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.
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!
Apparently, I made the list of “Latest Leaders” at MLBlogosphere today. Truth be told, I’m not entirely sure what that means, but in honor of my debut at #47, I’ll dedicate today’s post to one of the many great #47s that the Astros have had, Joaquin Andujar:
Over at ESPN, fantasy expert Jason Grey has unveiled his list of the top prospects in baseball, based on potential contributions to their Major League teams this season.
It begs the question: What in the world makes someone a fantasy expert?
Rather than answer that question, though, I’d like to talk about the article. Inclusion in this list is something of a double-edged sword. While it means that you have some young players that have at least one baseball (ish) writer excited, it must be remembered that this is a list of players expected to contribute this year.
Which means your Major League roster can’t be all that solid, now, can it?
Be that as it may, we Astros fans are ravenous to see our few prospects show up on lists that have numbers next to their names, so even if this was a list of the best fifty minor league baseball players at spelling “dichotomous,” we’d be pleased as punch to see four of our youngsters on the list.
Never mind that one of the guys, Lou Palmisano, may not actually be an Astro this year, since he was a Rule 5 selection.
The names aren’t necessarily new to Astros fans. In fact, all four players are currently in Spring Training and doing just fine, thank you very much.
Topping the list at #46 is infielder Drew Sutton. At the moment, Sutton may be best known to Astros fans as the guy with the really embarrassing error in the really embarrassing Spring Training loss to the Mets. To be fair, he was playing first base – a position where he has spent all of two games since his professional career began in 2004. In real life, he’s a second baseman who plays some third as well, and has experience at shortstop and, in theory, the aforementioned first base.
Which begs the question: Why in the world would Drew Sutton play first base in a Spring Training game? The only answer I can come up with is that Cecil Cooper is strongly considering him for a utility infielder role, and wants to see how he does at each infield position. With Lance Berkman at first base, there’s no hole to fill; Geoff Blum and Darin Erstad are 25-man roster guys who also play the position, and Mark Saccomanno is the minor leaguer most likely to fill in if needed. So it seems to be purely a matter of seeing how Sutton responds, and getting him as many at-bats as possible this spring.
Next on Mr. Grey’s list, at #50, is our good friend, pitcher Bud Norris. Norris is high on management’s list of prospects, and for good reason. His single inning in Spring Training yielded no hits, no walks, no runs, and two strikeouts. The article, however, mentions that Norris is largely a sleeper because “Here is the projected Astros rotation behind Roy Oswalt and Wandy Rodriguez as of this writing: Mike Hampton, Brian Moehler and Brandon Backe . And LaTroy Hawkins is Jose Valverde’s primary set-up man.”
He says this as a means of maligning the Astros’ pitching situation. Normally, I would be all for maligning them, but Hampton is very good when he’s healthy, Moehler pitched very well in 2008, and Backe will probably not be the fifth starter. And LaTroy Hawkins? Well, as much as people like to downplay Hawkins as a set-up man, since 2000, he’s only had one season where his ERA+ was under 100. Even in 2008, after his tumultuous run with the Yankees, he came to Houston and posted the following line:
21.0 IP, 2-0, 0.43 ERA (992 ERA+), 0.762 WHIP, 25 K, 5 BB
Admittedly, a tiny sample size, but it hardly makes one run screaming to the phone to look for Norris as an emergency set-up man. Hawkins’ career numbers are skewed because he was terrible as a starter and terrible as a closer, but as a set-up man he’s actually been pretty darned good. His line from 2000-2008 with the Twins, Cubs, Giants, Orioles, Rockies, Yankees, and Astros(which does include some stints as a closer):
612.7 IP, 33-33, 76 SV, 3.35, 1.267 WHIP, 449 K, 192 BB
Not really all that shabby, honestly. Certainly nothing that means that Bud Norris is likely to replace him as the primary set-up guy.
Next on the list, at #61, is 3B Chris Johnson. Had you asked me a month ago (and many people did,) I
would have told you that Chris needed at least half a year in AAA before he was ready to see action at the major league level. Then came Spring Training, and so far, he’s looked very comfortable:
6 G, .500/.500/1.000, 1 2B, 1 HR, 1 R, 5 RBI
Still very early, but his confidence at the plate – combined with his glove at third base – is likely to keep him in the conversation.
Of course, the article also cited Geoff Blum as the “incumbent at third base” (Blum, though technically an incumbent, was never a full-time starter in Houston… he was a utility infielder while Ty Wigginton was the starter) and Aaron Boone as the backup (Boone is auditioning for a spot, and wasn’t even really considered a favorite coming into camp).
The third base spot, like fifth starter and catcher, is very much up for grabs. To label Boone and Blum as the odds-on favorites to play the position is reaching, at best. Irresponsible at worst.
Last on the list, at #92, is catcher Lou Palmisano, who the Orioles chose in the Rule 5 draft and gave to the Astros for cash money. The only problem is that the Rule 5 draft forces a player into waivers if they don’t stay on the roster of the team that drafted them for the entire MLB season. If they clear waivers, they are returned to the team. With quite a few options at catcher, the likelihood of the Astros committing o
ne of only two spots to Palmisano, who hasn’t played catcher since 2007 because of a torn meniscus, seems unlikely. Even with all of our question marks at the position.
His early Spring Training results, 0-for-5 in 3 games, aren’t helping him much. Grey goes on to note that “even if he is sent back to Milwaukee, there’s a chance he could earn a backup role there.” However, with Vinny Rottino, Angel Salome, and Mike Rivera – all good hitters – vying for the backup spot behind Jason Kendall in Milwaukee, the likelihood of Palmisano (who’s never played above AA) earning that spot seems far-fetched, at best.