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.
First of all, many thanks to Susan, the lovely and talented Astros Fan in Exile, for heading to Kissimmee and forcing the Astros to give us our first Grapefruit League win since February 25. Russ Ortiz looked very sharp in six one-hit, shutout innings against the Reds, and Edwin Maysonet finally flashed the glove we’ve seen so much in the minors. Lance Berkman hit a two-run homer, rudely interrupting Ortiz’s television interview with the difference-making RBI in the Astros’ 4-2 win.
Purely hypothetical: If the Astros win out in the Spring, does everyone become as optimistic as they’ve been pessimistic to this point?
In other news, I’ll be gone this weekend, shooting four of the eight episodes for an upcoming web series. I’m producing, directing, and starring in the series, heading up a team of four very talented writers, and look forward to having it half-finished after two months of grueling work. Tonight we have our final writers’ meeting, and tomorrow morning we start shooting at 7:30 in the morning.
That, and I’ll be at the World Baseball Classic games on Saturday, Sunday, and Monday nights. Good news: I’ll get to see Roy Oswalt pitch, as he’s on the mound in the USA’s semi-final matchup with Japan and Daisuke Matsuzaka.
In the meantime, my co-writing friend (a rabid Padres fan) and I will be recording breakdowns for each of the Major League divisions, somewhat similar to what the guys over at Red State Blue State have done. Only, you know, better. Because we’re far more handsome and erudite.
So that’s the week for me, gang. I’ll give Jeff and Allen the weekend to look up the word “erudite.”
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.
I love Spring Training. It’s a time of hope; a time of wondering and talking. Everyone has the same record this time of year. Everyone has the same dream: The World Series.
Astros fans have a lot of questions after this offseason: How will our suspect rotation hold up? Who will man third base? Who will be the catcher? I’ve made my predictions in other areas. This entry won’t be used for that. Instead, I’d like to turn my attention elsewhere.
56 players reported to the Astros’ Spring Training facilities. 28 pitchers and 28 position players. And one question on everyone’s mind, especially after hearing so much about our horrible farm system is: What new faces can we expect to see this year? What can we expect of them?
Gone is Ty Wigginton. Gone is Randy Wolf. Brad Ausmus. Mark Loretta. In their place are some faces many Astros fans may not recognize. Among them are some big league commodities new to the team:
Alberto Arias – The Astros claimed Arias off of waivers from the Rockies last season, on July 31. He pitched at Round Rock and, for three games (including 2 starts), in Houston at the major league level. He didn’t respond terribly well in his limited time, but such a small sample size (8.0 IP) could easily be ignored. He will be 25 years old this year and has only thrown 29.0 big league innings. He has nice minor league numbers, and projects well to Minute Maid Park, with about 55% of balls hit off of him being hit on the ground. Projection: Could spend some time in the big league bullpen, or pressed into service as a starter. Look for about 50 innings from Arias, but nothing mind-blowing.
Jose Capellan – Astros fans will remember Capellan for his time in the Milwaukee Brewers’ bullpen, though he last pitched for the Rockies in 2008. Though he hasn’t started in the majors since 2 games in 2004 with Atlanta, he will be allowed to compete for a starting rotation spot in Houston. His time in the minors has been split between the bullpen and the rotation, with decent results. Over the past three seasons, he’s thrown 91.2 innings in the minors with a 1.26 WHIP, 7-4 record, 4 saves, and a 4.12 ERA. Over the same time, he’s thrown 99.2 less impressive innings in the majors with a 1.36 WHIP, 4-5 record, 80 strikeouts to 40 walks, and a 4.69 ERA. Projection: The hope is always that a little stability will help a player who’s been moved around. In the past three season, Capellan has pitched for the Brewers, Tigers, and Rockies, not to mention five minor league teams among those three systems, along with the Royals organization. That’s not likely to change, though, as he looks like he’ll go between Round Rock and Houston frequently. Look for 60-70 innings in the big leagues, with an ERA in the 4.50-5.00 range.
Danny Graves – Most Astros fans will remember Danny from his time in Cincinnati from 1997-2005, most of it as their closer while he moved to #50 on the all-time saves list. He has bounced around since then, and hasn’t pitched in the majors since 2006, when he threw just 14.0 relief innings with the Cleveland Indians. He hasn’t had an ERA under 4 since 2004. 2008 was a forgettable year spent in the Minnesota Twins’ organization, most of it with the AAA Rochester Red Wings. He went 4-6 there, with an ERA of 6.30, WHIP of 1.70, and just 32 strikeouts in 84.1 innings. Projection: I don’t expect Graves to break through to the Major League level at all this year. He has not shown that he can consistently be counted on as a pitcher at the big league level.
Clay Hensley – Hensley showed a lot of promise early on with the Padres organization, and was projected along with Jake Peavy and Chris Young to be a dominant top of the rotation. In 2007, he ran into some injury problems, and was sent to AAA Portland after struggling in his minor league rehab stints. Despite his 5.31 ERA and 1-2 record (mostly out of the bullpen) in 2008 in limited time (39.0 IP) for the Padres, his time in Portland was very productive: 1-1 in 10 starts, 34 strikeouts and 16 walks in 48 IP, a WHIP of 1.29 and an ERA of 3.94. Prior to his injury-plagued 2007 season, he was 12-13 with a 3.30 ERA, 1.278 WHIP, and 150 strikeouts to 93 walks. Projection: I have high hopes for Hensley. I expect him to break camp as the #5 starter. I’m looking for 7-9 wins out of him, as he returns to form i
n his second season back from injury.
Russ Ortiz – Ortiz is a fresh face in Houston after missing the 2008 season recovering from Tommy John surgery. For his major league career, he is 110-82 with a 4.42 ERA, 1.479 WHIP, and 1,121 strikeouts in 1568.2 innings pitched. Since 2005, he hasn’t thrown more than 115 innings in a season, and hasn’t had an ERA under 4 since 2003, when he went 21-7 and finished 4th in the Cy Young voting (pay close attention to the year.) Projection: I don’t expect Ortiz to shake the injury bug completely, but do expect him to crack the major league roster for somewhere in the vicinity of 60 IP.
Aaron Boone – Boone’s most productive years came between 1997-2003 with the Reds, but his most memorable moment in Game 7 of the 2003 ALCS, when he hit the game-winning home run for the Yankees off of Tim Wakefield and the Red Sox. Since then, he has bounced between the Indians, Marlins, and Nationals. Boone is still a major league commodity. He plays all infield positions, and though he’s been inconsistent, he does still show flashes at the plate and in the field. Projection: There’s no doubt Boone will get some starts at third this year, and probably at second and first, as well. He should hit in the .250 range, with 5 or 6 home runs in 175 or so plate appearances.
Jason Michaels – Michaels came to Houston after 8 seasons between Philadelphia, Cleveland, and Pittsburgh. He’s a career .271 hitter (.345 OBP) with the ability to play all three outfield positions. Not a standout, but a very good player to have on the bench, and an upgrade when Michael Bourn doesn’t pan out. Projection: 200 plate appearances with a .260 batting average and 5 home runs. Will be used, along with Erstad, to spell the outfield starters and provide a defensive replacement in left field late in games.
Toby Hall – Formerly the starting catcher of the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, Hall has spent the last three seasons between the Rays, White Sox, and Dodgers. Coming into the 2009 season, the Astros were looking for a veteran presence behind the plate to help out their youngsters – Palmisano, Castro, Towles, Quintero – at least through Spring Training. The news that he has shoulder soreness hasn’t helped his already-weak case to make the team. Projection: Hall will probably start the season at AAA Round Rock, but uncertainty with the youngsters will virtually guarantee a lot of movement at the catcher position. He should pick up about 120 plate appearances, hit about .238 with a home run or two. Don’t expect too much.
John Gall – Gall has failed to blow anyone away in his few major league appearances, but hasn’t had much of an opportunity to shine. Between 2005-2007, he’s had just 53 at-bats with the Marlins and Cardinals. However, in his minor league career, he’s gone .298 (.356 OBP) with 115 home runs in over 3,700 at-bats over 9 seasons, mostly in the St. Louis organization. He plays the corners, both in the oufield and the infield. Projection: I don’t know if Gall will play in the majors this season, but it certainly wouldn’t surprise me, if only because of his defensive versatility – anyone who can play third base should get a chance to ply his trade in Houston this year. Gall has shown a lot of promise in the minors, and deserves a chance to spend some time in the majors. I think he will get at least 50 plate appearances this season.
Matt Kata – Since 2005, Matt Kata has spent time with the Diamondbacks, Reds, Pirates, Phillies, and Rangers organizations, though very little of that time was spent in the majors. None in 2008. He’s a versatile utility man who could be called on in a pinch – he plays all positions but pitcher and catcher and has a .242 career batting average in the majors. Projections: I don’t expect Kata to break into the majors this year, as the Astros have two utilitymen in Geoff Blum and David Newhan who are significantly better Matt Katas than Matt Kata is.
Jason Smith – Jason Smith was a questionable signing from the start. A left-handed-hitting utility infielder who has spent time over the last 8 seasons between 7 teams: The Cubs, Devil Rays, Tigers, Rockies, Blue Jays, Diamond
backs, and Royals. Not a terrific fielder (3.23 RFg, .968 F%), not a terrific hitter (.221/.259/.286), not a terrific anything. The quintessential no-tool player. Projection: If Smith plays at the major league level, the Astros are in serious trouble. I don’t expect this to happen.
Next up, in addition to the new faces are the young faces: Guys like Bud Norris, Sergio Perez, and Chris Johnson who have come up through the Astros’ system.