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.
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.
LHP Francisco Liriano
RHP Lucas Harrell
RHP Bud Norris
RHP Jordan Lyles
LHP Rudy Owens
There is no doubt in my mind that Fernando Martinez and Justin Maxwell will begin the 2013 season as starting outfielders.
Martinez, claimed on waivers from the Mets prior to the 2012 season, was a former top prospect whose development had been hampered by injuries. He had 90 good games in Oklahoma City last season, and even earned 107 wRC+ in his time in the big leagues. Houston may be the only place where he can continue his development on the field at the big league level, and they could certainly use his .477 Slugging Percentage in the lineup. For my money, he can start at either corner outfield spot for Houston.
Maxwell is a different story. He strikes out way too much, but after he began to receive regular playing time with Jordan Schafer on the DL, he looked a lot more comfortable at the plate. His defense was the real story, and he managed to scrape together 2.3 fWAR and 107 wRC+. I’d slot him into center field and challenge someone to try and take it away from him.
The question then must become: Who plays alongside them?
Brandon Barnes was abysmal in his 43 games in Houston (.232 wOBA!? .061 ISO!?). Che-Hsuan Lin, a waiver claim from Boston, shows promise and has a nice low strikeout rate, but nothing immediately leaps off the page at me. Forget J.D. Martinez and his .686 OPS.
A look around the system does show some interesting prospects, however.
Most of the good ones aren’t quite ready. Andrew Aplin had a 187 wRC+ in low-A ball with an extremely lucky BABIP; Preston Tucker put together 165 right alongside him. Speaking of BABIP, 2011 first-rounder George Springer had a .404 on his way to a .955 OPS in Lancaster. Along with his 28 stolen bases and an 11.2% walk rate, it’s not hard to see him as the leadoff man of the future. But that’s the future.
Maybe the two most-intriguing outfield prospects are Domingo Santana and Telvin Nash. Both are power-first guys who are mashing so far. Santana, received as the PTBNL in the Hunter Pence trade from Philadelphia, went 302/385/536 in Lancaster – and he’s just 20 years old. Even with Lancaster’s reputation for power hitting, a .385 OBP looks mighty nice, even if it was aided by a .397 BABIP. Sure, he may strike out 28.2% of the time, but he’s improving: It’s actually his first full season where he struck out less than 30% of the time.
Nash, on the other hand, strikes out more than forty percent of the time – now that’s a problem! Still, it’s really hard not to lick your lips at a .270 ISO, even if it is in Lancaster.
I wouldn’t be surprised to see Santana begin the year repeating high-A ball, but no doubt both these guys will be plugging away in Corpus Christi before July, along with Springer. It could be a glimpse of the future.
There’s also Brandon Meredith, who had 143 wRC+ in Lexington this year, and who should begin 2013 in Lancaster. Meredith’s peripherals look great: 11.2 BB%, 23.2 K%, 278/377/506 line in Lexington.
None of that helps the major league team right now, however.
When I look at possibilities for the Houston club, three names jump to my eye: Marc Krauss, Jimmy Paredes, and Jake Goebbert.
Paredes is an intriguing player – he’s been tried at third and second base, and is transitioning to the outfield, where he seems to be doing a little less damage, defensively. He went 318/348/477 in Oklahoma City last year, but I think he needs to repeat the level to further develop into an outfielder. Something tells me, though, that he might not have the chance, and that his learning curve may take place in the majors.
Krauss came over last year from Arizona in the Chris Johnson trade. He was raking in AA-ball for the D-backs, and in just 7 games in Corpus Christi. His call-up to Oklahoma City didn’t go as well (123/203/123 in 22 games), but don’t be surprised if you see him hanging around Spring Training.
Goebbert seems like he’s been in the Astros system a long time. He’s bounced back and forth between AA and AAA the last couple of seasons, and hasn’t been able to make the adjustment to AAA pitching. Still, his .872 OPS in the Texas League in 2012 is hard to ignore.
Personally, I can see Paredes nailing down the right field spot in spring, with Martinez in left and Maxwell in center. Lin will almost certainly hang around as the 4th/5th outfielder, and barring any sort of a Rule 5 draftee or a low-risk free agent signing, I think Barnes hangs around as a late-inning defensive replacement.
LF Fernando Martinez
CF Justin Maxwell
RF Jimmy Paredes
Bench: Che-Hsuan Lin, Brandon Barnes