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!
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.