Astros general manager Jeff Luhnow’s first Winter Meetings are in the rearview mirror, and as he leaves Nashville, it’s time to look back and see how he did with the team’s most pressing needs:
Upgrade the Bullpen
Last season, the Astros’ bullpen was in the bottom 5 in the major leagues in ERA (5th-worst), batting average against (2nd-worst), save percentage (5th-worst), WHIP (3rd-worst), and home runs against (7th-worst). Upgrading the bullpen is at or near the top of the priority list for most GMs every offseason, and this year was no different for Luhnow.
The first thing anyone notices is the trade of Wilton Lopez to Colorado, in exchange for Alex White and Alex Gillingham. You might raise your eyebrows and wonder how the bullpen will be improved through the loss of Lopez, the team’s best reliever, but it might have been. During the Winter Meetings, the Astros added several arms, including White, Gillingham, Rule 5 picks Josh Fields and Cameron Lamb, and Mickey Storey, claimed off waivers from the Yankees (who’d claimed him off waivers themselves from Houston before the Winter Meetings.)
Storey, Fields, and White should contribute immediately to the 2013 pitching staff. It’s unclear whether White is being looked at as a starter or as a reliever, but the story on him since college is that he could be a fairly dominant reliever. What’s helpful, too, is that he’s a similar-type pitcher to Lopez, but under team control longer. Fields is a power pitcher, and Storey had a very nice season in 2012, with 10.09 K/9 and a 2.80 FIP.
Maybe the best news is that Jason Stoffel, who figures to be a good bullpen arm for the Astros in 2014 if not sooner, didn’t get taken in the Rule 5 Draft. Of course, this is through no great display of skill by Houston, but it’s noteworthy nonetheless.
Prior to the Winter Meetings, Houston had already picked up Sam Demel off waivers from the Diamondbacks.
Lamb and Gillingham won’t pitch for the big league club this season, but Storey, White, Fields, and probably Stoffel will. Without signing a single free agent or spending any real money, Luhnow & Co. at least maintained the big league bullpen, whether or not they actually strengthened it.
Improve the Starting Rotation
Before the Winter Meetings, the Astros went out and snagged Philip Humber off waivers from the White Sox. Heading into Nashville, it didn’t seem very likely that much else would be done to improve the starting rotation, which could benefit from a veteran presence that slots in either above or below Jordan Lyles, Lucas Harrell, and Bud Norris. Figure that the competition for the final two rotation spots is currently between Jarred Cosart, Dallas Keuchel, and Alex White.
Clearly, this is an area where the Astros could use an upgrade, even if it’s just a veteran stop-gap who can hold down the fort until Cosart’s put in some time in Oklahoma City.
There are still some veteran arms I like, including Francisco Liriano, and some more that I’ll discuss later in the week. But during the Winter Meetings, unless you consider White a potential starter, Luhnow did not address the rotation.
Find a Designated Hitter
Despite reports that the Astros checked in on Lance Berkman, Travis Hafner, and Carlos Pena, no one was signed during the Winter Meetings with the express intent of playing DH for the Astros. Rule 5 selection Nate Freiman does look like someone who might be able to fill the role if no one else is signed, as he can provide pop at the plate, but I can’t even imagine that he’s Option A for anyone in the Houston front office.
Though Houston came out of the Winter Meetings arguably stronger than when they went in, there are still holes to address. Still, for Luhnow’s first go-around, it was a pretty solid effort without spending any money or making any compromises.
Jeff Luhnow has specifically said he’s on the lookout for starting pitching – someone to slot in ahead of Lucas Harrell, Bud Norris, and Jordan Lyles. Because of the situation in which the Astros find themselves, however, going out and signing a high-priced free agent isn’t a likelihood. It’s barely a possibility. So they have to look for bargains.
I’ve mentioned before that I think Francisco Liriano could be a great fit in Houston. But today, in reading Nick Cafardo’s piece in the Boston Globe, another thought occurred to me.
I’ll quote Cafardo:
After an injury-filled season in Minnesota (a bone bruise in his right shoulder limited him to 11 starts) [Carl] Pavano was given a clean bill of health in September and has prepared for his new adventure this offseason. Agent Dave Pepe said he has received a few preliminary calls on Pavano, who turns 37 in January. Pavano could come in with a minor league deal or a one-year major league deal. He had pitched more than 220 innings the previous two seasons for the Twins and could be an interesting back-end-of-the-rotation starter.
In those 11 starts, Pavano still racked up 0.6 fWAR, which would have been good enough for 6th-best in Houston, behind Harrell, Norris, Lyles, Wandy Rodriguez, and Wilton Lopez. He would have been tied with J.A. Happ.
Pavano may be best known for his disastrous run with the New York Yankees from 2005-08. The Yankees signed him to a lucrative contract after the 2005 season, when he was an All-Star for the Marlins and finished in the top 10 in Cy Young Award voting. In parts of three seasons (he spent the entire 2006 season in the minors), he amassed just 1.1 fWAR for the Bombers.
That’s one version of Carl Pavano.
The other is a guy who has pitched parts of 11 seasons for 4 teams (Montreal, Cleveland, Florida, and Minnesota) and averaged over 2.0 fWAR. He’s a veteran presence, he doesn’t give up a ton of home runs (1.01 HR/9 over his career), he’s affordable, and he can eat innings. He has a 46.6% ground ball ratio. You’d like to see it a little higher, but I’d take it.
And what’s more, if 2012 was indeed a fluke and he’s now healthy, look at his time in Minnesota from 2010-2011, in which he averaged 3.1 fWAR and a FIP right around 4.
This is exactly the high-upside guy that minor league contracts with Spring Training invitations were built for, and the Astros are exactly the kind of team where Pavano could sign a one- or two-year contract and actually slot into the rotation. He’s been around a long time and could help bring the youngsters along. It’s a signing that makes a ton of sense to me.
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
It’s pretty tough to get through a single conversation about the Astros that doesn’t turn toward the team’s lack of depth in the starting rotation. If you were to listen closely to many of the naysayers, you’d think that the Houston farm system may never produce another Roy Oswalt-type ace.
Surely, you the True Astro Fans® are wondering, our farm system must have someone in it to give us hope… if not this year, than at least for the future.
Well, the news is good, but maybe not great. The Astros actually do have some very promising pitchers in the system, but not very many at the top levels. Round Rock and Corpus Christi had fairly unimpressive staffs last year, and even the standouts didn’t tend to have fantastic lines.
However, there are fifteen pitchers – not counting new free agent Chia-Jen Lo – that I think are worthy of note. This is a bit different from my last entry, because there I talked about players who might impact the big league roster this season. I didn’t talk about 3B Ebert Rosario, LF Brian Pellegrini, 2B Albert Cartwright, or one of my favorite prospects, OF Nathan Metroka. Their time will come.
With the pitchers, however, I’m switching things up. It’s a position where the Astros have such a razor-thin margin of error that some shocking things may come up. Or, at the very least, some depressed fans may simply start to wonder if we’ll ever have any quality pitching coming from the farmhands.
Any talk of the Astros’ pitching prospects has to begin with the three that excite me the most: One who will probably bear the Astros uniform this year, and two who almost certainly will not.
Two Men Named Trinidad
I’ve talked before about Polin Trinidad, who played for the World team in the 2008 Futures Game (he earned a hold by allowing 1 hit and striking 1 out in his single inning of work… the one hit was to MegaProspect Matt LaPorta, who Trinidad erased from the basepaths by forcing Dexter Fowler to ground into a double play). He’s got the slim figures that I love to see in a prospect: 23-year-old lefty, 10-7, 3.14 ERA, 1.11 WHIP, 109 strikeouts in 169 innings — with only 32 walks. It’s hard not to get excited about his chances. His numbers budged a little bit with the move from Salem to Corpus, but his AA numbers were still stellar at 6-5, 3.61, 1.21, 75 K/21 BB in 107 IP. Projection: Polin got a Spring Training invitation this year, and I expect he should see some time in the majors during the regular season, as well. I’d still like to see him pitch a little deeper, and he may project more as a long reliever until he can do that, but this kid could be a future ace.
Have I got you pretty excited about the Trinidad kid? Not so fast, my friends, because as good as he is, he may not have been the best prospect named Trinidad in our system last year. That’s because down in Greeneville, Jose Trinidad managed to string together one of the most mouth-watering seasons I’ve seen in a while: 3-2 in 10 starts (56.0 IP), 40 strikeouts, 2.73 ERA, 1.13 WHIP. That’s very exciting, but just how many walks did Señor Trinidad give up to go with those 40 strikeouts? Six. That’s right – he faced 241 professional hitters and walked just six of them. In the Appalachian League last year, 1,964 walks were issued. Six of them by Jose. And did I mention he didn’t allow a single home run? I’m really excited to watch this 20-year-old righty develop. Projection: 2-3 years away from even pitching at Round Rock. He’ll probably spend this year in Tri-City, though I wouldn’t be overly surprised if he jumped straight to Lexington.
Jose wasn’t alone in Greeneville last year. There was one other starter who really grabbed my attention: Second-round draft pick Jordan Lyles. Just seventeen years old, Jordan threw 49.2 innings as a starter in Greeneville, and warranted enough attention that he also was asked to start two games for Tri-City (though he went just 5.2 innings between them). His Greeneville line was astonishing for someone his age: 3-3, 3.99 ERA, 1.09 WHIP. And of the 208 batters he faced, only 10 reached base via walk. Of couse, that’s more than Trinidad’s six, but consider that he did it while striking out 68. That’s exactly 4 strikeouts for every walk issued. He didn’t fare quite as well when he moved to Tri-City, but this is a kid who had been throwing to high school sophomores a few months prior. Very impressive. Projection: You try not to read too much into Rookie ball statistics, especially when you’re dealing with pitchers drafted out of high school. But Jordan showed he was at the very least worthy of the Astros’ second round pick, and I’m looking forward to seeing him progress over the next 4-5 years.
The Big Leaguers
There are four young pitchers who are likely to find significant time on the major league roster this season that I’m really looking forward to seeing. These are the guys nearing (or, in one case, past) “major league age,” where it’s do-or-die time for a pitcher. And these four guys appear poised to do very well in the majors.
There are better indicators to pitching ability than ERA or Wins. In fact, these statistics, like RBI, have a box score-driven popularity among “casual fans” that drive sabermetricians crazy. You can completely fail as a pitcher and come up with a win, a save, or a low ERA. That said, when looking at a pitching prospect’s stats line, I look for three things: Did he have a WHIP at or below 1.30? Did he strike out more than he walked, preferably by at least a 1.5:1 ratio? And how close were his strikeouts to his innings pitched? When I’m introducing people to prospect evaluation, and all they have is a stats line and no mathematical ability, these are the three things I tell them to look for. So it’s no surprise that a left-handed 24-year-old Corpus Christi pitcher who went 4-4 as a reliever with a 4.52 ERA suddenly looks a lot better when you realize he did it with a 1.36 WHIP, 84 strikeouts, and 28 walks in 69.2 innings of work. That’s why, though you may not have noticed Christopher Blazek before, you’re likely to notice him in the future. Projection: Chris will probably start off at Round Rock, but may very well be called up during the season if there are injury woes in the bullpen. I suspect his numbers will take a hit in the Pacific Coast League
, as so many pitchers’ numbers do, but I like his make-up. I think he’ll be just fine.
Though not quite as dominant, Joshua Miller had a similar issue last season: PCL hitters lit him up to the tune of an 8-9 record in 21 starts with a 5.41 ERA. Looking deeper, though, you see that this 29-year-old righty may have had the worst statistical year of his career, but when that still means a 1.39 WHIP, that’s not so bad. True, he only struck out 74 in his 148 IP, but he also only walked 19. And in 630 batters faced, he didn’t drop a single wild pitch. Projection: Miller isn’t our top prospect, but he’ll be thirty years old this season, and I think he’s got to get a chance somewhere along the way to play in the major leagues, where I think he can be a competent pitcher. I don’t expect him to knock anybody out, but I think he’s worthy of a legitimate shot.
When Astros fans hear about the Rule 5 draft this offseason, we think of Wesley Wright, or maybe Lou Palmisano. Well, we didn’t even acquire Palmisano in the Rule 5 draft. The Orioles did, on our behalf, and traded him to us for cash money. Our Rule 5 selection? Why, Gilbert De la Vara. Gilbert and Wright share a lot of similarities – both 5’11”, 160-pound lefties drafted in the Rule 5 by Ed Wade and tacked onto a roster with a bullpen pretty much already set. And I think De La Vara can have the kind of success that Wright had. He went 6-3 last year as a bullpen guy at Wilmington (A+) and Northwest Arkansas (AA) for the Royals’ organization, and despite only 52 strikeouts to 27 walks in 77 innings, his WHIP was a razor-thin 1.08, including 1.16 at the AA level, with a pair of saves. Projection: I’d love to see Gilbert get some seasoning at the AAA level, but that won’t be possible since he was a Rule 5 selection. As it is, I think he fits very nicely into the Astros’ bullpen, perhaps even replacing Wright for 2009.
Sergio Perez didn’t throw a lot in 2008 – just 27.1 innings at Corpus Christi – but his tidy 1.39 WHIP and 2.30 ERA showed that it didn’t affect him that much. He went 2-3 in 5 starts with just 18 strikeouts and 8 walks, but when you look at his 2006 and 2007 lines in Salem and Lexington, respectively, a fuller picture begins to emerge: 9-13 in 30 starts, 171.2 IP, 3.57 ERA, 1.32 WHIP, 123 K, 59 BB with 732 batters faced. Projection: Sergio will be just 24 this year, and I think he’ll split time between Corpus Christi and Round Rock; maybe a cup of coffee with the big league club. His WHIP has eked up slightly with each promotion, and I think the PCL will be a bigger adjustment for him than anything else he’s faced, but I suspect he’ll continue to pitch very well.
Will They? Won’t They?
Two pitchers in the Astros organization had such limited time played in 2008 that it’s nearly impossible to gauge – from a purely-statistical basis – where they’re at in their development. But that shouldn’t lead anyone to think any less highly of these two studs:
The 2008 draft, as we know, was one of the better drafts the Astros have had in a while. Both Jason Castro and Jordan Lyles emerged as studs. When you look farther down the list, though, another name may jump out at you. Texas high schools are notorious for their fireballers, but the 2008 class didn’t really have a reprsentative from that category. The closest was Ross Seaton from Second Baptist School. The 6’4″ righty was expected to go to Tulane unless his signing bonus was right, which is part of the reason he fell to the Astros with the 109th pick of the draft. Then, in completely-atypical Astros fashion, they managed to sign him. Ross started 3 games in 2008 for the Greeneville Astros, and his numbers weren’t amazing. In fact, they were bad: 4 IP, 4 K, 2 BB, 13.50 ERA, 2.50 WHIP. But that doesn’t tell the entire story, as the simple fact that we were able to land him is a step in the right direction for the Astros as an organization. Projection: Put Seaton on the back burner. He’ll probably play a full season in Greeneville, and may not impress anyone as he learns the professional game. But with a 94-mph fastball, a sinking two-seamer, 85-mph slider, and a big athletic frame (he swings a good bat, too), he could turn out to be very good. I’d love to see him improve his changeup, because at the moment he doesn’t really have one. But he should be one to watch.
We’ve heard so much about Felipe Paulino Del Guidice already that it’s almost hard to think of him as a prospect. He spent the 2008 season injured, throwing just two thirds of an inning for Round Rock (he gave up a hit, walked one, struck one out, and didn’t give up a run, in case you’re wondering.) He’s still one of the team’s top pitching prospects, though, as indicated by his invitation to Spring Training this season. Projections: I’m going to go against the grain and advocate Felipe spend a year in Round Rock. There will be opportunities this season for spot starts at the major league level, and he should be considered for that, but I think regular work is vital for him right now.
Four pitchers are left on my list of 15 who are currently with the Astros in Spring Training. They represent a nice little cross-section of the organization, and each has his own strengths and concerns.
Very few pitchers have the do-or-die feeling surrounding them this season quite the way Fernando Nieve does. He was supposed to be a back-end guy by now, if not actually the big league closer. And if he hadn’t been derailed by Tommy John surgery, he may have been. The last two seasons have been a struggle for Fernando, and as he enters camp this season, it’s time for him to prove that he’s back on track. I think he’ll do just fine. Projection: I don’t know if there’s room for Nieve right now at the major league level, but you can’t risk losing him. His upside is just too great. For that reason, I suspect he’ll stick around the bigs and actually get stronger as the season progresses. I really like this kid, and I think he’ll win back quite a few Astros fans.
A lot of guys in the organization are high on Bud Norris right now, and fairly so. Last year at Corpus Christi, he went 3-8 in 19 starts, fanned 84 batters to just 31 walks, and clocked in with a 4.05 ERA and a 1.50 WHIP. I’m not quite as impressed with him as I am with some other guys in our organization, but there’s no doubt that someone who records 84 K in 80 innings has some upside. Projection: Bud will be a top-of-the-rotation starter at Round Rock, where he’ll spend time with the older guys and lock his game down. Next year, he may be ready for steady big league service.
It’s a little hard not to like what Samuel Gervacio brings to the table as a pitcher. He went 3-5 last season between Round Rock and Corpus Christi, with 96 strikeouts in 73.1 innings – in just 8 innings of work in AAA, he fanned 14 batters. That came at the expense of just 29 walks, with a 3.94 ERA and a 1.42 WHIP. He’s the same age as Norris, and may not get quite the same buzz because he’s not a starter. He’s generally pitched at the backend, recording 5 saves (most on the team, who only won 55 games) in the Texas League last year with 31 games finished (also most on the team) and pitching in a total of 47 games (you guessed it… most on the team.) When did he have time to go to Round Rock? Projection: I’m not ready for Gervacio to pitch in the majors yet, because I think this is the kind of guy whose confidence you want to gradually build up, but there’s little to no doubt that he will, at some point this year, if he performs well at Round Rock (which I expect him to do.)
Brad James started 18 games last season for the Hooks. He won exactly one-third of them, and he lost exactly one-third of them. In 93 innings, he struck out 45 and walked 35. He allowed 107 hits, which put his WHIP at 1.53. None of these stats is stellar, but what I do like is that, of the 406 batters he faced, only 9 of them put his pitches into the seats. Projection: I’m not huge on James, but I think he can be serviceable. I particularly don’t like his ever-escalating WHIP: It climbed by 0.27 from A+ to AA ball. I would actually advocate he spend some more time in Corpus Christi before advancing to Round Rock.
But Wait, There’s More!
There are two more guys on my list of fifteen Astros pitchers to watch, and they’re at two different places in their careers, but both are capable of raising some eyebrows.
The first is Chance Douglass. Many expected him to have cracked
the big leagues by now, but a shaky couple of seasons have kept him
from that goal. He’ll be 25 this year, and needs to step on the gas
pedal if he’s going to to succeed within this organization. I do think
he’ll eventually be a big league pitcher somewhere, so whether it’s in
Houston or elsewhere is really the only question. Chance’s AAA numbers
last season actually outshine his AA numbers, but there is also a
significantly smaller sample size. Still, a 1.16 WHIP in the PCL is
impressive. A 1.46 WHIP for the season, however, isn’t. Projection: I
hope Douglass gets it figured out and performs well at Corpus Christi,
where I’m guessing he’ll start the season. If not, I suspect he and
the Astros will part ways.
There’s a thoroughbred in Lexington, Kentucky, and he was let out to run every fifth day. He was fifth in the South Atlantic League in strikeouts (137), led the Legends starters in strikeouts, Innings Pitched (130), and ERA (4.02), and was second in WHIP (1.41) to only Anthony Bello. What I like most about this racehorse, Leandro Cespedes, is that he was only 21 last year and should get even better this season. He’s definitely one to watch. 574 batters faced, 137 strikeouts, 45 walks. Could be a keeper. Projection: I think Cespedes will spend most of the year in Lancaster, and we’ll see how he does against better – and older – competition. If he continues to mow them down, look for a move to Corpus Christi by the end of the year.
So there you have it: Fifteen pitchers to watch.