I’m becoming increasingly worried about Astros manager Cecil Cooper‘s mental health.
Last year, despite rumors that he was alienating his veteran players, Cooper rode the team to a 86-75 record, third in the division and 3.5 games out of the NL Wild Card. They outperformed Pythagoras by nine wins – and one way to explain a team outperforming their Pythagorean W-L% almost certainly has to be managerial skill.
There were definite moments, however, where Cooper seemed to be exceedingly out of his element. This offseason has brought his bipolar disorder into sharper focus. During the team’s extended winless streak during Spring Training, Cooper began to lose his mind. On March 10, Alyson Footer quoted him as saying “I don’t have any answers about why this is happening, unless someone put the hex on us,” and that “this is bordering on ridiculous.”
That was when they were 1-10-1. A hex? Coop, no one put a hex on the team. It’s a veteran team, missing key players to the WBC, with very little organizational depth to help them hold leads late in games, once the major leaguers are gone. There’s no hex, Coop.
The next day was a day off, and Cooper said he went golfing because he “had to hit something.” Then he bemoaned the team’s low batting average, saying “We’re hitting .220 as a team in Spring Training. No one hits .220 in Spring Training. Come on. Two hundred. Are you kidding me?”
Then, on March 17, Alyson posted one of the most disturbing quotes of the offseason: “I’m not concerned about our pitching. I’m concerned about the hitting.” Not concerned about a rotation that includes such luminaries as Brian Moehler, Russ Ortiz, and Mike Hampton in the starting rotation, spelled by Brandon Backe and Jose Capellan? You’re more concerned about the hitting of a team that features Lance Berkman, Miguel Tejada, Carlos Lee, and Hunter Pence?
This is also when the rumblings of the players, led by Berkman, began to seep out. In sharp contrast to Cooper’s daily rants, Berkman and the other players didn’t seem to be paying any attention at all. It became clearer and clearer that Cooper and his staff were most assuredly not on the same page as their players – at least not their veteran players.
His inability to coach big leaguers became showed itself when Footer quoted him as saying, “I keep calling them out and nobody seems to step up. That’s all I can
tell you, we need somebody to step up and nobody’s stepping up.”
Then the Astros started to win, at which point Danny Knobler of CBSSports.com quoted Cooper as saying, “We should win 90 games, without question. We have a terrific bullpen. We have one of the best closers in the game. We’ve got the
ace in the National League. We’ve got three of the best offensive
players at their position. We’ve got, if not the best, then one of the
top catchers in baseball.
“I mean, c’mon. We’ve got what it takes. You’re telling me we’re not going to win that many games?”
FanGraphs reprinted the quote in their article “Cecil the Delusional.” I understand wanting to pump your team up, but we should win ninety games? Without question? “Delusional” is definitely the right word, and kudos to Eric Seidman at FanGraphs for nailing it.
So Cooper is on the same page as neither the players nor reality.
On March 13, Coop said “…we thought we didn’t have catching. That was kind of the general consensus of people on the outside.
And for the most part, there were some people here that didn’t think
that. But I had a chance to see five guys catch, and I’m very confident
in all five guys. They
all can catch and throw. And they receive pretty well… To me, I
think our catching is in pretty good hands for a long, long time.” Three days later, the report surfaced that the Astros had signed Ivan Rodriguez, pending the end of his WBC service and a physical.
That’s when it became clearer that Cooper was also not on the same page as the front office, in addition to the players or reality.
Perhaps the most concerning thing, however, has been the way he’s handled the David Newhan situation in Spring Training camp this year. Newhan was on the 2008 squad, and had a decent September (.281/.314/.344) to help the team in its final playoff push. He was released and subsequently re-signed as the Astros began to look into utility infielder options to replace the departed Mark Loretta.
Cooper, convinced that the utility infielder needed to be a shortstop, allowing them to spell Miguel Tejada more often. Despite the obvious truth that spelling Kazuo Matsui (who has never been able to string together even 115 games in a season) should be a priority over Tejada (who has played in fewer than 150 games only once since 1999), Cooper wanted a shortstop who could play other positions, rather than an infielder who could play shortstop.
Which is fine, if that’s what he wants, but he basically took Newhan out of the running without giving him a chance. Among quotes like, “I have to say this, there’s a difference between a pure shortstop who
can play over there and someone who can maybe go and stand over there,
really. We have to be able to play it,” he didnt’ even play Newhan at shortstop to give him the chance to play himself out of contention.
He simply wrote him off. Newhan told Cooper he felt comfortable playing there, despite his major league inexperience. He’s been on rosters behind Miguel Tejada (Houston and Baltimore,) Jimmy Rollins (Philadelphia), and Jose Reyes (Mets). “There’s a whole bunch of other guys I have to look at there. He did tell me he could play it. We’ll cross that bridge when we
get to it,” was Cooper’s response.
He even said that there were six others to look at – Jason Smith, Tommy Manzella, Edwin Maysonet, Blum, Drew Sutton and Matt Kata – with shorstop experience, pushing Newhan to seventh.
Okay, fine, put him as seventh coming into the season, but give him a shot. The worst part was that, despite writing him off so early, was that the Astros then waited until March 29 to release him, seriously affecting his ability to get a job somewhere else.
I have to tell you, I have not been overly impressed with Cooper during his tenure as the Astros manager so far, and this Spring Training has been one enormous train wreck.
The Astros’ winless streak in Grapefruit League action has hit fourteen after a double loss in split-squad action today. To hear the players talk, it seems as if no one’s worried. To hear fans of other teams – who don’t follow the Astros regularly – it’s daunting, but they seem so sure that the Astros will turn it around.
And, yes, there are a lot of factors. However, I’m not so sure it’s reasonable to expect April 6th to arrive and see the Astros suddenly start winning.
Were situations reversed, I would not exactly feel as optimistic as I now feel pessimistic. In other words, were the Astros to win their final twenty exhibition games heading into the regular season, I certainly still wouldn’t expect us to finish first in the NL Central this season. So why, after losing or tying fourteen straight (which actually isn’t entirely accurate, as we did beat Panama back on March 5 — with one of our biggest sluggers, Carlos Lee, playing for the other team.
So I remain tempered, but it does lead to one question: If the Astros tank this season, finishing fourth or worst in the Central, is that necessarily a bad thing?
The Astros over-performed in 2008. Of the top 17 teams in the overall standings, only one had a negative run differential: The Astros, with a -31 differential between runs allowed and runs scored. Every other team with a negative run differential finished in the bottom 13.
In other words, 16 teams scored more runs in 2008 than they allowed. 14 teams allowed more than they scored. With one exception – the Astros – the ones that scored more finished on top, and the ones that allowed more finished on the bottom.
The Astros bested their Pythagorean W-L by nine games, finishing third in the NL Central at 86-75. Had they finished at 77-84, as their Pythagorean W-L suggests they should have, they would have been fourth in the Central. Not a big discrepancy, perhaps, but what were the ramifications, ultimately?
The Astros’ over-performance did not lead to a playoff appearance. What it did do, however, was give them 11th-best record in baseball – as opposed to the 18th-best, as their Pythagorean W-L suggests they should have had. In real-world terms, this translates to a #21 draft pick, instead of a #14 pick (the Nationals will receive the #11 pick for failing to sign last year’s pick, Aaron Crow.)
The 2009 draft will feature the longest-ever wait in history between the first pick of the first round and the first pick of the second round. Two teams – the Nats and Yankees – will have additional first-round picks for failure to sign last year’s draft picks. There will be 13 sandwich picks. This means that top-tier talent will be greatly depleted by the time teams begin picking in the second round.
That makes those seven lost spots very key. Not necessarily in the first round, but beginning in the second round especially.
One thing that generally puts the Astros a little higher-up on organizational rankings than other teams with superior farm systems is that, for better or worse, owner Drayton McLane is willing to spend money. They are generally in the top half of the league in payroll. This marks one truism: The team has been willing to trade for veterans at the deadline when it appears that they will be competitive, and sign free agents when they think that they might help the team make a run.
The problem is that those trades have depleted the farm system over the years, and the free agent signings have given away draft picks, which has hindered the re-loading of that farm system. Questionable drafting has not exactly helped. Catcher Jason Castro is the team’s most highly-ranked prospect according to Baseball America at #53 (Justin Smoak, who the Astros skipped over to get to Castro in the draft, is ranked #23 for the Rangers, but never mind…) and he is a legitimate catching prospect who is expected to be solid, though not an All-Star caliber offensive threat.
No other Astros prospect appears in the Top 100.
These are signs that the farm system desperately needs an overhaul. And the only way to do that, shy of dealing established veteran for farmhands, is through the draft. Scouting Director Bobby Heck helped rebuild a struggling Milwaukee Brewers team through the draft, and their system is now littered with the fruits of his efforts.
We seem to have the right guy in place right now. So is now the time to return to our roots and build through the draft? It would certainly seem so.
(Boring math follows. Feel free to skip ahead.)
Were the Astros to add a free agent this offseason, it likely would have been a pitcher, catcher, or third baseman. The third base market was weak, with Casey Blake as the standout. Blake would have added approximately 1.6 wins in 2009 over Geoff Blum, according to FanGraphs, at a salary differential of +5.0.
Ivan Rodriguez, at catcher, would add approximately 1.9 wins over incumbent Humberto Quintero, at a salary differential of +12.0. In other words, in spending a lot of money on Rodriguez and Blake, the Astros would have added a possible 3 wins. Not a small number, but is it worth the cost?
It’s a little different in the pitching department. In 2008, Brandon Backe cost the Astros an estimated 0.8 wins. Adding an inning-eater, such as Jon Garland, would add approximately 2.1 wins, albeit at about ten times the cost.
By not making these three signings, let’s say that the Astros have cost themselves five wins, and saved themselves 15-20 million dollars in salary by sacrificing those five wins.
Five wins is significant. In 2008, five wins would have put the Astros into the NL Wild Card spot. The revenue would have increased as a result, which greatly helps offset the additional money spent. In Houston’s two home games during the 2005 NL Division Series, they had attendance figures of 43,759 and 43,413. Multiplying these numbers by their 2008 average ticket price of $28.73, we get an added revenue in ticket sales alone of $2,504,451.56. This does not include merchandising or concessions, and assumes no price hike in playoff tickets.
Additionally, it stands to reason that a competitive team will receive a higher attendance average than the same team would if they were not competitive. In each of the past three seasons, as the Astros have begun to look less competitive, their attendance has dropped by an average 121,638 fans per season. Assuming a rate of sales from the 2005 season (3,022,763) at the 2008 average ticket price, the it wouldn’t be unreasonable to assume that the Astros would have made about $5,887,294.14 more in the regular season through ticket sales alone.
Added to the added ticket revenue from the first-round playoff games, as well as a liberally-estimated $10m in additional concessions and merchandise sales, they’d stand to make $18,391,745.70 with five more wins – at the cost of $15-20m in additional salaries.
(End of math. Read on with ease.)
There are, of course, other ways to spend that money. Three key areas have been proven over time to drastically increase the number of wins that a team can expect over a sustainable period: Scouting, Development, and Signing Bonuses.
When Castro signed for $2,070,000, it was the second-highest bonus in team history, after Chris Burke’s $2,125,000 in 2001. Of the top five bonuses in team history, three have come since 2005: Castro, Max Sapp ($1,400,000), and Brian Bogusevic ($1,375,000). Not coincidentally, Bogusevic and Castro are among the organization’s top three prospects. Sapp, who was recentl
y hospitalized with viral meningitis, may never play baseball again.
What this means is that several years’ worth of players drafted while the team was “competitive” have not managed to surpass the promise of two players drafted with high draft picks in the past three seasons.
By remaining where they are, and giving up a chance to compete for a Wild Card, the Astros are likely to better place themselves in position to get one, and possibly two top-tier prospects in the 2010 draft. In my opinion, it’s far better to finish fourth or worst and put yourself into a better draft position than it is to finish third – still out of the playoffs, but without the draft pick to show for it.
And for a team whose number one priority has to be re-stocking their farm system, it may be better to underperform than to overperform, provided overperforming doesn’t put them in the playoffs. That’s the tipping point. If you can get into the playoffs, you can win it all. But all teams outside of the playoffs are, for all intents and purposes, on a level playing field. Twenty-two teams don’t make the playoffs every season. If you’re going to be one of those teams, isn’t it better to have not spent $15-20m in the process?
That money, at this point, is better spent on the draft, scouting, and development of prospects, who can then be groomed and called up, giving the organization a far better – and affordable – chance to re-stock their major league talent than free agency can.
In other words, would you rather sign C.C. Sabathia at about $23m or draft David Price with a $5,600,000 bonus and pay him $400,000? In theory, you could have 3 David Prices for the cost of one C.C. Sabathia.
It seems like a no-brainer to me.
When a starting rotation has as many question marks as the Houston Astros’ 2009 edition does, Spring Training competition begins to take on an added edge.
For those of you unfamiliar, this is what our rotation looks like:
1. Roy Oswalt, RHP (no question marks here)
2. Mike Hampton, LHP (part-timer; isn’t likely to make more than 12-15 starts)
3. Wandy Rodriguez, LHP (better than a lot of people realize)
4. Brian Moehler, RHP (had a good 2008; can he repeat?)
5. Brandon Backe, RHP; Russ Ortiz, RHP; Clay Hensley RHP; Felipe Paulino, RHP; Fernando Nieve, RHP; etc.
The 1-3 spots are pretty much set, at least for as long as Hampton can stay healthy, and minus whatever time Wandy spends injured. The upside to having so much competition for the fifth starter spot is that it means there are a lot of options for spot starters when the opening rotation gets battered.
Today, we’ll get our second look at Russ Ortiz in an Astros uniform. A non-roster invitee, Ortiz didn’t interest me very much when he came to the organization. His career has been a mess since his career year in 2003, when he finished 4th in the Cy Young voting:
2003: 21-7, 212.1 IP, 3.81 ERA (112 ERA+), 1.314 WHIP, 149 K, 102 BB
04-08: 22-31, 431.2 IP, 5.61 ERA (76 ERA+), 1.677 WHIP, 260 K, 237 BB
So when he came to Astros camp, I figured he was just a guy brought in to challenge the other starting alternatives.
But the thing is, he looked very good in his first spring game. In his two innings of work, he allowed just one hit, walked one, and struck out three, not allowing any runs.
Sample sizes don’t get much smaller than that, but at the moment I’d say he’s the odds-on favorite for the fifth starter spot. We’ll see him today against the Yankees, and it’ll be interesting to note if he continues to perform well through the Spring, especially with Nieve’s and Hensley’s disappointing performances in yesterday’s game.