October 16, 2003.
It’s a day that introduced Aaron Boone to most of the baseball world. Boone, a third baseman who could also play around the infield, was an invaluable part of the Cincinnati Reds organization in the late 1990s. However, after his first and only All-Star Game selection in 2003, the Reds traded him to the Yankees for Charlie Manning, Brandon Claussen, and cash.
Over three seasons in Cincinnati, Claussen would go 15-27 with a 5.11 ERA, a 1.52 WHIP, and 223 K to just 120 BB. Manning would never suit up for the Reds. After half a season at Class-AA Chattanooga, he was dealt back to the Yankees for Gabe White.
Boone, on the other hand, went .254/.302/.418 in the second half for the Yankees, then topped it off by hitting the game-winning home run in Game Seven of the ALCS against the Red Sox.
He would spend the rest of his career in Cleveland, Florida, Washington, and Houston battling various injuries and ailments, and this morning came the worst news of all: Aaron Boone’s season will end while he undergoes open heart surgery.
Growing up in Southwestern Ohio, the Boones – Aaron, Bob, and Bret – were like royalty to me. I knew Ray only by reputation, but these three were all part of the Reds organization during and shortly after my high school years. They were forces in the community – it often seemed like you couldn’t go to a charity event in southwestern Ohio and not run into a Boone.
Aaron’s wife, former playmate Laura Cover, was born in the same hospital as me, just a few weeks after I was.
My heart goes out to the Boones. This is terrible news for the Houston Astros’ family, including all of the Boones. He never played a game for us, but we will embrace him the way we do all of our players. It’s unclear whether or not he’ll ever play competitive baseball again.
Between him and Max Sapp, our former first-round pick who was hospitalized with viral meningitis in December 2008 and has battled ever since, this has largely been an offseason to forget for the Astros. But if anyone knows anything about late-game heroics, it’s Boone. The kid doesn’t know the definition of the word “quit.”
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.
The big question for the Houston Astros this offseason may well be: Can this team compete this year? We’ve all heard the naysayers. Baseball Prospectus recently released their 2009 PECOTA rankings, projecting us as the fifth place team in the NL Central, with 98 losses.
The good news: Historically, the Astros tend to out-perform their PECOTA rankings. They also tend to out-perform their Pythagorean W-L%. In 2008, we outdid PECOTA (74-88) by 12 wins, and our Pythageorean W-L% (77-84) by 9 wins.
This could be viewed as a positive, of course, but it could also be viewed as a false positive. Giving fans hope beyond expectations heading into the 2009 season. When you look at this team, not a lot distinguishes it from the 2008 San Diego Padres after Chris Young went down: One of the best aces in the game (Peavy/Oswalt), a good-hitting first baseman (Berkman/Gonzalez), a good corner outfielder (Lee/Giles), a streaky but overall above average shortstop (Greene/Tejada), a patchy starting rotation made of largely of “maybes,” a decent ‘pen with a top-notch closer (Hoffman/Valverde), and not a lot off of the bench.
That Padres team put together 99 losses. This Astros team is predicted, by PECOTA, to lose 96 games.
I don’t say this to be a naysayer at all. Like most Astros fans, I will still live and die with each game. I will still cheer just as loudly for each win. I will still try to put a positive spin on even the worst game. But it’s important to be realistic, and with that in mind, I believe it’s time to see what the youngsters can do.
The buzz has it that the Astros organization is pretty low on talent. That’s not untrue, but there are a few standouts, and I suspect we’ll get a look at a great many of them. Let’s take a look at some of these young men and what we may have to look forward to. By and large, this could very well be a glimpse at the Astros’ 2010 lineup. For now, let’s view it as a look at the silver lining. Because while the organization may not be in the best shape, it does have some decent prospects who could earn valuable playing time this season:
C Lou Palmisano – The catcher position is an awkward one for the Astros. They actually have a pretty decent stockpile of talent at the position, at least in terms of quantity, but not a lot of quality. That situation wasn’t exactly remedied when the Orioles chose Lou Palmisano from the Brewers organization in the Rule 5 Draft and then sent him to Houston for cash. For those unfamiliar with the Rule 5 Draft, basically if you select a player, you must keep him on your Major League roster for the entire season. If you do not, he can be claimed off waivers by another team (who must then keep him on their major league roster) or return him to the original team. Palmisano is a promising offensive option behind the plate, but has yet to play above AA ball. Because of medical issues, he hasn’t played catcher in a game since 2007. Anything but a sure-fire major league prospect at the moment. Projection: With Toby Hall out due to injury, if Palmisano shows any promise at all at the plate, he will probably break camp with the big league team. Still, it’s hard to imagine Towles and Quintero both being sent down, and since catcher is one of the few positions with some organizational depth, I suspect Palmisano will be returned to the Brewers organization.
SS Tommy Manzella – Despite hitting a major bump when he got to AAA Round Rock, Manzella is one of my favorites among the Astros’ minor league players. His Round Rock line is anything but impressive: .219/.273/.294 in 228 at-bats, but his 2008 line in AA Corpus Christi was .299/.346/.446 in 224 at-bats. He’s improved his defense, and with a good spring and a few more months of AAA ball, he could well be poised to step up and claim his place as the Astros’ shortstop of the future. Projection: Manzella will wear a Houston Astros uniform this season. Expect him to make the club sometime in late May or early June and compile somewhere in the vicinity of 100-120 at-bats.
SS Edwin Maysonet – Maysonet is a versatile infielder – he’s mainly played the shortstop position, but has also played a lot of second base, and has occasionally been asked to fill in at third and in the outfield. He’s shown remarkable consistently through the minors, clocking in right around .260/.330/.360 each season. Last year at Round Rock, his line was .271/.343/.379. Nothing that will blow anyone away, and his glove isn’t the best in the organization, either. Still, he’s a serviceable-enough backup infielder. Projection: Maysonet will likely be pressed into service at some point this season, but don’t look for anything more than 50 or so at-bats.
2B Drew Sutton – Sutton is a promising young infielder who plays primarily second base, but also third. He has yet to make a plate appearance at any level above AA, but his 2008 Corpus Christi line sure does look good: .317/.408/.523 with 20 stolen bases in 27 attempts, 20 home runs in 520 AB, and 76 walks to 98 strikeouts. His glovework isn’t dazzling (16 errors in 99 games), but he’s one of the better prospects currently in the organization. Projection: With the revolving-door that third base promises to be this season, as well as Kaz Matsui’s inevitable injury woes, Sutton figures to see the big leagues. I don’t know that I’d expect him to perform extraordinarily, but don’t let that put you off. He may be a year or two away, but expect Sutton to continue to do well in the organization.
SP OF Brian Bogusevic – The Astros drafted Bogusevic as a position player out of Tulane University, then moved him to the pitching mound, where he struggled, never posting a season ERA under 4.61. He’s since been moved back to the outfield, and has responded by becoming one of the Astros’ highest-rated prospects, thanks largely to his .371/.447/.556 line in 124 at-bats at Corpus Christi in 2008. In case you’ve never heard of “baseball” before, that’s pretty darned impressive. Projection: Bogusevic hasn’t played above AA yet, but expect a meteoric rise through the system this year. With so many questions in the Astros’ outfield, I expect him to get some time at the big league level, perhaps even breaking through as a starter late in the season if there are injuries to Lee or Pence.
OF Yordany Ramirez – With the unfortunate departure of Jordan Parraz in the Tyler Lumsden trade, Ramirez and 17-year-old Jay Austin may be the two best “fast guys” in the Houston Astros organization. Ramirez didn’t have a stellar year at Round Rock in 2008 – in fact, it was pretty lousy (.231/.254/.382). But he’s shown flashes throughout his time in the minors, and he’ll be 24 this year. He was widely-regarded as the Padres’ top defensive outfield prospect, has stolen 108 of 140 in his minor league career, and just happens to play centerfield, a position of need for the Astros. Projection: It’s tough to know which Yordany we’re going to see. If he can strike out less and walk more (he has 67 career minor league walks to 322 strikeouts), then the sky is the limit. As it is, he projects as another Michael Bourn type. I’d love to think either of them is going to turn it around this year, but I’m not overly optimistic.
C Jason Castro – Since I became an Astros fan in the mid-eighties, I can remember four times when I threw my hands up at an Astros’ draft choice. It all starts with the time we made Phil Nevin the #1 overall draft choice… ahead of Derek Jeter. Second was when we took catcher Max Sapp over Joba Chamberlain. The third-most egregious pick, in my opinion, was when we selected Mike Rosamond ahead of Carl Crawford. Last year’s selection of Jason Castro, a contact-hitting lefty catcher out of Stanford University, ahead of switch-hitting first baseman Justin Smoak, may well break those ranks. I’m reserving judgement for now, but I have to say that every time I see Astros fans pinning the hopes of the team’s future on Castro, who went .275/.383/.384 in 138 at-bats at Short Season Tri-City. He inexplicably received a Spring Training invitation this year, and has definitely been tagged as the catcher of the future. Oh, and Smoak? .304/.355/.518 for Texas’s Midwest League affiliate, the Clinton LumberKings. Projection: Don’t expect Castro to play in the big leagues this year. He’ll need to prove himself over the course of a full minor league season first, and the Astros have plenty of depth at the catcher position.
C Brian Esposito – Esposito will be 30 years old coming into the 2009 season, and has amassed a grand total of one inning of major league experience since being drafted by the Red Sox in the 5th round of the 2000 draft out of the University of Connecticut. The Astros are his sixth organization in the past nine seasons, and he’s likely to start the season in Corpus Christi, his twelfth team in that same nine seasons. In that time, he’s put together an unimpressive .214/.251/.305 line. The fact that he is in Spring Training this year, instead of a more-deserving candidate like, say, Eli Iorg, is a testament to the Astros’ trainwreck of a catching situation. Projection: Esposito will not play as an Astro this season.
C Lou Santangelo – In 2008, 109 baserunners tried to steal a base against Santangelo. 34 of them were caught. And that sums up Santangelo behind the plate. At the plate, he generally registers in the .240/.310/.420 mark, though he did hit a major speed bump in limited play at the AAA level last year. At the moment, he shouldn’t be considered a big league catching prospect, and only makes this list because he received a Spring Training invitation. Projection: Santangelo may actually be pressed into service at the big league level to protect Castro from being rushed, but not much should be expected of him.
3B Chris Johnson – Finally, the Bataan Death March of catchers ends and we return to an area that seems to have at least some organizational depth – the infield. Johnson was a bright spot in the organization last year, going .324/.364/.506 at Corpus Christi before being called up to Round Rock, where
he hit a bit of a speed bump to the tune of .218/.252/.287 in just 101 at-bats. I think with a full year of AAA behind him, he could be a legitimate starting option at third base in 2010. He needs some work defensively – 23 errors in just 230 chances isn’t exactly sound – but I’m confident he’ll do whatever it takes to get to the big league level. Projection: Johnson will likely see some time in the big leagues this year, with the large question mark surrounding third base in Houston, and may post some decent numbers. I still think he’d be better served with another year of seasoning and serious defensive work – or even a move to first base.
3B Mark Saccomanno – It’s no surprise that I’m a big Mark Saccomanno fan. He led Round Rock in home runs (27) and total bases (275), and was in the top five in doubles (33), triples (2), RBI (84), SLG (.521), and… er… errors. In fact, his 24 errors was 11 more than Maysonet, who was second with 13 at a tougher position. In fact, only Tacoma’s Matt Tuiasosopo had more errors in the PCL with 27. So make no mistake: Saccomanno is a butcher in the field. But his stick is something to be reckoned with, even beyond the fact that he turned the very first big league pitch he ever saw – an Ian Snell fastball – into a home run. Projection: Saccomanno should find his place as the everyday starter at third base by late May, and aside from ceding some late-inning defensive innings to Geoff Blum, should see a lot of time there. I expect a big season from him.
OF Eli Iorg – If Eli’s name sounds familiar to you, it should. His father, Garth, played for the Blue Jays for nine seasons from the late eighties to the late nineties. His uncle, Dane, played outfield and first base (and even pitched three innings!) for the Phillies, Royals, and Padres – but mostly the Cardinals – over the span of 10 seasons from 1977-1985. His brother, Cale, is a shortstop in the Tigers’ organization. As for Eli, he’ll be entering his fifth season in the Astros minors, and has put together a nice little .274/.325/.450 line in his time at Greeneville, Lexington, Salem, and Corpus Christi. Projection: Eli’s been moving right along, and should start the season in AAA Round Rock. I do think he has an outside shot at cracking the big league squad this season, and I’m pretty confident he’ll rise to the challenge. Definitely one to watch.
C Koby Clemens – Clemens started life in the Astros organization as a third baseman, but in 2008 he was moved to catcher, because apparently someone thought that there wasn’t enough depth at that position. He hasn’t exactly exploded offensively, but in 2008 with Salem, he put together a very respectable .268/.369/.423. He threw out 45 of 130 basestealers (meanies, picking on the new catcher) – 35%. Not bad, all things considered. Projection: I actually wouldn’t be too surprised to see Koby crack the big leagues at some point this season, but I do expect he’ll spend the majority of the season between Lancaster and Corpus Christi.
Up next: The fresh-faced pitchers.