Results tagged ‘ Astros ’

Rosenthal Weighs In

Yesterday, Ken Rosenthal included a blurb about the Astros in this article:

The Astros are at their payroll limit, but would like to add a left-handed hitting outfielder to platoon with Jason Michaels if they go with Carlos Lee over Brett Wallace at first base, which is hardly a sure thing. Wallace is hitting .362/.388/.617 this spring.

The team’s greater need is a replacement for catcher Jason Castro, who is out for the season due to a torn ACL in his right knee. The Astros like the Royals’ Brayan Pena, but the Royals won’t trade him with Jason Kendall still recovering from shoulder surgery.

I know I’ve been something of a J.R. Towles fanboy, and I understand that the team might be reluctant to give him another shot to translate his skills to the Major League level, but if going .344/.382/.594 in Spring Training, with more at-bats than any other player at your position, doesn’t earn you a chance to be the starting catcher, then I don’t know why we even have Spring Training. Of course, I understand that Humberto Quintero and Chris Corporan have posted comparable, and at times better, numbers. But Towles’ minor league production backs up his spring numbers, and I just happen to think he’s due one last chance to either be the starting catcher or to be traded or released.

As for the speculation about Carlos Lee, I think Brett Wallace has to be installed as the everyday first baseman to start the season. You have to believe that he’s going to find his power stroke at the major league level, and the thought of platooning Jason Michaels with any other options isn’t promising. Brian Bogusevic, the obvious in-choice left-handed outfielder, isn’t performing well this spring and needs to swing the bat a few more times in Oklahoma City before he should be called up. That means going out and getting a free agent, which more or less is limited to Ryan Church, as every other option with big league experience is right-handed, to my knowledge.

So, really, it just makes much more sense to me to put Lee and his diminished defense in left field, with Wallace and his potential big bat at first; rather than Lee at first and a combination of Jason Michaels and any other human being in left field.

Backstop

It seems like an annual Astros’ Spring Training rite: Determining who the starting catcher will be.  This year, and for the foreseeable future, you can blame Ed Wade and the gang for assuming that they’d locked the question up.  Jason Castro was going to be given the reins of the team.  That much, then, was settled.

Until it wasn’t.

Castro’s season came to a screeching halt when he tore the ACL in his right knee, leaving the Astros once again fielding the question: Who will start at catcher?

Defensive stalwart Humberto Quintero is an option, if not a great one on the offensive side of the plate; former top prospect J.R. Towles is also lingering around, after a few unsuccessful major league stints.  

There are a few options that may be available via trade, but in my opinion, a rebuilding team like the Astros would be foolish to give away any piece of merit for what amounts to being – at best – a one-year stopgap behind the plate.

Then there’s Bengie Molina.

Molina, a thirteen-year veteran with the Angels, Blue Jays, Giants, and Rangers, is leaning towards retirement, but has said that he would be open to signing with a team where he could get full-time employment.

He would certainly become the number one option behind the plate, probably with Quintero filling in from the bench.  He would no doubt be available at a reasonable price, similar to the Ivan Rodriguez deal.

Though last year was not a good one for Molina, it was the first time since 2003 that he slugged below .400.  The last time the Astros had a catcher with over 150 plate appearances who slugged .400 or better, the year was 2001 and the catcher’s name was Tony Eusebio.  Molina also brings a veteran presence to a team that seems to get younger by the minute.

Finally

It took 106 games, but we did it.  We finally did it.  The Houston Astros organization finally got a complete game from someone above their lowest rung of professional baseball.  It wasn’t a shutout – one thing at a time – but Douglas Arguello of the Corpus Christi Hooks threw nine innings.

Douglas Arguello 05-06-09.jpg
Twenty-seven outs.  Six of them strikeouts.  No walks, seven hits, one earned run.  Even better?  It was against those pesky Midland Rockhounds. 

The 6’3″ lefty showed nice stuff, and the victory put the Hooks one game above .500… speaking of which:

Wade In The Minors

Ed Wade’s #1 job as General Manager of the Houston Astros, believe it or not, is not to assemble a playoff contender.  It isn’t even to assemble a competitive team, as can be evidenced by an offseason which gave us Ivan Rodriguez, Mike Hampton, and Aaron Boone.  His #1 job as General Manager of the Houston Astros is to fix the farm system.

It’s not done.  It’s not even almost done.  But it is happening.

Round Rock Express: 12-15, 1st/4 PCL American South
Corpus Christi Hooks: 13-12, 2nd/4 Texas South
Lancaster Jethawks: 9-19, 4th/4 California South
Lexington Legends: 17-10, 1st/8 SAL Southern

The “Big Three” in Lexington – Brad Dydalewicz (2-0, 17 IP, 0.00 ERA, .089 BAA), Ross Seaton (4-1, 29.2 IP, 0.91 ERA, .184 BAA), and Jordan Lyles (1-2, 23.2 IP, 27 K, 6 BB) – are all 2008 draftees.  So are Jack Shuck, Jonathan Gaston, Jay Austin, Phil Disher, Ashton Mowdy, Shane Wolf, and Daniel Meszaros – all guys getting their names on this blog regularly.  And, yes, so is Jason Castro

Seaton Ignores Dewey.jpg

Seaton already just like an Astros pitcher – ignoring Dewey Robinson

Of course, so was David Duncan, but I’m being charitable here.

We’ve been hearing that it was a great draft on paper.  So far this season, it’s proving to be true.  And if it takes a year or two more of this terrible major league baseball to get traction, I hope all Astros fans are ready.  Because it will be worth it.  Heck and Wade are really doing very well.

Not A Fan Of Ed Wade’s…

Shawn Chacon is less a fan of Ed Wade than I am.  Astute readers may remember that Chacon was removed from the team in 2008 for – among other reasons – pushing Wade to the ground in an altercation.

After that incident, no major league team would touch Chacon.  And rightfully so.  But the Newark Bears of the independent Atlantic League did sign him this week, adding him to a roster that includes (or in some cases, included) Pete Rose, Jr., Tim Raines, Jr., Armando Benitez, Jose Herrera, Alberto Castillo, Abraham Nunez, Jay Gibbons, Keith Foulke, and former Astros Carl Everett, Daryle Ward, and Charlton Jimerson.

Carl Everett and Shawn Chacon on the same team.  Could only be better if the team was in Newark, New Jer…. oh.

The Bears will lose play their first game on Thursday, May 7, at 11:05 AM Eastern Time.

Not To Beat A Dead Horse, But…

…I’m going to.  A few days ago, I mentioned that Pitch f/x data wasn’t yet available for the Felipe Paulino/Ryan Zimmerman at-bat in which two fairly clear strike threes were called balls, walking in a run and extending an awful inning. 

Well, the data is in.  I offer it without commentary:

Paulino-Zimmerman At-Bat.JPG

Ch-Ch-Ch-Changes

As predicted, the Astros made a move today to bring an arm up from Triple-A Round Rock.  The arm was attached to the torso of Alberto Arias, and was pressed into early service today.  To make room for Arias, Jason Smith was (predictably) Designated For Assignment.  Or, as the kids like to say, DFA’d.

Paul Estrada was the odd choice to replace Arias at Round Rock. 

This gives the Astros 13 pitchers and 12 position players, which for right now is just fine, as Jeff Keppinger and Darin Erstad are the only bench players Cecil Cooper has deemed old worthy enough to play with any regularity.  Arias provides at least a theoretical stopgap until the bullpen can “get right.”

At some point, though, a roster move is going to need to be made, because a major league ballclub needs itself a utility infielder or two.  Though Geoff Blum and Keppinger can fill that role, Miguel Tejada‘s mythical “rest” is out there somewhere, and Kazuo Matsui is still a fragile little flower. 

When the time comes, it seems likely that Edwin Maysonet will be the one to get the call.  He plays multiple positions, and unlike a Drew Sutton or a Chris Johnson, he isn’t someone who absolutely needs to be playing everyday (not that Johnson has been playing at all since taking a pitch to the hand, seemingly 8 months ago). 

Maysonet is hitting .306/.414/.408 at Round Rock, and has experience all ’round the infield.

Today’s Game

Ivan Rodriguez was 0-for-4, hit into a Double Play, and had two passed balls; Geoff Blum had a remarkable error; Lance Berkman hit a home run; Mike Hampton gave up four runs in the first inning and failed to become the first Astros starter to go at least a full six innings since April 28th; and the Astros lost to the Cubs 6-3.

That summary work for you?

Bill James Gets Animated

Most faithful readers of mine should know who Bill James is.  If you don’t, you really really really should.  Promise. 

Steven Soderbergh, who is directing the Moneyball movie starring Brad Pitt as Oakland Athletics General Manager Billy Beane, mentioned that his original plan for James – who is a solid presence all through the book without ever actually appearing in person – is to animate him

Seriously.

“We have this sort of oracle character that appears throughout and
declaims various issues and he’s essentially supposed to be Bill
James,” Soderberg said. “He’s your host in a way…. The background will
be real but the person who is supposed to be him will be animated.”

I trust Soderbergh with most things, and I already expect to be confused by this movie, so I’m not going to make a huge deal out of this.  It could be sort of like a Harvey Pekar creation out of American Splendor, right?

Right?

What Happened Was…

Round Rock Express (AAA) – Jose Capellan continues to make those of us who were on his bandwagon in Spring Training become bigger and bigger Russ Ortiz fans.  He allowed four runs on eight hits in just 5.0 innings, falling to 1-5 on the season with a 10.15 ERA as the Express lost 7-3 to the New Orleans Zephyrs (FLA).  Lou Santangelo was 2-for-4 with 2 doubles in the contest.  Eli Iorg, one of my favorite prospects, continues a cold streak by going 0-for-4, his average dropping to .162 for the season.

Corpus Christi Hooks (AA) – As mentioned, Douglas Arguello went the distance, striking out 6 and allowing a single run in 9.0 IP – and just 116 pitches.  Home runs by OF/DH Andrew Locke (solo) and C Jonathan Fixler (three-run) were all the Hooks would need as they won, 4-1, over the Midland Rockhounds (OAK).  3B Jhon Florentino continued to rake, going 2-for-3 to raise his line to .321/.398/.440 on the season.

Lancaster Jethawks (A+) – It’s true that the Jethawks are not very good, but that didn’t prevent them from absolutely exploding on the Lake Eslinore Storm (SDP), 17-4.  They put together – count ‘em – twenty-five hits.  It’s almost impossible to find a batter who wasn’t productive tonight, but the aforementioned Ed Wade pick OF Jonathan Gaston has to get special merit for having hit three home runs, and going 5-for-5 with 7 RBI.  Wow.  Chia-Jen Lo pitched three scoreless innings of relief in this one.

Lexington Legends (A) – Kyle Greenwalt isn’t pitching as well as Brad Dydalewicz, Ross Seaton, or Jordan Lyles, but he hasn’t exactly been much of a slouch, either.  Unfortunately, he got a hard-luck loss today as the Legends dropped one to the Rome Braves (ATL), 4-2.  In six full innings, he struck out six and gave up six hits, one walk, and two wild pitches.  He also allowed four runs, all earned, and hit two batsmen.  I think it’s safe to say he wasn’t at his absolute sharpest.  Still, he’s 2-2 on the season with a 1.86 ERA.  Not a ton of offense in this one, but OF Brandon Barnes was 2-for-4 with a triple. 

What Happened Was…

Oswalt Green Cap.JPGDespite it being Earth day, and the Astros wearing their “Play Green” caps, there was plenty of power to be had tonight in Minute Maid Park.  Five balls left the yard tonight, three from the Dodgers in the sixth inning alone, and the Astros beat the Dodgers 6-5 to take the series from the Dodgers.

If Houston continues to hit for extra bases, they will sweep this series, there is little doubt in my mind.  In fact, I’ll make a bold prediction: If the home team gets more than three XBH, they will win.

If there’s a dark lining to the silver cloud (or something), it’s that the entire Dodgers pitching staff finished this game with just 107 pitches thrown.  Roy Oswalt alone threw 108 in 6.0 IP.  If the Astros hitters cannot work deeper into counts – and do it habitually – we will lose more of these close games than we will win.  It’s that simple.  Baseball is a game of attrition.  Relief pitchers are worse pitchers than starters are; that’s why they’re in the bullpen.  If you can’t work your way to them early in games, you aren’t going to win as many games.  Really.

But we did win this one, and I have to give credit to Ivan Rodriguez.  I was quick to point out a sloppy couple of pitch sequences he called with Mike Hampton on the mound, so it’s only fair that I point out one that he called tonight to strike out Casey Blake in the top of the eighth:

Casey Blake Pitch Sequence.JPGNow, what do I love about this sequence?  First, I have to remind you that the pitcher is Chris Sampson, who is – like Blake – right-handed.  Then, I have to explain, in case it’s not obvious, that pitches 1, 4, and 5 are sliders; pitches 2 and 3 are fastballs; and pitch 6 is a curveball.    He began this at-bat by getting Blake looking outside… first with the breaking stuff, then with a fastball.  Then, to keep him from getting too comfortable out there, he backs him off of the plate with a slider at his hip that breaks out over the plate.

That’s devastating enough, then he throws a couple of chase pitches that Blake doesn’t bite at, but they’re enough to get him leaning out… and he’s wondering when he’s going to get the fastball.  Then it comes – a mistake pitch over the heart of the plate.  Or so he thinks.  Instead, it’s the curveball he hasn’t seen all night, which he flails at as it falls off the table with its 13″ break.

Well played, Pudge.  Well played.  I can safely say J.R. Towles would not have called that sequence in a million years.  He’s more of an inside-outside guy who prefers the changeup as the out pitch.  Sampson, too, likes the changeup.  Which Blake probably knew, but he never saw one.

Pudge’s RBI single in the bottom of the eighth?  I’m far less enthused about that.  But so long as he calls these kinds of sequences behind the plate, I’ll be happy.

Tal’s Hill

Sometimes we forget what an oddity Tal’s Hill is out in centerfield, because we’re so used to it.  But the impact it can have on visiting players is very real, as this article about Matt Kemp can attest. 

“You have to really count your steps out there,” Kemp said. “There’s
really no kind of practice for trying to run up a hill and trying to
catch a ball. I don’t think there is.”

Did we mention there’s a flagpole sticking out of the middle of Tal’s Hill? It’s true.

“The flagpole at least has a little padding on it,” Kemp said. “It’s a
little weird. There’s a lot of weird things going on out there in
center field.”

Now, for those of you who are unfamiliar, Tal’s Hill is a steep incline in center field that starts behind the warning track and goes until the center fielder is 436 feet away from the plate.  Minute Maid Park is thought of as a band box – and it is – but it’s extremely deep to center field, and the hill at the end of the run is no picnic.

It’s a sort of an homage to “The Terrace” at the old Crosley Field in Cincinnati.  A lot of parks used to have them, but most (Fenway Park’s “Duffy’s Cliff” comes to mind) have been leveled out.  Tal’s Hill is, I believe, the only one in the major leagues.  

On Jason Michaels‘ two-run double in the sixth inning that tied the game 4-4, Kemp appeared to be dogging it in center field.  I believe that this can be directly attributed to his confusion over Tal’s Hill.

Teaming Up

I wouldn’t ordinarily ask you, my dear reader(s), to go to Reds.com to do anything, much less something a Reds blog suggested, but I really do believe that this is a worthy cause.

MrsLeCure.JPG

Reds.com announced a contest for fans to vote on which pitcher’s bobblehead they were going to give away.  In addition to the usual suspects – Edinson Volquez, Aaron Harang, et al – they included some minor leaguers, including one Sam LeCure.

The guys over at OMGReds have asked everyone to go over and vote for Sam LeCure to get a bobblehead.  Imagine the look on some poor middle-aged sap’s face when he goes through the turnstiles at Great American Ballpark and gets handed a bobblehead for a player he’s never heard of in his entire life.

You can vote here.

(For the male member(s) of my reading audience, if shocking a middle-aged Reds fan isn’t enough incentive, it would make Mrs. LeCure very happy.  And when a woman looks like Mrs. LeCure, and is willing to date a schlub who looks like Mr. LeCure, isn’t that exactly the type of woman you’d like to make happy?)

Kepp Kepp Hooray

Jeff Keppinger continues to impress.  He has hit safely in eight straight games as an Astro – coincidentally, the exact number of games he’s played as an Astro.  In addition to that, his throws from third to first look very strong and effortless.  The top of the second was score 5-3/5-3/5-3, and each ball was fielded hard in the pocket, but he easily threw out the runners, who included Russell Martin and Matt Kemp, who are not easy outs in the infield.

His .455/.520/.773 as a Houston Astro are not sustainable, but what a great start to his Houston career.  With righty Chad Billingsley on the mound, Keppinger will probably have the day off tomorrow.

Speaking of Billingsley

He is one of only five starting pitchers yet to surrender a home run, and he’s walking into Minute Maid Park tomorrow, where the balls have looked awfully lively lately.  If you play HR Beat The Streak, I’m thinking Lance Berkman has to look like a really good choice, as the only power-hitting lefty in the lineup.  Berkman is 2-for-12 career against Billingsley with no XBH, but that could change tomorrow.

Progressive Fan of the Game

The “Progressive Fan of the Game” during tonight’s Fox Sports Houston telecast was former Astro Roger Clemens, who is apparently an Astros season ticket holder.  He was at the game, looking not terribly unlike an oilier version of my older brother Kenneth, watching his friend Roy Oswalt pitch.  He was also completely douched out with his laptop and earpiece so that he could hear his son, Koby, play for the Lancaster Jethawks.

When I go to Jethawks games, am I going to run across the Rocket?

A couple of games ago, they profiled two white trash twenty-somethings who’d snuck to the top of the bleachers to “be alone,” aka dry hump one another.  I felt less sleazy after that than I did watching Roger Clemens speak for three minutes.

Kudos of the Day

I offer Carlos Lee my sincere admiration for not only managing not to topple after this swing, but for actually turning it into a single.  That’s a big load to keep upright, right there:

Carlos Lee Single.JPG

Awesomeness?

If I’m Joe Torre – and I think it’s important to stress that I am not – I know a few things right now.  I know that I’m leading my division, and even if I lose tomorrow and the Padres win, the worst we’ll be is tied.  I know I’ve already lost this series.  I know that I have six games left in my road trip, all against division opponents, immediately followed by an 11-game homestand, all but three of which are against division opponents.

I know I want to keep my guys as fresh as possible so that I can be best-suited for those divisional matchups, and I know that I have a bench player who would get a standing ovation during a road game.  Could we see Brad Ausmus suit up?  I think we could.

What Happened Was…


Houston Astros (MLB) – You all know by now how this one ended, or at least I hope you do.

Round Rock Express (AAA) – As I was watching the Astros on MLB.tv (no Channel 9 feed tonight), I had the Express game on Gameday.  As the Dodgers put up four runs in the sixth, the New Orleans Zephyrs (FLA) put up three in the sixth.  As Hunter Pence hit a Ground Rule Double in the eighth, the Zephyrs’ Michael Ryan hit a Ground Rule Double in the eighth.  These were happening nearly simultaneously.  It was creepy.  New Orleans won handily, 8-3.  Of the Express’s 10 hits, only 1 – a double by John Gall – was an XBH.  Neal Musser threw two wild pitches.  In the same inning.  The Express used five pitchers, and only two – Casey Daigle and Chad Paronto – didn’t allow runs.  Ryan McKeller got five outs, three of them strikeouts, but found time to walk two and allow a hit.  Everyone’s favorite Saccomanno, Mark Saccomanno, was 0-for-5 with an RBI, which doesn’t sound that spectacular until you realize that he now has 18 RBI in 14 games, which puts him on pace to have 183 in a 142-game season.  He also played another game at third without an error, which is always an accomplishment.  Gall, 2B Matt Kata, and OF Eli Iorg were each 2-for-4 on the night. Neither J.R. Towles nor Chris Johnson played.

Corpus Christi Hooks (AA) – The Hooks had a scheduled night off.  Tomorrow, they’re back at Whataburger Field for a four-game set against the Frisco Roughriders (TEX), who enter the series with an identical 6-6 record. The RoughRiders feature 1B Justin Smoak.  You might remember him as the guy we should have drafted instead of Jason Castro.  It looks like the Hooks won’t have to face LHP Kasey Kiker, one of the top pitching prospects in the Rangers system.

Lancaster Jethawks (A+) – The bullpen did their very best to spoil a great start by Christopher Hicks, but in the end, Lancaster ended up pulling out the victory over the Inl
and Empire 66ers (LAD), 4-3.  Hicks was exceptional, striking out 9 in 5.0 IP, with 2 walks, 5 hits, and no earned runs.  On the opposite side, Chris Withrow struck out 10 in the same period, walked two, and only allowed 3 hits, but a run scored on his watch.  Sometimes there’s no justice in this game.  Each successive Jethawks pitcher – Chia-Jen Lo, Reid Kelly, and Jordan Powell – allowed a run, but an RBI walk by Jason Castro in the top of the ninth proved to be the game-winner.  Koby Clemens was behind the plate with Castro at DH, and his night was… well, let’s say mixed.  At the plate, Clemens was 2-for-5 with a double and an RBI.  Behind it, he was 1-for-2 on SB attempts, allowed a passed ball, and had a throwing error.  But he’s still new at playing catcher, so this is to be expected.  Castro was 0-for-3, but walked twice, scored a run, and had the aforementioned RBI.  1B Brian Pellegrini hit a solo home run, and SS Chris Minaker was 2-for-3 with a double and an RBI.

Lexington Legends (A) – The Legends got excellent performances from their pitchers as they beat the Hickory Crawdads (TEX), 4-3, on the road. Ross Seaton, a steal at #109 in last year’s draft, threw very well to earn the win.  Okay yes, he hit three guys (well, two guys, but one of them twice), had a wild pitch, walked a guy, and allowed four hits and a run in 5.2 IP, but he struck out 6 earned the win.  Henry Villar pitched three innings in relief, giving up two runs but none earned, and Daniel Meszaros recorded a single out to earn the save.  Ross was matched by the Crawdads’ Martin Perez, who struck out six through 5.0 IP, but allowed two runs to earn the loss.  It was a sloppy win, what with the HBPs, the WP, a PB, and 0-for-2 on SB attempts, but the Legends were able to string together just enough offense to pull it out.  1B Phil Disher hit a home run, and SS Ronald Ramirez, 2B Albert Cartwright, and OF Brandon Barnes each added a double.  Not surprisingly, they accounted for 3 of the 4 runs (Barnes was erased on a CS). No Legend had more than a single hit.

Here It Comes

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

April.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Luckily, they appear poised to do just that.

Aces

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Astros Come Back For Sixth In A Row

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

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

Today, they were mere bumps in the road.

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Red Sox, and what the Houston Astros can learn from their success

Please.  Before I begin this missive, I have to tell you that I hate the Red Sox.  I absolutely do.  I cannot stand them.  I do not wish for this blog to in any way convey an appreciation for the team, its fans, or the city of Boston.  I just tells it like it is.

As recently as seven years ago, had you told me that the Boston Red Sox would be the best organization in Major League baseball, I would probably have laughed at you.

In 2002, the Red Sox had just finished second in the AL East.  Thirty-nine players played for the Red Sox that year, only ten of whom had been drafted and developed by the Sox.  Of eighteen pitchers, only three – including zero in the starting rotation – had come up through the organization.  Those three relievers accounted for just 143 innings of the 1,446 that the pitching staff had thrown in the season.  Left-hander Casey Fossum pitched 106.2 of those 143.

Though the Sox were competitive, they were doing it without much of a farm system.  Because they had cobbled together a lineup mostly out of free-agent signings, trading away prospects, and waiver wire acquisitions, they had the look of the Yankees Lite.  Their strategy seemed to be to outspend everyone in baseball with the exception of the Yankees, and then to play the underdog and complain about how the Yankees were buying championships.

Their farm system was a shambles, perenially ranked near the bottom.  The six minor league affiliates were a combined 314-377 (.454) in 2002, with only the Augusta Greenjackets finishing with a winning record at 69-67.  They had an average finish of 9.5, and none of them finished higher than 8th in their divisions.

Red Sox 2002.JPGThat was then.  This is now.

In 2008, the Red Sox finished second in their division again, earning a Wild Card spot and advancing to the American League Championship Series, where they lost in seven games.  Forty-seven different players suited up for the Sox, and though that only included 3 starting position players (C Jason Varitek, 1B Kevin Youkilis, 2B Dustin Pedroia), it did include 24 players who broke into the majors with the team.

Their six minor league teams finished a combined 373-313 (.541), with an average finish of fifth in their respective divisions.  No team finished worse than eighth.  No team did not post a winning record.  Additionally, the Lancaster Jethawks (now a Houston Astros affiliate) made it to the California League finals.

Pedro Martinez.jpgMoving into 2009, Jacoby Ellsbury and Jed Lowrie should receive strong consideration to be the everyday starters at centerfield and shortstop, respectively, making five of the Red Sox starting nine homegrown prospects.  The 2008 Tampa Bay Rays, considered by many to be the model of farm-system efficiency, had just four (Iwamura, Longoria, Crawford, Upton).

Had you asked a Red Sox fan how they felt about the team in 2002, they probably would have been very positive.  They’d just finished second in a tough division, and though they hadn’t made a playoff appearance since 1999, they were continually in the hunt.  They hadn’t finished lower than second in the division since 1997.

They spent money, they had All-Star caliber players, and they competed in their division.  But they couldn’t break through and win it all.  Injuries at key positions could decimate them, because they had a weak farm system, despite a few standout players.  They couldn’t pull everything together at the same time.

Houston Astros fans, does this sound familiar?

What changed for the Red Sox between 2002 and 2009?  How was this franchise, whose major league team was solid, but whose minor league system was incapable of filtering through enough quality players to add much-needed depth to compete solidly in the playoffs, , able to turn things around and become what I believe is the best organization in baseball?

There are many factors, of course, but three big ones leap to mind:

John Henry.jpg1) John Henry.  In 2002, the Red Sox had just been purchased by an ownership group headed up by John Henry.  Henry certainly hadn’t impressed many as the owner of the Marlins from 1999-2001, but when he took over the Red Sox in 2002, he assembled a top-notch front office, headed by CEO Larry Lucchino from the Padres.  Henry had grown up a St. Louis Cardinals fan, and had been involved in baseball at many levels – first as owner of the minor league Tuscon Toros, subsequently as co-founder of the Senior Professional Baseball Association.  For a while, he also headed up a group vying for an expansion team in Denver, which would later become the Colorado Rockies.  He had also owned a small interest in the New York Yankees before becoming sole owner of the Marlins.

What was different about his tenure with the Red Sox?  Simply put: money.  He had a much bigger market, a more-dedicated fan base, significantly higher revenue, and the added funds of his co-owners, television producer Tom Werner and the New York Times Company.

Billy Beane.jpg2) Billy Beane.  Before the 2003 Winter Meetings, the Red Sox hired Oakland Athletics General Manager Billy Beane to fulfill the same function for their organization.  Beane accepted the offer for $12.5m a year over five years – the largest contract ever offered to a Geneal Manager.  The new Oakland GM, Paul DePodesta, argued at length with the Red Sox and their new assistant GM, Theo Epstein, about the compensation the Red Sox would give the Athletics.  He refused to give away Beane for anything less than two minor leaguers, including a single-A player named Kevin Youkilis, the “Greek God of Walks.”

During the negotiations, before a contract had been signed, Beane changed his mind and returned to the Athletics.  Epstein was promoted to the General Manager position, despite being just 28 years old.  The hiring of Billy Beane wasn’t significant in itself, but rather because it showed that the Front Office had dedicated themselves to Beane’s philosophy, that a sabermetric approach to building an organization – combined with their deep pockets – was an approach that could not be topped.

So far, they’ve been right.

Bill James.jpg3) Bill James.  James might have been little more than a token hire when Henry signed him as the Red Sox “Senior Consultant, Baseball Operations.”  He w
as 54 years old and had never played professional baseball.  He’d never been involved in the front office of a baseball team.  But he was the father of sabermetrics, going back to his self-published Baseball Abstracts beginning in 1977.

James was responsible for many new statistics that tried to explain baseball production better than the typical “triple crown” statistics.  Runs Created, Range Factor, Defensive Efficiency Rating, Win Shares, Pythagorean Winning Percentage, Game Score, Major League Equivalency, Brock2, Similarity Scores, Secondary Average, Power/Speed Number, and Approximate Value are all Bill James inventions. 

Henry had grown up reading the Bill James Baseball Abstracts, and had found himself fascinated with this new way of looking at the numbers of baseball.  The fact that it took so long for a Major League Baseball team to hire James is one of the greatest confusions in modern sports, but when the Red Sox finally did it in October 2002, they sent a very clear signal that they were serious about competing.

The Astros’ owner, Drayton McLane, is a very hands-on owner with a rigid view of baseball.  In a day and age where many teams are “seeing the light” on sabermetrics and most GM positions are filled with first-timers who have shown a dedication to advanced baseball knowledge, McLane hired former Phillies GM Ed Wade.  Wade is a good General Manager – he built the overwhelming majority of the Phillies’ 2008 championship team.

But as the Red Sox have proven over the last six years, a sabermetric approach – combined with the ability to spend money on the right players – is about as potent a combination as baseball has seen.

After all, it’s turned them into the best organization in baseball.

Off Day

“We’ve had off days before. We’ve had off days on days when we played.”
- Whitey Herzog
An
off-day.  A day for the Houston Astros front office to get together and
decide what in the world they’re going to do.  A day to reflect.  A day
for the players to visit with their families.  With each other.  To try
and become a team.

A day when we can’t lose a game.  Which is
good, because on Saturday, we have a Split Squad game, so we can make
up for lost time by losing two.

Spring Training records don’t
matter, and thank goodness for that, because ours has been lousy. 
Let’s take a moment and recap the statistics of our presumed Opening
Day starters, shall we?
table.JPGPlease note that this does not include exhibition or WBC games.  These numbers are what most insiders would refer to as “bad.”

A team OBP of .272?  A team average of .182?  These are not good things.  A look at the pitching is even scarier.

Carlos Lee, our cleanup hitter, has grounded into as many double plays
(1) as he has hits.  I’m not worried about him, though.  He’ll be
fine.  He got to camp late, he went to play for Panama in the WBC. 
He’s an older guy, he may take longer to get there but I’m sure he will
get there.

In addition, Berkman (our #3 hitter) and Tejada (who will hit fifth or sixth) are doing just fine.  The heart of the order is not the concern, though.  Hunter Pence (who would hit 5th in an ideal lineup, but will probably end up 2nd or 6th) is striking out a lot as he works on getting deeper into counts, but he’s getting on base for the most part.  Michael Bourn is Michael Bourn – he’s doing better than most of us expected. 

That leaves Quintero, Blum, and Matsui.  Now, we all know that Quintero and Blum would not be starters on most rosters.  Blum is an invaluable utilityman who has only had 400+ at-bats twice in his 10-season career.  Quintero is an arm behind the plate who has only had more than 150 at-bats once, and that was last season.

These are not big surprises.  Matsui is a bit of a surprise, especially as he’s the de facto leadoff hitter for the Astros.  The good news is that he’s drastically under-performing right now, so it can generally be chalked up to a bad Spring.  Over the past two and a half seasons, he’s gone .297/.350/.427 in Colorado and Houston (admittedly two hitters’ parks, but that’s where he’ll be playing this year, as well.)

So it comes down to uncertainty about Bourn’s supposed progress, hope that Lee and Matsui will pick it up in time, and dread over the catcher and third base spots.

Simply put, Quintero is not an upgrade to Brad Ausmus, who opted to move out west to be closer to his family.  His other option was retiring, so it’s not as if we could have retained him.  And I realize he didn’t exactly swing a great stick, but over the past 8 seasons with the Astros, he went .240/.311/.319.  Quintero career minor league OBP is .311, there’s no reason to think he can be that productive at the major league level – after he “improved” at the end of last season in August and September after he became more or less the full-time catcher, he scraped together a .306 OBP.

Whether anyone wants to admit it or not, among catchers currently in our system, J.R. Towles‘ .302/.386/.476 over five minor league seasons makes him the best offensive option behind the plate, his poor showing in 2008 notwithstanding.

That said, we still may be better served going out and grabbing a catcher from outside of our system.  Toby Hall‘s injury spoiled things for him, but Johnny Estrada (.277/.317/.400), Paul Lo Duca (.286/.337/.409), and Ivan Rodriguez (.301/.339/.475) are all still available, and neither would cost us a draft pick.

Third base is a little bleaker.  It should be assumed that Christopher Johnson (.353/.409/.588 this Spring) is going to at least begin the season at AAA Round Rock, but will no doubt find his way to the Show as the long-term solution at third base.  Otherwise, he could end up in a position similar to what Towles was handed last year – given the reins a bit too early and written off once he’d failed as a result.

Until that time, we can probably look forward to a platoon of Geoff Blum and Aaron Boone.  In 2003, when that duo would have combined to go .265/.310/.261, that would have been mildly acceptable.  In 2009, when they combined to go .241/.293/.289 the previous year, it’s not quite as exciting (and it wasn’t all that exciting before.)

There’s no help in free agency, unless you were to shift Tejada to third (where he played in the WBC), Matsui to shortstop (where he played before switching positions with Jose Reyes in New York), and getting either Ray Durham or Mark Grudzielanek from free agency. That seems unlikely, so I suppose we’ll have to dig in and wait for the Chris Johnson era to start.  I’m cautiously optimistic that that could happen as early as May.

A word of caution, however, as Johnson’s minor league line (.266/.304/.395) is actually worse than the last promotion-from-within at third base, Morgan Ensberg‘s (.271/.381/.472).  Ultimately, Ensberg lost all confidence at the plate, but let’s remember that he did give us three very solid years at the big league level – 2003, 2004, and 2005 – before his collapse.  Even 2006, the beginning of his “downturn”, he boasted a .396 OBP and a .463 SLG. 

Free agent pitchers are less of a sure thing.  If we were going to enter the market, we’ve missed the window.  All that’s left are a few reclamation projects: Pedro Martinez, Mark Mulder, Ben Sheets, Kenny Rogers, Curt Schilling, El Duque, Sidney Ponson.  Upgrades over Mike Hampton and Brian Moehler?  Possibly.  But it’s unlikely we’d sign any of these guys, and I can’t really blame the FO for passing on them.

All told, it will be interesting to see how our team comes together.  If they come together.  At this point in Spring Training, the positives are few, but they exist.  And honestly, if it means that money goes into development and signing draft picks, I’m okay with no moves being made.  Let’s just hunker down and see if we can’t lose us some games!

Ibid

To commemorate my #25 ranking on MLBlogs’ Latest Leaders list, I will dedicate today’s post to a former Astros great who wore jersey #25.  This one is pretty easy – after all, the jersey is retired because of one Jose Cruz

Jose Cruz.jpg

The Astros lost their Spring Training game today.  Again.  That’s seven losses in a row (not counting exhibition games against Venezuela and Panama), and twelve games since our last win, which was coincidentally the first Spring Training game of 2009.

I’ve put a positive spin on it until I was blue in the face  All I can say now is, “Ibid.”

  • It’s still early.  It’s a long Spring Training, and it is – after all – just Spring Training.
  • Our farm system ranks 30th out of 30 teams.  Most of the minor league guys in our camp are not likely to make the team out of Spring Training, but they’re still getting at-bats.
  • Four players – LaTroy Hawkins, Roy Oswalt, Carlos Lee, and Miguel Tejada – are involved in the WBC and are not with the team.
  • We have more pitchers than our roster will fit.  Our bullpen is largely set, leaving a host of guys vying for one or two open spots.  In many cases, those guys are not ideal major league pitchers.

The list of excuses reasons goes on and on, and many of them are legitimate.  But aren’t these very same factors affecting the teams against whom we’re playing, too?  Aren’t we all on some sort of level playing field?

Last year, the third-worst team in the Grapefruit League was the Philadelphia Phillies.  They’d go on to be World Series champs (after dispatching the second-worst team in the Grapefruit League, the Dodgers, in the NLCS).  And so on and so on and so on.

I’ve said it all.  It’s all been said.  I feel awful for Alyson Footer, who has to continually find some sort of positive thing to say.  I have the luxury of not having to write at all, or of being able to go back and talk about something completely unrelated to the Astros’ 2009 Spring Training.

She doesn’t have that choice.

My thoughts have bounced from place to place, trying to think of something.  I’ve wondered if a manager was ever fired during Spring Training.  I’ve wondered if, with Carlos Lee and Miguel Tejada returning from their teams’ early WBC exits, we should just play our Opening Day lineup every game and hope they jell.  We could pull them after five or six innings to give at-bats to the other hopefuls.

I’ve wondered if we shouldn’t make a trade (Tejada to the Yankees being just one possibility) or pick up a free agent.  Any free agent.

Chris Rosenbaum, a catching prospect in the Angels’ system, has a blog.  In his most recent entry, in discussing Minor League camp, he says this:

So, if you are in doubt, run.  Somewhere.  Anywhere.  Even
if you go to the wrong location, at least you will not have wasted as
much time trying to find the right location than if you were walking.

This is beginning to seem more and more like good advice for the Astros.  I’m beginning to agree with everyone who wants us to pick up Pudge Rodriguez (though I’m still a fan of J.R. Towles) or Pedro Martinez (though I’m still a fan of… oh, who am I kidding?)

We don’t really have the payroll flexibility to pick up either one right now, but that’s sort of a double-edged sword.  Depending on the contract Martinez would want, the chances are good that he’d pay for himself on a one-year deal in ticket sales and merchandising alone.

No one’s going to pay to watch Russ Ortiz and Brian Moehler pitch.  Anyone who goes to those games would go no matter who is pitching.  People will pay money specifically to see Pedro Martinez, however.  With a good year, he could get the 10th-most strikeouts in the history of major league baseball.  He’d join four former Astros on that list, those being the top three all time: Nolan Ryan, Randy Johnson, and Roger Clemens, as well as Don Sutton.

Even if he doesn’t entirely pay for his own contract, he’d get us all excited about the Astros again.  Right now, it’s painfully hard to be excited.  I hear people who keep saying, “Looks like we’re poised to do it again!  Fall way behind in the first half and then come storming back in the second!”

I don’t want to do that anymore.

I’m sick of being dead in the water in July and having to race at the end to catch up.  You all know the stories – in 2005, before we stormed back to capture the NL Pennant, the Houston Chronicle ran this incredibly irresponsible photograph:

Houston Chronicle.jpgOr last season, when we were as many as 16 games back, as late as August 30th.  Dead last in the NL Central as late as July 26th.  But the best second half in the National League put us in the thick of the wild card race, which we eventually lost to the Milwaukee Brewers, at least in part due to some bizarre scheduling which placed our “home games” against the Cubs in Milwaukee (Miller Park is 90 miles away from Wrigley Field) while Hurricane Ike tore the Houston area apart.

Not really pertinent here, but let’s take a moment to remember what Cubs pitcher Ryan Dempster said while the Cubs were waiting to hear about their series with the Astros.  Ryan was waiting at Wrigley Field.  The Astros were at home with their families during a hurricane, still trying to determine if everyone had made it out safely:


We’re all big boys hereWhatever the situation that is thrown at us, we’ll handle it
very well. … Nobody said it was going to be easy. Sometimes you’re
going to hit speed bumps. This is a big one, but it’s all right. We’ll
be just fine.

Anyway, my point is that I’m getting rather tired of watching the team get their tail ends handed to them, only to rally back at the end of the season and have a go at it.  Our farm system is depleted – there’s no help on the way right now, outside of precious few standouts. 

We need to compete now.

And I can’t help but wonder if making a move – any move – might not at least be a signal that we’re trying. 

And even if you go to the wrong location, at least you will not have wasted as much time trying to find the right location than if you were walking.

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