Yankees Claim Mickey Storey

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

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

I guess.

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

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

Could Carl Pavano Make Sense for the Astros?

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

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

I’ll quote Cafardo:

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

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

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

That’s one version of Carl Pavano.

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

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

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

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

Lance Berkman Opens His Big Fat Mouth

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1st Annual All-Astros Awards Winners

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

Rude.

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

Rookie of the Year

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

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

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

Most Valuable Player

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

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

Best Pitcher

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

Best Defender

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

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

Best Hitter

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

Could the Astros deal Lucas Harrell or Bud Norris?

Ken Rosenthal of Fox Sports recently wrote:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2012/13 Offseason: Bullpen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Prediction:

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

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

2012/13 Offseason: Starting Pitchers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

My Prediction:

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