Results tagged ‘ Houston Astros ’

2006/07 Offseason and In-Season Moves

They say it takes five years before you can truly evaluate a trade.

Fine.

The 2007 season was an important one in the history of the Houston Astros. It brought the end of Tim Purpura’s tenure as general manager, and the beginning of the Ed Wade regime. It brought the beginning of the Carlos Lee era.

And then there’s Travis Phelps. More on that later.

Below is a list of the transactions between the end of the 2006 season and the beginning of the 2008 season, with just enough analysis to make it not completely boring.

October 15, 2006

The Astros had just finished the season, going 82-80, second in the NL Central by a game and a half. They’d won nine in a row and ten out of eleven to move to within a half game of the St. Louis Cardinals, who would go on to beat the Tigers four games to one in the World Series, but Houston lost two out of three to the Braves to end the season out of the playoff picture.

Definitely a disappointing season after Houston’s 2005 World Series appearance, but hopes were still high that they were within striking distance of another National League crown. This had the potential to be a very big offseason, and indeed some big things happened. But before big things can happen in any offseason, first little things have to happen. And on October 15, 2006, those little things involved letting players depart via free agency.

Those players included Travis Driskill, Mike Gallo, Jesse Garcia, Carlos Hernandez, J.R. House, Joe McEwing, Eric Munson, Jailen Peguero, Tike Redman, Walter Young, Alan Zinter, and Brian Gordon.

Travis Driskill – Driskill put together a couple of nice seasons early in his career with Baltimore and Colorado, and his one relief appearance in 2005 may have qualified his as the greatest Small Sample Size (SSS) player on the roster: 1 IP, 2 K, 0 ER, 0 H, 0 BB. He had a FIP of -0.98. That’s negative 0.98. I’m gonna be honest here and admit that I didn’t know a negative FIP was even possible. He had a pretty good year in AAA for the Astros in 2006, striking out over 8 batters per 9 IP, walking fewer than 2 per 9 IP, and finishing 4-8 with a 3.20 ERA.

Mike Gallo – 2006 was the end of Gallo’s miserable four-year run as an Astro. In 116 innings since 2003, he’d walked (3.65/9) almost as many as he’d struck out (5.35/9), going 4-3 with a 4.11 ERA, which actually out-performed his FIP (5.49) by a fairly wide margin.

Jesse Garcia – After a less-than-stellar career with the Orioles, Braves, and Padres, Garcia spent the 2006 with the Astros organization in AAA, where he posted a walk rate under 3% and slugged just .392, with a 72 wRC+.

Carlos Hernandez – Hernandez began his career with the Astros in 2001, and by the end of 2004, he’d thrown 170.2 innings in 35 games (33 starts). But in 2006, he only managed 14 innings for Corpus Christi, walking 10.3 per 9 innings.

J.R. House – House began his career in Pittsburgh, where he was ranked as high as the #21 prospect in all of baseball in 2001. He was signed by the Astros as a free agent prior to the 2006 season. He had a stellar year between Corpus Christi and Round Rock, but went 0-9 with 2 strikeouts in his limited time in the big leagues.

Joe McEwing – McEwing was a good-not-great super utility man for the Mets, Cardinals, and Royals before the Astros purchased him from Kansas City before the 2006 season. He spent the majority of the season mashing in Round Rock, with just 6 appearances at the major league level.

Eric Munson – The third overall pick in the 1999 draft, Munson had played pretty unspectacularly for the Tigers and Devil Rays before signing with Houston as a free agent. He finished 2006 under the Mendoza line, hitting 199/269/348 with 5 home runs and 19 RBI. Though dreadfully unlucky (.219) in BABIP, he didn’t help himself with his walk (7.1%) and strikeout (20.5%) rates.

Jailen Peguero – An amateur free agent, signed by the Astros out of the Dominican Republic in 2000, Peguero never rose above the AAA level in Houston, though he would later go on to pitch 24 mediocre innings for Arizona in 2007 and 2008.

Tike Redman – Signed as a free agent after being released by the Tigers during the 2006 season, Redman had 121 nice plate appearances in Corpus Christi, with a .366 wOBA, but couldn’t find a spot on the big league roster, perhaps owing to his reputation as a poor defender (he’d led the league in errors by a CF in 2005 for Pittsburgh.)

Walter Young – Young hit 277/309/410 in 366 plate appearances in Corpus Christi after being released by the Padres, but never moved up to Round Rock.

Alan Zinter – A former first rounder (24th overall) by the Mets, Zinter was a journeyman minor leaguer long before arriving Houston, having played in the Mets, Tigers, Red Sox, Mariners, Cubs, and Diamondbacks systems before joining the Astros. It was his second stint with Houston, who’d actually given him 44 of his 84 big league plate appearances, back in 2002.

Brian Gordon – Gordon was drafted out of Round Rock High School, and showed nice peripherals in the minors, but could never manage to stay healthy.

ANALYSIS: This is so early in the offseason that none of these moves can exactly be analyzed yet. Several of the players on this list did, in fact, come back and play for the Astros in 2007. Of those who didn’t, not much was given up. Redman was worth 0.2 wins for Baltimore in 2007, but he’s offset by Jailen Peguero, who lost 0.2 wins with Arizona. House was worth 0.1 wins in 2007 for Baltimore. So we’ve got a NET LOSS of 0.1 wins. Hardly worth mentioning.

October 30, 2006

The Astros let Russ Springer depart via free agency. A piece of the pennant-winning 2005 team, Springer was an extreme (60.5%) flyball pitcher with a tendency towards allowing home runs. He threw 59.2 innings in 2006, going 1-1 with 46 K, 16 BB, 1.039 WHIP, and 3.47 ERA.

ANALYSIS: Springer pitched 116.1 innings over the next two seasons for the Cardinals, going 10-2 with a FIP near 3 and a hefty strikeout total. His HR/9 total dropped from 1.51 to 0.41, owing largely to playing in a park where flyballs didn’t leave quite as frequently. He was worth 1.7 wins over his two seasons in St. Louis, with 1.2 of them coming in 2007. So, a NET LOSS of 1.2 wins.

October 31, 2006

Craig Biggio, Roger Clemens, and Aubrey Huff departed via free agency. Don’t worry, future Hall of Famer Biggio would be back for one final season.

Huff had come over mid-season in a trade with the Devil Rays for Mitch Talbot and Ben Zobrist. It’s a good thing we’re not analyzing that trade, which was a giant loss for the Astros. He hit 250/341/478 for the Astros down the stretch, but poor fielding and baserunning gave him replacement value. Clemens had gone 38-18 with a 2.40 ERA in three seasons in Houston, striking out 505 batters in 539 innings while walking just 101. He won a Cy Young Award in 2004 (his 7th) and finished in the top three in 2005, but 2006 had been a bit of a struggle for him, and all signs pointed toward him heading into retirement.

ANALYSIS: Huff signed with the Orioles for three seasons, and was worth 1 win in 2007. In 2007, he was worth four times as many. After struggling through the first half of 2009, he was traded to the Tigers for Brett Jacobson, who never advanced past the AA level. Clemens pitched for the Yankees in 2007, going 6-6 with a 4.14 FIP. He was worth 1.8 wins. For the 2007 season, this is a NET LOSS of 2.8 wins in 2007.

November 6, 2006

Andy Pettitte departed through free agency. Something of a foregone conclusion after the loss of Clemens, Pettitte had gone 37-26 over three seasons in Houston, with a 3.38 ERA. He’d been worth 3.5 wins in 2006.

ANALYSIS: Pettitte went back to the Yankees in 2007, where he’s pitched ever since. 2007 shows a NET LOSS of 4.5 wins, as he went 15-9 with a 3.87 FIP for the Bombers.

November 10, 2006

Free agent Craig Biggio re-signed. Biggio came back for one final season, in which he hit a pretty lackluster 251/285/381, but he collected his 3,000th hit and solidified his Cooperstown credentials.

November 15, 2006

Free agent middle infielder Jesse Garcia re-signed.

November 24, 2006

Free agent outfielder Carlos Lee and free agent pitcher Woody Williams signed .

Lee had been a powerhouse for the White Sox, Brewers, and Rangers, and was signed by Houston to provide pop from the cleanup spot.

Williams was brought in to plug up the rotation with the departure of Clemens and Pettitte. An effective pitcher for the Blue Jays, Padres, and Cardinals, Williams’ tenure in Houston was less successful.

ANALYSIS: Williams struggled in Houston, going 8-15 with a 5.27 ERA through 33 games (31 starts). He was worth -0.1 wins. It’s hard to argue with the Lee signing, as – aside from a subpar 2010 in which his defense negated his 246/291/417 line – he consistently provided positive value. He was worth 10.7 runs over the next 5.5 seasons (at about $9.3m per win). Specifically for 2007, these two signings showed a NET GAIN of 3.3 wins, with Lee offsetting Williams’ negative value.

However, signing Lee forced the Astros to surrender their first round pick (17th overall) to the Texas Rangers. The Rangers used this pick to select Blake Beavan, who they later traded to the Mariners (with Matthew Lawson, Justin Smoak, and Josh Lueke) for Cliff Lee and Mark Lowe.

Lee played the remainder of the season in Texas and then was signed by the Phillies, giving Texas two more draft picks in 2011, which they used to select Kevin Matthews and Zach Cone. Cone, in particular, looks like a win so far for Texas. He hit 262/326/421 in A-ball in 2012 (115 wRC+) and, if he can learn a little more patience at the plate, could eventually prove to be a solid center fielder in the big leagues.

For his part, Lowe has provided 0.4 wins over the past two seasons for Texas.

Losing the first round pick carries its own unique set of hardships, but since we’re evaluating the 2007 season, we’ll stick with the net gain of 3.3 wins.

December 12, 2006

And away we go. Perhaps believing – somehow – that Woody Williams alone wasn’t quite enough to plug up the loss of Andy Pettitte and Roger Clemens, GM Tim Purpura decided to pull the trigger on a trade: Taylor Buchholz, Jason Hirsh, and Willy Taveras to the Colorado Rockies for Miguel Asencio and Jason Jennings.

Whatever Buchholz’s emotional shortcomings may have been (and they certainly may have been), he’d been a pleasant surprise for the Astros in their 2006 campaign. Though he’d gone just 6-10 with a 5.18 FIP, worth 0.4 wins. Nothing to write home about, but his future looked promising enough.

Jason Hirsh had shown command and control problems in his own rookie campaign in 2006, walking 4.43 batters per 9 innings and allowing 2.22 home runs per 9. An extreme flyball pitcher (69.9%), he didn’t fit the profile of a MMP pitcher. But he certainly didn’t fit the profile of a Coors Field pitcher, either.

Taveras was one of those frustrating leadoff hitters, all speed with no on-base skills. He drew just a 5.8% walk rate in 2006, with a wRC+ of 72, but saved 20.3 runs in center field and stole 33 bases. He’d boasted a .333 OBP, aided largely by his insane 42.9% bunt hit percentage.

Asencio had shown some early promise in Colorado, generating lots of groundballs, but could never quite command the strike zone.

Jennings was the real keystone of this piece for Houston. The 2002 NL Rookie of the Year had built a solid reputation in Colorado, going 58-56 with a 98 ERA+. Though he’d gone just 9-13 in 2006, he’d posted career-low ERA (3.78) and WHIP (1.373) totals.

ANALYSIS: For all the buzz that this trade generated, it was more or less a wash. Asencio spent 2007 struggling in the Astros’ minor league system, while Jennings generated the highest flyball percentage (64.8%) and HR/9 (1.73) of his career to date. He went 2-9 through just 18 starts, with a FIP of 5.39 and just 0.2 WAR.

On the other side of the trade, Taveras was worth a career-high 1.1 wins in 2007. Hirsh provided 0.9 wins of his own, going 5-7 with a 4.81 ERA, and Buchholz was worth 1.7 wins in 2007, limiting the long ball and the free passes. Overall, this was a NET LOSS of 3.5 wins for the Astros in 2007.

January 4, 2007

The first transaction of the new year saw the Astros re-sign free agent Eric Munson, as well as signing free agent Kevin Walker, who’d been lackluster for the Padres, Giants, and White Sox. Walker never pitched a big league inning for the Astros.

January 5, 2007

The Astros signed free agent Ray Sadler, who’d shown promise in Pittsburgh, but never materialized on the Astros’ big league roster.

January 8, 2007

The Astros signed free agent Mark Loretta. This was Loretta’s second stint with the Astros, having played 21 games for them during the 2002 season. But mostly, he’d been with the Brewers, Padres, and Red Sox. He was an infielder with good on-base skills and a little power, but not a ton in the way of defensive ability. He performed as expected for the Astros, going 287/352/372 in 2007, for a NET GAIN of 1.3 wins.

January 10, 2007

The Astros re-signed free agent Travis Driskill.

January 16, 2007

The Astros signed free agent Travis Phelps, albeit not for the last time during this offseason. They also signed free agent left-hander Steve Randolph. Phelps would not play in the majors for Houston. Randolph, on the other hand, pitched 13.1 innings. He struck out 22 batters in that time (14.85/9), but walked 17 (11.48/9) and gave up 18 earned runs, 21 hits, and 4 home runs. He ended the season 0-1 with a 12.15 ERA and a 2.850 WHIP, providing a NET LOSS of 0.4 wins in the process. Pretty impressive for 13.1 innings.

January 17, 2007

The Astros signed free agent infielder Danny Klassen.

January 18, 2007

The Astros signed free agent outfielder Todd Self.

January 19, 2007

The Astros signed free agent outfielder Tim Raines. Not that Tim Raines.

January 27, 2007

The Astros signed free agent pitcher Brian Moehler. This was Moehler’s second stint with the Astros (he’d thrown 13.2 innings in 2003 for Houston). He’d established himself as a capable pitcher with Detroit, Cincinnati, and Florida. Someone who could pitch out of the bullpen or as a starter. This was a fairly low-key signing, but Moehler would prove to be quite an asset for Houston in 2008, going 11-8 with a 4.57 FIP. In 2007, though, he was a replacement-level pitcher.

January 31, 2007

The Astros re-signed free agent Brian Gordon.

Februrary 2, 2007

The Astros signed veteran lefty Scott Sauerbeck and righty Rick White. Sauerbeck would not pitch at the big league level for the Astros, but White did end up contributing 29.1 miserable innings in 2007, with a NET LOSS of 0.3 wins.

March 2, 2007

The Astros signed free agent outfielder Barry Wesson.

March 6, 2007

The Astros signed international free agent Jose Altuve. Though he wouldn’t begin contributing until 2011, the diminutive seventeen-year-old infielder may have been the second-best signing of the offseason. An All-Star in 2012, he’s been worth 2.1 wins in roughly a season and a half in Houston. Still, for the 2007 season, he’s a wash.

March 26, 2007

The Astros claimed Ezequiel Astacio off waivers from the Rangers. Though he’d pitched before in Houston, Astacio would not re-surface on their roster in 2007 or beyond.

Purpura also pulled off a low-profile trade, sending Wade Robinson to the Nationals for Danny Ardoin. Robinson struggled at the AA-level before Washington cut him, and Ardoin never made it to the big leagues for Houston, despite appearances in the past for Minnesota, Texas, Colorado, and Baltimore.

March 27, 2007

The Astros released Travis Phelps. Poor guy.

March 30, 2007

The Astros released Charlton Jimerson. Jimerson had gone 247/287/445 for Houston’s AAA club in 2006, and had even contributed 0.1 wins for the big league club. After he was released, the Mariners signed him. Though he only had two plate appearances for Seattle in 2007, one of them resulted in a home run, for an impressive (on paper) line of 1000/1000/2500, 1.448 wOBA, 848 wRC+. He also flashed a good glove and stole two bases in his limited time for the Mariners, worth a NET LOSS to Houston of 0.2 wins.

This would be the final move of Spring Training before the Astros began the 2007 season. The dates, moving forward, will have the Astros’ record for the sake of reference.

April 3, 2007 (0-2, t-5th NL Central)

The Astros released Kevin Walker.

April 27, 2007 (9-13, t-5th NL Central)

The Astros signed Travis Phelps. Hey, welcome back!

May 20, 2007 (21-22, 2nd NL Central)

The Astros released Travis Phelps. Oh, hey, never mind.

June 7, 2007 (24-35, 5th NL Central)

The 2007 Rule 4 Draft was, more or less, an unmitigated disaster for Houston. They didn’t select until 111th overall. In total, they selected 42 players, only one of whom ever played in the major leagues. That one, Robbie Weinhardt, was drafted in the 38th round. He didn’t sign. In 2008, Tigers drafted him in the 10th round, and he’s contributed 0.4 wins for them

The small amount of upside is that they were able to flip 10th-rounder Matt Cusick to the Yankees for LaTroy Hawkins, who would go on to be worth 1.1 wins for Houston, but not until the 2008 season.

11th-rounder Robert Bono was part of the package sent to Florida for Matt Lindstrom in 2010. Lindstrom was worth 0.3 wins that season, and was later sent to Colorado for Jonnathan Aristil and Wes Musick, both of whom pitched in Oklahoma City in 2012.

June 12, 2007 (27-37, 4th NL Central)

The Astros signed veteran free agent pitcher Chan Ho Park. Park would not end up pitching in the majors for Houston, though he would have a productive year two years later for Philadelphia.

June 19, 2007 (31-40, 5th NL Central)

The Astros released Scott Sauerbeck.

June 28, 2007 (33-46, 5th NL Central)

The Astros released Rick White.

July 28, 2007 (46-58, 4th NL Central)

Despite being ten and a half games out of first place, Purpura still believed Houston had a shot, owing largely to the reputation the Astros had put together of being a “second-half team.” It was the pressure to make a push for the postseason, no doubt, that prompted him to trade Dan Wheeler to Tampa Bay for Ty Wigginton.

At the time, this felt very similar to the deal that sent Talbot and Zobrist to Tampa for Aubrey Huff. Huff and Wigginton were both part-time rentals from Tampa Bay. They both played third base. They both had some power. In reality, though, this trade hurt Houston far less. Wigginton turned in a career-best 3.1 WAR in 2008, limiting his defensive liabilities. In just 187 plate appearances in Houston in 2007, he went 284/342/462 and was worth 0.8 wins.

Wheeler had been a key piece of the Houston bullpen in 2005 and 2006, and had been moderately less effective in 2007. He never again matched his 05/06 peak, finishing the season with 0.3 WAR for Tampa, but contributing 0.3 more over the following three seasons combined. This resulted in a NET GAIN of 0.5 wins for Houston in 2007.

July 31, 2007 (46-60, 4th NL Central)

Wigginton’s signing made it pretty clear that Morgan Ensberg’s days in Houston were done. Ensberg had been electric during the 2005 season, with 6.5 WAR, and another 3.8 in 2006. But he struggled in 2007, both in the field and at the plate, and was responsible for -0.5 WAR. He rebounded slightly after being traded to San Diego for cash considerations. This move resulted in a NET LOSS of 0.5 wins.

August 22, 2007 (57-70, 4th NL Central)

Danny Ardoin was traded to the St. Louis Cardinals for cash considerations.

September 11, 2007 (63-81, 6th NL Central)

The Astros purchased Dennis Sarfate from the Brewers.

September 20, 2007 (67-86, 5th NL Central)

Ed Wade was hired as the general manager of the Houston Astros.

September 24, 2007 (68-88, 5th NL Central)

Wade’s first move as GM is to ship Jason Lane off to San Diego for nothing. Lane, once one of the Astros’ most highly-touted prospects, floundered at the Major League level, and in 2007 he was worth -0.5 WAR. Even after the trade, he resulted in a NET GAIN of 0.1 WAR. He’s currently trying to rebuild his career as a pitcher.

Altogether, a net loss of a little over 7 wins. The 2006 Astros had won 82 games; eight fewer puts them at 74. Though they actually only won 68 games, Pythagoras had them good enough for 72. Between expected regression, a few bad bounces, and personnel decisions, two games of variance isn’t too bad for this experiment.

The Chicago Cubs won the NL Central in 2007 with 85 wins, or roughly the cost of trading pieces for Jason Jennings and not replacing Andy Pettitte’s value.

On Home Run Suppression at Minute Maid Park

Because I live in Los Angeles, California, I spend a lot of time during the baseball season at Dodger Stadium. An interesting thing happens at Dodger Stadium that doesn’t happen at any other Major League ballpark. Well, a lot of things happen at Dodger Stadium that don’t happen at any other Major League ballpark. For instance, attempted homicide in the parking lot.

But what I’m referring to in this entry is that every time a fly ball is hit in Dodger Stadium, everyone stands up and cranes their neck to watch the ball’s flight. Well, not everyone. 40% of the Dodger Stadium crowd is, at any given point during a game, fixated on one of three hundred beach balls being batted around the stadium (they are not all fixated on this because they enjoy it; it’s also a legitimate safety concern for fans of visiting teams. I’ve been the victim of attempted beach ball assault on more than one occasion). But of the remaining 60%, a very large number stand up to watch every fly ball.

Bet everyone wish they'd sat down for this one.

Bet everyone wish they’d sat down for this one.

Every fly ball. It could be a pop-up to the catcher behind the plate. People will stand up. It could be a long, graceful foul ball that lands somewhere near Vin Scully. People will stand up. It could be a high, looping fly-out to the shortstop. People will stand up. People will stand up because in a city like Los Angeles, at any given time, there are fifty-seven things more interesting than watching the Dodgers. But even in a city like Los Angeles, home runs are one thing people understand and want to see.

What makes this behavior particularly odd is that fly balls don’t generally turn into home runs at Dodger Stadium. In 2012, 1.56 home runs per game were hit in Dodger Stadium. That’s the sixth-least of any stadium in Major League Baseball. In fact, every year since 2006 – when the ESPN Home Run Tracker was created – Dodger Stadium has been ranked as one of the top ten home run-suppressing stadiums in baseball.

Minute Maid Park, of course, has the opposite reputation. It’s known as a hitter-friendly park. One that encourages home runs. At least, that’s the reputation.

But in looking at the Home Run Tracker, something interesting pops up. Though it’s true that from 2006 – 2008, Minute Maid Park ranked among the top ten parks in home run rate, since then it has normalized, and in fact it’s currently listed as a fairly neutral park. In fact, the hitter’s advantage that MMP has been known for since its inaugural season of 2000 may not be such an advantage, after all.

Minute Maid Park Park Factors By Year (Batting)

Season Park Factor
2000 107
2001 106
2002 106
2003 103
2004 101
2005 101
2006 100
2007 100
2008 97
2009 98
2010 97
2011 98
2012 99

After four seasons, Minute Maid Park stabilized and has been more or less a neutral park ever since. But whatever the offensive environment in Minute Maid Park, it’s been more or less understood that it allows more home runs – and fewer beach balls – than Dodger Stadium. Since 2006, an average of .43 fewer home runs a game per season. Over 81 home games, that’s almost 35 fewer home runs per season.

Which makes it even more puzzling what happened in 2010. In 2010, Minute Maid Park allowed just 1.59 home runs per game. Dodger Stadium allowed 1.62. One’s first instinct is to write this off as a bad offensive team, which isn’t entirely untrue, but remember that this covers visiting teams, as well. And as you can see, visiting teams didn’t exactly knock the ball out of Minute Maid Park, either (I include the Astros’ road splits for context):

Year Home SLG Road SLG Visitors SLG
2008 .443 .389 .437
2009 .418 .383 .424
2010 .375 .349 .380
2011 .384 .364 .440
2012 .385 .358 .396

Astros’ hitters lost 43 points of SLG from 2009-2010 at Minute Maid Park, compared to 34 on the road. But visiting hitters lost 44 points themselves, only to completely rebound the following season.

A look at GB/FB rates doesn’t provide any answers:

Year GB/FB Home GB/FB Visitors GB/FB
2008 1.31 1.42 1.16
2009 1.40 1.31 1.33
2010 1.36 1.34 1.22
2011 1.35 1.31 1.11
2012 1.36 1.42 1.53

Looking at home runs per fly ball yields some interesting results, however.

Year HR/FB Home HR/FB Visitors HR/FB
2008 10.9% 12.4% 12.3%
2009 9.4% 6.1% 11.1%
2010 7.0% 8.2% 8.4%
2011 6.4% 6.1% 12.7%
2012 10.8% 12.4% 11.1%

The Astros’ HR/FB rates tumbled in 2010 – down 2.4% from 2009 overall, but actually up almost 2% at home. Conversely, however, visitors in Minute Maid Park only saw 8.4% of their fly balls leave the yard – a 2.7% reduction.

So what happened in 2010 that kept fly balls from leaving the stadium, for both the visitors and for the home team? I don’t see any evidence of a physical change that the stadium encountered that would have resulted in this.

This happened slightly less often in Minute Maid Park in 2010.

This happened slightly less often in Minute Maid Park in 2010.

One possible theory I can come up with is that Prince Fielder – who crushed the ball in Minute Maid Park – had a down year in 2010. Fielder slugged just .200 in Minute Maid Park in that season, far down from his career .627 (not a typo) slugging percentage there. Is it possible that his power slump in Houston was able to change the run environment that much? It seems unlikely. But something happened that year.

Do The Rangers Need to Make a Splashy Move?

Yesterday, my colleague over at Crawfish Boxes, David Coleman, posted his “Three Astros Things.”

One of the Astros things was actually a Rangers thing:

They lost out on Zach [sic] Greinke. They lost out on James Shields. What’s left for the Rangers?

Well, it appears our enemies to the north will try to load up on every other player they can. There’s talk that they may re-sign Josh Hamilton. There’s talk they may push through the Justin Upton trade. They may go after Michael Bourn, Anibal Sanchez, or any number of other players.

But, what if they don’t get anything? How much will the Rangers be hurt if they stand pat? It almost seems like they may be better off not making these moves. They need to replace Josh Hamilton’s offense, but adding Mike Olt may replace some of that offense, right?

Plus, they’d lose draft picks if they have to sign too many big-ticket free agents, which hurts the team down the road. In an Upton trade, they also would have to give up either Andrus or Profar.

I guess the question is are the Rangers good enough to contend without making a splashy move or can they still win the AL West with the team they have now?

My response will be longer than I’d feel comfortable posting in their comments section, so allow me to devote my own article to answering his article.

The usual caveats apply here – since I’ll be spending a lot of energy talking about WAR. WAR is a nice tool, but it’s not the only tool, and it’s certainly not the best predictive tool. But it does put us in the ballpark of a player’s value, so I’ll be using it as a catch-all throughout this article.

I think that, to answer this question, you first have to answer three other questions. Namely:

1. Were the 2012 Oakland Athletics a fluke?

It’s impossible to talk about the Rangers winning or losing the AL West without considering the team that did win the AL West in 2012, the Oakland Athletics. The Athletics seemed to overcome all odds in winning their division, despite having the second-lowest Opening Day payroll in all of baseball. They were built on youth without long major league track records: Yoenis Cespedes, Josh Donaldson, Chris Carter, Derek Norris, and Collin Cowgill were all rookie position players who were worth more than replacement value. Jarrod Parker, Tommy Milone, Ryan Cook, Sean Doolittle, A.J. Griffin, Travis Blackley, Evan Scribner, and Jordan Norberto were all rookie pitchers who did the same.

Pythagoras only put the 2012 Athletics two wins behind their actual performance. Then again, the Rangers only finished one game behind the Athletics in 2012, so I think it’s safe to call that a toss-up. For all intents and purposes, the Rangers and Athletics were equally good in 2012. You could point at any of a number of reasons why the A’s may have a sophomore slump in 2013, or why an additional year of playing together – with postseason experience – could make them play even better. Obviously, it could go either way. But there’s no compelling reason, at this time, to assume that Oakland won’t be in the mix in September and October 2013.

One problem with a young team is trying to define regression to the mean, since they are currently in the process of establishing the mean. As a result, I have no reason to think that the 2013 Athletics will be significantly worse than the 2012 Athletics.

Additionally, the Angels and Mariners could easily improve next season, putting added pressure on Texas to make a move. Or so it would seem.

2. What have the Rangers lost since 2012, and can they replace it?

Since the end of the 2012 season, Texas has lost 11 players with relevant (read: within the last three seasons) Major League experience, and they’ve gained 11 players with relevant Major League experience.

Using a 5/3/2 regression on incoming players, and 2012 rates for outgoing players:

Rangers-2012-12-Offseason

Between Feldman, Napoli, Hamilton, Dempster, and Adams, the Rangers have lost a significant amount to Free Agency this winter. The Geovany Soto “gain” is actually a wash, as Soto was also on the roster in 2012. All told, the Rangers have lost approximately 12 wins from 2012. Prospects, such as Mike Olt, Jurickson Profar, and Leonys Martin, might make up some of the difference, but it’s unlikely they’ll make up all of it. Sure, Mike Trout had 10.0 WAR in his second rookie season of 2012, but counting on 13 wins from a trio of rookies isn’t the best idea in the world.

I would pencil the trio in for somewhere between 4-8 WAR in 2013. We’ll split the difference and call it 6.0. That leaves the Rangers with a 7-win differential from 2012, and an 8-win differential from the 2012 Athletics.

3. What, exactly, constitutes a “flashy signing”?

8 wins is a lot. 8 wins is Buster Posey. Heck, James Shields and Zack Greinke combined would be just over 9 wins. Re-signing Josh Hamilton would eliminate the loss of just 4 wins, and it seems to me that re-signing Hamilton might be a losing proposition. Not only did the Rangers make it clear that Greinke was Option 1 over Hamilton, but they also seem to have downplayed his contributions to an extreme. If I was Josh Hamilton (and let’s make it very clear here that I am not Josh Hamilton), I would look for a payday elsewhere.

But what’s interesting is that re-signing Ryan Dempster would bring the Rangers almost as close as re-signing Hamilton would. Of course, if Dempster’s agent is to be believed, Dempster would rather go to an NL team with Spring Training in Arizona (that’s the Diamondbacks, Cubs, Reds, Rockies, Dodgers, Brewers, Padres, and Giants, incidentally).

Dempster might not be as flashy as Hamilton, but he brings you almost as close to making up the win-differential from 2012 to 2013. After that, it’s a matter of “finding” around 5 wins. Now we’re in Michael Bourn/Justin Upton territory. But, heck, now we’re in Jimmy Rollins territory, too. Or Miguel Montero territory. It’s a lot easier to find 5 wins than it is to try and land one big free agent who can bridge the gap by themselves.

In short, I think a couple of non-flashy signings might benefit the Rangers at least as much as a big signing would. Anibal Sanchez has never been worth as many as 4.5 wins. Michael Bourn is coming off a personal-best 6.4, but he has a skillset that deteriorates with age.

I think a flashy signing might look nice to the fans in Arlington, but I have no reason to think that it’s the best thing the Rangers could do to stay competitive. They’d almost be better off letting the prospects play and trying to catch lightning in a bottle the way Oakland did in 2012.

Of course, there’s a reason why Oakland is Oakland, and why Texas is Texas. And I’d certainly never say that a team who has appeared in back-to-back World Series recently has any sort of a flawed method. But I do have to think that rushing out and signing a free agent just to sign a free agent isn’t the best thing the Rangers could do for themselves right now.

Could Scott Kazmir Be a Fit in Houston?

The Houston Astros need pitching help. They need a lot of pitching help. Though GM Jeff Luhnow was able to acquire some arms during and before the winter meetings – Sam Demel, Josh Fields, and Alex White, notably – the rotation in particular looks a bit shaky.

Since the Astros aren’t going to be major players in free agency (even my dream of acquiring Francisco Liriano looks far-fetched right now), it becomes incumbent on them to poke around in the bushes a little more with the hopes of landing a potential arm for the rotation.

One possibility may be Scott Kazmir, the former first-rounder for the Mets.

Kazmir

Kazmir, out of Cypress Falls High School, was supposed to be a stud. In 2005, Baseball America listed him as the #7 prospect in baseball. Ahead of Rickie Weeks, Hanley Ramirez, Matt Cain, Prince Fielder, and… well, all but six players in the universe (those six players? Joe Mauer, Felix Hernandez, Delmon Young, Ian Stewart, Joel Guzman, and Casey Kotchman). The Mets traded him, along with Jose Diaz, to the Devil Rays for Bartolome Fortunato and Victor Zambrano.

Though it’s easy to look at Kazmir’s time in Tampa Bay as disappointing, he did manage to strike out more batters than innings pitched, was never worth fewer than 2 wins in a season, and went to two All-Star Games. The lefty pitched well through 2008, when elbow issues forced him onto the DL in early 2009. That’s when the real trouble began.

A string of injuries prompted the Rays to trade Kazmir to the Angels for Sean Rodriguez, Matt Sweeney, and Alexander Torres. His tenure in Anaheim was terrible. A rash of injuries led to a breakdown of his mechanics, and reduced effectiveness. His velocity had fallen from touching 94 in 2004, to the mid-80s in 2011. He also lost the feel for his slider, his other plus pitch. The Angels, mercifully, released him in June 2011.

In 2012, Kazmir pitched for the Atlantic League’s Sugar Land Skeeters, and didn’t fare terribly well there, either. 3-6 with a 5.34 ERA, only 1.55 strikeouts per walk, and a 1.672 WHIP. He pitched a little better in Puerto Rico this winter, pitching 4 games, throwing in the 90-94 range, and going 0-2 with a 5.12 ERA, striking out 21 (in 19.1 innings) and only walking 6. Perhaps the most encouraging statistic was his ability to generate groundouts (2.20 GO/AO), which would be a valuable asset for a power pitcher who’s lost his power.

Jon Heyman of CBSSports.com recently mentioned that Kazmir may have multiple suitors. Ordinarily, if a player has a choice between more than one team, then it’s unlikely that Houston is going to be the top choice. However, given that Kazmir grew up locally, there is a possibility. After all, he had his choice of Independent teams, and he chose to pitch for Sugar Land. Not to mention Houston is one destination where he may actually have a solid chance to not only make the roster, but to get penciled in as a starter out of Spring Training.

Grading the Winter Meetings

Astros general manager Jeff Luhnow’s first Winter Meetings are in the rearview mirror, and as he leaves Nashville, it’s time to look back and see how he did with the team’s most pressing needs:

JoshFields

Upgrade the Bullpen

Last season, the Astros’ bullpen was in the bottom 5 in the major leagues in ERA (5th-worst), batting average against (2nd-worst), save percentage (5th-worst), WHIP (3rd-worst), and home runs against (7th-worst). Upgrading the bullpen is at or near the top of the priority list for most GMs every offseason, and this year was no different for Luhnow.

The first thing anyone notices is the trade of Wilton Lopez to Colorado, in exchange for Alex White and Alex Gillingham. You might raise your eyebrows and wonder how the bullpen will be improved through the loss of Lopez, the team’s best reliever, but it might have been. During the Winter Meetings, the Astros added several arms, including White, Gillingham, Rule 5 picks Josh Fields and Cameron Lamb, and Mickey Storey, claimed off waivers from the Yankees (who’d claimed him off waivers themselves from Houston before the Winter Meetings.)

Storey, Fields, and White should contribute immediately to the 2013 pitching staff. It’s unclear whether White is being looked at as a starter or as a reliever, but the story on him since college is that he could be a fairly dominant reliever. What’s helpful, too, is that he’s a similar-type pitcher to Lopez, but under team control longer. Fields is a power pitcher, and Storey had a very nice season in 2012, with 10.09 K/9 and a 2.80 FIP.

Maybe the best news is that Jason Stoffel, who figures to be a good bullpen arm for the Astros in 2014 if not sooner, didn’t get taken in the Rule 5 Draft. Of course, this is through no great display of skill by Houston, but it’s noteworthy nonetheless.

Prior to the Winter Meetings, Houston had already picked up Sam Demel off waivers from the Diamondbacks.

Lamb and Gillingham won’t pitch for the big league club this season, but Storey, White, Fields, and probably Stoffel will. Without signing a single free agent or spending any real money, Luhnow & Co. at least maintained the big league bullpen, whether or not they actually strengthened it.

Jeff, please send help.

Jeff, please send help.

Improve the Starting Rotation

Before the Winter Meetings, the Astros went out and snagged Philip Humber off waivers from the White Sox. Heading into Nashville, it didn’t seem very likely that much else would be done to improve the starting rotation, which could benefit from a veteran presence that slots in either above or below Jordan LylesLucas Harrell, and Bud Norris. Figure that the competition for the final two rotation spots is currently between Jarred CosartDallas Keuchel, and Alex White.

Clearly, this is an area where the Astros could use an upgrade, even if it’s just a veteran stop-gap who can hold down the fort until Cosart’s put in some time in Oklahoma City.

There are still some veteran arms I like, including Francisco Liriano, and some more that I’ll discuss later in the week. But during the Winter Meetings, unless you consider White a potential starter, Luhnow did not address the rotation.

Pronk is a way cooler nickname than Puma.

Pronk is a way cooler nickname than Puma.

Find a Designated Hitter

Despite reports that the Astros checked in on Lance Berkman, Travis Hafner, and Carlos Pena, no one was signed during the Winter Meetings with the express intent of playing DH for the Astros. Rule 5 selection Nate Freiman does look like someone who might be able to fill the role if no one else is signed, as he can provide pop at the plate, but I can’t even imagine that he’s Option A for anyone in the Houston front office.

The future's so bright... you know the rest.

The future’s so bright… you know the rest.

Though Houston came out of the Winter Meetings arguably stronger than when they went in, there are still holes to address. Still, for Luhnow’s first go-around, it was a pretty solid effort without spending any money or making any compromises.

Fields and Freiman join the Astros

In today’s Rule 5 Draft, the Astros selected two players: Josh Fields, right-handed pitcher from Boston, and Nate Freiman, first baseman from San Diego.

Fields was drafted in the 1st round (20th overall) by Seattle in 2008, and was sent to Boston as a piece in the Erik Bedard trade. He’s thrown just under 177 innings, almost all of them in AA, and has shown a remarkable inability to stop from walking guys. He walks a little more than five guys per nine innings pitched, but has limited hits enough to stay at a 1.291 WHIP. He’s made up for it a little bit by whiffing 10.5 per nine innings. But what looks best is his ability to limit the home run: 0.5 HR/9 isn’t a bad statistic.

On paper, a 1.291 WHIP, 0.5 HR/9, and 10.5 K/9 rate looks awfully good, but you also have to remember that this is a 26-year-old pitcher playing in the Eastern League. His age-appropriate seasons weren’t quite as impressive.

After moving into the Boston organization, he was blowing guys away (10+ K/9 in all of his stops there, FIPs all under 4), so it’s possible someone in their organization was able to “fix” him, but it’s just as likely that his results were due to pitching to hitters two and three years his junior. He clearly profiles as a middle-reliever in the Houston bullpen.

Players taken in the Rule 5 Draft must spend the entire season – aside from any injury rehab assignments – on the 25-man roster. If Houston wants to send him to the minors, they’ll have to arrange a trade. Otherwise, they’d have to return him to Boston.

Freiman was taken in the 8th round by San Diego, out of Duke University. He’s climbed steadily but slowly through their organization – spending entire seasons in short season, A, high A, and finally double-A ball. In San Antonio in 2012, he had a .203 ISO  and a .324 BABIP. He’s never posted double-digit walk rates, but isn’t exactly a strikeout king, either.

Good power, good on-base rate. The usual caveats about playing under his age bracket, but he looks like a potentially-solid bat, and should get a look at DH or first base.

Astros Claim Philip Humber Off Waivers

Today, the Houston Astros claimed Philip Humber off waivers from the Chicago White Sox. Houston then avoided arbitration with Humber, agreeing to terms on a one-year deal, with a club option for 2014.

So, the next natural question becomes: Who is Philip Humber?

There are things we know about Philip Humber. We know that he was drafted in the 1st round (3rd overall) by the Mets in the 2004 Rule 4 Draft out of Rice University. We know that he was part of the package that the Mets sent to Minnesota for Johan Santana in 2008. We know that from 2009-2012, he was claimed off of waivers by the Royals, Athletics, White Sox, and finally by the Astros.

Further, if we’ve paid attention we know that Philip Humber had a very good year in 2011, going 9-9 with a 3.75 ERA and 3.6 fWAR. We may also know that he threw the 21st perfect game in MLB history, blanking the Seattle Mariners 4-0 in what was actually the only complete game of his career, on April 21, 2012.

And now, we know that Philip Humber is a Houston Astro, for at least one season.

Philip-Humber

As Astros fans, and as an Astros blog, I feel that first it’s incumbent upon us to say welcome to the Astros, Philip. Glad to have you aboard.

First, a bit of trivia. In 1995, a young Venezuelan pitcher named Johan Santana was signed by the Houston Astros as an amateur free agent. The Astros never promoted Santana above A-ball, and in 1999, the Florida Marlins drafted him in the Rule 5 Draft. They then traded him to the Minnesota Twins for Jared Camp, and Santana went on to win two Cy Young Awards for the Twins.

Then, in 2008, Minnesota traded Santana to the New York Mets for a package of prospects that included – wait for it – Philip Humber. Now, Humber comes to Houston. So in a roundabout sort of way, we can at least close our eyes and pretend that the Mets sent Humber to the Astros for Santana. It’s not true, but at least we can now pretend to have closure.

So what happened between Humber’s 3.5+ fWAR season in 2011, his perfect game at the beginning of the 2012 season, and his getting waived by Chicago at the end of the 2012 season?

It’s an important question, and it’s one that GM Jeff Luhnow must feel confident in knowing the answer to.

2011 (163.0) and 2012 (102.0) are the only two seasons in which Humber has thrown more than a hundred innings in the big leagues. The disparity between the two seasons is pretty remarkable. In short, there’s almost nothing similar about them, from a numbers point of view:

K/9 BB/9 HR/9 BABIP GB% HR/FB ERA FIP xFIP SIERA WAR
2011 6.40 2.26 0.88 .275 47.1% 7.7% 3.75 3.58 3.86 3.89 3.6
2012 7.50 3.88 2.03 .294 34.9% 16.5% 6.44 5.77 4.84 4.48 -0.2

Looking at these two seasons, it’s as if you’re looking at two completely different players. 2011 Humber (who we’ll call PH11) didn’t strike many people out, but didn’t issue an unreasonable number of walks, either. He was aided by BABIP, to be sure, but he put a lot of balls on the ground and, of the balls he put in the air, fewer than 10% of them went for home runs.

2012 Humber (PH12), on the other hand, struck out more guys, but also walked significantly more, induced far fewer groundballs, and saw more than twice as many of the flyballs he induced leave the park.

Oh, and did I mention that PH12 spent some time on the disabled list with a mild right elbow flexor strain? Because he did.

A few other things are clear when looking at the data between 2011 and 2012: His arsenal doesn’t seem to have changed significantly. By that, I mean his fastball didn’t drop in velocity from one season to the next (in fact, it was a little faster in 2012, on average, by a few tenths of a MPH). His two-seamer, slider, and curveball all look like approximately the same pitch, velocity-wise. His changeup was 1.5 MPH faster in 2012, on average, but surely that couldn’t have accounted for such a drastic shift in performance, and it’s likely more a result of his throwing it far less (8.1% of PH12’s pitches were changeups, down from PH11’s 16.9%).

But his results were down across the board. Every single pitch lost runs from 2011 to 2012 (though, interestingly, his two-seamer gained runs above average/100).

He went on the disabled list in June 2012, but had clearly been experiencing problems before that. When he returned from the Disabled List, he only pitched 4 starts (going 2-1, allowing 15 runs in 20.2 innings) before being relegated to the bullpen, usually in mop-up duty. In his penultimate appearance with the White Sox, on September 4th against Minnesota, he recorded only one out while throwing 41 pitches, giving up 8 runs on 7 hits, 2 walks, and no strikeouts.

I’m not a clever enough statistician or scout to know what happened between PH11 and PH12. Whether the injury lingered longer than is generally known, or if something changed in his mechanics. I’m not the guy to figure all of that out. All I can do is hope that PH13 is closer to the former than the latter.

2012/13 Offseason: Non-Tender Candidates – Pitchers

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

Starters

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

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

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

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

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

Relievers

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

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

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

2012/13 Offseason: Non-Tender Candidates – Hitters

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And now, for something completely different…

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

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

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

Could Carl Pavano Make Sense for the Astros?

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

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

I’ll quote Cafardo:

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

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

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

That’s one version of Carl Pavano.

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

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

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

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

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