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.
For all intents and purposes, the Astros have always had an ace. A dominant pitcher who could be given the ball every fifth game and be expected to shut down the opposing team as often as not. In 2001, a skinny, unseemly right-hander from Weir, Mississippi was called up in May and asked to do just that. Less than a month later, he was entered into the starting rotation, and the team won the next eight games he started, with him collecting the W in six of the eight games.
He went 12-2 as a starter that year, with three complete games including a shutout. He threw 127.2 innings as a starter, with 130 strikeouts, 17 walks, a 2.82 ERA, and a 1.03 WHIP. He was second in Rookie of the Year voting, fifth in Cy Young voting, and 22nd in MVP voting.
Eight seasons later, Roy Oswalt is the undisputed ace of the Houston rotation, but in 2001 – despite the tremendous year by Wade Miller – the ace was Shane Reynolds, who went 14-11 with a 4.34 ERA. Not ace-type numbers, but Reynolds had been the de facto ace since his 16-win campaign in 1996. Though Darryl Kile and a young Mike Hampton also pitched well for that team, Reynolds was clearly the leader.
Before Reynolds’ emergence, most people would probably have pointed at veteran Doug Drabek. Before that, Pete Harnisch. Mike Scott. Nolan Ryan.
Other teams, on the other hand, have trouble defining an ace. Specifically, the Pittsburgh Pirates – an intradivisional foe – have had a string of seriously bad luck with their aces.
In 2006, after a 14-win campaign, Ian Snell was annointed with the “ace” title. Entering the 2009 season, he has only managed 16 wins in the two years since then. In 2007, Tom Gorzelanny was the 14-game winner on the roster, and now he finds himself in minor league camp.
It seems that, as an organization, the top of the Pirates’ rotation has been befuddling at least since Oliver Perez’s Dr. Jekyll-and-Mr. Hyde act from 2004-2006. This year, their hope lies in the left arm of Paul Maholm.
Maholm is a sinkerball pitcher who has gone 19-24 over the past two seasons with 244 K and 112 BB in 384 IP. Over that time, he has an ERA of 4.31 and a WHIP of 1.35. His DIPS was 4.26 and his DICE was 4.18. By almost any metric, saber or otherwise, he’s at best an above-average pitcher.
And last month, they awarded him with a three-year, $14.5m contract to avoid arbitration.
That’s a lot of money for a guy who had 2.7 Value Wins a year ago. So does Maholm have ace-type stuff, or is he merely benefitting from being part of a weak pitching staff?
Maholm’s VORP in 2008 was 40.8 – 30th in the majors among pitchers with a minimum 100 IP. Roy Oswalt’s 43.3 was just five spots ahead at 25th. It was almost double the next-highest VORP on the team, reliever John Grabow with 22.3, and far away above Zach Duke, who had the second-highest VORP among Pirates starters in 2008 with 5.3.
Compare that to Gorzelanny in 2007, whose 41.5 VORP was 31st in the majors and just 0.2 ahead of rotation-mate Ian Snell. In 2008, Gorzelanny’s VORP had tumbled to -13.2; in other words, worse than a replacement-level player. Snell’s was “better” at -3.9, but hardly good. There is some indication that Snell, at least, was the victim of bad luck, as his BABIP was a hefty .360, compared to Maholm’s .298.
But Pirates coaches believe Maholm has the mental makeup of an ace, which can of course be important. Pitching coach Joe Kerrigan, who used to work with the Yankees and the Red Sox, told Sporting News “If you’ve seen him throwing on the side, see his understanding of the
game, the understanding of his craft — pitching — you can tell he has
a great idea,” Kerrigan said. “He’s a coach’s dream. The effort he puts
into the side sessions, his bullpen sessions, is translated into the
That’s great, but it doesn’t exactly make him an ace.
Maholm has been coolly efficient this spring, going 2-0 with a 0.46 ERA, 12 K, and 1 BB in 19.2 IP. He’s run out of innings in games well before hitting the maximum pitch count set aside by his coaches this spring.
Considering the rapid falls from grace many of the Pirates’ other “aces” have seen in recent years, it’s definitely too early to give Maholm the title – and as of right now, he is being vastly overpaid – but there’s certainly room for hope for the Pirates, who need as much as they can get.
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!
When a starting rotation has as many question marks as the Houston Astros’ 2009 edition does, Spring Training competition begins to take on an added edge.
For those of you unfamiliar, this is what our rotation looks like:
1. Roy Oswalt, RHP (no question marks here)
2. Mike Hampton, LHP (part-timer; isn’t likely to make more than 12-15 starts)
3. Wandy Rodriguez, LHP (better than a lot of people realize)
4. Brian Moehler, RHP (had a good 2008; can he repeat?)
5. Brandon Backe, RHP; Russ Ortiz, RHP; Clay Hensley RHP; Felipe Paulino, RHP; Fernando Nieve, RHP; etc.
The 1-3 spots are pretty much set, at least for as long as Hampton can stay healthy, and minus whatever time Wandy spends injured. The upside to having so much competition for the fifth starter spot is that it means there are a lot of options for spot starters when the opening rotation gets battered.
Today, we’ll get our second look at Russ Ortiz in an Astros uniform. A non-roster invitee, Ortiz didn’t interest me very much when he came to the organization. His career has been a mess since his career year in 2003, when he finished 4th in the Cy Young voting:
2003: 21-7, 212.1 IP, 3.81 ERA (112 ERA+), 1.314 WHIP, 149 K, 102 BB
04-08: 22-31, 431.2 IP, 5.61 ERA (76 ERA+), 1.677 WHIP, 260 K, 237 BB
So when he came to Astros camp, I figured he was just a guy brought in to challenge the other starting alternatives.
But the thing is, he looked very good in his first spring game. In his two innings of work, he allowed just one hit, walked one, and struck out three, not allowing any runs.
Sample sizes don’t get much smaller than that, but at the moment I’d say he’s the odds-on favorite for the fifth starter spot. We’ll see him today against the Yankees, and it’ll be interesting to note if he continues to perform well through the Spring, especially with Nieve’s and Hensley’s disappointing performances in yesterday’s game.