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.
Today, the Houston Astros claimed Philip Humber off waivers from the Chicago White Sox. Houston then avoided arbitration with Humber, agreeing to terms on a one-year deal, with a club option for 2014.
So, the next natural question becomes: Who is Philip Humber?
There are things we know about Philip Humber. We know that he was drafted in the 1st round (3rd overall) by the Mets in the 2004 Rule 4 Draft out of Rice University. We know that he was part of the package that the Mets sent to Minnesota for Johan Santana in 2008. We know that from 2009-2012, he was claimed off of waivers by the Royals, Athletics, White Sox, and finally by the Astros.
Further, if we’ve paid attention we know that Philip Humber had a very good year in 2011, going 9-9 with a 3.75 ERA and 3.6 fWAR. We may also know that he threw the 21st perfect game in MLB history, blanking the Seattle Mariners 4-0 in what was actually the only complete game of his career, on April 21, 2012.
And now, we know that Philip Humber is a Houston Astro, for at least one season.
As Astros fans, and as an Astros blog, I feel that first it’s incumbent upon us to say welcome to the Astros, Philip. Glad to have you aboard.
First, a bit of trivia. In 1995, a young Venezuelan pitcher named Johan Santana was signed by the Houston Astros as an amateur free agent. The Astros never promoted Santana above A-ball, and in 1999, the Florida Marlins drafted him in the Rule 5 Draft. They then traded him to the Minnesota Twins for Jared Camp, and Santana went on to win two Cy Young Awards for the Twins.
Then, in 2008, Minnesota traded Santana to the New York Mets for a package of prospects that included – wait for it – Philip Humber. Now, Humber comes to Houston. So in a roundabout sort of way, we can at least close our eyes and pretend that the Mets sent Humber to the Astros for Santana. It’s not true, but at least we can now pretend to have closure.
So what happened between Humber’s 3.5+ fWAR season in 2011, his perfect game at the beginning of the 2012 season, and his getting waived by Chicago at the end of the 2012 season?
It’s an important question, and it’s one that GM Jeff Luhnow must feel confident in knowing the answer to.
2011 (163.0) and 2012 (102.0) are the only two seasons in which Humber has thrown more than a hundred innings in the big leagues. The disparity between the two seasons is pretty remarkable. In short, there’s almost nothing similar about them, from a numbers point of view:
Looking at these two seasons, it’s as if you’re looking at two completely different players. 2011 Humber (who we’ll call PH11) didn’t strike many people out, but didn’t issue an unreasonable number of walks, either. He was aided by BABIP, to be sure, but he put a lot of balls on the ground and, of the balls he put in the air, fewer than 10% of them went for home runs.
2012 Humber (PH12), on the other hand, struck out more guys, but also walked significantly more, induced far fewer groundballs, and saw more than twice as many of the flyballs he induced leave the park.
Oh, and did I mention that PH12 spent some time on the disabled list with a mild right elbow flexor strain? Because he did.
A few other things are clear when looking at the data between 2011 and 2012: His arsenal doesn’t seem to have changed significantly. By that, I mean his fastball didn’t drop in velocity from one season to the next (in fact, it was a little faster in 2012, on average, by a few tenths of a MPH). His two-seamer, slider, and curveball all look like approximately the same pitch, velocity-wise. His changeup was 1.5 MPH faster in 2012, on average, but surely that couldn’t have accounted for such a drastic shift in performance, and it’s likely more a result of his throwing it far less (8.1% of PH12’s pitches were changeups, down from PH11’s 16.9%).
But his results were down across the board. Every single pitch lost runs from 2011 to 2012 (though, interestingly, his two-seamer gained runs above average/100).
He went on the disabled list in June 2012, but had clearly been experiencing problems before that. When he returned from the Disabled List, he only pitched 4 starts (going 2-1, allowing 15 runs in 20.2 innings) before being relegated to the bullpen, usually in mop-up duty. In his penultimate appearance with the White Sox, on September 4th against Minnesota, he recorded only one out while throwing 41 pitches, giving up 8 runs on 7 hits, 2 walks, and no strikeouts.
I’m not a clever enough statistician or scout to know what happened between PH11 and PH12. Whether the injury lingered longer than is generally known, or if something changed in his mechanics. I’m not the guy to figure all of that out. All I can do is hope that PH13 is closer to the former than the latter.
Working again off of Tim Dierkes’ list of possible non-tender candidates, I took a look at possibilities that may arise after the November 30th deadline.
Four guys jump out at me as possible additions to the starting rotation in Houston:
1. Phillip Humber – Humber was a part-time starter for the White Sox last year, after serving as a full-time starter in 2011. These are his only two seasons with any real sample size, but they might as well be two different pitchers. The 2012 version of Humber struck out more batters (7.50 K/9 vs. 6.40), but he also walked more (3.88 BB/9 vs. 2.26) and gave up way more home runs (2.03 HR/9 vs. 0.77). His groundball rate dropped precipitously, from 47.1% to 34.9%, and more of the flyballs he gave up left the park (16.5% in 2012; 7.7% in 2011). That’s a bad combination. The 2011 version of Humber is very good – 3.6 fWAR over 163 innings. The 2012 version is very bad – -0.2 fWAR over 102 innings. There doesn’t appear to have been an injury, as his velocity didn’t change at all, but in 2011 he started throwing more of his low-90s fastballs, cut his changeup use in half, and essentially substituted his slider for his curveball, which was arguably his best pitch. I don’t know the reason for the change, but if he can go back to being closer to the 2011 version, relying on his offspeed stuff, I have a good feeling he can have a good season.
2. John Lannan – Prior to 2012, Lannan put together 1.0+ fWAR in 4 straight seasons, despite a FIP over 4. What I like about him for Houston is his ability to induce grounders – his career GB% is 53.0 – and his ability to limit home runs (0.88 HR/9 over his career). He strikes out about as many guys as you’d expect someone with a fastball in the high 80s to strike out (4.71/9), and he walks way too many to go with it (3.4/9), but I still think he’s an improvement over the current tail end of the rotation.
3. Charlie Morton – Solving the puzzle of Charlie Morton is a bit tricky. He’s another groundball pitcher (career 53.0%) who doesn’t give up a lot of home runs (0.80/9). In many regards, he and Lannan are the same pitcher, except that Lannan is a lefty and a year younger. But they both have way too few strikeouts and way too many walks, but they limit fly balls and home runs, which is always going to play in MMP. Morton has never approached 200 innings in the majors, which is a concern. 2011 was the only season he topped 100 innings, as a matter of fact (171.2). Morton’s a sinkerball/two-seamer guy who struggles against lefties (read Dave Cameron’s article on his platoon splits in 2011), which limits him a great deal.
4. Mike Pelfrey – Pelfrey was on the verge of becoming a pretty darn good starter when he went down in 2012, after just three starts. He had season-ending Tommy John surgery on April 30, which will certainly raise a few eyebrows, but this is still a guy who posted 3.0 fWAR in 2008 and 2.8 in 2010. If he can make any sort of a comeback, he could be the steal of the offseason for some lucky team. If you consider the 12-18 month “recovery period” finite, he could still come in and make an impact this season.
1. Scott Atchison – I’m a little surprised to see Atchison’s name on this list, as he did manage to accumulate 1.0 fWAR last season. It was also his second-straight season with a FIP under 3 and a xFIP under 4. He’s not the strikeout artist he was when he first came up, but still punched out 6.31 per 9 IP while walking just 1.58/9. He’s given up just 2 home runs over the past two seasons (81.2 innings) with Boston, as well. If he gets non-tendered, I don’t expect that the Astros would be the only team on the phone with him, but he’d definitely be a worthy free agent target.
2. Kameron Loe – Astros fans aren’t strangers to Loe, who’s spent the last three seasons in Milwaukee, and was with the Rangers before that. He’s another guy who doesn’t get many strikeouts and who gives up too many walks, but he’s got a career 56.7% groundball rate, and has allowed fewer than 1 home run per nine innings pitched over his career, despite playing parts of 5 seasons in Arlington. Last year wasn’t a great year for him, but he still managed to be replacement-level. He doesn’t exactly belong on this list, as he is already a free agent after refusing an assignment to Triple-A.
3. Jose Veras – Veras is a big boy at 6’6″, 235 lbs. He’s pitched the last three seasons for three different organizations (Florida, Pittsburgh, and Milwaukee). He’s also put together two straight 0.5 fWAR seasons, and has struck out 9.39 batters per 9 IP in his career. Yes, he walks a lot of guys (4.92/9), but he doesn’t give up home runs, which if you hadn’t noticed, is a skill I personally value quite a lot, especially for Minute Maid Park. FIP likes him; xFIP likes him more – he’s been under 4 for the past 3 years. Though he’s lost velocity on his fastball over the past several years, it still sits right around 94, and he offsets it with a nice curveball.