of bad sample size, but striking out 3.03 batters for every walk issued is a pretty solid argument, as well.

Catchers

1. Brad Ausmus.  Ausmus wins on playing time alone.  Sure, he posted a 2.8 WAR as an Astro during the MMP era, his second stint with the team, but it took from 2001-2008 for him to do it.  He also won three Gold Gloves during this time, and much of his value came on defense, unlike:

2. Mitch Meluskey.  Meluskey took to Minute Maid Park like a pig to mud, ranking fifth in Rookie of the Year balloting during the park’s inaugural season, after which he departed, only to return in 2003 to much more dismal numbers.  That rookie season alone was enough to win the hot-headed backstop a spot on a thin roster of Astros catchers.  Despite losing 0.5 wins to his poor defense, he made up for it at the plate, where he hit .300/.401/.487.

Infielders

1B Lance Berkman.  Since getting 6th place in the Rookie of the Year balloting in MMP’s inaugural 2000 season, Berkman has been a mainstay, first as a corner outfielder (plus who remembers his 1,292.1 innings as a center fielder over parts of five seasons?) and then as a first baseman.  With five top five finishes in the MVP balloting and five All-Star selections, the switch-hitter has been nearly-synonymous with the MMP era, picking up where legends like Jeff Bagwell and Craig Biggio left off, as one more Killer B.  His 46.1 WAR over this time dwarfs any other player.  Of course, as we all learned last night, he isn’t any less deadly in MMP as an opposing hitter, either.

2B Craig Biggio.  The consummate team player, Biggio changed positions with some regularity.  After coming up in 1998 as a catcher, he moved to second base, later to the outfield to make room for Jeff Kent, and then back to second base.  In my mind, he will always be a second baseman, a position he defined for the Astros over the course of 17,154.2 innings at the position.  His finest days may have been behind him once the move was made to MMP, but he never took a pitch off, amassing 10.9 WAR from 2000-2007.

3B Morgan Ensberg.  Though Ensberg played in MMP’s inaugural 2000 year, he didn’t work his way into being a full-time starter until three years later.  In parts of seven seasons, though, he put together a .266/.367/.475 line, including the 2005 season which saw him finish 4th in MVP voting, earn his only All-Star selection, and win a Silver Slugger award en route to leading the Astros offense that won the NL pennant.

SS Adam Everett.  Everett is another player whose value came mostly from having a longer tenure than anyone else at his position during the MMP era, but he also provided 6.9 WAR over 7 seasons as a defender alone. 

Outfielders

LF Moises Alou.  Alou was already well-traveled, having played for Pittsburgh, Montreal, and Florida before he landed in Houston in 1998 with a campaign that saw him earn an All-Star nod, a Silver Slugger award, and third in the MVP voting.  It wasn’t until he resurfaced with the team in  2000 and 2001, though, that he got to be a part of the MMP era.  And during his time in Houston, he made his mark on that period with two more MVP top-twenty finishes and another All-Star nod before departing for Chicago to blame fans for interfering with balls he would never have caught in a million years.

CF Richard Hidalgo.  Fans may have trouble remembering Hidalgo, who played for the Astros in parts of 8 seasons, including 2000-2004 in the MMP era.  Certainly, Mets and Rangers fans would have liked to have seen him continue the .278/.356/.501 line he put up during his tenure as an Astro, or the 17.4 WAR he accumulated, all but 3.3 of which came during the MMP era.

RF Hunter Pence.  It’s difficult not to think of Pence, now a team leader in his fifth season with the club, as the goofy 24-year-old that surfaced in 2007 with a rookie campaign that earned him third in the ROY voting.  He boasts a 6.6 WAR over that time, despite losing 1.1  wins on the defensive side of the ball (all in 2010), which actually ranks him third after Berkman and Hidalgo among players who have manned right field for the Astros in the MMP era. 

Bench

1B Jeff Bagwell.  Bagwell played five full seasons, and part of a sixth, during the MMP era, and though he might not have been the force he’d been earlier in his career, he did amass three seasons (2000, 2001, and 2003) with numbers good enough to finish in the top 15 of MVP voting, including a 1.039 OPS in 2000.  From 2000-2003, he posted four consecutive seasons with an oWAR over 3.5, and all told, he added over 20 wins from 2000-2005.

2B Jeff Kent.  One of two future All-Stars to man the second sack for the Astros in the MMP era, Kent had already solidified his career in Toronto, New York, Cleveland, and San Francisco by the time he landed in Houston from 2003-2004, where he posted a .293/.350/.521 line and 5.9 WAR.

3B Ken Caminiti.  Caminiti had already spent 8 years in Houston during the Astrodome era before parting for San Diego in 1995, but he would return in 1999 and play his final year for the Astros in 2000, the inaugural year of MMP.  The 1.5 WAR he posted that season was far from the best of his career, even of his Astros career, but the fading slugger did well enough that year to warrant a spot on the thirty best.

UTIL Ty Wigginton.  After the Rays dealt Wigginton to the Astros in 2007 for Wheeler, he put together probably the best stretch of his career, going .285/.347/.506 in 161 games, split between third base, first base, and both corner outfiel
d spots.  The 2.8 WAR he put together in such a short time is the best of any team he’s played for.

OF Michael Bourn.  Bourn’s still got a lot of holes in his game, but the All-Star and two-time Gold Glove winner has amassed 7.1 WAR over the last two seasons, after a disastrous first year which saw him give away 2.1.  He led the league in dWAR, Total Zone Runs, and Stolen Bases in 2010, and seems to be maturing before our very eyes. 

OF Carlos Beltran.  Beltran played just 90 games for the Houston Astros after a midseason three-team trade that saw John Buck go to the Royals and Octavio Dotel to the Athletics, but he made his time here count, putting together 3.5 WAR and leading the charge deep into the playoffs, where he posted an OPS over 1.5.  Only Lance Berkman has carried this team on his back better than Beltran did in the second half of 2004 during the MMP era.

When No Press Is Good Press

There’s a fairly brilliant article over at MLBTradeRumors.com featuring the Astros’ former lefty reliever, Tim Byrdak, who now pitches for the Mets.  In the article (which you should read in full,) Byrdak talks about following every minute whiff of a story involving a left-handed reliever.

For those of us who follow trade rumors, it’s sometimes easy to forget that there are some people who are very interested in these rumors: The players themselves.

ByrdakPitches.jpg

When one lefty gets signed, it can have a dramatic influence on other lefties.  The difference between a major league signing and a minor league invite are major – they are, literally, the difference between getting a job offer and getting an offer for a job interview. 

Byrdak, who pitched pretty well for the Astros over three years, wound up in New York.  But the way he tells it, it sounds like a cyclone, spinning you around and around with no idea where you’re going to land until you wake up the next morning and take stock of your surroundings.

Excerpts below, but you should read the entire article.

“I thought we’d have more of an opportunity to secure a big-league job,” Byrdak continued. “So you have to keep watching the wire, MLB Trade Rumors, all these sites to see who is going where, who has interest in guys. So it became a pretty valuable tool for me to keep an eye on other lefties that were still on the market, and how that market was developing.”

What may seem like a minor post to a reader about a team’s interest in a middle reliever is seismic to someone like Byrdak, and he found it hard to avoid getting frustrated by some of the things he read.

“There were a couple [of times],” Byrdak said. “You would hear from a couple of different teams, and you thought you’d be starting the negotiation process. People have asked me, ‘How come I don’t play for the White Sox’ [Byrdak is from nearby Oak Forest, IL], and I tell them, ‘Well, you know, they’ve never offered me a job.”

“I read somewhere, Chad Durbin said the same thing, that you’ve got to take what was out there,” Byrdak said. “There wasn’t a big-league job out there for us to get. I’m a guy who usually is coming into camp – you’re in shape – but it’s about getting your arm strength, getting everything together without the pressure. It was different this year. You have to compete, put up zeroes as early and often as you can.”

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