They say it takes five years before you can truly evaluate a trade.
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.
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.
off-day. A day for the Houston Astros front office to get together and
decide what in the world they’re going to do. A day to reflect. A day
for the players to visit with their families. With each other. To try
and become a team.
A day when we can’t lose a game. Which is
good, because on Saturday, we have a Split Squad game, so we can make
up for lost time by losing two.
Spring Training records don’t
matter, and thank goodness for that, because ours has been lousy.
Let’s take a moment and recap the statistics of our presumed Opening
Day starters, shall we?
Please note that this does not include exhibition or WBC games. These numbers are what most insiders would refer to as “bad.”
Carlos Lee, our cleanup hitter, has grounded into as many double plays
(1) as he has hits. I’m not worried about him, though. He’ll be
fine. He got to camp late, he went to play for Panama in the WBC.
He’s an older guy, he may take longer to get there but I’m sure he will
In addition, Berkman (our #3 hitter) and Tejada (who will hit fifth or sixth) are doing just fine. The heart of the order is not the concern, though. Hunter Pence (who would hit 5th in an ideal lineup, but will probably end up 2nd or 6th) is striking out a lot as he works on getting deeper into counts, but he’s getting on base for the most part. Michael Bourn is Michael Bourn – he’s doing better than most of us expected.
That leaves Quintero, Blum, and Matsui. Now, we all know that Quintero and Blum would not be starters on most rosters. Blum is an invaluable utilityman who has only had 400+ at-bats twice in his 10-season career. Quintero is an arm behind the plate who has only had more than 150 at-bats once, and that was last season.
These are not big surprises. Matsui is a bit of a surprise, especially as he’s the de facto leadoff hitter for the Astros. The good news is that he’s drastically under-performing right now, so it can generally be chalked up to a bad Spring. Over the past two and a half seasons, he’s gone .297/.350/.427 in Colorado and Houston (admittedly two hitters’ parks, but that’s where he’ll be playing this year, as well.)
So it comes down to uncertainty about Bourn’s supposed progress, hope that Lee and Matsui will pick it up in time, and dread over the catcher and third base spots.
Simply put, Quintero is not an upgrade to Brad Ausmus, who opted to move out west to be closer to his family. His other option was retiring, so it’s not as if we could have retained him. And I realize he didn’t exactly swing a great stick, but over the past 8 seasons with the Astros, he went .240/.311/.319. Quintero career minor league OBP is .311, there’s no reason to think he can be that productive at the major league level – after he “improved” at the end of last season in August and September after he became more or less the full-time catcher, he scraped together a .306 OBP.
Whether anyone wants to admit it or not, among catchers currently in our system, J.R. Towles‘ .302/.386/.476 over five minor league seasons makes him the best offensive option behind the plate, his poor showing in 2008 notwithstanding.
That said, we still may be better served going out and grabbing a catcher from outside of our system. Toby Hall‘s injury spoiled things for him, but Johnny Estrada (.277/.317/.400), Paul Lo Duca (.286/.337/.409), and Ivan Rodriguez (.301/.339/.475) are all still available, and neither would cost us a draft pick.
Third base is a little bleaker. It should be assumed that Christopher Johnson (.353/.409/.588 this Spring) is going to at least begin the season at AAA Round Rock, but will no doubt find his way to the Show as the long-term solution at third base. Otherwise, he could end up in a position similar to what Towles was handed last year – given the reins a bit too early and written off once he’d failed as a result.
Until that time, we can probably look forward to a platoon of Geoff Blum and Aaron Boone. In 2003, when that duo would have combined to go .265/.310/.261, that would have been mildly acceptable. In 2009, when they combined to go .241/.293/.289 the previous year, it’s not quite as exciting (and it wasn’t all that exciting before.)
There’s no help in free agency, unless you were to shift Tejada to third (where he played in the WBC), Matsui to shortstop (where he played before switching positions with Jose Reyes in New York), and getting either Ray Durham or Mark Grudzielanek from free agency. That seems unlikely, so I suppose we’ll have to dig in and wait for the Chris Johnson era to start. I’m cautiously optimistic that that could happen as early as May.
A word of caution, however, as Johnson’s minor league line (.266/.304/.395) is actually worse than the last promotion-from-within at third base, Morgan Ensberg‘s (.271/.381/.472). Ultimately, Ensberg lost all confidence at the plate, but let’s remember that he did give us three very solid years at the big league level – 2003, 2004, and 2005 – before his collapse. Even 2006, the beginning of his “downturn”, he boasted a .396 OBP and a .463 SLG.
Free agent pitchers are less of a sure thing. If we were going to enter the market, we’ve missed the window. All that’s left are a few reclamation projects: Pedro Martinez, Mark Mulder, Ben Sheets, Kenny Rogers, Curt Schilling, El Duque, Sidney Ponson. Upgrades over Mike Hampton and Brian Moehler? Possibly. But it’s unlikely we’d sign any of these guys, and I can’t really blame the FO for passing on them.
All told, it will be interesting to see how our team comes together. If they come together. At this point in Spring Training, the positives are few, but they exist. And honestly, if it means that money goes into development and signing draft picks, I’m okay with no moves being made. Let’s just hunker down and see if we can’t lose us some games!
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.