The Houston Astros are suffering from a string of bad backs. Kazuo Matsui and Jeff Keppinger, the two primary options at second base, are both out with bad backs, though he was able to pinch-hit yesterday.
Also, Jose Valverde has been suffering from some back woes.
I have a bad back, so I know how awful it can be when it tightens up. I can’t even imagine playing baseball like that.
So it came as good news when the reports started coming in that guys were starting to feel better. Matsui said, “I feel fine… I want to start (today).”
Keppinger, who has ridiculous splits, will be available for the Dodgers series, with lefties Clayton Kershaw, Eric Stults, and Randy Wolf set to pitch. “I will be ready for the Dodgers,” he said. “Even if I’m not ready, I’ll be ready.”
This is good, because Cecil Cooper was beginning to sound crazy again.
Rodriguez has played some third base, which gives me an option of
moving Blum around a little bit,” Cooper said. “As funny as it might
sound, Darin Erstad has played a little bit of infield.
“And, heck, I might even have to stick him in some place. He’s lefthanded, but I have to think of someplace.
“Michael Bourn has played second base before and shortstop. Carlos Lee’s a third baseman.
some options. I got some things. If we get to the point we need to, we
can get creative. Jason Michaels told me he played third base one
inning in this place, this ballpark. So we got options. Did I say they
were (good) options? But we got options. ”
Could you imagine this starting lineup trotting out for the Astros?
2B Michael Bourn
CF Darin Erstad
RF Hunter Pence
3B Carlos Lee
1B Geoff Blum
C Ivan Rodriguez
LF Jason Michaels
SS Jason Smith
I would quit. Seriously, I would quit baseball.
You should add me on Twitter and get brilliant in-game insight from my twisted mind. Okay, well that’s not entirely true. But you should add me anyway.
I’ve loved Heath Bell ever since he got to the San Diego Padres. I don’t know why; maybe I like fat guys with facial hair, since I happen to be a fat guy with facial hair. Maybe it’s because he always reminded me of former Astro, and his teammate in San Diego, Scott Linebrink.
Another fat guy with facial hair.
But anyone who says that he lost 25 pounds in the offseason because the Wii Fit told him was obese is okay in my book.
He recently became, I believe, the first actual player to come out and say what many of us have been saying about ESPN for years:
“I saw ESPN’s promo for tonight’s game. They mention the Mets are
opening Citi Field, they mentioned the starting time, but nowhere did
they mention the Padres. . . .
“I truly believe ESPN only cares about promoting the Red Sox and
Yankees and Mets – and nobody else,” said the closer, a former Met.
“That’s why I like the MLB Network, because they promote everybody. I’m
really turned off by ESPN and ‘Baseball Tonight.’ When Jake Peavy
threw 8 1/3 innings on Saturday, they showed one pitch in the third
inning and that was it. It’s all about the Red Sox, Yankees and Mets.”
ESPN jumped the shark years ago, and in some ways I empathize. Yankees-Sox is sexy. The Cubs are an easy team to write about – they have a backstory that lazy journalists only need to recite, and it creates drama. The Mets, Yankees, and Red Sox are in ESPN’s backyard. And yes, these teams sell. They have huge national followings, and casual sports fans care about them.
The network is not a leader in the world of analysis or real sports news, and shouldn’t be counted on as such. I can’t watch ESPN anymore, at least not for baseball. This isn’t really news, but good for Heath Bell for stepping up and saying it, anyway.
No, this isn’t about what you think it’s about. It’s just a clever title. Over at The Hardball Times, Craig Calcaterra tells a very cool story (albeit it one with a very sad ending.) He recently took his son to Lids to allow him to choose his favorite baseball cap, rather than force his own favorite team onto his son.
Now, I appreciate this, as I’m not a huge fan of parents who basically make their kids fans of their own favorite teams. My dad tried that with Ohio State University, and now I’m about the biggest Michigan fan you’ll meet.
I love the idea of letting your kid pick a team based on their favorite hat (even though the worst possible scenario happened in this case, when his son picked a Chicago Cubs hat), and it got me to wondering: What team would I pick now if I had to do it all over again, knowing nothing about the teams, looking solely at the caps.
I have to say, looking through a large block of caps, I probably would choose the Detroit Tigers. I like the classic look, with the old-English style D. Of course, a big part of how I chose my favorite team was that they had some of my favorite players at the time. When I was ten, Alan Trammell was one of my favorite players. So I could easily have become a fan of a 104-58 team in 1984; and then been a fan of a 43-119 team in 2003.
If I was choosing a team now based on my favorite players, though, I wonder who I would pick. I can’t really say that there’s one team with a chunk of players I like the way I liked Jose Cruz, Kevin Bass, Bill Doran, Terry Puhl, Dickie Thon, Mike Scott, Nolan Ryan, and Jim DeShaies back in 1987.
I certainly like a lot of the current Astros players, but that’s largely because I’m already an Astros fan. Honestly, I would probably end up choosing – of all teams – the San Francisco Giants. Tim Lincecum, Rich Aurilia, Randy Johnson, Bengie Molina, Pablo Sandoval, Randy Winn, Matt Cain… these are all players I really like. I can’t think of another large group of guys I like that much.
So I could have been a fan of the Giants or Tigers. Fantastic. I sure can pick ’em.
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.
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!