One of the few competitions in Spring Training was for the fifth infielder position. Manager Cecil Cooper decided that he wanted a backup shortstop who could play other positions, so that he could give Miguel Tejada more rest.
That decision – instead of getting a second baseman who could handle other positions, thereby allowing the Astros to plug someone in when Kazuo Matsui inevitably went down to injury – led to a severe mishandling of David Newhan. Newhan, a second baseman by trade, was never really given a chance to fail, despite being better than most of the other candidates.
Jason Smith had a torrid Spring and earned the spot. He is now 0-for-2009, and is exhibiting his massively-limited range at second base. Why? Because, surprise of surprises, Kazuo Matsui went down with a bad back. Jeff Keppinger, who is slated to fill in all over the infield, is also out with back woes.
Though Drew Sutton might not have been ready to come up anyway, he is certainly not an option now that he has been named as the PTBN in the Keppinger deal. There are no other legitimate second-base options in the system.
That leaves Smith, struggling. Exactly as everyone predicted.
Oh, and Tejada? No days off yet.
Gee, who would have predicted any of that? Oh, right. Everyone. Well, everyone but Cecil Cooper.
And for all of this horrible mishandling of such a basic position battle, it was announced today that Cooper would be retained through the 2010 season. Perfect.
What Happened Was…
Houston Astros (MLB) – We all know Wandy Rodriguez can pitch at Minute Maid Park. He had his curveball working today, and allowed just two hits, striking out 10 (including five consecutive) in 7.0 innings and earning his first win of the season. Carlos Lee was 3-for-3 with an RBI, 2 runs, and a walk.
Round Rock Express (AAA) – The Express tried their hardest to lose, giving up three runs in the bottom of the eighth, but luckily they’d just scored three in the top of the eighth, as well, and beat the Iowa Cubs (CHC) 7-5. 2 home runs from Reggie Abercrombie and another from Mark Saccomanno paced the offense. Abercrombie went 2-for-3 with 4 RBI, and Saccomanno went 2-for-4 with 3 RBI. Bud Norris made it 5.1 innings, giving up 2 runs on 3 hits and 4 walks to go with his 6 strikeouts. Chad Paronto earned his second save, giving up just one hit and striking out two in as many innings.
Corpus Christi Hooks (AA) – The Hooks took a 5-3 lead into the ninth inning, and ended up losing to the Tulsa Drillers (COL) 6-5. Douglas Arguello pitched well, going 5.2 innings with 7 strikeouts, allowing 3 runs on as many hits, along with 2 walks. Paul Estrada made it just 0.2 innings before giving up 3 runs to lose the game. SS Wladimir Sutil had a career night, going 2-for-2 with 2 walks, stole 3 bases, and scored 2 runs.
Lancaster Jethawks (A+) – The Jethawks allowed 3 runs in the fifth inning, falling to the High Desert Mavericks (SEA), 4-2. David “The Other David Duncan” Duncan continued to struggle on the mound, with 4.2 IP and 3 ER, raising his ERA on the season to 14.85. Offseason acquisition Chia-Jen Lo threw 1.1 perfect innings in relief, striking out three. The offense sputtered; Jason Castro went 1-for-4 and Koby Clemens went 0-for-1 off the bench. Jack Shuck was the only Jethawk with multiple hits, going 2-for-4 and stealing a base. Phillipe Aumont, who I got on Wednesday throwing a bullpen, threw a perfect 1.1 innings in relief.
Lexington Legends (A) – The Legends continued to own the West Virginia Power (PIT), 4-0. Starter Robert Bono didn’t blow anyone away, but allowed just 5 hits and no walks through 6.0 innings to get the win. He’s now thrown 11.0 shutout innings and stands at 2-0. Jack Tilghman pitched the final three innings to earn the save, striking out 4 innings and allowing three hits and no walks. 1B Kody Hinze went 1-for-2 with a home run and a walk. OF Jay Austin finally had a good night, as well, going 2-for-3 at the plate with a walk, a run, and an RBI. He also stole his first base of the season, but also got caught on an attempt.
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.
Thank goodness for Julia over at Julia’s Rants; otherwise, I’d never know when the newest MLBlogs “Latest Leaders” list had come out. I’d boycotted Mark’s blog until Albert Pujols was no longer named at the top.
It’s not something I necessarily strive for – being on the leaderboard – but it’s something that’s definitely humbling, and which I very much appreciate.
For those of you unfamiliar with Julia, she’s basically the MLBlogs team captain. She roots us all on, comments on very nearly every blog, and has an enormously-catchy enthusiasm that helps many of us get through the slow times, when we begin to debate whether or not we truly want to do this. If you haven’t already, I highly recommend you check her blog out.
Upon hearing the news that I was #20, I was thrown into a quandary. There have been several players to don the number for the Astros, including the longest-tenured #20 in club history, Tony Eusebio, a backup catcher that probably only a true Houston fan could love – and who all true Houston fans love.
But I opted to go a different way, and began to write a long apalogue about Cesar Geronimo, who I had watched growing up – in his Cincinnati years, after he’d left Houston – and whose signature had graced the glove I’d worn in Little League. My father had always joked that Cesar couldn’t catch because he wore four Gold Gloves. I didn’t get the joke at the time, but it stuck with me.
Then I realized that my glove had actually been signed by another Astro who had gone to the Reds and won multiple Gold Gloves – Cesar Cedeno. By the time I was old enough to go to and remember Reds games, Geronimo was either in Kansas City or out of the league entirely.
Other names flashed through my memory – Lee Maye, Dave “Soup” Campbell – but I kept coming back to one man. The only Houston Astro to be inducted to the Hall of Fame wearing #20. Who – if there was a Hall of Fame for white afros – would be in on the first ballot.
Sutton didn’t spend much time in Houston. He signed as a Free Agent before the 1981 season, and in late August the following year, we was sent to the Milwaukee Brewers for Kevin Bass, Frank DiPino, Mike Madden, and cash. Anyone who has read my About Me knows that, without that trade, I might never have become a Houston fan at all.
To top it off, he helped pitch the Brewers to their only World Series appearance (though he was shelled by the Cardinals in the Series), playing with current Astros skipper Cecil Cooper.
Houston’s pitching staff in the strike-shortened 1981 season was insane. In addition to Sutton, the rotation boasted Joe Niekro, Hall of Famer Nolan Ryan, lefty Bob Knepper, and Vern Ruhle. The bullpen had Billy Smith, Dave Smith, and Joe Sambito.
No starting pitcher that year had an ERA over 3.00. Ruhle’s 2.91 was the highest, and the average ERA+ was 139. With a full year of baseball, there’s no telling how well this team could have done, despite a questionable offense led by Tony Scott, Jose Cruz, and then-first baseman and former Gold Glove outfielder Cedeno (not Geronimo.)
Sutton threw 158.2 innings that year, going 11-9 with a 2.61 ERA, 1.015 WHIP (with three fewer hits or walks, he would have had a WHIP under 1.00… coincidentally, three is the exact number of intentional walks he was asked to issue). He walked just 29 batters – the fewest ever in his career, including 1988 when he walked 30 despite pitching just 87.1 innings with the Dodgers – and struck out 104 (also the fewest in his career, but who’s counting?)
Old Black & Decker followed up his 1981 campaign by going 13-8 in 27 appearances in 1982, pitching 195 innings and striking out 139 to 46 walks, a 3.00 ERA and a 1.103 WHIP before being traded to the Brewers.