Yesterday, Ken Rosenthal included a blurb about the Astros in this article:
The Astros are at their payroll limit, but would like to add a left-handed hitting outfielder to platoon with Jason Michaels if they go with Carlos Lee over Brett Wallace at first base, which is hardly a sure thing. Wallace is hitting .362/.388/.617 this spring.
The team’s greater need is a replacement for catcher Jason Castro, who is out for the season due to a torn ACL in his right knee. The Astros like the Royals’ Brayan Pena, but the Royals won’t trade him with Jason Kendall still recovering from shoulder surgery.
I know I’ve been something of a J.R. Towles fanboy, and I understand that the team might be reluctant to give him another shot to translate his skills to the Major League level, but if going .344/.382/.594 in Spring Training, with more at-bats than any other player at your position, doesn’t earn you a chance to be the starting catcher, then I don’t know why we even have Spring Training. Of course, I understand that Humberto Quintero and Chris Corporan have posted comparable, and at times better, numbers. But Towles’ minor league production backs up his spring numbers, and I just happen to think he’s due one last chance to either be the starting catcher or to be traded or released.
As for the speculation about Carlos Lee, I think Brett Wallace has to be installed as the everyday first baseman to start the season. You have to believe that he’s going to find his power stroke at the major league level, and the thought of platooning Jason Michaels with any other options isn’t promising. Brian Bogusevic, the obvious in-choice left-handed outfielder, isn’t performing well this spring and needs to swing the bat a few more times in Oklahoma City before he should be called up. That means going out and getting a free agent, which more or less is limited to Ryan Church, as every other option with big league experience is right-handed, to my knowledge.
So, really, it just makes much more sense to me to put Lee and his diminished defense in left field, with Wallace and his potential big bat at first; rather than Lee at first and a combination of Jason Michaels and any other human being in left field.
It seems like an annual Astros’ Spring Training rite: Determining who the starting catcher will be. This year, and for the foreseeable future, you can blame Ed Wade and the gang for assuming that they’d locked the question up. Jason Castro was going to be given the reins of the team. That much, then, was settled.
Until it wasn’t.
Castro’s season came to a screeching halt when he tore the ACL in his right knee, leaving the Astros once again fielding the question: Who will start at catcher?
Defensive stalwart Humberto Quintero is an option, if not a great one on the offensive side of the plate; former top prospect J.R. Towles is also lingering around, after a few unsuccessful major league stints.
There are a few options that may be available via trade, but in my opinion, a rebuilding team like the Astros would be foolish to give away any piece of merit for what amounts to being – at best – a one-year stopgap behind the plate.
Then there’s Bengie Molina.
Molina, a thirteen-year veteran with the Angels, Blue Jays, Giants, and Rangers, is leaning towards retirement, but has said that he would be open to signing with a team where he could get full-time employment.
He would certainly become the number one option behind the plate, probably with Quintero filling in from the bench. He would no doubt be available at a reasonable price, similar to the Ivan Rodriguez deal.
Though last year was not a good one for Molina, it was the first time since 2003 that he slugged below .400. The last time the Astros had a catcher with over 150 plate appearances who slugged .400 or better, the year was 2001 and the catcher’s name was Tony Eusebio. Molina also brings a veteran presence to a team that seems to get younger by the minute.
I got word out of Round Rock this morning that Chris Johnson was moved to the Disabled List retroactive to April 14, but is “doing fine.”
J.R. Towles left last night’s game with a “very minor head injury” and shouldn’t miss any more time.
In other news, the Phillies organization hired David Newhan as a player-coach at the Triple-A level. You don’t see a lot of player-coaches these days, so that’s kind of neat. Good for him; it’s too bad Cecil Cooper is crazy and wouldn’t give him a chance. Best of luck, David!
Thomas “Tip” Fairchild signed on with the Somerset Patriots of the independent Atlantic League. They play some high-quality ball there, and are always being scouted, so if he does well there’s a chance he may end up back in the majors.
That’s it for now, except to say that Mark Mulder’s agent, Gregg Clifton, said this morning that “six, seven, or eight teams” are looking at the free agent pitcher. That’s agent-speak, of course, for “The Dodgers are going to sign him.”
Slam of the Night
At around the seventh inning last night, I Tweeted: “You know what’s sad is that, if we win this, I don’t even know what to blog about. Complete lack of snarkiness right now.”
Our good friend Susan, over at Astros Fan in Exile, snapped back: “it is hard to fathom that you might not have anything to blog about!”
Ouch (but true.)
The big winners in WPA (Win Probability Added) last night are:
- Miguel Tejada – .214; You know, if he keeps this up and proves me wrong, I’ll be so ridiculously happy. His current pace is unsustainable, but if he’s learned how to be a contact hitter, I will be thrilled.
- Carlos Lee – .207; 2-for-4 with a 2-run home run, with absolutely no defensive opportunities. That is a perfect scenario for Lee.
- LaTroy Hawkins – .077; I wish he could have done this in the Cubs series, rather than proving all of the
LovableLosers right, but I’ll take it now.
I want one of those green Astros Earth Day hats. I really do. I have no idea why, but I think they’re super sharp.
Houston Astros (MLB) – I don’t want to talk about it anymore.
Round Rock Express (AAA) – Boy, remember when we thought Jose Capellan should be the fifth starter for the Astros, and how we were all at least a little upset that Russ Ortiz‘s contract situation had made him the better candidate? Well thank goodness for Russ Ortiz’s agent, because Capellan has stunk so far this year, and he stunk tonight in the Express’s 7-5 loss to the Iowa Cubs (CHC). Jose made it 5.1 innings, allowed 8 hits and 3 walks, 6 earned runs, and struck out just two. The only good news, pitching-wise, was Clay Hensley, who pitched 2.0 innings in relief and allowed just a single hit. The Chris Johnson watch continues, with Mark Saccomanno manning third base today. Saccy went 3-for-4 with two doubles and 2 RBI, though, so that softens the blow. He also made it a whole game at 3B without an error, which is an accomplishment.
Corpus Christi Hooks (AA) – Not only did the Hooks beat the Northwest Arkansas Naturals (KCR) 12-6, but one of my favorite people, Old Man Van Hekken, got the win. Starter Sergio Perez went just 4.0 innings, allowing 5 runs on 5 hits, 3 walks, and a solitary strikeout. Chad Wagler pitched 3.0 innings to earn the save. Every single Hook had a hit in this one, and all but one – #9 hitter SS Wladimir Sutil – had two hits. 2B Drew Meyer hit his first home run of the year, and RF Andrew Locke hit his second.
Lancaster Jethawks (A+) – CF Jack Shuck did everything in his power to win this game single-handedly, but Lancaster fell to the Inland Empire 66ers (LAD) 3-1. Shuck went 3-for-4 with a run, a triple, and a stolen base in the losing effort. Jason Castro and Koby Clemens each went 0-for-4. Starter Jose Duran went 6.0 innings, allowing all three runs on 4 hits and a walk, striking out 3, and earning the loss. Fernando Abad pitched 1.1 innings in relief, but was pulled after giving up a triple with one out in the bottom of the eighth. Reid Kelly came in and retired the next two batters to keep the Jethawks in the game, though they couldn’t pull it out.
Lexington Legends (A) – The Legends had a pair of seven-inning games today to make up for their postponement yesterday, and won the first one against the West Virginia Power (PIT), 3-0. Kyle Greenwalt (1-1) looked awfully solid on the mound, pitching 6.0 shutout innings to lower his ERA to 0.82 on the season. Daniel Meszaros retired the side in order in the seventh, including two strikeouts, to earn his fourth save of the year. 2B Albert Cartwright went 2-for-2 at the plate with a double to lead the offense from the nine hole. 3B Ebert Rosario went 0-for-2 and had his fifth error in ten games. Which is really impressive, if you ask me.
Lexington Legends (A) – The second game of the Legends-Power doubleheader didn’t go quite as well for the organization, as the Power won 6-3. Jose Trinidad earned the loss in relief, but no pitcher was really safe in this one. Not even Brian Wabick, who didn’t allow any runs in his 2.0 relief innings, but he did allow three hits and a walk. Luckily, he struck out three to keep it from getting too ugly. All three of the Legends’ runs came on a Federico Hernandez homer in the bottom of the fourth inning, temporarily tying the game before the Power scored three in the following frame.
You Can Ring My Bell
I was flipping through channels, and passed ESPN just as Karl Ravech was saying, “Lots of talk about the Red Sox and Yankees. We do other teams, other shows on this network.”
This was in a promo for a Cardinals game, and is undoubtedly a response to Heath Bell’s comments earlier this week. It reeks of desperation; Ravech insisting beyond all evidence that they do recognize that there are 28 other teams in Major League Baseball.
For Whom The Bell Towles
I’ve been very vocal about my preference for J.R. Towles to be the starting catcher in Houston this year. Towles had a hot callup in 2007, and began 2008 as the “catcher of the future.” A horrible 171 major league plate appearances in 2008 got him sent down to Round Rock. During that stretch, Jason Castro was also drafted.
Many people question how I can think that Towles is “ready” to be a major leaguer. They say that he was lost at the plate last season, and that they see little or no evidence to support his being a starter at the top level.
In a way, that’s fair. He showed very little to enthuse anyone at the major league level last year. But I say his situation has changed drastically, for a few reasons:
1) When he began the season last year as the Astros’ starting catcher, he had just fifty Triple-A plate appearances to his name. In those 50 PA, at the age of 23, he’d gone .279/.354/.279. Not good numbers. At the time he was named the starting major league catcher, he had failed to establish himself against even Triple-A talent.
2) After getting sent down last year, he put together 192 PA at Round Rock. In that time – after the most humiliating months of his professional career while he struggled in the Show – he showed his resiliency by bouncing back and going .304/.370/.500 in the Pacific Coast League.
3) He’s now 25, traditionally a breakthrough year for catchers. He was thrust into the major league position too early and now he’s been sent down and forgotten, it seems. Everyone points to how overmatched he had been at the big league level. And, yes, he had been. But that was largely because he’d gone pretty much straight from AA to the majors… and he’d actually begun 2007 in High-A ball before his promotion to Corpus Christi. In less than a season, he went up four divisions.
4) Towles is .357/.379/.571 to this point in the 2009 season. This is in a very small sample size, but these numbers are absolutely on course with his career minor league numbers, minus the brief 2007 stretch in Round Rock. Since being sent down in 2008, his combined Major League Equivalency is .258/.307/.406. Now, I’m the first to admit that that’s not great, but Ivan Rodriguez is currently getting paid more money to hit .227/.261/.341.
It’s pretty obvious to me that Towles is at least as good an offensive option as Rodriguez, though I won’t go so far as to vouch for his defensive skillset. And he’s far and away better than Humberto Quintero. But many think back to the time he spent in the majors in 2008, and are content to keep him down on the farm and forget about him, sure that he can’t compete because he hit so poorly during a meager 146 at-bats after jumping more or less straight from High-A ball into the big leagues.
I was happy to see that (Ivan) Rodriguez is no longer mentioning the
Astros as the teams who are supposedly interested in him. The latest
news I read listed only the Mets and Marlins. That is good, because
after checking with Ed Wade yet again today, I can assure you the
Astros are not pursuing him. And judging from the irritated look on his
face, I can also assure you I won’t be asking him about Pudge again
anytime soon. At least not for two weeks. Or maybe 10 days. At the very
least, I’ll wait a week.
Oh, and he’s not bidding on Pedro Martinez, either.
This was from Alyson Footer’s blog, Alyson’s Footnotes, three days ago. This morning, Roy Oswalt let loose with the scoop that he ran into Rodriguez at Dolphin Stadium during the WBC, and that Rodriguez greeted him with, “Hey, teammate.”
I respect and admire Alyson very much, and don’t blame her for the misdirection play Wade ran, despite many major media outlets continuing to say that the Astros were talking to Pudge’s agent, Scott Boras. If that’s how he felt he needed to play it, then so be it.
Yes, following the WBC and a physical, Rodriguez is expected to sign with the Astros (please keep in mind that he has not signed – he is simply expected to.)
On the surface, I have to admit that this makes perfect sense. The Astros’ catching situation is a quagmire. Neither Humberto Quintero nor J.R. Towles has separated himself from the admittedly-abysmal pack this spring, and here is one of the best, if not the best catcher of his generation, looking for nothing more than playing time.
And a $1.5m deal, with another $1.5m in possible incentives, doesn’t break the bank. Rodriguez comes with a solid resume. He’s raking for Puerto Rico in the World Baseball Classic. He may have single-handedly carried the Marlins to a World Series championship in 2003. He’s probably the best dual offensive-defensive catcher since Johnny Bench. And despite a tumultuous time in New York at the end of 2008, he finished the year going .276/.319/.394, which by far bests the current Astros duo of Towles and Quintero, who went a combined .185/.255/.306 at the big league level.
As far as moves go, it was an instant and decisive upgrade at a reasonable price, and most Astros fans should be thrilled. As for me, I don’t really like the move.
My last entry detailed a lot of why this is. Over the past two seasons, Rodriguez has averaged 1.75 Win Shares with his offense and defense. Quintero, almost the very definition of league-average, contributed 0.0. Towles had -0.3. This gives, at the most, a 2-3 game swing. If that 2-3 wins is enough to get us into the playoffs, this is a great move.
If it isn’t, we’ve hurt ourselves in a few ways. First, we’ve lost money. Without knowing the incentives, let’s assume Pudge makes $3m in 2009. Since he’s unlikely to make the team significantly more competitive by himself, it’s unlikely the attendance figures will increase from 2008. In fact, a decrease in attendance is still more likely. The money going to Rodriguez, a temporary stop-gap measure that may mean the difference between 3rd and 4th place in the weak NL Central, would be far better spent on signing bonuses and development, in my opinion.
Second, assuming we pick up those 2-3 wins, we’ve hurt ourselves in the 2010 June draft. Last season, a 3-win swing could have hurt a team’s draft spot by as many as four draft picks (had Atlanta won three more games, they would have ended up drafting after Detroit, Cincinnati, Colorado, and Kansas City.) Additionally, though Rodriguez is a Type-B Free Agent and therefore doesn’t require the surrender of a 2009 draft pick, the Yankees do receive a sandwich pick for him. This means that there will be one more player off the board by the time we get to our second round pick, after what was already going to be the longest first round in history.
If I’m wrong and Pudge helps whip the pitching staff into shape and ignites the offense, batting second in the order and providing multiple opportunities for Berkman, Lee, Tejada, and Pence, propelling us into the playoffs, then I’ll be happy to be wrong.
But if all he does is put us into the hunt for a Wild Card late in the season, it will actually have turned out to have been a bad move for a team that needs to re-stock its farm system.
(Note: I was working on an article about the Boston Red Sox to post today. However, due to some unforeseen time constraints and this breaking news, I will have to delay it. I hope to have it completed by the end of the week.)
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!