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
Every year. Every year, I join in a chorus of statistical slaves railing against the fan vote, this year witnessed by Derek Jeter (14th in WAR* among AL shortstops, with a paltry 0.2) getting a starting nod. Jeter is at least chasing 3,000 hits. There’s even less explanation for Josh Hamilton (1.6 WAR, 12th among AL outfielders.)
But this year, I’m not stopping there. The whole selection process is pretty silly. Bruce Bochy used his managerial picks to give Ryan Vogelsong an All-Star nod, which raised a lot of eyebrows around the league. But Vogelsong (1.9 WAR, 20th among NL starters) isn’t even the worst offender. Jose Valverde made the squad despite a 0.4 WAR (38th among AL relievers,) as did Brandon League, who is tied with him.
And then there’s Jay Bruce, whose 0.9 WAR ranks him 39th among NL outfielders.
Meanwhile, Bochy snubbed his own third baseman, Pablo Sandoval, who leads all NL third basemen with 2.0 WAR. Sandoval isn’t alone; he’s tied at the top with Chase Headley, who also wasn’t voted in. Neither were Ryan Roberts (1.9) – who wasn’t even on the printed All-Star ballot – or Aramis Ramirez (1.6). That’s right, the NL’s starting third baseman, Placido Polanco, ranks fifth. The reserve third baseman, Chipper Jones, ranks tenth.
The second base situation in the AL is almost as bad. Robinson Cano (2.4, 5th among AL 2B) was voted the starter, and Howie Kendrick (3rd with 3.1) is the backup, leaving Dustin Pedroia (1st with 3.7) as proof that even big-market players aren’t exempt. He’ll have company watching the game; the Rays’ Ben Zobrist is 2nd with 3.6 WAR, and also didn’t receive a nod.
David Robertson is tied with his bullpen mate, Mariano Rivera, to lead all AL relievers with a 1.5 WAR, but he’ll be sitting at home, also.
But it is what it is, and most of the guys who belong there end up there, one way or the other. But would it kill Major League Baseball to rectify this situation somehow? Maybe give the General Managers a vote? Maybe SABR? I don’t know; but I do know that something needs to change. The guys who earn All-Star nods must be allowed to play in the All-Star Game.
I’m all for the idea of the fan vote: Fans should be able to watch their favorite players take the field in July against one another. But if a player out-performs every other player at his position, he should be on that field.
As is my tradition, I’ve taken the liberty of creating my own All-Star team, based on statistics, while maintaining current MLB rules (i.e. at least one player from each team**).
So, without further ado, my own choices for the 68 Major League All-Stars:
C: Brian McCann (ATL)
1B: Joey Votto (CIN)
2B: Rickie Weeks (MIL)
3B: Chase Headley (SDP)
SS: Jose Reyes (NYM)
OF: Matt Kemp (LAD), Andrew McCutcheon (PIT), Ryan Braun (MIL)
SP: Roy Halladay (PHI)
Cole Hamels (PHI), Cliff Lee (PHI), Clayton Kershaw (LAD), Jair Jurrjens (ATL), Jonny Venters (ATL), Craig Kimbrel (ATL), Eric O’Flaherty (ATL), Mike Adams (SDP), Carlos Marmol (CHC), Ian Kennedy (ARI), Daniel Hudson (ARI), Matt Cain (SFG)
C Miguel Montero (ARI), 1B Prince Fielder (MIL), 2B Danny Espinosa (WSN), 3B Pablo Sandoval (SFG), SS Troy Tulowitzki (COL), OF Shane Victorino (PHI), OF Michael Bourn (HOU), OF Matt Holliday (STL), OF Carlos Beltran (HOU), 1B Gaby Sanchez (FLA), 2B Brandon Phillips (CIN), OF/1B Lance Berkman (STL), 3B Ryan Roberts (ARI)
C: Alex Avila (DET)
1B: Adrian Gonzalez (BOS)
2B: Dustin Pedroia (BOS)
3B: Alex Rodriguez (NYY)
SS: Asdrubal Cabrera (CLE)
OF: Jose Bautista (TOR), Curtis Granderson (NYY), Jacoby Ellsbury (BOS)
DH: David Ortiz (BOS)
SP: Jered Weaver (LAA)
Justin Verlander (DET), CC Sabathia (NYY), Josh Beckett (BOS), James Shields (TBR), David Robertson (NYY), Mariano Rivera (NYY), Jim Johnson (BAL), Aaron Crow (KCR), Sergio Santos (CWS), Felix Hernandez (SEA), C.J. Wilson (TEX), Gio Gonzalez (OAK)
C Matt Wieters (BAL), 1B Miguel Cabrera (DET), 2B Ben Zobrist (TBR), 3B Kevin Youkilis (BOS), SS Jhonny Peralta (DET), OF Alex Gordon (KCR), OF Denard Span (MIN), OF Brett Gardner (NYY), DH Victor Martinez (DET), OF Matthew Joyce (TBR), OF Carlos Quentin (CWS), 2B Howie Kendrick (LAA)
* I calculated WAR by averaging bWAR and fWAR.
** Yankees 6, Red Sox 6, Braves 5, Tigers 5, Diamondbacks 4, Phillies 4, Brewers 3, Rays 3, Reds 2, Dodgers 2, Mets 2, Padres 2, Giants 2, Cardinals 2, Angels 2, Royals 2, Cubs 1, Rockies 1, Marlins 1, Astros 1, Pirates 1, Nationals 1, Blue Jays 1, Rangers 1, Mariners 1, Athletics 1, Twins 1, Indians 1