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, 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.
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:
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.
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 Lyles, Lucas Harrell, and Bud Norris. Figure that the competition for the final two rotation spots is currently between Jarred Cosart, Dallas 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.
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.
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.
Last week, the Phillies and Astros very nearly came to terms on a trade that would send Wilton Lopez to Philadelphia in exchange for prospects (presumably, Tyler Cloyd and Sebastian Valle). That deal fell through, presumably because the Phillies saw something they didn’t like in Lopez’s physical.
Today, however, the Rockies and Astros came to terms on a deal that sends Wilton to Colorado. The Astros will receive Alex White and Alex Gillingham in return.
On Houston’s side, White is the “get” in this trade. A first rounder (15th overall) out of UNC-Chapel Hill by Cleveland in 2009, he was considered a top ten Indians prospect in 2011 when he was sent to Colorado as part of the Ubaldo Jimenez deal.
White pitched parts of the last two seasons in the majors. He turned 24 years old in August, and won’t be arbitration-eligible until 2015.
Though his success has been limited in the big leagues so far, White has a decent ceiling. He comes with a heavy sinker in the low 90s, a splitter, and a slider, all of which he can throw for strikes. He’s also got a changeup, which seems designed more to set up his other stuff than anything else. He’s shown some control issues, walking 3.83 batters per 9 innings in the minors while striking out just 6.45. He’ll no doubt learn to pitch to contact a little better, and his 51.4% ground ball rate should play in Minute Maid Park.
Getting out of Coors Field should have the effect of reducing his HR/9 rate, as well, which he already reduced from 2.63 in 2011 to 1.19 in 2012. In none of his five stops in the minors did he allow as many as 1 home run per nine; nor did he post an ERA over 3 at any of them until 2012 in Colorado Springs, where his walk rate spiked. It doesn’t look like an issue that can’t be controlled.
Gillingham was an 11th rounder in 2011 out of Loyola Marymount University right here in sunny Los Angeles. He’s thrown just under 185 innings between Rookie and A-ball. Though his strikeout rates aren’t impressive by themselves, he does strike out about three batters for every walk one he walks.
His 2012 looks particularly good: 123.0 IP, 6-8, 83 K, 28 BB, 5 HR, 1.22 WHIP, 3.66 ERA. For the record, that’s 0.37 home runs per 9 innings pitched. He turned 23 in October, so it’s iffy whether he’ll go straight to Corpus Christi or spend some time in Lancaster; I suspect the latter, but we’ll see.
If he can continue to keep his groundball rate high and his HR/9 low, he could be a real quality piece for the Astros.
Initial reports of this trade had Parker Frazier coming to Houston, but that idea was eliminated. Frazier is, however, available in the Rule 5 draft. So we’ll see if he ends up in Houston’s bullpen in Spring Training, anyway.